As a Star Trek fan, there’s no better time to be alive than right now (or the 90s). This second renaissance in Star Trek shows has given us plenty to enjoy. Unless you are looking for board games based on the new shows, that is! Since Star Trek: Discovery first aired in 2017, there have been precious few examples of games using elements of the new shows. The only prior one I can think of is one of the boards from Star Trek: Super-Skill Pinball featuring Lower Decks. One of the unfortunate aspects of a good game like Star Trek: Attack Wing or Star Trek: Ascendancy is that ships like the Discovery and the Cerritos or their crews are not included (as yet).
When I saw that WizKids was doing a game based solely on the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I was therefore quite interested. Star Trek: Discovery – Black Alert is the first of its kind as far as I am aware. I’m hopeful it will get things off to a good start. It is a game for 2-4 players, and it takes about 90 minutes to play.
This is a competitive game, with one side taking on the role of the crew of the Discovery, and the other taking on the role of the Terran Empire of the Mirror Universe (if you are unfamiliar with Star Trek lore, this universe would be where Spock with a goatee comes from, because a goatee makes a character 50% more evil, naturally). The two sides have different win conditions: the Discovery is trying to complete a series of missions so that they can return home to their proper universe, while the Terrans are trying to capture the Discovery… for evil maniacal reasons. Each side has also has a secondary win condition which is the same but opposite for both (you might say, they… mirror each other), which is damaging all 5 locations on the opposing ship. Lastly, the game can end in a loss for both sides if the spore network on which the Discovery travels is completely corrupted.
While both sides have different objectives, different actions, and different abilities, there are a few similarities. There are 5 characters for each faction. In a 3 or 4 player game, both sides get to pick two of these characters. Each of these characters have a once per game ability. It does not have a huge impact on the overall game, but can come in handy at a crucial moment, so the decision is important. Both factions also have a deck of Command cards, which are used for various purposes throughout the game, a standee representing their ship’s location, and a set of locations on their ship that their characters (and opponents’) will use to achieve their goals.
You have a limited number of things to do on each of your characters’ turns, so play proceeds quickly. Each turn, you begin by drawing up to 3 Command cards. After this, you can perform any free actions you have available during any of the remaining steps of your turn. Free actions are typically limited to using a Command card or using your character’s special ability. You can play one Command card for its effect during each turn (and your character ability is limited to once per game).
The steps in which you can do your free actions are the Move step, Action step, and Clean Up. Moving is optional. You can move to any location on the ship your standee is currently on, or if both ships are on the same space on the board, you may move to any location on either ship. During your Action step, you can either use the action on the location you are in, repair that location if it has damage and you have enough resources to do so, or return to any location on your home ship (regardless of the ships’ positions). Lastly, in the Cleanup step, depending on what cards were played, the spore network may be further corrupted, and it is checked in this step. Play then passes to the next character.
The basic rules are quick to explain, but there ends up being a lot going on at times. Your goals are simple, but completing them is a multistep process. Seeing what you need to do in the right order can be a bit opaque at first. The ships are moving around a hex grid with paths connecting different “nodes” (i.e., systems) on the spore network. Discovery is able to move more quickly, but must follow the paths of the network, which makes navigating somewhat difficult. The Terran flagship, the I.S.S. Charon, and the lesser members of the Terran fleet hunting the Discovery, are not restricted to the spore network’s paths, but only move one hex at a time (usually). Your location matters, as certain Starfleet missions will require being on specific nodes, and every node has different resources available. Resources can be used to enhance your actions, and are even needed for some cards. Each side is going to want them.
This adds up to needing to maneuver your way around to board to either engage or avoid the enemy, while collecting resources that you need to complete your missions and infiltrations for Discovery and the Terrans, respectively. Resources can be a big boost on your normal actions (for example, Discovery’s cargo hold allows you to collect the resource at your current node, but if you have a Tritanium resource to spend, you can collect 3 of that resource instead). It is easy to forget about them and tunnel vision on your current objective, or escaping your foe, but they tend to be worth taking the time to fit into your team’s plan.
The biggest piece to everything that you do throughout the game is ultimately the Command cards. Command cards can be used for their free actions, which are generally powerful and can circumvent your opponents’ expectations. However, that is not all they are used for. Each card has a number on them, called Resolve. At first glance, this looks like a cost in most games, but it is misleading. This value is used to pay costs for other things, not the card itself. Completing missions will often require paying Resolve; repairing a location can require it as well. And so on. Whenever you are instructed to pay Resolve, you discard a card or cards from hand equalling or exceeding the amount you are told to pay. Change is not given if you pay more!
Similarly, the Resolve on Command cards is used for Challenges, which are involved whenever the two sides come into direct conflict (either combat or otherwise). Challenges are described as a “bidding” process, which is somewhat apt. Each side has an opportunity to play Command cards facedown for each character. They are then flipped face up, and a card from the top of each Command deck is added, with the total Resolve added together to determine the winner of the challenge. Some Command cards do have bonus effects when played as bids, so holding such cards in your hand for the right challenge can be impactful.
The other piece of this gameplay puzzle is the ability to get onto your opponent’s ship. It creates an additional degree of interaction, as your opponent has unique actions on their side of your location. This can be a good way to try to sabotage the enemy ship and slow them down, or even work towards the alternate win condition of crippling the enemy ship. However, characters can be captured and sent to the Brig, which earns them a trip back to their own ship on their next turn (at the cost of their Action step).
There is a lot to Star Trek: Discovery – Black Alert, and it took a while to understand and see the different strategies to pursue. That’s both a blessing and a curse. It does have the depth that you want to see to keep a game interesting, but getting there is a learning curve that can be a struggle to get through. There are a lot of good ideas in the game, but everything going on at times gets in the way and can make it a bit confusing until there’s a good amount of familiarity with the game. The rulebook doesn’t necessarily help with this, as it can sometimes be a challenge to figure out where information is, as the organization doesn’t always put rules where you might expect. Rulebooks are hard to write, so it’s not unusual, but I would have liked it to be a bit better.
All that said, I think the gameplay works, even if it could be a bit simpler. Once you’re a little more aware of how everything works, you have a little more direction in what you’re doing. Moving around the hex board, avoiding or engaging the enemy, gathering resources, and trying to manage the actions you have available based on location is interesting. The Challenge mechanic is I think often a place where games fall a little short or make things too convoluted (the challenges/combat in Star Trek: Away Missions comes to mind), but once you’ve seen it in action here, it feels good. There’s a degree of randomness with adding the top card of each Command deck to each side’s total but that’s small enough to be a benefit rather than a detraction. There’s a certain skill in the bidding, as it opens up the potential for bluffing with a bunch of low Resolve cards, or even a single really high Resolve card.
Something that isn’t unclear and the game really delivers on is the theme. There’s a lot of attention to the source material. As a fan of Star Trek: Discovery, there haven’t really been any opportunities to see a game based on it or the other newer shows yet, so I was a little concerned that the theme might be a little slapped on. That trepidation ended up being unfounded, however, as focusing specifically on the Mirror Universe arc of Discovery’s first season really helped focus the theme and make it work. Discovery is outnumbered by the Terrans, but have their Starfleet ingenuity, so have a chance of making it home before they are overcome. It feels right in this regard.
Final Score: 3 Stars – A welcome, but slightly convoluted take on Star Trek: Discovery that rewards you for taking the time for sticking with it and figuring out the strategies.
• Good to see a game based on Discovery, and the theme is accurate.
• The Challenge system is skill-based with some room for a small bit of luck to play a role.
• The divergent play styles of the two factions is interesting.
• The path and strategy to achieving your goals is not clear until you’ve put some time into it.
• The rulebook could use better organization and clarity.
• With everything going on, it is possible to get a little overwhelmed with your options.