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Designer Diary: Star Trek: Fleet Captains

Ethan Pasternack
United States
Seattle
Washington
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These are the voyages...

The design that became Star Trek: Fleet Captains had its origin, like all good licensed games do, in the core concepts of the intellectual property in which it is based.

When I was first tasked with coming up with an idea for a Star Trek miniatures game in 2007, it was clear to all involved that the most iconic, unique, and exciting elements in the franchise are the ships. The characters are much beloved, but when it comes to miniatures the ships are definitely where the cool factor is, so the first challenge was to figure out how to make a ship game that still felt like Star Trek.

See, I had played Star Fleet Battles when I was a teenager, and while I had enjoyed the game and its reams of rules, I never felt like it was a good analog for the shows and movies that I loved. This may be blasphemy to some, but I never experienced a single game of SFB that actually felt like an episode of Star Trek. It was a great window into the universe and a fun strategic simulation, but it didn't really capture the feel of Trek in the game play – primarily (in my professional opinion) because it was so focused on combat, an activity that takes up only a tiny fraction of the screen time in the canon.

So I went back to the core material for inspiration – and it ended up being absurdly easy to find. All it took was watching one episode of Next Generation before I figured it out – it's right there in the intro:

Quote:
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

And that was the answer – Trek is about exploration, discovery, and adventure – sometimes that means battle, sometimes it doesn't. That single line of prose inspired almost all of the mechanisms I would create, and in 2010 when Mike Elliott and I sat down and went over the old concept to see what we could use in a Star Trek Clix-based game, almost all of those mechanisms made it through. Here are how some of those mechanisms came to be.

...of the Starship Enterprise...

The selection of ships, crew, and flavor elements that went into the game was a monumental task. I am a stickler for staying true to the metaphor, and Mike is a stickler for mathematical balance – two points of view that often come to blows in game design. This was not, however, our first time wrangling these two competing interests on a major science fiction license that was near and dear to our hearts – we had collaborated in the same way on the Star Wars PocketModel TCG several years prior – so we knew how to handle that challenge going in.

The card mechanisms in the player's command decks, which is where most of the episodic, character, and flavor content is featured, were created entirely for the 2010 design; we had never gotten that far in 2007. Mike and I both dislike having too many card types since it can lead to all kinds of paralysis issues during the game and lead to easy mistakes in deck building. This is not to say that cards shouldn't have multiple roles – that's a critical part of a card game – just that we didn't want to relegate those roles to specific subsets of the cards of a single deck unless we absolutely had to.

A crew role was an obvious choice since famous crewmen from the shows and movies need to be able to be assigned to your ships on a persistent basis. Instantaneous abilities needed to be split between Combat and non-combat (which became "Ops") because we felt that the two buckets would allow us to better exemplify the intent of an ability, and the players to better understand the theme of a card.


Picking which ships to make was a labor of love for me, but it was not without its own challenges. There is always so much to choose from in the Federation and so little to choose from in the fleets of the alien races that the task somehow manages to contain both a tyranny of choice and a need to scrape the barrel at the same time.

Creating parity between the races while also ensuring that the most prominent ships were included was tough. The Klingons had obvious entries for 2-6 point ships, and the Federation had obvious entries for the 1-5 point ships – so many that I had to leave out a lot of great ships – so I had to stretch the boundaries of the classifications more than I had originally intended, and delve further into the canon than I thought I'd need to in order to make both sides equal without removing anything high-profile I'd regret. To everyone who participates in updating and maintaining the Memory Alpha wiki, you are rock stars.

...its continuing mission...

The concept of a mission is quintessential to the Star Trek license. Starships of any real size are massive concentrations of resources that are created by and usually firmly under the control of a central authority, no matter which race you're dealing with. Those central authorities send those ships out on missions to do all sorts of things, and even the most despicable or chaotic races in the canon are bound by honor or duty to at least try to accomplish them.

So, I decided, one key to making a ship game that felt like Trek was to give each player his own set of mission parameters. Now due to the variety of ships and ship roles in the universe, that meant dividing the missions into categories so that the missions one received would generally be suited to the ships one had brought to the table. Ships suited to different roles would therefore draw different combinations of different types of mission cards, ensuring that many of the player's missions were within his grasp.

During our initial review, this mechanism was a no-brainer for both Mike and I. While the original concept was for fewer missions of larger importance, as we developed the new concept Mike made the astute observation that the game wanted more and smaller increments of progress to reward players more often and keep the pace moving.

To keep things simple, we decided we would have the players draw all their ship's required missions at once and place them in a small mission deck they would draw "active" missions from and continue to do so as they completed them.


During our first tests, Mike encountered many missions that were either too long term for his rather aggressive victory strategy or too impractical to accomplish just then – he often has crap luck drawing cards – so he came up with a mission-cycling mechanism, which we liked because it would help prevent "mission lock" and make the game more tournament-friendly.

The mission assortment being dependent on ships also helped the game stay scalable since the quantity and variety would grow as fleet size increased. Scalability was important to us as we wanted to support both a reasonable one-hour play duration and an epic all-day event using the same core set of rules.

...to explore strange new worlds...

Exploring space is the premise of nearly every ST, Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise episode, so making that the overarching theme of the game was an easy decision. Making that exciting, however, was the big challenge.

From the beginning I knew that randomization would be essential to keep the game fresh game after game, not only in the card decks and ship collection, but in the play area itself. Therefore, developing a system to create a random, unknown spacescape was an important task to get right. Making sure that the content of that board stayed fresh, exciting, and useful in a variety of game states was even more so.

The exact form factor of the tiles changed drastically over time – beginning as large mini-boards in the original concept, morphing into playing cards in the initial 2010 design, and near the end of development finally settling on the larger hexagonal cards that made it into the final production specs.

The hex gave us two large advantages over squares – they were easier to differentiate in an already card-heavy game, and they gave us up to six natural starting positions instead of just four. For a game that was designed to be expandable and include more and more factions over time, that was a great plus.

The content of the tiles was a lot of fun to develop, while also changing a bit through the design process. Tying encounters to a die roll on reveal of a tile (a brilliant notion of Mike's) allowed us to divorce many of the traditional Trek hazards (time/space anomalies, subspace rifts, cosmic strings) from the basic geography (size, planet/nebula content, resources, etc), which ensured that getting to know the location tiles wouldn't mean you'd get bored with them. Plumbing the depths of both the Star Trek canon and real life astrophysical classification systems was, to put it in Spock-like terms, fascinating.


...to seek out new life and new civilizations...

The encounter cards are, to me, one of the most important things that make Star Trek: Fleet Captains feel like Star Trek. Without the powerful alien entities, time/space anomalies, subspace disturbances, first contact situations, and other such diverse perils, you cannot capture the quintessential optimism that Roddenberry's utopian vision of humanity enshrines.

The encounters let us explore the episodic content of the various series in ways that a pure combat game could not. They open the door to non-ship threats like the bipolar menace that is Q, they give us scientific puzzles like cosmic strings, heck – they even give us the chance to include Tribbles.


From a pure game design perspective, they give us the ability to mess with just about every mechanism in the game, which makes them golden in terms of providing a variety of play experiences, superior turn-by-turn engagement, and best of all a story-line that is unique each time the game is played.

This becomes especially true once expansions are introduced because in addition to providing new races and ships, the expansions are slated to include new and different encounters as well.

The focus on encounters and exploration also guided the way we designed the ship stats. Redirecting power from one system to another is mentioned in almost every episode and every movie in the franchise, so from its earliest inception stat tracking for the ships involved power manipulation.

The primary systems of Weapons, Shields, Sensors, and Engines was the most simplistic breakdown we could do, and ensured a straightforward way to define ship roles – combat ships with heavy weapons and shields, explorers with good engines and sensors, science ships with crazy sensors and not much else, etc.

The Clix dial had not been a part of the initial design, which had allowed point-for-point power distribution, so porting the concept over to it required that we think differently about the way the dial could be used. We wanted to create a system that was semi-ablative to represent power loss as damage is taken, but would also allow the player to make strategic choices about how to allocate what power a ship has.

This gave birth to the idea of alert status. Clustering the clicks of a dial into three damage levels that a player could make adjustments within was a good solution – the trick was making each choice within each alert status be a significant one. Cloaking clicks were easy to do, but everything else involved constant iteration to get right. Mike and I went over and over this, with me doing a revision and him pointing out useless clicks during our test games – it was arduous, but in the end his vigilance paid off and we had created a solid system.


...to boldly go where no one has gone before...

I have emphasized the more story-oriented content of the game in this article because being a ship battle game that seamlessly incorporates those less tangible aspects is, in many ways, what makes Star Trek: Fleet Captains different. It's also what made the project so ambitious.

Trying to combine some of the best aspects of miniatures games, card games, board games, and drafting games into a single system that evokes a wide spectrum of one of the most complex and challenging intellectual properties in science fiction was no simple task. Once Mike and I had finished our final proposal, turning the results over to Bryan Kinsella, whose job it was to direct a more robust testing and revision cycle on the game and shepherd it through the production cycle, was like sending your kid to college – not knowing how the experience would change it and hoping you'd done a good enough job as a parent that everything would turn out okay.

Fortunately, Bryan turned out to be an excellent influence from both a design and development standpoint. He was meticulous, collaborative, and constructive – and the revisions he came back with were all perfectly reasonable, grounded in solid testing concerns, mechanically sound, practical from a production standpoint, and mindful of the original design's intent. And that, let me assure you, is no easy set of needs to juggle. The fact that the resulting game has been so well received by the gaming public is a tremendous validation, and makes me proud of the work all three of us did to make Star Trek: Fleet Captains a reality.

So now the game is in your hands, the players' hands, where it will continue to evolve from the game we made into the game you want it to be. We just create a framework – you make it tell a story. That's where the real adventure is, and I can't wait to see how this episode turns out.

Cheers!

Ethan Pasternack has been making games with WizKids since 2001. These days he can be found making mobile games at Z2Live by day, but by night he still prowls the badlands of the tabletop as a game design mercenary.

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