Friday, March 15, 2013

Star Explorer

This time on the random walk through my game collection we come to one only recently acquired, Star Explorer.  There are two editions of this game.  The original, published in 1982 by Fantasy Games Unlimited; and the current version, published by Goblinoid Games as either a "download to play" digital copy, or as a print on demand title from The Game Crafter.  I have a print on demand copy, more on which below.

The basic game is essentially a Star Trek: original series adventure game.  Each player has a heavy cruiser that they use to visit planets on the galactic map, where they send down away teams to have adventures.  You have ten different types of crew, from navigators and fire control teams, to botany and geologic experts, to those poor saps in the military teams that die in droves (yep, you've got redshirts!).  Of course, it isn't actually a Star Trek game, because Paramount pictures won't just give that license away for free.  Because Fantasy Flight Games never got the license, they changed just enough things to give them plausible deniability if the lawyers ever came calling.  For example, the Klingon analogue is the "Zangids."  They are obviously Klingons, of course, right down to the artwork on the counters.  So you can easily just overlay Star Trek stuff onto the game if you prefer.

From a mechanical standpoint, this is a resource management game.  You start the game with a heavy cruiser with a basic equipment layout, as well as a complement of 25 crew teams.  You have some customization options with the specific crew you have, but you must have at least seven military teams and no less than one of the other nine types of crew teams.  You then get five "points" to spend to customize your ship, which can be extra crew, extra fuel (highly recommended), extra armor, extra weapons, extra transporters, etc.

Once your ship is equipped you fly it to one of the four planets on the map to have adventures.  One of the planets (randomly placed based on die rolls) has your primary mission on it, which you know about before the game begins.  All of the other encounters are randomly determined once you arrive at the planet.  Of course, sometimes getting to your destination is an adventure on its own.  To reflect this, each hex a player's ship moves on the map requires a roll of a six-sided die.  On a "6" you roll on the space encounter table to see what happens.  Sometimes it is a navigational hazard, sometimes it is a pirate or Zangid warship, and sometimes it is just news of something important that changes the game.  For example, in my first game, ON THE FIRST MOVE, I got a special event of increased Zangid activity, which meant that if I rolled a "1" while travling in a hex I had a 50% chance of encountering a Zangid warship that turn.  I ran into a lot of Zangid that game.

Combat is actually pretty fun and strikes a nice balance between simplicity and having to make strategic choices.  Before a battle starts you can choose to fight, parley/bribe, or attempt to run away.  If you successfully parley, you get full victory points without even having to fight your enemy, which is pretty awesome.  Of course, if you fail, they attack you at shorter range.  Running away loses you victory points, but sometimes you will die horribly if you don't.  Fighting uses beams and missiles to try to destroy the other ship's armor (though when you get it down to 25% they automatically run away).  Beams have a longer range but do less damage, while missiles are the inverse.  Every turn you choose how many shields to use and how many weapons to fire.  You can do critical damage that knocks out a ship component, and you can injure or kill crew, as well.  Whatever you use, it costs fuel, so you can't always just go in guns blazing.  I liked the decision making each turn to try to maximize your effectiveness while saving fuel.

On each planet you randomly roll a terrain type, and then you have up to three encounters (always a chance for three, but sometimes you will get a disaster instead, which is just something bad that happens).  You assign away teams to conduct each mission, and then you roll on the mission-specific tables from the rulebook to see what happens.  Success or failure, you are most likely going to lose some red shirts, which is thematically appropriate.  Good thing you have a lot of them!  I found this to be the most drab part of the game.  You can quickly figure out the optimal choices to make with your teams, and then it is just down to whether you get your die rolls or not to succeed.

You have to complete all encounters on all planets (or take a victory point hit for abandoning them) and then return to home base in 20 turns.  Completing things early gets you bonus points, while returning late costs you a points penalty.  While this game has counters for up to four players, I think it probably works best as a solitaire game.  Each player is really doing their own thing, as there is little interplay between the characters.  The only impact that having multiple players brings is that any special events rolled during space travel impact all players equally, and that if player one completes an encounter on a planet nobody else can complete it.  So there is a race going on for victory points, but if a player pulls ahead other players can't really do anything about it other than hope for a change in lucky die rolls.

Lastly, let me comment on the game components of the print on demand game.  Overall, I am not impressed.  The 20 page rulebook is 10 pages of double-sided laser-printed paper, with no binding at all.  The counter sheet is thick card laser printed, so you have to cut the counters out with a pair of scissors.  I personally find the counters too thin, and if I play this game in the future I plan to raid my Federation Commander game for counters.  the map board is also just laser printed card, and honestly does not look like it will hold up to a lot of play.  At least the dice are decent.

Overall, this game is okay.  It is fun, but the planetary missions get dry with the endless die rolling and looking up results on tables.  "Role-playing" it by coming up with personalities to be on each team would likely help in that regard, but at the cost of making the game take longer.  I do like the simple but effective space combat system, and blasting stupid pirates is fun, especially when you have shields and they don't.  Still, I'm not sure how much play this game will be seeing in the future.  It will probably only hit the table if I'm in a real Star Trek mood, which doesn't happen very often.

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