The first thing you notice about the this game¹ is that the rules are all separated out into separate booklets. That sort of worked with Classic Traveller, but here it’s a mess. The rules books are flimsy and cumbersome and I can’t do anything with this game without getting two or three of them out. Later editions compiled everything into one book. If you are looking to play this game, it’s probably worth hunting down one of those, but I haven’t actually seen one to compare. And note that FASA’s Star Trek Role Playing Game came with this game included– it is literally (and contractually) the starship combat rules of a role playing game! If you are shopping around for that, then be sure to look out for the differences: you can have the same box with different editions of the board game inside.
My copy is the “Star Trek III” edition. Naturally, one wants to compare it with the competition from West End Games. The production values from each are strikingly similar: dinky coverless rules booklets, square wargame counters that cry out to have their corners clipped, and the essential bit of fiction to kick things off. FASA’s box scores marginally better due to the “starship silhouette counters.” These are one inch across and are fairly nice– I actually prefer these hand-painted visuals to more current counter artwork. FASA scores some more points by actually including Star Trek III material in their set. There’s no U.S.S. Grissom, but you do get stats and counters for the “Klingon Bird of Prey.”
To dust this game off, I went with the introductory scenario and the “Basic Starship Tactics” rules. There’s actually four different iterations of the game in here and no indication of which one was the best of the breed– ie, which one was actually used most often by hobbyists. Note that this is not Star Fleet Battles style rules layering where you have a single game system with varying degrees of detail, optional rules, and so forth. FASA would eventually take that approach with their BattleTech system, but it’s nowhere in sight here. The games in here are radically different from each other.
What is striking is just how much work it is to actually dig your first game out of this. You have to fill out your ship displays with information from contradictory rulesets– the stats from the various separate games are interspersed in the most maddening way. There is no place on the ship displays to put your weapon tables, but these have to be looked up during play from an extremely hard-to-read chart. I pretty well take for granted that every ship should have its own SSD with its own charts and tables on it. Star Fleet Battles pulled that together with the 1990 Captain’s Edition, but GDW apparently didn’t get the memo with their 1993 release of Brilliant Lances. This really is a crucial point if a game is actually going to get played.
But I do want to like the displays in this game. The ones for “Basic Starship Combat” use counters to track hit points, engine points, weapons status, and shields. What I want is to be able to pretend that I’m looking at an actual Star Fleet console. The system avoids the need for photocopies, but makes it possible to throw a game off due to an inadvertent bump or the inevitable sneeze of doom. Personally, I think the photocopies would have been worth the trouble in this case. To really get value from the visual component of this, you’d need double sided counters for the weapons console: one color for armed and another for unarmed. A third color counter– preferably in a different shape– should indicate destroyed items. Finally, the ship readouts should be arranged in a layout that corresponds to the ship’s physical form. There’s just no getting away from the need of individual ship displays.
But what about the game…? I have to say, that there’s a lot of attraction to being able to use the movie ships. That is probably my favorite iteration of ship models. FASA’s homegrown creations are pretty wild overall… and to see those ships on the board in miniature form would be insanely cool. But their particular take on Trek is kind of strange to someone coming over from Star Fleet Battles. Phasers have a much longer range and can do more damage. There are half as many photon torpedoes on the Constitution class heavy cruiser. Phasers can be “overloaded”, but photons cannot. Klingons have photon torpedoes. Many ship designs and tactics are predicated on the use of powerful rear firing weapons. Shields don’t work right, either: you have to determine the power levels of each facing individually instead of having all-around protection with some specific reinforcement here and there.
While there’s a lot more in the box to look at, the “Basic Starship Tactics” system does give you a relatively painless way to get a Star Trek themed move-and-shoot type game onto the table– once you’ve set up your ship displays and dug out your to-hit charts. It is an interesting game in its own right and not just from a historical standpoint. While not as tactically interesting as Star Fleet Battles, the learning curve here is considerably less steep. I’ll be interested to see where the additional rules systems in the box take the game as I unpack them….
¹ This is another vintage game that reader Chris Mata sent to me. Very cool, Chris… much appreciated.