“Wait. What’s the difference between Vulcans and Romulans?” After a pause we turn to our resident Trek lore expert. “Well, I think they have a common ancestor? Romulans are more war-like.” “Yeah,” I chime in, “Vulcans suppress their emotions, I think, but the Romulans don’t. They’re closer to humans.” The person who posed the question nods, knowingly. “They’re closer to humans, who’re more war-like.” We all nod solemnly. If you judge the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation Deck Building Game – Next Phase Edition (phew!) by its ability to conjure the spirit of the franchise, this self-serious conversation contrasting pointy-eared, polyester-clad aliens with the nature of man represented a promising start.
Deck building games have been gaining in popularity for the last few years, after the fiefdom-simulator Dominion took up residence on in many a closet and game-cabinet shelf. These games all have the same core rules—players begin with a small deck of relatively ineffective cards whose primary use is to purchase more effective cards from a communal pool, which then get shuffled into your deck to be played at a later turn. In addition to making other cards easier to buy, cards are typically also worth some amount of “victory points,” the thing you need to win. The simplicity of these rules—play all your cards, pick some new cards, end your turn—makes the genre both friendly for new players and the perfect foundation for an adaptation of any and every intellectual property that may exist.
Which brings us here, into the far flung semi-Utopic future of Star Trek: The Next Generation Deck Building Game – Next Phase Edition. Next Phase edition is a self-contained expansion, building upon, but not requiring, the cards and characters from 2010’s Premier Edition. The convenience of being self-contained means players don’t need both sets to jump in, but that convenience is ultimately limiting as, rules wise, Next Phase Edition plays precisely like the core game, which already didn’t deviate far from the norm described above.
Instead of spending gold to purchase cards as in most other games, you use the Experience Points provided by a legion of appropriately faceless Ensign, Lieutenant and Commander cards. These poor disposable souls provide some boosts to your Flagship and some Experience to help you buy special equipment or a fancier crew for your ship from the Starbase Deck. Those upgraded crew members have names and faces you recognize, be they Federation, Ferengi, Klingon or Romulan, and special skills to help in the cold merciless void of space.
Thankfully, the Starbase deck which provides cards to build your deck with is massive, and full of mostly unique character cards. Adding lots of unique cards to your deck means it varies wildly from other players’, allowing for experimentation and providing an excitement I haven’t felt in other deck building games. Where this design choice helped the Premier Edition, it hinders the Next Phase Edition. The Premier Edition already filled in the roster of the Enterprise Senior Staff, so Next Phase is stuck with sad looking dystopian future versions of Picard, Riker, et. all, taken from the show’s series finale. There’s a twinge of sadness when old, gray Riker shows up, since you’d hoped to play with the trombone playing rascal you know and love. The few fan favorites such as Reginald Barclay and the Next Generation’s version of Spock alleviate this problem somewhat, but not enough.
Beyond the examination of what it means to be human in a galaxy full of other species—it means getting down with all the ladies of those species, as demonstrated first by Captain Kirk, then by Commander Riker—exploration has always been the central theme of Star Trek. Appropriately, this provides another area where Star Trek: TNG breaks from other deck building games. Separate from the cards you can purchase and add to your deck is the Space Deck—a stack of missions for your crew to complete, events that effect everyone at the table, and enemy starships for you to battle or talk into joining you. Every turn, players flip the top card of the Space Deck and uses the crew they’ve played that turn to try and win that card, earning victory points. This surprise makes every turn feel like an adventure, and hoping to flip a new mission but revealing an enemy starship to battle when you’re unprepared provides exactly the right level of punishment for getting too cocky (cockiness is a Star Wars thing, after all).
While the threat of enemy starships is an exciting prospect, actually battling them is one of the few places where the core game starts compromising theme for game design and ends up in an uncomfortable middle. While there are several unaffiliated ships contained in the Space Deck, sometimes you’ll reveal a Romulan Warbird, or a Klingon Bird of Prey or… the USS Enterprise? I thought I was in the Federation? Well, it’s not like my crew was made up of one faction anyway—since you’re recruiting characters from a number of different affiliations with no drawback, and then fighting no one in particular, conceptually the game feels like a weird one-off episode where the writer was really into The Dirty Dozen and decided to do that, but in space.
I might be happier with that compromise if the mechanics of combat didn’t feel so rote. When a ship is revealed, you compare several numbers on it with that of your Flagship and either win and score its victory points… or you don’t. And considering the cards in the deck are balanced against the powerful decks you’ll be shuffling up in the late game, throughout most of the early game, you don’t. Once you’ve got a full complement of phaser banks, capable crew and fancy maneuvers, you can modify your values, but without chance or strategy, battles don’t provide an opportunity for more than some quick math. But since this mechanic is inspired by a show where space combat equated to Civil War armies standing opposite each other taking turns firing muskets, this may not be that off-theme after all.
The problems with combat are highlighted dramatically during the “Borg Invasion” scenarios from both the Premier and Next Phase versions. In this rules variant, the game fills the Space Deck with Borg-related events and spaceships. The defining characteristic of these space cyborgs (ooooooh…) is their assimilation of beings into their group, inevitably taking them over. Borrowing from games like Pandemic and its little brother Forbidden Island, both versions of the game slowly add “Borg Cards” into your deck each time you lose a battle against the Borg. Once a player draws 5 of them in a row, they’re turned into a Borg and drop from the game. It’s a cute idea that fits thematically. Unfortunately, players starting Flagships are completely outclassed by Borg ships in the early game, and the rate at which you’re acquiring Borg cards keeps you from ever feeling like you have a chance, until suddenly things have ended decisively, in the game’s favor. “Resistance is futile” is a compelling catchphrase for a TV show, but a frustrating game design philosophy.
One place where the game makes good on combat is when cards from the Space Deck force the players themselves into a giant space battle. Suddenly you have to deal with the cost of playing cards against each other versus later on your turn, and in the games I played there was constant negotiation and diplomacy, players begging to team up to avoid being crushed themselves. That the game subtly encourages this but no way explicitly tells players to form alliances or adds some kind of “Negotiation Phase” is a welcome moment of design elegance. A team-based “Romulan Reunification” scenario, the successor to Premier Edition’s “Klingon Civil War”, adds even more of these cards to the Space Deck.
Despite building on a solid foundation, Star Trek: The Next Generation – Next Phase Edition misses almost every chance to fix the few problems of the game’s superior Premier Edition. Borg Invasion is still crushingly difficult, and there’s still thematic inconsistency when recruiting characters and battling spaceships in the Space Deck. It also maintains the industry standard low quality bar for card images—for a series recently remastered for a Blu-Ray release, every card looks like a screenshot taken from a frequently viewed VHS tape unearthed from some poor Trekkie’s basement. These inherited problems would be easy to ignore if the cards themselves shone, but when playing a game like this you’re playing for theme, and the lack of the core crew in anything other than their older, depressed selves makes the game less fun.
Thoughtfully, Bandai provides enough space in the boxes of both sets to combine into one box, which is precisely what I plan to do. As a stand-alone expansion, Next Phase is a failure, but as a traditional, smaller expansion—with the specific cards I want mixed and matched into the original edition that I already enjoy—it might give me exactly the experience I want. It’s just a shame that Bandai couldn’t have realized that themselves and saved me the work. While I appreciate the poetic justice of forcibly “assimilating” one set into another, the fact that the Borg themed set is the one being assimilated serves as an appropriately backwards metaphor for the creative choices on display in the Next Phase Edition.
Casey Malone is a comedian, game designer, and freelance writer living in Somerville, MA. You can follow him on Twitter at @CaseyMalone, where he can be found stating unequivocally that Picard is cooler than Kirk.