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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

STAR TREK: FRONTIERS and STAR TREK PANIC!: THE BENEFITS AND PERILS OF RE-THEMING

by | published Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In the last two months two companies have released re-themed versions of best-selling games which were originally set in fantasy worlds but are now set in the Star Trek universe. WizKids brought in Andrew Parks (himself a designer of excellent games like Core Worlds and Ideology: The War of Ideas) to translate Vlaada Chvátil’s modern classic Mage Knight. Meanwhile, Justin De Witt revisited his own Castle Panic Design for fireside games.

From a business point of view, the idea is a no-brainer: Star Trek, duh. From a gaming and game design perspective, however, re-theming is a risky business. You want to change enough to entice owners of the original game to buy the new version (otherwise what’s the point? I’m looking at you, Horse-opoly). You also have the opportunity to streamline and improve elements of the old game which now seem dated or clunky or just plain bad.

On the other hand, change too much of the original design, and you might ruin what was, after all, a good game. The game could become unbalanced. Or the new theme just doesn’t fit the original design. Or you’ll be accused of cashing in not only on the shiny new IP but also the brand-name awareness of the old design (see: One Night Revolution).

Add to that in this case the potential wrath of Khan the Trekker fan base when they feel their canon is being messed with, and you can see what a delicate balancing act retheming can be.

In De Witt’s case, Castle Panic had come out in 2009 to quite a bit of acclaim as a design that attracted both casual and more hard-core gamers. Its theme was tower (um, castle) defence. The hexagonal tower sat in the centre of the board surrounded by three concentric rings split into six sectors, which made sense since monsters spawned and moved toward the castle according to the roll of a d6. Players fought off waves of beasties and tried to keep even a sliver of their hex-castle standing until the bag of baddies ran out. It could be played both cooperatively, competitively, or one-against many. The rules were well-written, the game was extremely well-balanced, there was a ton of replayability, and the graphic design and layout drew players in.

Castle Panic was successful enough to spawn two expansions. In 2013 fireside released Dead Panic, in which De Witt transplanted the action to a shack surrounded by zombies. He also added some interesting mechanics whereby players could leave the shack to scrounge for supplies and, ultimately, find a van that would help them escape.

Dead Panic did not fare as well as its predecessor with gamers. There were (and are) many other zombie games out there, and a hexagonal-shaped shack just didn’t feel or look right. Plus, gamers who had enjoyed Castle Panic with their kids were probably less likely to buy a similar game with scarier artwork (including the box cover) and guns. (Yes, hypocrisy, I know.) It was a textbook example of a retheming which made sense on paper (or a business spreadsheet) but which didn’t work that well in real life.

And now Star Trek Panic! Aside from adding an exclamation mark, what else did De Witt change, and how successful has the transplant been this time? Just enough, and quite good, in my opinion.

st4The board and basic mechanics remain the same; bad guys appear and head toward the Enterprise on a six-sector board. But—no, thank god—the Enterprise is not hexagonal. Instead, someone at fireside or USAopoly went to the trouble of designing a pretty awesome-looking cardboard replica that you assemble and place in the middle of the board. And when the Enterprise takes damage, or is partially destroyed, you place these awesome-looking tokens on it so it looks JUST LIKE THE MOVIES. It is a Trekker’s delight, in my opinion. The cards and artwork are similarly well-done and easy to use, in my opinion. So from a graphic design outlook, excellent work.

In terms of game design, De Witt added a couple of nice Trek-themed changes (for instance: some enemy ships can cloak, making them impossible to shoot; Tholians can immobilize the Enterprise, etc).

But if those were the only changes De Witt had made, Star Trek Panic! would be a pretty weak remake. Instead, he went further and added three new main mechanics: (1) individual player powers; (2) the Enterprise can move; (3) missions. Each one blends seamlessly with the original mechanics, and add hugely to the theme of the game. Players now represent specific Enterprise crew members with special abilities. Next, instead of being a sitting duck, the Enterprise can be turned and moved by the players on their turns, which adds a whole new layer of strategy in terms of facing both offensively or defensively. For instance, if your rear shields have been blown away, you can turn to face those Klingons chasing you. Or if you only have short-range forward-phaser cards, you can accelerate to move those Romulans into range to blast them away. The whole thing is done very simply and elegantly in the rules, so the additional burden on the old brainpan is minimized.

Finally, what would a game about the Enterprise be without missions? (Answer: it would be a sucky game.) So instead of merely surviving, the crew must accomplish a certain number of missions to win the game AND THEN survive the remaining onslaught of baddies. There are enough missions included in the game to ensure replayability, running the usual gamut of rescue, combat, and discovery. Almost all involve spending precious time and resources which you’d probably rather spend keeping the Enterprise afloat. But no one said being a Federation commander was easy.

I believe Star Trek Panic! is an example of a successful retheming, one that will please Trekkers as well as gamers—even those who own one of the earlier games in the Panic series.

* * *

Andrew Parks had a harder job translating Mage Knight into a Star Trek setting. The original design had established itself since its release in 2011 as one of the most popular games in the hobby (it currently sits at #10 on BoardgameGeek’s list). It has spawned three official expansions as well as a wealth of fanmade content. This despite a rulebook (actually two separate walkthrough and “Full” rulebooks) that doubled playing time while players hunted for rules and argued about how to interpret them (there are currently over 1500 separate rules threads on the BGG forum).

Mage Knight is a game of many moving parts, very much a “brain-burner” with an almost puzzle-like feel. Each player takes the role of stfimmensely powerful (and amoral) wizard-fighters who roam the landscape laying waste to orcs, wizard towers, keeps, dragons, and cities alike. Players begin with separate decks made up of 16 action cards, and each card can be played in one of three ways, so there are many, many choices to make every turn. The starting decks are identical except for one card, so there is not much differentiation between characters. As the game progresses they make their decks more powerful (and different from each other) by adding stronger actions, spells and artifacts. These new cards are gained when players level up, investigate ruins, slay monsters, and so on. Mage knights also get to acquire hirelings along the way using “Diplomacy”, which helps absorb damage as well as offer even more choices along the way to victory.

Although you usually don’t know what monster you are up against until you start fighting (most of them start face-down on the modular map), once turned over combat is completely deterministic. Literally nothing is left to chance. You play cards which first try to take the critter out from afar, then play cards to block their attack, and then finally you better have cards left to take them down, or else the whole thing is a waste and you end up with damage cards in your hand and deck—which you definitely don’t want.

Like Castle Panic, Mage Knight can also be played cooperatively or competitively. There are many scenarios included in the base game, and most of them end after a certain number of rounds (passes through the player deck) or when a City is conquered. Cities are the boss monsters of Mage Knight and are very hard to beat even at low levels of difficulty—and get insanely hard to beat at higher levels. I have played cooperative scenarios which lasted ten hours, and there is no let-up or downtime because you are constantly trying to optimize your own and your allies’ play.

As you can probably tell, Mage Knight is a much heavier game than Castle Panic. It really appeals to strategic thinkers who like to plan things out, and is awesome for solo play—but quite a few people criticize it because it turns what should be a dramatic and active narrative (lay waste the village! smite the dragon! bring the city walls crashing down!) and turn it into a much drier experience…

…which, coincidentally, is a criticism often levelled at the Star Trek franchise (not so much the original series as TNG, DS9, and the Abrams reboots). Which in turn is what may have led someone to the idea of taking Mage Knight and Trekkifying it.

Parks is no stranger to the Trek universe, having designed Star Trek: Attack Wing, which may be one of the reasons why he was asked to take on the job. Still, adapting a game as complex and delicately balanced as Mage Knight is no easy thing, and the safest approach would be to do a one-to-one mapping of each element from fantasy to science fiction.

This, in fact, is what Parks has done to a large extent. Instead of Mage Knights, players are either Federation or Klingon commanders. Mana dice, tokens and crystals have become “data”. Orcs, villages, stand ruins have become Romulan warbirds, outposts, and Class H planets. Monsters which were poisonous are now aliens using “biogenic weapons”; others which were classed as ‘brutal’ (dealing double damage to unblocked attacks) are now antimatter-wielding baddies. Spell cards are now “Unknown” cards. The names have changed, but most of the rules and mechanics have remained largely the same. The one place where this doesn’t quite gel is that the ginormous Cities of Mage Knight have become…Borg Cubes. Huge, stationary Borg Cubes (well done on the figs, btw, Wizkids). Now correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t the Borg all about racing around the universe assimilating everything and everyone? It just feels wrong to have them sitting motionless in space. Maybe a future expansion will take care of that; in the meantime, they just SIT there…creeping me out.

Parks has made some changes that are not direct translations. In Mage Knight rounds alternated between Day and Night, with different terrain and spell effects; Star Trek: Frontiers operates in the eternal night of space. Movement and combat rules and procedures have been simplified. Artifacts have been eliminated completely. The overall effect is generally to simplify and streamline play, which is all to the good.

The biggest change has been to add an Away Team mechanic which allows players to send their captains and crew down to the surfaces of certain planets to complete missions, which can be completed by Diplomacy as well as by combat.

Overall though, as you can see, anyone who comes to Star Trek: Frontiers having played Mage Knight will not have too much to learn or adapt to—which, considering the heft of the ruleset involved, is not a bad thing. However, despite Parks going on record that a month was spent proofing the rules, opportunities were lost in updating the rules to incorporate all those clarifications and rulings from Mage Knight. Plus they kept the two-rulebook format with all its pitfalls, instead of adopting an approach like the old Avalon Hill “programmed instruction” rulebooks which taught rules gradually while keeping everything in one rulebook. Newcomers will still have a lot to grapple with as they struggle up the learning curve—which could have been avoided, I believe.

The question really is whether the transplant of theme from Mage Knight universe to Star Trek is successful, and I believe the answer is “yes, but”. Yes, the mechanics of the original game do actually mesh very well with life aboard a starship/warbird. Yes, the thinkiness of the game really does feel like sitting in the Captain’s chair with all its decision-making options. But, and this is a major “but”, the implied amorality of the choices you get to make, AS WRITTEN, feels wrong if you’re playing Picard or Sisko (not so much if you’re playing one of the Klingons). Picard would not subjugate an outpost or decimate a planet! (Evil Picard with a goatee…ok. Sisko…maybe. But NOT Picard.) “Subjugation” and “decimation” are terms left over from Mage Knight that, with a tiny bit of imagination, could have been reinterpreted while keeping the actual rules intact. (Maybe they just piss everyone on the planet off with their goody-goody Federation act, throw their weight around a little…so the native give them stuff just to get them off-planet.)

There is also the issue of data-as-mana which has no referent in the Star Trek canon, as far as I know. No one ever talks about “command data crystals”. Again, a minimum of effort and imagination could have reimagined mana crystals as, oh I don’t know, anonymous crew members with no speaking lines. So “red data tokens” are the redshirts who die at the beginning of the episode, and “blue data crystals” are medical staff you always see in the background through a whole season…seriously, I thought of that just now, I think I’m going to post it on BGG…

* * *

To sum up: (a) retheming a game well is hard; (b) Star Trek Panic! is a lighter game, so it has an easier job of it, and does it very well; (c) Star Trek: Frontiers does not succeed quite as much, but still provides a very satisfying gaming experience.


One thought on “STAR TREK: FRONTIERS and STAR TREK PANIC!: THE BENEFITS AND PERILS OF RE-THEMING

  1. […] mechanics and slapped on new paint with enjoyable results. I wrote about Star Trek: Panic! back in July, and still feel it freshens the tower defence genre enough for all players, not just Trekkers. […]

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