The Ascendancy of Culture

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star trek ascendancy review

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Star Trek as a phenomenon. How its peoples and the way they changed can be viewed through the best game ever made for it.

Continuing in the theme of what I talked about last time, I thought I'd get a bit more focused and highlight a particularly favored game of the moment: Star Trek: Ascendancy. Truth be told, I've never been a hardcore Star Trek fan. I watched the original series and the animated series when I was very young and then The Next Generation in my last couple years of college and for a few years after. But after Deep Space Nine began, I kind of drifted off, catching seasons or episodes of that and Voyager here and there and nothing much since.

That said, I think Star Trek: Ascendancy is the best game that Gale Force Nine, in their lengthy string of IP-related successes, has ever produced. (There. I said it. Come at me, Spartacus-lovers.) It's not just because it's a great DoaM game, which it is, and it's not just because it's so steeped in the flavor and lore and outright trivia of the TV and movie franchise. (Come on. Who doesn't hear Leonard Nimoy's voice in their head from Wrath of Khan when you draw the Mutara Nebula and dare to venture into it?) It's because it not only enables victory in a DoaM game without ever firing a shot, but also reflects what the culture of our society has often been and how it has changed down through the decades of Star Trek.

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The United Federation of Planets: In the Cold War times in which Gene Roddenberry first developed, pitched, and succeeded with his idea, the Federation was clearly meant to stand in for the United States. Despite Roddenberry's fervent (and correct) insistence that people are people, regardless of national or planetary origin and associated governmental systems, any viewer could tell who the "good guys" were and how culturally similar they were to a somewhat more enlightened American outlook that had clearly spread to all of Earth and beyond to the United Federation of (States.) Roddeberry insisted that exploration and communication were the way to bring about a peaceful coexistence with adversaries and the Federation in Star Trek: Ascendancy hews closely to that model. All three main Fleet abilities abilities are based around science, exploration, and diplomacy. Only three of the scientific advancements are military and two of those are for defense. The conclusion that the Federation can and should be played as a largely non-combatant faction is inescapable. One of their two base rules is The Prime Directive, which doesn't permit invading planets. If ever you play this game with someone who is not a fan of wargames, this is the faction to give them. (Or maybe the Ferengi.)

Now, the fact that the Federation gains new planets by a mechanism called "hegemony" makes things a little murkier. Hegemony is a very loaded political term and has its roots in the same Cold War-era politics that haunted the original series. From a purely socio-political standpoint, it's fair to question whether going in with guns blazing is that much more ethically superior to orbiting your new neighbor's world and essentially saying: "Regardless of your cultural norms, we've done things better and you should just accept it." The implicit "or else" kinda hangs over that, as it has so often in Earth's own colonial history. It's clear, just as it was in the various films and TV series, that the Federation is more than capable of fighting it out if the situation demands it. They can upgrade shields and weapons just like any other faction in the game and the movement capabilities granted by advancements like The Cochrane Institute and Advanced Stellar Cartography can be just as much a military tool as those specifically labeled as such. Also, the great leaps forward (ahem) in the collection and retention of Culture, the direct resource by which to gain Ascendancy and win the game, can put other factions competing with the Federation in a situation where pulling the guns out may be their only option, which is how you end up with a faction like the Klingons...

4 Klingon Console

Klingon Empire: In the original series, the Klingons played a far more insidious role than they have since the 1980s. The beastly, aggressive, and overtly warlike presentation came about with the film franchise. Before that, the Klingons, obvious stand-ins for the Soviets, were more KGB than Red Army. As long as you had a widow's peak haircut and a tendency to look at "good guys" with slitted eyes, you could be a Klingon; never that threatening, but always shrouded with the aura of menace that said 'other'. I'd like to think that this was part of Roddenberry's approach. Just like Pavel Chekov, a Russian(!) on the bridge of the Enterprise, the Klingons were a lot like us, but suspicious of our motives, as we were of theirs. All it would really take is some good conversation and Romulan ale and we'd get past all this 'phasers and neutral zone' stuff. Only later in the franchise was the inherently savage and brutal nature of Klingon culture brought to the fore, with Star Trek: Ascendancy staying right in line with how things have developed. When you can never retreat from a fight (Death Before Dishonor) and gain Culture for winning big fights (Ever Victorious) then you can see which way we're heading pretty quickly.

In utter contrast to the Federation, 2/3 of the available advancements for the Klingons are military. All of their Fleet special powers are battle-oriented. The reverse side of those fleet cards don't even have powers, but do allow you to move 10 ships with one command. You kinda can't escape the fact that if you're going to play the Klingons, you need to pick fights to win the game. One thing I respected about the writers behind the Next Generation is that, despite presenting the Klingon culture as savage and beastly, they largely presented it as a whole culture. This wasn't the Reavers of Firefly, where they were a deus ex machina of crazed killers to little other end out on the Rim. (Don't @ me. I'm a huge Firefly fan.) The Klingons had rules that they had developed from the perspective of survival on their harsh homeworld. Those rules succeeded, so they perpetuated them. What I deeply appreciated about Jean-Luc Picard's character in TNG was that it was clear that he respected those rules, even when he didn't agree with them. The game faction can be played the same way. Even if you're not a dedicated wargamer, this is how the faction plays. I'm not fond of solving things with guns, either (I'd rather play games), but I've won more games of Star Trek: Ascendancy with the Klingons than any other.

5 Romulan Console

Romulan Star Empire: The Romulans are an interesting development in both game and the other media. In the series and movies, with the Klingons now the semi-reluctant allies of the Federation, post-Star Trek VI (Best of the films. I will defeat all comers.), the Romulans became the stand-in for whatever belligerent state was seen as the threat to the Western world. Interestingly, the Romulans became even more like historical and now modern Russia with their apparent cultural perspectives of suspicion and secrecy, as they felt they were surrounded by enemies, like the Russians. They stepped into the role of the original series Klingons; constantly prying at the borders and allies of the Federation, trying to destabilize the situation to their advantage. Later developments in TNG demonstrated that, once again, it was a cultural perspective that was often getting in the way of easier relations between the various factions. One thing I really appreciate about Star Trek: Ascendancy is that, in a game based on establishing who is "the best" in this corner of the galaxy (and well before "current time" in the film and TV franchises), a win condition involving culture doesn't state which of those cultures is inherently best. No judgments are made. You're simply presented with a set of conditions that says: "This is how this culture succeeds."

The Romulans are a great example of that, as they represent the middle ground between the relatively peaceful Federation and relatively warlike Klingons. Given that the game was originally released with three factions, it kinda makes sense. Just over 50% of Romulan advancements are military. Their fleet powers are a combination of the Federation's scientific approach, the Klingons' military approach, and the Romulans' own identity of self-advancement (and the seemingly god-like power of Romulan mining ships...) In a way, that last aspect is key. The Federation and the Klingons both demonstrate a method of expansion and suzerainty. The Romulans, OTOH, demonstrate their nominal superiority by advancing themselves, as they gain Culture by improving their technology, both as a base rule and through cards like Imperial Science Institute. It's not so much "Do it this way", as it is "We do it better." Science and the improvement thereof are key to the Romulan identity. Even military advancements like Tal Diann Security Forces are rooted in the presence of Research nodes, because that's how the Romulan culture moves forward. It's not too far a stretch to look at cultural comparisons in modern times (say, the tech race between the US and China) to see where the Romulan identity might be rooted. With base rules like Cultural Superiority(!) grounding your win condition in development and doing so distinct from other factions (Suspicious), the playstyle becomes obvious.

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Cardassian Union: The Cardassians never really had a particular parallel in the real world, other than "military dictatorship", the list of which is long and onerous throughout human history. In the later stages of TNG, with an uneasy treaty between the Romulans and the Federation, and through the whole of DS9, the Cardassians played the role of known "bad guy" (until the end... spoilers!), displayed freely engaging in torture and exercising a rather cruel dominance of races in and around their sphere, like the Bajorans. One can draw rough comparisons with some modern societies that value loyalty to the state above all else, but that's not unique to the modern era (see: the Roman republic), so it's easier to say that the Cardassians were written simply as the "new opposition", since the time of the Klingons and the Romulans as constant opponents had passed by the time DS9 rolled around. That's reflected in the game, where Cardassian rules and traits are focused largely around oppression; both base rules, Annexation and Occupation, are based on control of worlds (and, presumably, peoples), for example. Interestingly, loyalty to the state didn't prevent equality among the sexes in Cardassia, with women being the foremost scientists among them, which is a reflection of changing opinions in our own world. Uhura was the first Black woman to be given so prominent a place on a major American TV series, but Uhura also didn't do a lot other than give Kirk a chance to talk before shooting. Women in Cardassian society (and later Federation and Romulan society) became major figures, just as they have (and always were) in our world today.

Similar to the Klingons, the Cardassians don't have a lot of variation in their approach to the game. Instead of winning battles, it's mostly about area control (DoaM!) Expanding, securing, laying Gravitic Mine Fields so that no one wants to come anywhere near you... That sort of thing. Given the contraints of Occupation (can't get Production unless you have an orbiting ship in that system), it's sometimes difficult for the Cardassians to expand. But once they have, they're not giving up that territory very easily (Weaponized Starbases, etc.) Of course, the only way to gain extra Culture is to regularly be invading planets (Annexation), so they are compelled to move out and not simply turtle up on their side of the board. In defiance of previous discussion, rather than the red tide of the Klingons or even the eerie green tide of the Romulans you have the... beige tide of Cardassia. It's not exactly menacing, but it does tie into their style of play and their background in the lore: It's the State. The banal, faceless State above all. Bend to the banality, savage Klingons. We'll get you in your sleep. With three lights.

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Ferengi Alliance: Like the Cardassians, history is replete with examples from which to draw comparisons to Ferengi society and their government system of bribery and patronage. The Roman republic is an ideal one, since getting money to the right palms and making friends in high places was the surest way to walk the cursus honorum, whether your family was well known or not. Interestingly, despite being the "joke race" of Star Trek for much of their existence, there's probably more detail known about the Ferengi and their perspective on life's quirks than almost any other society. The Rules of Acquisition are comprehensive, detailed, and can be trotted out for almost as many of life's little questions as seasons 3-8 of The Simpsons (Hasn't been worth bothering with since season 9. Fight me.) With that detail, GF9 made them the most unusual race to play in the game, outside of the Federation.

Whereas the Federation can and will fight if pushed to it, the Ferengi actively don't want to fight other factions. Fighting (by the Ferengi) disrupts trade. To that point, despite ridiculous Production capacity and great movement capability provided by their Fleet rules, the Ferengi have not a single military advancement. Better Ferengi weapons don't generate profits. Unless you can sell them, which you can't. The main thrust of playing the Ferengi in Star Trek: Ascendancy is to encourage your opponents to let you spread around as much as possible, so that they can use the extra Production generated to go fight those other guys. It is very much a negotiation approach that is somewhat absent from the game as a whole. You can certainly make deals and alliances without the Ferengi, but they bring it as a central aspect of their gameplay, which quite possibly can generate similar behavior in other players once they see the Ferengi suddenly climbing the Ascendancy ladder in one or two turns of buying mass amounts of Culture. Most of the Rules of Acquisition (in the game) don't directly lead to more profit (Production), but they enhance the ability to generate more, just by playing the Ferengi as they already are which, to me, is kind of a brilliant design.

Star Trek: Ascenancy is a DoaM. Star Trek: Ascendancy can be a wargame. Star Trek: Ascendancy can be a civilization game. Just like with the TV series and the movies, there are different aspects to revel in, no matter what you might be a fan of. Gene Roddenberry's ideal presentation was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because it was about exploration and human technology coming back to haunt us. But that kind of obliquely presented message didn't resonate with the fans of the series or the general audience. So they militarized Starfleet and made a much more aggressive sequel with Wrath of Khan. Roddenberry objected to both and, gradually, his vision became more prominent in later films and in The Next Generation alongside the politico-military plots.There was still plenty of action, phasers, and photon torpedoes, but there was a lot more to pay attention to, especially on a cultural level. That's the identity that I think this game has captured and why there are so many ways to view and play it.

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star trek ascendancy review Marc ReichardtFollow Marc Reichardt

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Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #292597 19 Feb 2019 10:12
If you think ST 6 is better than ST 2, you need to stop smoking your lunch.

As for ST: Ascendancy, I'd like to play it again. My usual suspects for that sort of game really like the game, but really dislike the time requirements. I think once you get a few plays under your belt it will go faster, but so far the number of plays in my group are 3(me)-1-1-1-1-1-1 .
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #292598 19 Feb 2019 10:24

RobertB wrote: If you think ST 6 is better than ST 2, you need to stop smoking your lunch.


Pffft. I'm not saying Wrath is a bad movie, but it doesn't have the scope of Country, nor does it have the more assured acting chops (I think David Warner as Gorkon gets too little credit for being able to get that much expression from under that much makeup) of the later film. Plus, Country's symmetry with the political climate of the time was remarkable. It hit the same zeitgeist as Up in the Air did when it was released. Plus, it has George Takei's best ever moment on film:

Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #292599 19 Feb 2019 10:25
As for time constraints, it does go much faster once the basics are under your group's belt, but I agree that that can be a tough sell to a lot of people who aren't regular DoaMers or wargamers.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #292600 19 Feb 2019 10:29
Undiscovered Country is kind of weirdly underrated...I think it is -almost- as good as Khan. It holds up really well, and it is one of the Trek films with the fewest embarrassing moments.
Ken B.'s Avatar
Ken B. replied the topic: #292602 19 Feb 2019 10:35
This sits on my shelf in shame. I need to get it played. It looks so good and is highly recommended by everyone whose opinion I value.

Also yes, Undiscovered Country is probably my second favorite Trek behind Khan. It's so well done.
jay718's Avatar
jay718 replied the topic: #292603 19 Feb 2019 10:39
Great review! Wish I played this more often. What's your take on the Borg expansion?
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #292604 19 Feb 2019 11:00
Thanks! I'm pretty cold on the Borg. I love the minis. I dislike the inclusion of a monstrous destabilizing element in a game that's already pretty finely balanced on the luck scale. There have been games where people fall behind just because of what systems they draw. Tossing the Borg in there, especially with the rules as written, where they could focus exclusively on one player and basically eliminate them from the game, is not something I'm particularly fond of. There's a fan-made adjustment to them on BGG that makes them far more of an equal threat. Even so, I haven't been inclined to include them in any of our games. Get stalled by a Tier III system or a neutron star? There are literally ways around those. Have the misfortune to be in the corner where the Borg arrive? Eh.
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #292607 19 Feb 2019 11:20
Good stuff!

I love Star Trek for the dailiness of the television show, the subtle interplay of Picard with the other crew members as the seven-year mission progressed, or learning that O'Brien and Bashir liked to play games together, etc etc. It's for this reason that all the movies leave me cold. The games, too. What everyone else saw in Ascendency escaped me, and it compared pretty unfavorably to Fleet Captains, to my mind. I sold them both this year.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #292608 19 Feb 2019 11:32
This will be rank heresy here, but if the other players weren't Star Trek fans, I'd bring Eclipse before I'd bring ST:A. My inner kid thinks the ST:A is a lot cooler than Eclipse, and after all it's all about the fun. But ruleset to ruleset, I think Eclipse is better.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #292609 19 Feb 2019 12:04
No, I get that. I don't there's anything extremely innovative about ST: A's rules and it is possible to be cornered by luck and have trouble getting out of the gate (dice rolls, planet draws, etc.) Part of why it's a current fave is just the absolute immersion in the lore and story that I mentioned.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #292611 19 Feb 2019 12:28
I'm having this same conversation with one of my youngest boys, who has become a huge Civilization 6 (video game) player. The makers of Civ 6 continue to publish new cultures to play, and each has their own path to success. He's fascinated with the concept, and comes to me with questions like "who were the Janissaries" that more often than not I have to look up. Civ 6 is doing the same thing as Star Trek Ascendancy, but doing it with real cultures, and doing it with dozens of them.

Like Star Trek Ascendancy this game takes more than a bit of time to play, but I suppose that's going to be the case for any Civ game more complicated than Settlers. I haven't taken the plunge yet. But if I were to get into video games, I think it would be this one, because I like the asymmetry and I like the fact-based nature of it. A game with a Star Trek theme can't hit that second point, and I'm not enough of a Trekkie to get that wrapped around the canon of the universe.

A very thought-provoking article, reinforcing my son's opinion on his gaming. There's something for everyone, eh? This sort of "bigger" play provides a different level of satisfaction, if you're in a position to enjoy it.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #292614 19 Feb 2019 12:53

Jackwraith wrote: No, I get that. I don't there's anything extremely innovative about ST: A's rules and it is possible to be cornered by luck and have trouble getting out of the gate (dice rolls, planet draws, etc.) Part of why it's a current fave is just the absolute immersion in the lore and story that I mentioned.


I think the very unique exploration is totally innovative. The way the board develops unpredictably is fantastic and helps with that sense of immersion.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #292616 19 Feb 2019 13:06

Sagrilarus wrote: A very thought-provoking article, reinforcing my son's opinion on his gaming. There's something for everyone, eh? This sort of "bigger" play provides a different level of satisfaction, if you're in a position to enjoy it.


That's exactly it. When I finished this, I kept looking at it thinking that it wasn't what I had envisioned. I wanted to touch a deeper point in the game (and the overall entity of Star Trek) but without becoming too heavy-handed about it. I was wondering if I'd backed off of too much. So, I'm glad the intended point got through.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #292617 19 Feb 2019 13:09

charlest wrote: I think the very unique exploration is totally innovative. The way the board develops unpredictably is fantastic and helps with that sense of immersion.


That's a good point. I think I'm a bit overly familiar with it now to have perspective on some of those things.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #292628 19 Feb 2019 15:49
This one is a toad for me but I'm itching to play it. I even have the Ferengi expansion.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #292641 19 Feb 2019 17:36
The Ferengi can be tough. If you have a group willing to make deals (think a Dune group), they can blossom into this incredible threat that people can't cut themselves off of (just one hit...) But if you don't have a group willing to deal, they can be quite frustrating, and play kind of like a Federation without the hegemony and phenomena bonuses.