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