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Hindsight: First Contact

by Charlie Plaine, Chairman

20th March 2014

Welcome to Hindsight, my weekly series where I take a look back at previous expansions for the Star Trek: Customizable Card Games with a fresh eye. My goal is to examine the decisions made in each of these expansions using modern eyes and design sensibilities in order to learn from those decisions. As mentioned in the announcement article, this is not an attempt to create a new game. Instead, I’m looking to better understand the game and how it can be improved in the modern era by studying its history.

Borg Queen

The original license for Star Trek allowed Decipher to make a game based on just Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that property was all they had originally intended to explore. But as the game grew in popularity, the company was able to renegotiate their agreement and would eventually come to make cards for all of the properties. They would choose to start with First Contact, and would introduce the Borg - for better or worse, the game would never be the same again.

First Contact (First Edition)
Released in December 1997
130 Cards (40 Common, 40 Uncommon, 50 Rare)

Card Types Introduced

Mechanics Introduced
Downloading, Probing, Quadrant Icons, Staffing Icons (New)

Affiliations Introduced

Lessons Learned
1. Keep everyone playing the same game.
At the time of First Contact (the movie), the Borg were a terrifying and nearly unstoppable enemy of the Federation, and made a great choice for the first "new" affiliation to be added to the First Edition universe. With their introduction in First Contact (the expansion), they brought a lot of new and complex ideas to the game. Aside from the obivous addition of a new template, the Borg made liberal use of the expansion's new mechanics of downloading and new staffing icons. The Borg had the ability to share skills and attributes and assemble truly powerful crews and Away Teams. Had the designers stopped there, the Borg would have had a great introduction to the game and this would probably be down below under the "Good Stuff." However, for whatever reason, the designers did not stop with this mechanical seperation and pushed it further, giving Borg what amounts to an entirely different way of playing the game. I feel this is one of the biggest mistakes in the history of First Edition, and it is something the game designers have struggled with ever since.

For those that might not know, the Borg do not attempt missions; instead they target a location with an objective, and then "scout" the mission by facing dilemmas. Once the scouting process is complete (i.e. dilemmas are cleared out), they can complete the objective and move further along towards victory. In short, Borg do what everyone else does (mostly), but with different enough mechanics that many dilemmas just fail to work on the Borg. To paraphrase one of my favorite books, Borg scouting attempts are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike mission attempts. These differences, while very flavorful, create a massive shadow that has colored every expansion developed since First Contact, and will continue to color every expansion yet to come. 

I can not tell you how many ideas we've had to alter, or outright kill in design, because of how differently the Borg work from every other affiliation in the game. A simple card like Dead End is only partially effective aginst the Borg; cards like Invasive Procedures are trivially effective against the Borg, and they entirely ignore cards like Matriarchial Society. And this is the real problem with the Borg: there are very few dilemmas players can use that have any overlap in effectiveness between Borg players and non-Borg players. Most of the other issues with Borg are issues that can be dealt with by design in the game, but this fundamental misalignment in how they play is, in this designer's opinion, a huge misstep for design. It is important for design to respect flavor, and to find ways to make affiliations play differently from one another, but in a way that keeps all the players on the same playing field. 

2. Don't be different for the sake of being different.
First Contact was the first expansion to introduce (on a broad scale) new versions of characters that were the exact same persona of their existing versions. While it's true that Lt. (j.g.) Picard was a card representing Picard, it wasn't a new Picard; not in the same sense of Jean-Luc Picard from First Contact. This was new ground for the designers, and they were right to want a way to make these new versions be different from the existing versions in Premiere. Different as good, as long as it is organic and natural; different for the sake of being different is a problem, and I believe it's one that occured here, specifically with regards to the Enterprise-E [E-E] staffing icon.

Jean-Luc Picard (First Contact)

Looking back, it seems like the [E-E] icon was used as a way to "weaken" the new versions of the crew as compared to their original versions. After all, the new special download icon and downloading gave these cards quite a bit of power. Even though First Contact's Picard has fewer skills, I believe that if he had had a [Cmd] icon, FC Picard would be "strictly better" than Premiere Picard. Thus, the creation of a staffing icon that would make him harder to use in many decks because it could not be used on "normal" ships.

I look at the [E-E] icon as a prototype of the "era" icons that would appear later; for that reason, I'm glad they introduced it here as an experiment. It's important for designers to experiment and take risks; one could argue that not taking risks is the greatest risk of all. It is important for designers to offer choices for players, and making new versions of cards is a great way to do that. Unfortunately, I think that these versions of the "mains" were very, very narrow cards - only useable in one deck - and that hasn't been changed by the efforts made recently to support them.

Honorable Mentions

Don't put affiliation flavor in the rules, put it on the cards. - I think it's great flavor for the Borg to ignore gender related dilemmas; after all, the Borg don't care about gender (with perhaps the exception of the Borg Queen). But I think it was a mistake to make this part of the rules instead of being on a card. Imagine if there was a card "Gender is Irrelevant" that nullified any gender-related dilemma (instead of it being a rule). This would capture the same feel, and allow Borg players to make using the card a choice. It would simultainously level the playing field somewhat by giving the Borg an extra point of failure, i.e. having an interrupt that can be prevented. I expect that any such future affiliation flavor/mechanical development will be card based and not rules based.

Good Stuff

1. Downloading.
I think that downloading was a very clever idea that First Edition designers introduced in order to add both interesting mechanics to the game and interesting flavor, while speeding up the game play. The most appealing feature of downloading was the ability for players to stock situational and/or narrow use cards in their decks (or their Q's Tent), and access them when needed. While some would argue this is bad for the game, it opened up a lot of options for game play. The risk with downloading is when it escalates both in power and in frequency; but this is a discussion for later.

2. The Borg
As much as I personally hate the Borg in First Edition, and as much as I feel as if their implementation is detrimental to the game, they are excellently implemented. Their template is cool, and different enough from the existing templates to feel strange; their mechanics are powerful and flavorful, feeling like a hybrid of a game and a program. I think that if they had just been a little more in line with normal game play, and if more of their mechanics had been on cards instead of rules, they would be perfect.

Expansion Stories
Here's a great story from Scott Baughman [Neelix] about how, as he put it, he "knew ... the CCG world had changed forever":

It was December of 1997 and I had taken a trip to Colorado (from my native South Carolina) to spend Christmas with my aunt and uncle. As a sophomore in college, part of my Christmas gifts that year included a lot of cash to spend on whatever I wanted or needed for school. In those days, I was one of the few people at my college in upstate S.C. that knew how to play a card game other than Magic: The Gathering. I was busily teaching people how to play 1E (Star Trek:TNG:CCG at the time!) and hosting the odd tournament in our student center. So what did I need for school? Why, more Star Trek cards, of course! Bopping around in Boulder, CO in December, though, ST:TNG:CCG was the last thing on my mind over Christmas break. Imagine my surprise when I found a box of Q Continuum cards collecting dust on the shelf of a local Baseball Card store all the way out there! And then, behind it -- a black box of ST cards? What was going on? I inquired of the shop owner and he said, "Oh yeah, it's like the Borg set or something?"

"I'll take it."
"How many packs, son?"
"The whole box, please."
"The whole thing, I'll take it. I'll pay cash."

One large sum of cash and one shocked Baseball Card store owner later, I was tearing into booster packs at my aunt and uncle's house. I even taught my uncle how to play ST:TNG:CCG -- no, wait, now it's just ST:CCG! - that very night, so I would have someone to practice the Borg on. I got almost the entire "new" bridge crew in that set and memorized the new rules for their weird "Enterprise-E" icon! It was a lot of fun and teaching people about how to play as the Borg after I got back to college was great. But the best part was...the game was expanding beyond ST:TNG! That meant we might see Deep Space Nine cards soon (and we did) and most of all -- I might someday get to have Kirk and Picard work together! And First Contact heralded the future where all (well, ALMOST all) of Star Trek would be introduced into the card game. Heck, we even had a few cards based on video games (Star Trek: Armada) in that future. Here's to those glorious days...and the great days that lie ahead for the Trek CC!

And a story about a Borg surprise from community member IBurgleHam:

Back in the days before internet was everywhere, I discovered the First Contact set before my friend whom I played with. I was able to buy enough to make a Borg deck before we had planned on playing and I decided to just use it without telling him. It was one of my favorite memories playing trek: seeing him lose it when it became apparent. One of those "christmas morning as a kid feelings" that are hard to replicate the older you get.

Also: it was the first time I pulled an Enterprise fresh from a booster pack, and being the E made it even sweeter.

Hence making it one of my favorite sets.

And yet one more, from community member adf8:

Before First Contact, I was only aware of two people in my little farming town in central NY that played Trek - my brother and I. There was such a delay in between QC and FC (what happened to HA?!?), but when it finally came out, my brother and I promptly headed to the local card shop and bought a box. We pulled the entire Enterprise bridge crew but no Enterprise-E. I was so excited about the new set that I told a few of my friends about it at school and come to find out they used to play, but had given up when QC came out. Now that our playgroup just doubled in size, we went back to the card shop to buy another box so that we could all play. We divided the packs up, 50% for my brother and myself and 50% for my two friends. It was down to the last pack and still no Enterprise-E...I opened our last pack and...Magic Carpet Ride OCD...my friends last pack...Enterprise-E! Damn. And they wouldn't trade.

Thank you all for the stories! I had stopped playing First Edition by this time, so I can only imagine how exciting finding this brand new expansion was for players. If you'd like to share a story about any of the expansions we'll be looking at, you can do so via email (cplaine@gmail.com) or private message (to MidnightLich). I'm looking for players to share stories or memories tied into the release (or nearly after) of specific expansions, including stories about finding and opening product and stories about games played in release tournaments. 

For better or for worse, the Borg made a lasting impression on the game with their debut in First Contact. And as much as I personally loathe them, it's my job as a designer to set aside my bias and do what's best for the game. The Borg are here to stay, and our First Edition design teams need to make sure that we understand and can appreciate the Borg in order to continue supporting them in the game. That isn't to say that we need to repeat the mistakes of the past, and can't find ways to level the playing field between the Borg and the rest of the affiliations. Instead, we must innovate and expand how this affiliation, like all the affiliations, feels and plays in the game.

The Borg are an affiliation that divides the community, and they have as many loyal fans as they do vehement haters. I expect that many of the opinions and reflections outlined here will be controvercial, and I'm eager to hear your opinions and your own thoughts about the Borg and their impact on First Edition. Please join the discussion on the forums and let us know what you think about the Borg and their debut in First Contact.

In the next edition of Hindsight, we'll flip back over to Second Edition and take a look at two (2) smaller expansions that were part of the height of Second Edition during the Decipher era: Fractured Time  and Reflections 2.0. These two expansions would shake up game play more than any previous expansion had been able to do, and we'll find out what lessons there are to be learned. Thanks for reading.

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