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Co-op Case Studies: Star Trek — Five-Year Mission

The cooperative universe of the Star Trek Federation is fertile ground for co-op game design. David E. Whitcher’s Star Trek: Five-Year Mission is thus the second Star Trek co-op of the ’10s, and a very different beast from Reiner Knizia’s Star Trek: Expeditions.

This article was originally published in the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Mayfair Games (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Dice

Overview

Players draw alert cards that they must then solve by collecting the correct dice. When the players solve enough alerts, they win; or when they fail enough, they lose.

Challenge System

The challenge system in Five-Year Mission kicks off with a pretty typical activation method: a player draws an alert card at the start of his turn. However, the player has the option as to what sort of alert card to draw: an easy blue, a medium yellow, or a difficult red.

Once drawn, the card might trigger an immediate effect: a character might be wounded, the Enterprise might be damaged, or an existing task might become harder. In some cases, alerts cascade — as one card causes another to be drawn. This is a minor bit of unknown chaos that keeps players on their toes.This is meaningful because it’s not an obvious choice. A player might choose to pick a tougher card to increase the chance of earning a victory point or to earn a different type of victory point. Meanwhile, the challenge system might force a player to pick a tougher card based on the current damage level of the Enterprise. Finally, there’s a limit to how many unsolved cards there can be in each color; exceeding it causes an old alert to fail, which is yet another reason to pick a card of a different difficulty level. The result of all of this is a hard tactical decision at the start of each turn —and it’s a decision that individually empowers the current player, since he’s doing the drawing.

Ultimately, a task sits at the heart of each alert card; it specifies which dice results can be used to solve the alert. Some of these dice requirements are easy to accomplish (“place a die of 4 or more”), but they get increasingly difficult (“place a red die of exactly 3” or “simultaneously place a red 2 and a yellow 3”). By allowing multiple levels of difficulty, this formulaic dice system creates both easy tasks and hard challenges that will result in much-celebrated victories. It also offers yet another level of thoughtful tactics — as players decide which dice to assign to which ongoing crises.

A few of the alerts also contain specific time constraints. Some must be done within three minutes of real time, while others must be completed before any other crises. These introduce some fun variety, though the real-time element is a bit out-of-place in an otherwise turn-based game. (Nonetheless, it’s exciting!)

The biggest limitation of Five-Year Mission’s challenge system is that its decay is quite limited. Up to three cards can cascade from a single draw, and the players may temporarily be forced to take harder cards if the Enterprise is damaged, or if there are too many of an easy sort of card out. However, it the players manage to roll back these problems, gameplay will return to its original, easier configuration.

In addition, shifting the difficulty of the game don’t necessarily make the game harder, just longer. The easiest difficult requires that 10 points worth of scoring alerts be completed, while the hardest requires 20. There’s certainly less room for error in the harder game, because you can only fail at five alerts in either game. However, without real decay, this difficulty increase is a simple linear progression; it may not affect players until the highest levels, when they finally surpass the levels of their competency.

Games that are too easy or too hard are a real issue in co-op play, but it’s possible that Whitcher purposefully kept this game on the easy side, because the Star Trek theming is all about cooperation overcoming odds — not about failure.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Exploration Activation; Arbitrary Trigger (with choice); Sequential Cascade; Decay; Removal Consequences; and Skill Threats.

Cooperative System

Mechanically, cooperation in Five-Year Mission occurs through the joint placement of dice on alerts. Most of the alerts require multiple dice, and so their placement can usually be spread out across multiple player-turns. This sort of joint puzzle progression is rare in co-op games, but does pop up in a few other games such as Lord of the Rings (2000), which features the joint progression of activity tokens, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2012), which features the joint progression of escaped-slave tokens.

Viscerally, the cooperation in Five-Year Mission occurs through the exclamations and excited suggestions made to the active player after he’s rolled his dice. This sort of spontaneous cooperative discussion seems to arise naturally from games that focus on pattern-recognition, where any player might see the pattern first. SOS Titanic (2013), a co-op based on solitaire mechanics, shows the idea in its purest form, but it works just as well in Five-Year Mission.

Adventure System

Each player in Five-Year Mission has his own character, who has a special power that tends to come up once on a player’s turn. This offers some nice differentiation among the players that gives players a handle they can use to “role play” if they want to, but it doesn’t weigh the game down with the complexity of a more involved adventure system.

Final Thoughts

Five-Year Mission is a well-designed and well-formed cooperative game that doesn’t actually add a lot to the field. Elder Sign (2011) is probably its closest kin, but Five-Year Mission’s mechanics and ideas have all been seen elsewhere.

Despite that, Five-Year Mission meshes its mechanics together in an interesting and thoughtful way that results in gameplay that still feels quite unique. This is in part due to a few elements that are unusual for the field (even if they have been seen before):

  • Its tactical choices are spread throughout its play — from the decision on which trigger card to draw through the options for how to resolve tasks.
  • Its challenges are joint progressions.
  • Its cooperation is often the very organic result of pattern matching.

The result is a game that works quite well, especially for casual play, and that suggests how existing game systems can be polished and tweaked to produce something new.

David E. Whitcher

David E. Whitcher moved into the professional board game business in 2003 when he released Cannon (2003) through his own PyroMyth Games company. In more recent years, Whitcher has turned PyroMyth into a design house that produces games for other companies, which is how Five-Year Mission came to land at Mayfair Games. Five-Year Mission was Whitcher’s first co-op design, though he’s also working on another licensed co-op called “Spear of Seth”.

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