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Co-op Case Studies: Star Trek – Expeditions

Reiner Knizia is best known in the co-op field for Lord of the Rings (2000), the game that kicked off the co-op revolution of the ’00s and ’10s. However, he also produced a second co-op game a decade later, Star Trek: Expeditions. (As with the Lord of the Rings case study, we at one time had this case study in Meeples Together itself, but when the game didn’t gain the same renown as Lord of the Rings, we decided to replace it with one of the hotter new games.)

This article originally appeared in the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: WizKids (2011)
Cooperative Style: True Cooperative
Play Style: Action, Card Management, Exploration

Overview

Taking on the roles of major characters from the rebooted Star Trek (2009) movie, the players explore a planet with the goal of eventually revealing nine “Captain’s Logs” — which together detail a set of tasks required to resolve political, rebel, and ecological problems on the planet.

In order to solve the problems laid out by the Logs, the players must succeed at a series of skill tests. Meanwhile, the Stardate keeps advancing and a Klingon battle cruiser menaces the Enterprise in the skies above.

Challenge System

The use of a timer as a tense challenge element is typical for a co-op game, but the use of combat requires a bit more explanation. At the start of the game, the Klingon ship is more powerful than the Enterprise, which is what makes the combat work as a challenge element: it’s something that players want to avoid. Because the Enterprise largely faces a losing battle, this battle is effectively a second timer: the players have to win before the Enterprise is (inevitably?) destroyed.The primary challenge system in Star Trek: Expeditions triggers off of the draw of Stardate cards that occurs at the start of each player’s turn. They can advance the gamer timer or create short-term consequences; alternatively, they can initiate combat between the Enterprise and the Klingon ship.

When the players explore the planet, they effectively activate a second challenge game system — and one that may be more important to the game as a whole. The movement-based activation of cards on individual planetary spaces reveals tasks that players must resolve. Nine of them are required to win the game: they must be completed before either the Stardate timer runs out or the Enterprise is destroyed.

The skeleton of Expeditions’ two-part challenge system works well enough, but it falls short in the details.

First, the challenge system doesn’t shift in particularly meaningful ways. Though the optional tasks can change from game to game (with six being drawn from a set of sixteen), and though the locations of all the challenges will change, the nine required tasks are largely the same from game to game; they also always show up in a similar order: three of the challenges are linked together as “energy” (or “ecology”) challenges, three as “politics” challenges, and three as “rebels” challenges. Within each group, the challenges are revealed in order of increasing difficulty. This lack of shifting probably limits the replayability of Expeditions though a clever branching plot system introduces some variance

Second, the challenge system doesn’t decay. The tasks do get a little more difficult as the players dig into each of the required challenge tracks. For example, the first “energy” challenge requires a 19 skill total to succeed, while the final challenges require a skill total of 20-23 for minimum success or 26-29 for maximum success. However, the players’ abilities are likely to improve by more than the skill tests worsen if they’ve put work into gathering crew; if anything, the players’ game position will be better by the end of the game. There’s also no change in the speed at which the Stardates advance. In fact, the only decay comes through the ongoing starship combat: the Enterprise can get into a worse position, as decreased shields and a closer range cause increased damage, but that’s it. The general lack of decay contributes to the game feeling less scary and hopeless.

Third, the game doesn’t do a very good job of defining success. Players can win the game with as few as 0 points or with as many as 60 (or more). According to the color text associated with the three challenge tracks, there’s considerable difference between those values, but the game doesn’t focus much on that color text, instead suggesting that players win as long as they survive. This makes the game seem easier than it is. If the game required a minimum score of 8 on each of the politics, rebels, and ecology tracks for a “tie” (a total of 24) and a 12 on each track for a “win” (a total of 36), it would feel quite different — and would probably create a better gaming experience. (It seems a bit silly that such a minor thing as explicitly defining victory levels can make a big difference in a game, but it can.)

Challenge System Elements: Turn and Exploration Activation; Arbitrary (Stardate) Trigger and Arbitrary (Captain’s Log) Trigger; Combat Threats, Skill Threats, and Tally Threats.

Cooperative System

The cooperative system in Expeditions is particularly interesting for how much it’s evolved from Knizia’s more constrained methods of cooperation in Lord of the Rings (2000). In his earlier game, Knizia minimized character specialization and only allowed meaningful cooperation through the joint advancement of pawns on shared tracts. Conversely, there’s considerable opportunity for true cooperation in Expeditions via various means.

Because the characters have different attributes and skills, there’s more specialization and thus more strategic cooperation than was seen in Lord of the Rings. At the start of the game, different players will likely head off to take on command, science, or operations challenges, depending on the strengths of their characters.

Expeditions’ characters also have powers. They don’t tend to increase strategic specialization, but they do tend to increase explicit cooperation — particularly Uhuru and Kirk who can share cards, Chekov who can share tokens, Sulu who can copy skills, McCoy who can heal other characters, and Scottie who can beam other characters. Because each of those character powers directly affects other characters, the players have a cue that suggests they should be working together.

As the game advances and as tasks get (slightly) harder, there’s a shift in the game from strategic cooperation to tactical cooperation: players come together to complete the final tasks. There’s a fair amount of mechanical support for this. The sharing of cards, tokens, and skills can ensure that the right things get to the players who are actually undertaking the task. In addition, characters in the same space as the person doing the tasks — and sometimes crewmembers in that same space — can contribute to a task’s success. (Unfortunately, this support action isn’t necessarily a lot of fun for the helpers.)

Overall, Expeditions’ cooperative systems have a lot of variety and so support cooperation in a lot of different situations. The breadth is enjoyable — and quite different from what’s found in Knizia’s other cooperative game, Lord of the Rings.

Adventure System

The Expeditions characters are quite well detailed. They have attributes, skills, and important special powers — all big expansions from the hobbit characters in Lord of the Rings. They also are built around a system of damage/fatigue that’s entirely unique in the cooperative world. That’s because all the characters (and the ships) are represented with HeroClix (2002-Present) miniatures. Each HeroClix figure includes a dial that shows a character’s current values for command, science, and operations. That dial is “clixed” down as the character takes damage. Thus, as McCoy is wounded or tired, his science (medical) attribute slowly drops: 10, 10, 9, 9, 9, 8, 8, 8, 7, 6, 3, 0. All three attributes similarly drop for all of the characters (while the ships similarly lose long-range firepower, short-range firepower, and shields). It’s unlikely that there’s another cooperative game that has more than two or three states for a character; by providing so much granularity, Expeditions effectively turns its characters health into a resource to be managed.

Character tasks are resolved through skill tests somewhat like those found in Arkham Horror (2005) and Battlestar Galactica (2008). Undertaking a task requires the player to add a die roll to a specific character attribute (command, science, or operations): the player’s character and his crewmembers each contribute the value of their attribute, if they have it. Skills, items, and other characters that are in the same location can also provide bonuses. Usually, players can choose when to undertake a task, though some tasks have their own timers and a few can trap characters on their space until they’re resolved.

Expeditions also contains a few other interesting adventure gaming systems. To start with, it has a meaningful exploration system that mixes known and unknown information — which gives players reasons to explore specific areas, while still giving them neat stuff to find. Unfortunately, after that the success of Expeditions’ adventure gaming systems is more mixed.

Theming works well for the characters and crew, but as a whole, the game doesn’t feel like a Star Trek movie. Exploring a single planet is much too “small” a task; it might have worked for a TV episode, but not for a game based on the rebooted movies. This sort of theme incongruity is always a danger when developing for a license where fans might have strong, preexisting expectations.

Which brings us to plot. Several cooperative games have had problems with managing their ending, but Expeditions’ game end seems to anti-climax more than most, which directly works against the story beats that could have given power to this section of the game.

The main problem is that the number of important actions decreases as the game comes to a close. Early in the game, players will be working on three sorts of vital challenges: energy/ecology, politics, and rebels. They might be defending the ship or resolving optional challenges that give long-term rewards. However, as the game comes to a close, players will move past the optional challenges and will complete first one, then two of the required challenge types, leaving only the final challenge type and the ship as issues. The result is players having turns at the end of the game where they don’t do a lot … other than moving to the final challenge location to setup the player who’s going to engage it. Perhaps the gathering is thematic in a story, but it’s not necessarily fun. Worse, the feeling of “wasted” turns that it generates directly undermines the building action (and desperation) that should be seen at this stage in a story.

Ironically, Expeditions’ biggest innovation for adventure gaming is also found in its plot work: its plot is branching. Each required challenge can result in two levels of success, leading to two different challenges at the next level. Thus the “1” politics challenge leads to either the “2A” or “2B” politics challenge, and those lead to “3A”, “3B”, “3C”, or “3D”. It’s a brilliant way to tell a pre-defined story that still allows for player input.

Expansions & Variants

There is an Expansion Set (2011) of three additional characters that adds some variability to the game. Sadly, what the game really needed to maximize it variability was more challenges, particularly different sets of linked plot cards. As is, the new characters only increase replayability a little.

Final Thoughts

Star Trek: Expeditions is a dramatically different game from Reiner Knizia’s earlier Lord of the Rings. Though it’s ultimately neither as tense nor as replayable, the evolution seen between the games offers some interesting lessons for cooperative design. On the good side, the changes to the characters and to the cooperative gaming system from Lord of the Rings to Expeditions show how to improve cooperation through game mechanics. On the bad side, missing challenge elements such as decay and variability show how a game can become less interesting through a less effective (automated) enemy.

“[W]hen I did the Star Trek game, I looked at the situation that the main market will potentially be America, so you will see lots of cards with lots of details, many more details than what I would usually put in a game.”
—Reiner Knizia, “Game Designer Interview: Reiner Knizia”, MeepleTown (May 2011)

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Reminder: Click “Follow” On Our Twitch Page!

Quinns: Hey everybody! If you’ve not checked out one of our live Twitch streams yet, you’re missing out. They’re basically an extra-long, live Let’s Play, and I can now proudly say the channel has developed a truly charming and hilarious chat community. If you’ve been part of that over the chat over in the last few months, thank you so, so much. Also, we have a custom emote of the lady from the Concordia box, and another of a cheeky toad from Cockroach Poker.

But here’s the thing- you don’t actually need to remember when we’re streaming. If you just go to our Twitch channel and click on the button that reads “Follow”, you’re get an email every time we start the show, which is once every couple of weeks. Also, you contribute to our follower count, which makes us look like successful, so that’s a nice bonus.

Tomorrow we’re going to be trying the Great Western Trail expansion, Rails to the North, and the show after that… well, let’s just say you won’t want to miss it, and we’ll be confirming more details shortly.

Thanks, everybody!

The original article can be found on the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down

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Card Games That Don’t Suck: Ricochet Poker

Oh my GOODNESS! Today marks the start of a brand-new series for Shut Up & Sit Down.

Every two weeks, Card Games That Don’t Suck will teach you how to play a game that we love, that you can play with an ordinary deck of cards. In doing so, we hope to make table gaming more accessible and wide-ranging, and maybe even learn a little bit of history along the way.

But there’s no history in our first instalment! Ricochet Poker is, in fact, a brand new game by designer James Ernest, and we think it’s just superb.

Enjoy, everybody!

The original article can be found on the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down

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GAMES NEWS! 04/02/19

Quinns: How was your weekend, Matt? I got in some of our first playtests of Blood on the Clocktower. Adopting the role of a devious moderator, I cast a room full of players into a cutthroat logic puzzle that had them doubting not just their friends, but themselves. As I stalked back and forth with my grimoire that held all of the game’s secrets, men screamed, women died, and the forces of evil proliferated in the shadows.

Matt: I had IBS

Quinns: Oh no

Matt: Men screamed, women died, and the forces of evil proliferated in the shadows. Also I mostly slept and drank a lot of water.

Quinns: The third and final game in Emerson Matsuuchi’s Century series has been revealed. Century: A New World (pictured above) will take place in North America, and where Century: Spice Road featured card management and Century: Eastern Wonders used area control, A New World will use the mechanic of worker placement. Players will dispatch settlers to wrest a living from the buffalo-stuffed continent, trading and building in a quest for the series’ precious cubes.

If you missed our double review of the first two games in the series, then let me tell you the twist here, with has the dramatic scale of an alligator twisting in a death roll. Any games in the Century series can be /combined/, creating a new, bigger game that features mechanics from all of its constituents. With the arrival of A New World, we’ll finally be able to combine all three little games into a grand… well, a game that’s actually about the size of most normal board games.

IMAGINE IT!

Matt: Adding a twist to the newly popular Roll and Write genre, Era: Medieval Age is a Roll and BUILD game designed by Matt Leacock, creator of Pandemic. Plugging dinky little buildings into a player board filled with a neat grid of holes, it’s an immediately cute and enticing idea. At this point though I have to say, it’s tough to say what makes this design any different from a game that simply used pencil & paper – the gimmick of a mini 3D town is strong, but I can’t help but immediately leap to the fresh possibilities of a game in which you also build your cities /up/.

The bit that most piques my hype-gland today is the suggestion of more interaction between players than we usually tend to see in these games, promising “extortion, scorched earth, and, of course, disease!”. It’s adorable that Matt Leacock’s reputation at this stage is that /yes, of course Leacock is providing additional contagion/ – I look forward to one day discovering the other three horsemen of the board gaming apocalypse.

Matt: Exciting news! Did you know that Arkham Horror: The Living Card Game is fantastic fun? Fantasy Flight’s support for this grim and frequently ludicrous adventure continues into 2019, with the release of the /fourth/ campaign, ‘The Circle Undone’ (also known as ‘An Oval’ or ‘The Wobbly Oblong’). Featuring Tarot cards, witches, and all sorts of new hexes – those hungry for details will have to click through to the official FFG page, as I’m miles behind on Arkham Horror and still having a blast playing it glacially, and blind. What a game, what a sweet little game.

Quinns: Ares Games has announced that they’ll be releasing an improved second edition of beloved quick and curious wargame Quartermaster General, a game so well-liked that it earned three expansions and three spinoff games. We even reviewed one of the spinoffs, Quartermaster General: 1914, and had a nice time with it.

Reading that review again, I’m hyped for this new 2nd edition. My experience of Quartermaster General left me feeling disappointed that the series was so obtuse, but Ares Games has promised “a careful revision of the original game, improving its ease of play, clarity, play balance, and more”.

…That said, the whole reason I chose to review 1914 instead of the original game is that it only needed 5 players for the best experience, rather than the original game’s craving for /6/ people. And if you don’t have that, players have to control multiple hands of cards each, which – as anyone who’s experienced it will tell you – is a quick way to go 100% insane.

Matt: It’s rare these days for any saccharine knife to cut so cleanly through my cynical shell, but one glance at the Kickstarter for PARKS and I’m thirteen years old, eating extremely salty chilli in Yosemite while heavy snow covers everything outside. This gorgeous game celebrates the absolute best thing about America: did you know that it is massive and full of natural beauty? For now, IT IS!

Exhibiting the flavour of twee that would usually find my eyes gently rolling, this game sees you trekking across 48 of America’s National Parks whilst doing your best to create lovely memories – the winner being the player at the end who comes back with the most mementos and photos, just like with real holidays and Instagram. This could easily be one that ends up fronting way more style and heart than substance, but with an undisclosed percentage of profits being donated to the National Parks Service, it’s tough to be anything other than charmed. Speaking as a clueless Brit, it’s quite evocative of Firewatch, a videogame which I absolutely loved. I’m off to eat a sandwich and think about sunsets.

The original article can be found on the fantastic Shut Up & Sit Down

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A Deckbuilding Lite Look at Great Western Trail

One of the most popular games of recent years is Great Western Trail (2016), an intricate resource-management and set-collection game … that also has a relatively minor deckbuilding component. But, as it turns out, that deckbuilding includes some pretty innovative aspects, and so is worth discussing as part of my overall series on deckbuilding mechanics.

ThreeFour Generations of Deckbuilding

I’ve typically classified deckbuilders as falling into three generations — or three degenerations if you prefer, as each moves further from the original precepts of Dominion (2008), now a decade old. These generations aren’t entirely separated by time, but instead by the maturity of the mechanic.

The first generation of deckbuilders cleaved so close to Dominion that even if they evinced some originality, they still mistakenly incorporated some of Dominion’s specific design decisions, such as the ability to purchase just one card a round, as core elements of the mechanic. I’d classify Penny Arcade (2011), Resident Evil (2010), Tanto Cuore (2009), and Thunderstone (2009) as first-generation deckbuilders.

The second generation of deckbuilders remained pure deckbuilder games, but reimagined what deckbuilding did rather than just blindly copying the design decisions of Dominion. Obviously, different people would draw this line in different places, but I think Ascension (2010) was one of the first game to (barely) cross this line, with its randomized purchase cards, its dual currencies, and its strong “suits” all showing very different design decisions. DC Comics (2012) and Lord of the Rings (2013) deckbuilding games similarly stand on this border. Arctic Scavengers (2009, 2013), with its array of actions; Nightfall (2011), with its chained card play; and Star Realms (2014), with its focus on combat, all show that this generation can go even further beyond the simple card management of Dominion — though they sometimes maintained some of Dominion’s specific design assumptions as well.

After the second generation of deckbuilders, the mechanic was also spun off into other components like the dicebuilding of Quarriors! (2011) and eventually the whole bagbuilding subgenre.

The third generation of deckbuilders recognized deckbuilding as a mechanic rather than a category of play. That allowed designers to incorporate it into games that had other mechanics, making it into a part of a larger whole. Eminent Domain (2011), a role selection and 4X game; A Few Acres of Snow (2011), an area-control wargame; and Copycat (2012), a worker-placement game, were three of the first. The worker placement of Don’t Turn Your Back (2015), the area control of Tyrants of the Underdark (2016), and the co-op play of Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour (2017) are more recent examples.

And that brings us at last to Great Western Trail. Like the third-generation deckbuilders, it incorporates deckbuilding as part of a larger whole, freely mixed it with other mechanics, but unlike those games, the deckbuilding is really a small part of the whole. It’s a handy way to manage one particular game element (the cattle that you’re selling), and although that’s vitally important, it’s not a very loud, attention-getting mechanic. So call it a rare example of a fourth generation of deckbuilding play, which deckbuilding has become not just a mechanic, but a relatively minor mechanic.

Despite its minimal footprint, the deckbuilding of Great Western Trail is still intriguing, and something that could easily be an influence on other, more fully featured deckbuilding games (as much as they still exist).

The Art of Deckbuilding

So what does the deckbuilding in Great Western Trail look like? It’s generally what you’d expect. You get a starting deck with a variety of cards, and you can make new purchases over the course of the game, giving you both better game resources and victory points. You can also choose to filter cards out of your deck, to maximize its potential.

What might be surprising is how minor the deckbuilding actually is in Great Western Trail. A player’s deck contains the cattle that they’re trying to sell each time they finish the trail, but they typically only improve their deck one time through the whole (long) game board. The rest of the time they’re hiring workers, constructing buildings, and raising funds.

The cattle cards: a small part of a big game.

Mind you, it’s still integrally connected to everything else, which is the first nice element of the game’s deckbuilder design. You need those workers and that money to buy cows; you need to accomplish other goals if you want to become able to filter your deck; and you often need to play cows to earn money.

However, it’s the game’s set collection, required at the big round-up at the end of the trail, that really innovates its deckbuilding play, because that expands the deckbuilding to … handbuilding.

The Art of Handbuilding

The standard model for hand management in deckbuilders is that there isn’t any: you draw cards at the end of the round, you play them the next round, and you discard anything you have left. The occasional deckbuilder allows players to hold cards from one round to another if they want, to support some longer term strategy, but even then it’s usually better to play as fast as you can.

Great Western Trail totally uproots this model. Not only are players able to hold over cards, not only are they encouraged to do so, but it’s actually a core part of the game. That’s because the ultimate goal of the game is to have a hand containing an unlike set of cattle when it’s time to sell. That takes not just careful building of your deck to have a diverse set of cows available, but also diverse building of your hand, so that you actually get those different cattle into your hand by the time you reach the end of the trail.

Supporting this requires not just the ability to keep cards from turn to turn, but also the ability to play some of those cards, in a constrained way, when and if a player decides. This in fact is built into the entire game system: whenever a player has the option to play a specific cow in order to earn money, he’s also getting the opportunity to build his hand to his specifications. There’s also a totally new mechanic, the “hand cycler”, which gives a player the ability to discard and redraw cards.

The cycler (gear 2) and the remover (gear 5) can both help build your hand.

Not only does handbuilding provide a new level of tactics for deckbuilding play, but it also introduces interesting strategic questions: do you use sacrifice parts of your set to earn money? And conversely, do you sacrifice your momentum to improve the set of cards in your hand?

Conclusion

Great Western Trail is intriguing for a deckbuilder because of how much it does with so little. The deckbuilding is a pretty small mechanic in the overall game, but it’s still a critical part of the overall game, tightly entangled with everything else.

Great Western Trail also introduces a great new mechanic, where players are building not just their overall deck, but also what’s in their hand, working toward sets at specific points in the game.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples