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Posted on May 21, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Retro Review #2: Going Boldly into the Past: Star Trek III. Board Game Review.

Retro Review #2: Going Boldly into the Past: Star Trek III. Board Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Retro Review #2

Star Trek III. Publisher: West End Games.  Designers: Greg Costikyan, John M. Ford, Doug Kaufman. Price: $16.95 (1985), $24.00 (current used)

Passed inspection: Contains three distinct solitaire games. Captures the theme of classic Star Trek episodes. Gives you the opportunity to game out the Kobayashi Maru scenario from Wrath of Khan.

Failed basic: The lack of thematic connection to the movie ‘Star Trek III: The Search for Spock’ makes the game’s title feel a bit like a bait and switch effort. Some game play is weak with one of the games having little feel of specifically being set in the ‘Star Trek’ universe.

Time travel is a common theme in Star Trek, so in today’s episode, we’re going to step back in time a few decades and revisit the crew of the starship Enterprise in the form of West End Games’ board game – Star Trek III. Back in the early 80’s, you couldn’t swing a Denebian Slime Devil in a game store without hitting a game related to Star Trek. Setting aside the juggernaut of its day that was ADB’s Star Fleet Battles, you also had games being cranked out by FASA and West End Games as they worked to maximize the value of their respective Star Trek licenses from Paramount. I hesitate to say that the market was oversaturated with Star Trek games, but the ’86 West End Games catalog alone lists three titles including the subject of this review – Star Trek III.

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Despite the title – and the mostly random use of imagery from the movie – this product has nothing to do with the movie of the similar title (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). And coming two years before the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there’s not a hint of things to come from Jean-Luc Picard and gang. What Star Trek: III does deliver is three solitaire mini-games grounded in the classic Star Trek: The Original Series background. Each game has an episodic feel as if you were gaming some never filmed fourth season episodes.

The games are each very different from one another. Part of this stems from having different designers create each of the three games. But what a design team! Greg Costikyan, John M. Ford and Douglas Kaufman are well known, celebrated designers with many credits and accolades to their names. The variety means that the different designers make different design decisions, which mean different rules and mechanics. Much like the episodes of the classic show, each game stands alone with no connecting arc providing a greater narrative theme. In general, each game puts you in the role of our heroic starship crew working to achieve an outcome to the benefit of the Federation. In one game, you’ll compete with the Klingons in a commercial contest to win an alliance with a neutral star system. In another game, you’ll ditch much of your high-tech tools and don the attire of the Men of Sherwood to enforce the Prime Directive, while in the third game, you’ll take the captain’s chair for the opportunity to take your very own Kobayashi Maru test as immortalized in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

This game came into my possession courtesy of my long-time gaming accomplice Scott. The game itself has clearly had a hard life. The box is intact, but scuffed up. The components were in reasonable shape, if suffering from being a bit musty and right on the edge of succumbing to mold. The vintage ’86 West End catalog had what appear to be a dusty film of dormant mold on its glossy pages, but the other game components seem unaffected by the games age and storage history.

The game consists of the following components. A box, a plastic counter tray (yes, the counter tray was included!), a vintage twenty-sided die, two counter sheets with the playing pieces for each of the three mini-games and the three games themselves, each with an unmounted game board and a rulebook. The counter sheet was an eye-opener as I don’t remember counters from the 80’s being so hard to remove from the counter sheet (but I’m sure they were). It’s a testament to how far modern game production processes have come that this vintage die-cutting process seems like a failure in a modern context. The counters themselves are nothing special, but were par for the course compared to other counters from games made in the 1980’s.  

The three games are an economic trading game, a hostage rescue game and a reenactment of a classic moment of Star Trek canon – rescuing the Kobayashi Maru. So on with the show – let’s see the games!

Fistful of Latinum

The first game is titled Free Enterpri$e. That’s not a typo. Continuing a theme, this has nothing to do with the movie of the same title starring Eric McCormack and William Shatner. Instead, Free Enterpri$e pits the Federation against the Klingon Empire in a contest designed to prove their respective merits as allies to a neutral star system. It just so happens that these bug-eyed monsters value commercial trading acumen above all other skills. The back story – a short story by John M. Ford which is easily the best part of this game – suggests this contest results from the events of the Organian Peace Treaty. The Organians have channeled the confrontation between the Federation and Klingon Empire into non-violent activities (like the quest to develop Sherman’s Planet in the Trouble with Tribbles). The actual game is a simple commercial trading mechanism where you buy baubles on one planet and ship them to where they are on demand on a nearby planet. Sounds simple except that the local fads for good can change literally at random and the change in local fads can happen almost quicker than the production/transport cycle for the goods can react.

Did we mention there are Klingons? The Klingon economic model is simpler, but also accumulates wealth faster than the Federation seems to be able to do so. Plus, the Klingons can prevent you from trading and are not above taking potshots at your shuttle craft should the opportunity arise.

The game works, but it feels like the Star Trek setting was draped over the skeleton of a random game design. Perhaps it’s the decades of additional back story and Klingon canon (which John M. Ford deserves a lot of credit for inspiring), but the thought of Klingon’s engaging in a trading contest seems like it is…without honor. And for a Federation that has supposedly advanced beyond such pedestrian commercial machinations, the plot feels weak, like a caricature of the activities in the episode ‘A Piece of the Action’.  The weakness is further reinforced by the naming conventions used for the planets and the monetary system. The names come across as hokey throwaways that suggest very little time was given to crafting the planetary ecology for the game or that a looming production deadline demanded that the game ship with a minimum viable product. In some ways, the effort vaguely reminds me of Ford’s later 1987 Star Trek novel ‘How Much for Just the Planet?’, with that novel definitely being played for comic effect.

If the game had come just a few years later, this would have been the perfect showcase for the Next Generation’s profit-driven adversaries, the Ferengi, but instead we’re left with the sci-fi equivalent of Macy’s and Wal-Mart engaged in a retail knife fight.  One of the challenges with this Free Enterpri$e is that as a solitaire game, you’ll spend as much time with the mechanism to determine the changes to the local fads as you will actually planning your movement and trading activities. The game left me frustrated and confused. It’s unfortunate as you can see the outline for a fun game here, but at the end of the day, it feels like something that would have been better served as a Merchant Prince adventure for GDW’s Traveller background instead of being shoehorned into the Star Trek setting.

In a way, the model depicting a cycle of rapidly shifting fads on each planet feels like a subversive commentary on the changes that were starting to disrupt the board game hobby in the 1980’s with demand splintering into smaller niches as the gaming culture took off in the 1980’s. The game reflects the same difficulty in translating today’s fads into tomorrow’s trends that would lead to the demise of many a gaming company by the early 90’s. But enough pontificating – let’s get on with our next adventure!

We’re men, we’re men in tights

In our next episode, the crew of the Enterprise are tasked with retrieving an anthropologist who’s fancies himself as ‘the man who would be king’ on a medieval world and has set himself up as the power behind the throne. Of course, he’s also imprisoned the other crew members of the survey vessel who object to his plan. The situation is pitched as analogous to the legend of Robin Hood. Much like in the episode ‘Patterns of Force’, the crew must retrieve the ‘corrupt’ social scientist and try and return the world to its ‘normal’ development all the while complying with the Prime Directive’s requirement to minimize the Federation’s impact on the local civilization’s development. (As an aside, why does Star Trek appear to have such disdain for the social scientists? Marla McGivers? John Gill?  But I digress…)

The game depicts this by requiring the player to engage in a balancing act with the Enterprise crew using their talents and technical abilities to basically foster a home-grown insurgency against the local monarch and his renegade Federation social scientist masquerading as a Rasputin-like advisor. While this is a noble goal for certain, it’s also an entertaining game. It’s not just a Robin Hood game with a Star Trek logo pasted onto it. The game captures the feel of a Star Trek episode as you need to balance your diplomatic efforts at recruiting allies against the logistics to keep your growing counter insurgency forces supplied while at the same time winning the hearts and minds of the population. You can use your high-tech tools like the transporters and even your phasers, but doing so fuels accusations of witchcraft that could cost you the game. You won’t win if you end up being judged by the people as weighing the same as a duck.

In play, you find yourself slowly building a following amongst the locals, dodging the King’s Guards, rescuing prisoners from the prior Federation survey mission all while building up a core of opposition that can peaceably depose the local ruler (and allowing the Enterprise to recover the rogue scientist). Driving the tension in the game, as well as providing a ‘countdown’ is the local king embarking on a quest to legitimize his rule by collecting the acknowledged fealty of the local communities. 

 John M. Ford did a fine job crafting this game. Of the three games, this best captures the feel of an actual Star Trek episode. There is a dynamic blend of personal diplomatic appeals, the ever-present threat of capture, a hint of commentary regarding the social sciences and the occasional opportunity for action and adventure.

It’s a fun game, but if your strip off the veneer of Star Trek what you are left with is a game in which you are basically a high-tech superpower backing an insurgency against the legitimate local government. The transporters – like helicopters of the Vietnam era – allow you to marshal your forces at strategic locations and using your phasers can make tactical raids very successful.  But using these tools come at a steep cost as appearing to be dark magic to the local inhabitants. You’ll have to temper your use of these tools with managing the locals’ distrust and building a local force that can oppose and defeat the local government.

Facing the No Win Scenario

The third game in the box is the most recognizable – the Kobayashi Maru rescue scenario first seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. You likely know the story – The USS Enterprise picks up a distress call from a Federation freighter coming from inside the neutral zone and must rescue the crew, ideally before the Klingons intervene or the freighters life support fails. As laid out in Wrath of Khan, the objective of the test is not for the cadet to outfight or out plan the opponent but rather to force the cadet into a no-win situation and simply observe how he or she reacts. For an exercise that’s designed to be a test of character, it’s tough for a solitaire game to represent that in the victory conditions. So how is character judged by this solitaire game? Short answer is – it’s not, at least not by this version of the game. Instead, victory is defined as successfully rescuing the survivors of the Kobayashi Maru and escaping any Klingon ships that try and intervene (i.e. shoot up the Enterprise).

Douglas Kaufman is credited as lead designer, with support from John M. Ford, Ken Rolston and Greg Costikyan. Doug’s design does a good job of representing three-dimensional space on a 2-d board. There are four ‘levels’ that ships can move between and each level is a grid of squares that the Enterprise and Klingons ships can navigate. Adjacent to the map is a large display of Enterprise systems. It’s no where near as complex as a ship display sheet from Star Fleet Battles, but it captures the key systems of the ship and the crew. Graphically, it does a nice job of providing the player with a sense of the bridge layout and making a connection between the player and the representation of the ship.

Each ‘turn’ you’ll move the Enterprise through the grid and the levels searching for the Kobayashi Maru and along the way encountering Klingon defensive systems and random natural events like asteroids and stellar flares that can damage systems. There are also Klingon ships randomly distributed across the region that you’ll either have to avoid, or potentially fight.

The combat engine is relatively simple, but still engaging and giving a result in keeping with Star Trek canon. The tactical screen is a representation of the main viewer and you’ll maneuver the Enterprise to get the best shot on the targeting grid superimposed on the screen. Of course, the Klingons get a chance to act as well and will either maneuver to get out of the way, or open fire on the Enterprise.

The AI game engine has relatively simple rules, but provides a good simulation of Klingon behavior. This solitaire game allows the player to constantly make decisions that affect the play. It’s not a narrative model like B-17 Queen of the Skies or The Hunters where you constantly consult charts to see the story unfold. The Kobayashi Maru is a good blend of player decisions and ‘bot’ reactions. Overall, the game offered an exciting and engaging experience. (Okay, so playing the soundtrack from Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan did help to set the mood for the game!). The random selection of pieces and ships coupled with the random set up ensure that no two games will every play out exactly the same way.

Of the three games, the Kobayashi Maru comes closest in feel to a classic wargame. You’ll usually end up fighting Klingons to some degree, though it can range from a few minor skirmishes to a desperate forlorn hope.

Science Officer’s Analysis

While packaged together with a Star Trek III theme, the net result is that this feels like three disparate magazine-caliber games corralled into a single box. It’s like ordering what looks like an appealing entrée but getting three tapas dishes instead. It may be filling, but it’s not the meal I was hoping for when I ordered it. Overall, the three games offer an entertaining and stimulating experience. Certainly, Sherwood Syndrome and the Kobayashi Maru are the stars of the set. Free Enterpri$e is worth playing, but it’s not a game I see myself returning to when I feel the need for getting my Star Trek fix.

The nice thing with the game is that these three mini-games do provide a dedicated solitaire play experience that you can’t get with an RPG, Star Fleet Battles or even the newer board games like Star Trek Ascendency. If you can’t round up any one else for a game, you can still have a good Star Trek gaming experience.

Star Trek III is a fascinating example of game design from the mid-1980’s – before the rise of eurogames, card-driven games, and the revolution in printing and layout that would transform the appearance of tabletop games. If you are a collector of board games that capture the history of the hobby, or a Star Trek fan, Star Trek III is worth adding to your collection.

The games offer good examples of the design work done by John M. Ford, Greg Costikyan and Doug Kaufman. It captures the design philosophy present in many of West End Games designs (Free Enterpri$e has more than a touch of Paranoia running through its veins). These games also make you appreciate how for game design theory and production processes have come in the thirty years.

Armchair General Score: 90%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  5

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a Product Owner in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

ST III box cover
KM 1
KM 2
Free Ent map

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