Monday, June 25, 2012

Star Trek Heroclix: Tactics - Set Phasers To Lame? Make It So, Ensign Wizkid

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie. I like the franchise well enough, but the one thing I think that Star Trek does better than Star Wars or, really, any other space franchise, is space battles. Star Wars simply doesn't compare to the sheer scale of what Star Trek has, from really any standpoint. Star Wars has the Force, Lightsabers, and that's about it. I mean, I own the entire Action Fleet set from them and there's not that many unique ships. But Star Trek, I mean they have like several hundred races, each with unique ships, styles, weapons, and technologies. They just do scale so much better. And that's why I had an erection that Viagra couldn't have held a candle to when WizKids announced that they were releasing Star Trek Tactics, because I really do love space battle games.

I played Star Fleet Battles, Federation Commander, and all sorts of space games when I Was a kid. I was fascinated by the idea of giant, monolithic hulks bristling with particle weapons, probes, missiles, and whatnot blasting the shit out of one another in space, with crewmen taking their last non-breath of space dust as a hull breach and subsequent equalization of pressure sucks them into the abyss and to their ultimate doom. I mean, I love skirmish games of all kinds, but really, space skirmishes have always been my first love. And so, I looked past the blind booster setup that I so despise, and I bought some boosters and a starter set. It was at that point that I realized I would not be fully satisfied until I had the whole set, and so I started asking around if anyone had any. Turns out one of my best buds actually had doubles of almost all the common and uncommon ships, and so he sent them off to me. I then "ebayed" the remaining rares, so $130 later, I have them all.

Now, I have played Clix games before, and I'm just not a tremendous fan. Mage Knight was especially terrible, but Heroclix is tolerable. I mean, if you like licensed superheroes, there's not much of an alternative. In fact, the only thing in the Clix world that I found to be awesome was Mage Knight Dungeons, which I still say is one of the best dungeon crawls ever. But, alas, I had to know if this game was going to be good, and I was sure hoping it wasn't going to be another unremarkable, crappy game like Star Wars Miniatures: Starfleet Battles, but with Star Trek branding and the dial gimmick.

Turns out, the game not only is exactly like vanilla Heroclix, they didn't even bother to package the game with its own special powers and abilities card. So, the ships literally have super senses, super strength, and can leap. Yes, leap, in space. Oh, and what about the Klingon vessel with Blades/Claws/Fangs...because I'm sure you remember that ship as a Star Trek fan, the one that de-cloaks next to the Reliant and takes a huge toothy chomp out of the side, bypassing shields? Yeah, they didn't even bother to Star Trek it up. I mean, they did put some flavor text crap on the individual ship cards, which nobody will ever even look at, but otherwise, nada. The upside, I suppose, is that you can do what I did and have the Green Lantern Corps fight it out with a couple of Constitution-class flagships, right? Or Batman versus a Bird of Prey, since Batman is, you know, 360 feet long like a Bird of Prey, and can breathe in space. FAIL.

Because of them not changing anything, Superman can fight alongside the Enterprise, and everything is totally compatible. What's sad is that they could have printed out their own card for Star Trek with different power names, but still had the ships be compatible. They were just being lazy, I think, or maybe they figured that they had to keep it consistent so Heroclix lovers wouldn't get confused over the color banding system and have to re-learn what the colors mean. I guess I can understand it, but they had to kind of understand that the market for Star Trek is different than the Marvel market. At a minimum, no fangs or claws on a great big Federation spaceship might have been a good start.

But let's talk about the products, physically, for a moment. The ships themselves are quite nice. I'd argue they're not as detailed as those that come with the other blind-booster space miniatures game, Star Wars Miniatures: Starship Battles. That said, they're pretty well painted and durable. They come in one-ship boosters for like $4.99 a pop, and you can get one of 28 ships in three rarity levels. There's also the starter set, which is just barely a starter because it contains the rules, two dice, a powers card, two maps, and four ships. Marquis ships, but still, only four, which limits your tactical options pretty significantly.

What is pretty cool, though, is that while they have commons, uncommons, and rares, pretty much all of the ships are viable, and generally very different. They're all unique enough so that the ships feel, to me, like they play differently, and different fleets drafted together can be pretty interesting. There's a total of 28 ships, I believe that are available in boosters, plus the four starter ships, and there's a "Limited Edition" Warship Voyager that is like forty bucks on Ebay, which I will likely never own. My only bitch about the ships themselves are that there are quite a few ships whose sculpts that are identical, with some even painted identically, and some the same with some variant to the paint. I'd guess that there's probably 20 unique sculpts, though, and that's enough for my kid, so it's enough for me. There's even ships from every point in the series, from the original TV show, to the movies, to the spin-off shows like Deep Space Nine and Voyager. For a Trekkie, they've got the bases covered.

What really bothers me about the production in its totality, though, is that even with the starter you really can't play the game. You need to add to the game in order to play. Part of the game is placing tokens near ships to indicate how many activations they've had, and the game doesn't come with them. So, you have to get pennies or glass beads or something. It always pisses me off when a publisher short changes you and doesn't include stuff required to play, because if I had bought the game at a game store with the intent of cracking it open and playing right then, I simply would not have been able to. I'd have had to buy tokens of some kind, or rip up bits off the rules as markers if I didn't have some change in my pocket.

Also, there are rules on some of the ships that have them placing terrain, objects, or destroying them, but there's not a single terrain marker or object anywhere in the starter, or in the box with the ships that have the ability to place them.  So, really, you not only buy something that requires you to get your own activation markers, which isn't a biggie, but then on top of that, you have to realize that you don't even have the markers/tokens and then go to the Wizkids website and download them. Luckily, I found them: Unfortunately, the object tokens that exist are manhole covers, ATM machines, and the like, none of which I find to be something I would expect to be either in space or useful in playing a space skirmish game. So, in the end, if you REALLY want to play this to the fullest, using all the powers and rules, you don't get to unless you blow through some printer ink, card stock, and have some tokens on hand. The word that comes immediately to mind is "boochy".

So, from a value perspective, the whole deal isn't all that shit hot. I mean, it's blind booster, as a "package" it's incomplete, and it's essentially a half-baked attempt to sucker die hard Trekkies that would buy a bag of chili labelled "Vulcan feces" into getting indoctrinated to the world of Heroclix. Fleet Captains is infinitely better of an implementation of using Heroclix "technology" with Star Trek. Star Trek: Expeditions is an even better of an implementation than Fleet Captains, I think, so WizKids has the ability to make great Trek games, and demonstrably so. But Star Trek Tactics just feels plain half-assed, really, in my opinion. I mean, even if you already like Heroclix which, as I said, I am sort of on the fence about, I would be offended as a Trek fan regarding the total bastardization of the license and lack of effort put into doing something so ridiculously simple, like making a power sheet that exchanged "character" and "ship" and renamed the powers, even if they did precisely the same thing.

Now, I'm going to assume that you've never played Heroclix here, for a second. To understand Clix, you simply have to know that it's a relatively simple light skirmish game. Each character has its own special powers that are available at given times based on how much damage they've received. These powers are indicated in a window, and change by rotating the base mechanism, which contains a dial, on which is printed a series of numbers in the foreground on a colored background. The colored backgrounds define what power is available at the time. Some are automatic powers, like modifying your defense against a type of attack, while others need to be activated on your turn to use.

In short, the system's real triumph, if there had to be one that stands out, is that the variable powers really create a lot more tactical strategy potential. A character's powers can change dramatically during the course of a battle, and knowing which powers are going to come up at which point is a critical aspect to playing the game well. Tie that in with the activation system, which consists of simply declaring an activation and placing a token on your activated ship to denote it, then resolving an action. The linchpin to all of that is that you are limited in what you activate because no ship can have more than two tokens, so you can't really just bum-rush with your big bad ship. It forces you to incrementally move your entire fleet and really choose activations wisely.

The real downfall of the system, though, is that while each ship comes with a card that references what the name of the power is, it requires amateurs and even reasonably well-versed guys like me who have quite a few games to their name, to continually refer back to a large tri-fold card in order to understand what, precisely, the power means, based on the color and location of the square. After five or six plays with different ships, you get the main idea and the "crutch" of having to go back to the card gets less prevalent over time. But, the first five games are going to be way longer than they should be, and that takes a lot of the fun out of it because the pacing is literally hobbled by the "do something, look up power, resolve something, opponent looks up power" dance.

Once you get past all of the continual drudgery of card-reading and decrypting the color coded powers, the game's still not actually all that fun, though. Again, it doesn't really have any "big space battle" feel to it, it's more of just 3D icons with shapes that aren't little caped heroes or elves or something shooting one another. So, if you're used to Heroclix, or games where positioning isn't that important, where there are no facing rules, no inertia, no simultaneous damage, or anything more complex than "activate, shoot, rinse, repeat", then you're pretty much going to like the game if you can palate the idea of spaceships with Super Senses and Fangs. But if you want something that feels like a space game, and has more depth than really just managing action tokens and making sure you know your ships' powers and how they can interact with one another, you're best to look elsewhere.

The ship design itself, as far as ship balance and power design, is really pretty good. All the ships make sense, too, thematically. Each ship has kind of a theme that it adheres to, so small ships are nimble and wiry where the bigger ships are fast, powerful, and durable. There are ships that cloak, although cloaking is really pretty weak compared to the films' depiction, since they don't actually cloak, they just are not targetable if they're behind some terrain. But if it's a one-on-one engagement in open space, cloaking is completely worthless, which is really pretty shitty, since the valuation of the ship is based upon its inherent abilities. On par, though, the balance is really pretty good, the ships do some neat stuff to keep the game moderately interesting, and if you can get past the first five or so games and get used to the color wheels, well, you may dig it pretty well. Just don't expect Starmada, Silent Death, or really anything beyond the same old Heroclix.

Now, my problem is that my daughter loves Star Trek, and she likes Heroscape, and she views this as Heroscape in space, so she's fully engaged. Which means that I have to play this game, especially since I spent way too much money collecting an entire set for her so she could re-enact giant space battles that she's seen in the films. I also played with some friends who've played some other space shoot-em-up games, like Battleship Galaxies, Star Wars Miniatures: Starship Battles and Epic Engagements, and they found it kind of "meh" like I did. I mean, if these were someone else's toys, there's very little chance I would ever go out of my way to ask to play this game. Part of that is that it failed, for me, to really emphasize the Star Trek universe in the game, and part of it is that I just find the continual look up of the powers to be so mind-draining that it's just not worth the effort. To underscore that, I have a pretty good memory, to say the least, and I just don't care to crack open my hippocampus and allow the information to be stored.

This is not to say that it's a bad game, but it's just not a good one. It revels in its mediocrity, and it certainly did itself no favors by not embracing the license. I think the end-use of these neat ships will be that I re-base them onto A Call To Arms: Star Fleet bases, saving me some painting time, and playing a far superior game that really embraces the license. I'll be reviewing that at some point in the near future since Mongoose was kind enough to send this soon-to-be indoctrinated Trekkie the core rules to put it through its paces. I may also write up some cards to use with the Epic Engagements system.

One thing I should add, too, is that I found some really bad ass little Micro Machines star bases on Ebay for a couple bucks a pop, which I am still awaiting the dickhead seller to ship, 2 weeks later, as he is apparently on vacation. They are the same scale as these ships, more or less, and so I think they would be great to play with as scenario objectives or something. I'm the guy who plays Candyland with my 4 year old using Halo Interactive Board Game figures, so pimping a game is not, shall we say, out of my realm of experience.


Why Admiral Kirk Made This Game Mandatory At Starfleet Academy:
- Lots of Federation and Klingon ships, and none require painting to look spiffy
- Lots of availability on Ebay, and the commons and uncommons are pretty cheap, really
- It's easy to learn basic rules and simple game play is good for family gaming

What Makes Star Trek: Tactics Boldly Fail Like None Before It:
- If you want to find the worst bastardization of a licensed product, this tops the suspect list
- Calling something a starter set and then not including required parts is a bait and switch
- The lapse between first play and memorizing the powers make initial games slow
- Blind boosters? Really? The 1990's called and they want their sales gimmick back

It's not a terrible game, and if you are a fan of Heroclix, it's probably as good as you're used to, maybe even better since there's not several levels of each ship unlike the other Clix lines. But if you're new to the game, despite the easy to learn rules, the continual need to refer to a power card can slow the pace exponentially, which takes away from the experience. If you are determined, though, what you get is a moderately simple shoot-em-up that lacks most of what makes space battle games interesting. On top of that, there's virtually no Star Trek "feel" throughout the game other than the fact that the ships are recognizable from the fiction. So, from the game play standpoint, it's as "meh" as it gets. Unless you can re-purpose the ships, you're a Heroclix fan, or you're just a crazy Trekkie who wants the neat looking toys, I see absolutely no reason to invest in this game.

2.5/5 Stars

Check out the WizKids page for this line, which has had an almost identical level of disinterest put into it:

The best place for info on the ships is at the HCRealms site, here:

I've created some really nice looking maps, since the maps are fine, but not really beautiful, and you can download them at the following link if you want to take them down and get them printed to 24"x36". Just remember it's the 2" square maps you want, not the hexes, which are also there if you want them:

And lastly, since I am now forced to play this with my kid since she likes it so much, I had to make it bearable, since she is NOT going to remember the color coded powers, ever. To do so, I took all the powers that are on the "not-so-quick powers and abilities reference, and I put them directly onto some new cards I made. I'm almost done with all 33 of the ships, and I'll post them to my blog as soon as they're done, likely tomorrow. I've not edited or amended the powers and what they do other than to change "character" with "ship", and make things no longer refer to the named powers, so there should be a lot less of a learning curve. I'll put them in the above link, but like I said, I'll also write a blog post so there's a record on the site.

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