Why am I writing this?
I gave some people at work a demo. Now I want to expand their horizons with the gameplay and deckbuilding possibilities. There is some beginner material on trekcc.org but it is hard to find, and has a lot of content related to things other than Excelsior. Unfortunately, the herculean effort that went into the recent affiliation spotlight series update happened before the Excelsior card pool was finalised.
1. Rules vs. Cards
If you've played a game, you already know the win condition built into the rules (solve one space mission, solve one planet mission, score 100 points). It's not sufficient just to understand the rules though. The game is designed to be played between 2 decks made up of cards drawn from a larger card pool. Each player you meet could have a different deck.
The game will make far more sense, will be more fun, and you'll actually stand a chance of winning if you understand the patterns in that card pool and have some idea of what to expect from a game and your opponent's deck.
2. Standard Parameters
If you don't know the cards well yet, you'll just have to take my word for it, but the card designers have restricted themselves (for the most part) such that the average 2e game looks something like this:
- Most missions are 30-35 points, so you'll need to solve 3 in a game.
- Most missions require an attribute total of 32-35, and most personnel have values of 5-6 for each attribute. You'll therefore need around 6 people (e.g. 6 personnel with 6 cunning = 36 cunning total) to solve each mission.
- Your +- 6 people will need the right skills.
- Dilemmas will stop/kill some of your personnel, so you'll attempt with a few more personnel than you need.
- Your opponent will therefore draw 6-9 dilemmas and choose to play some combination of them that add up to 6-9 cost.
- You won't draw every card in every game, the cards you bring need to have a good chance of reaching the goal with an average draw.
- Full win conditions will take you 2/3 attempts per mission after a few turns of playing and drawing before attempting. Let's say +- 12 turns per game then.
- You can't use personnel for more than one attempt in a turn, unless the attempt solves the mission.
- In a 50 minute Excelsior game, you have 25 minutes for your turns, your opponent has 25 minutes for hers (30/30=60 for non-Excelsior games).
BREAK TEH GAME TO WIN
There are a few ways to read the rest of this article:
- Stop reading here if the list above is enough hint and you want the fun of exploring for yourself. Just look through the card pool and find cards that break the rules above, then try build something around them. I don't recommend this if you're new to the game.
- Just read the headings and have fun searching through the pool for the cards that match the ideas. I do recommend checking out the last section with example decks at the very least.
- If you want some hints about which cards do what, read it all! This is especially recommended for beginners. Note that these are just intended to get you thinking, they're by no means exhaustive.
I struggled with the heading for this section. It's not really breaking the game, it's really about changing the standard patterns to your advantage.
3.1 Solve fewer missions
We have to solve two missions (one planet, one space), but we don't have to solve 3. Avoid 1/3 of the dilemmas by only solving two missions. Some missions like Brute Force or Sha Ka Ree have higher point values. Read the text carefully though, there is always some catch that makes a higher value mission harder to solve.
It is impossible to get to 100 points purely with two missions. You need some other way of scoring points to make up what you missed. Each affiliation has its own way to do this, and there is usually lots of treksense (the name given to how much the game "feels" like an episode of Star Trek) built into these bonus point engines.
The Federation have Guinan and the various versions of the U.S.S. Enterprise. U.S.S. Enterprise-D, Diplomatic Envoy gives you extra points when you solve your missions and the ship's commander is on board. The Romulans have Getting Under Your Skin, which (in a sense) turns your opponent's deck against them by giving you points. Klingons have A Chance for Glory that gives them points for battle.
There are also options that aren't affiliation specific, like Mission Accomplished which gives points for mission solving with any ship and its matching commander. Traditionally, when a gameplay mechanic is represented in a way that isn't tied to a specific affiliation, it is less powerful than the more specific cards that do the same thing. Also, note that even when a card doesn't prevent an affiliation from using it, some affiliations may still make better use of it than others. In the Excelsior card pool, the USS Enterprise-D has 3 matching commanders, more than any other ship in the card pool, giving the Federation a bigger chance of successfully using Mission Accomplished.
It's important to maintain perspective: having bonus points means you need fewer mission attempts, but you can't avoid solving missions entirely. Your means of gaining bonus points must be at least as effective as mission solving for the same number of turns/time.
3.2 Solve easier missions
The Excelsior format has removed the easiest missions in the larger card pool (missions with attribute total < 30). However, you can still make life easier on yourself by going closer to the low end of attribute requirements and choosing missions with overlapping skill requirements.
Pay attention to the patterns of which skills which best represented by each affiliation: leadership, honour, security for brave Klingons (also higher strength than the other races, so choose strength missions for them). Treachery and intelligence for sneaky Romulans. The Federation are all-rounders but in particular their skills trend towards "good guy" skills like diplomacy and science/engineering problem solving.
Again, these are averages. YOUR Klingon deck may be full of Treachery personnel, because there are different sub-groups within each affiliation.
3.3 Bring more personnel
If you could play more personnel faster, you could:
- Have sufficient attributes for solving in play sooner (break expectations around # of turns before attempting)
- Make larger attempts with more backup for attrition
- Worry less about kills
- (if you really have a lot) Make more than one mission attempt in a turn (break the "definition" of a turn)
The classic weenie chord is the cadet personnel that have no skills until they're facing dilemmas or attempting Practice Orbital Maneuvers. POM's requirement of 3 cadets may be too strict for it to work in Excelsior, because a few other cadet characters are missing from the card pool. Still - worth investigating.
Every affiliation has their well-known cheap personnel, such as Kahmis whose skills match really well with certain missions (exercise left to the reader) or the Romulan stooges: Relam, Mareth, Taul, and Takket.
An alternative to just using cheap personnel is to gain some sort of counter advantage. The Federation have Common Ground which can be used to bring in a really expensive personnel like Data, Proud Father or Reginald Barclay, Exceeding Limits faster than if you paid their full counter value. Surprise Party can be used in basically every deck, and pays for itself in two turns.
Two factors are worth bearing in mind when considering playing lots of personnel. The first is that there are really strong dilemmas that hurt weenies disproportionately, like Pitching In, In Development and Dragon's Teeth. The second is that big (> 9 personnel) attempts get punished by dilemmas like Fractured Time. Better to use multiple smaller attempts than one big attempt, unless you really know what you're doing.
3.4 Bring better personnel
An alternative to playing lots of personnel is to bring fewer, better personnel. Attempting with fewer personnel gives your opponent fewer dilemmas to draw and play. Recall that we said missions needed +- 6 people to solve. With the right personnel, 5 or even 4-person solves may be possible. Check out the attributes on Data, Proud Father and Reginald Barclay, Exceeding Limits for some possibilities.
This is a double-edged sword. If you attempt with the exact four personnel you need to solve, one stop is enough to derail your entire attempt. Further, if your opponent can kill one of them, the damage done is greater than if a one-cost personnel was killed. The kill dilemmas in the Excelsior 1.0 card pool do look like they will be popular. On the other hand, kill dilemmas cost more than just stops, and you're reducing your opponent's ability to pay for dilemmas.
3.5 Make your personnel better
Some cards modify others so that the rules don't apply to the modified cards. Any card that modifies personnel attributes is worth investigating. For Federation, see Beverly Crusher, Encouraging Commander or Boothby, and for Klingons see No Peace in Our time with I.K.S. Vorn, Ship of Traitors.
3.6 Dilemma choke
Dilemma choke is the idea of reducing the number of dilemmas that your opponent can play against you. It exists in many forms in the complete card pool, but many (most?) of them have received errata for being overpowered. In Excelsior, the sole representative is Spirit of Kahless which requires you to go to the effort of battling. Battle requires a big investment (see more info below) so it is good that this exists as a reward.
3.7 Prevent stops and kills
You and your opponent may have the same opportunity to hinder your mission attempt with dilemmas, but you can build your deck so that the consequences of those dilemmas are reduced. For instance, some cards prevent stops or kills. Check out Ruwon, Hindering Analyst, Katrina, Hindering Analyst or Gowron, Sole Leader of the Empire. In the current Excelsior pool, dilemmas that kill personnel seem to be more popular, to the extent that preventing stops may not be powerful at all. Kill prevention seems very strong. Generic kill prevention available to all affiliations exists in the form of Escape and Emergency Transport Unit.
3.8 Avoid randomness - Draw more cards
Card draw is really easy in this game - pay 1 counter to draw 1 card - but sometimes you want to draw more. If you have a larger deck (perhaps because of lots of support cards) you want to see more of your deck than a normal player has access to; if you use all your counters to play lots of small personnel you will want a way of refilling your hand. Examples here include: Miracle Working, which works for everyone willing to play with a ship with four staffing icons. The Federation have also have Mutual Advantage and New Life. A few other ways of drawing more cards exist, but the benefit must always be weighed against being able to pay 1 to draw 1.
4. Break your opponent's cards
You don't always have to outspeed your opponent, you can also slow them down. Romulans have an advantage here, the Klingons come in second. The Federation do not have any tools of their own for this, although they can benefit from the generic tools. Again, we have to consider that the time you spend here vs solving your own missions.
4.1 Draw/play more dilemmas
The central form of interaction in the game is with dilemmas. Your dilemmas prevent mission solves, and if you can do that the entire game, your opponent can't win (obvious, right?).
Hopefully your dilemma pile is as good as your opponent's. This is probably the hardest part of 2e deckbuilding. My suggestion would be to start by copying a dilemma pile from someone else's deck and improving it slowly to match your tastes. In the complete card pool, hundreds of different combinations have been tried over 15 years and dilemma piles end up looking very similar. The Excelsior pool is new, so dilemma piles will probably have a fair amount of variation.
Dilemmas become less powerful over the course of the game as you place more overcome dilemmas under your opponent's missions. However, you can bend the rules in your favor. Delirium allows your to draw and spend more on dilemmas at some mission. More subtle, but still powerful are Unexpected Difficulties and Alvera Tree Ritual. These fit in almost every deck and let you beat some of the effects of random dilemma draws. AVT can be used offensively if you're aware of what dilemmas you have in your pile and able to track which ones you've seen already and which you have placed on the bottom of your deck.
Romulans have Shinzon who decreases the cost of planet and space dilemmas at the mission he is at. If you can get him into play reliably, you can stock a higher percentage of higher cost (nastier) dilemmas that (on average) you wouldn't normally be able to play. Look at Escaping Detection for a way to keep him "at" all your opponent's missions at once. There's no such thing as a free lunch: you will have to decide whether you want to use the most powerful dual dilemmas at full cost, or use only planet or space dilemmas, with the risk that some of your draws will give you space dilemmas only when your opponent is attempting planet, and vice versa.
4.2 Dilemma Synergy
Some dilemmas become stronger with other cards. Unfair Comparison is good when you have high cost dilemmas in your pile. Chula: the Game gives extra stops for dilemmas that have the word "Chula" in the title. A Chula pile wants to have Chula: the Game out early. You can stock Uninvited in your draw deck to achieve this.
Other dilemmas that are modified by game state include Unsound Logic which pairs with assassins that you might have in play (Romulans are good at this). 40 point missions reduce the cost of Slightly Overbooked and Spatial Interphase. I'm sure there are other possibilities in the Excelsior card pool.
4.3 Direct Interference
I'm using this heading to discuss interference that doesn't involve your dilemma pile. Some card you have hurts your opponent in exchange for a cost (sometimes just drawing and playing the card, other times it's more intense). The Federation are supposed to be the good guys. Don't expect them to have much to do here.
The Klingons have battle. The support for battle as an interference tool in Excelsior is somewhat patchy, but there is probably something there.
Some of their best battle cards do nothing to your opponent and just give you benefits. However, No Peace in Our Time allows you to initiate an engagement and kill a personnel (although its gametext is good enough that you might not want to use it on battle). Ferocity can add an extra kill to other cards that let you initiate combat or engagement. Bat'leth makes your opponent discard when you win combat.
To get an idea of the possiblities in the pool, try searching for cards with the text "assault", "maneuver", "combat", "engagement", "hand weapon" and "strength".
Romulans can kill your opponent's personnel with assassins like Retaya, Chemical Agent. Cards that have something to do with assassination normally require you to have your assassin keyword personnel at a mission with your opponent's personnel to do anything.
In addition to the abilities on the personnel, dilemmas like Unsound Logic and Assassin Team support the theme. Escaping Detection and Vakis, Misinformed Operative make it easier to get your assassins into place. Be careful of the wording: "present" means that your personnel is actually in the same place on the table as the target: on the same planet, headquarters, or ship; "at this mission" is more relaxed: your assassin could be on your ship and your opponent's personnel on their ship, as long as both ships are at the same mission.
The Romulans have some cards that force your opponent to discard cards. Some of them,
like the Terix and Trorolak are based on location, others like Toraan or Toreth aren't. Dilemmas like Mugato support the theme.
The power of discard has to be weighed carefully against the benefit you would gain from just putting those resources into mission solving. It might be that small decks in Excelsior are hit really hard by discard, but on the other hand the time limit leaves less room for stalling.
5. Pulling it all together - Example Decks
You won't be able to do all of these things with one deck. Any deck that tries to do more than a few will be hopelessly unfocused. Let's look at some real examples.
Unfortunately Excelsior 1.0 has only been running for a few weeks, so I only have two decks to discuss:
5.1 TNG Weenies
Naetor won the first ever Excelsior 1.0 tournament in San Diego with this TNG deck. Note that At What Cost was removed from the Excelsior card pool immediately after the tournament. It's bigger than the minimum, but has a lot of card draw with Rigel X and Mutual Advantage. Most of the personnel are really cheap - two thirds cost one or two counters. With this deck, you can expect to have multiple teams of personnel attempting each turn. Uninvited and Unexpected Difficulties smooth out dilemma draws. In broad strokes, that's it. Playing this deck will be easy, although you can expect there to be plenty of skill in playing it perfectly.
5.2 Klingon Two-Mission Win + Battle
I gave this Klingon deck to a local player at our Excelsior warmup a week ago. It plans to solve two missions, Brute Force and Honor the Fallen for 85 points, and get the rest from battle with A Chance for Glory. Spatial Interphase, Slightly Overbooked and Unfair Terms are free because of all the 40-point missions, but they still count as 6 cost for Unfair Comparison. Taking another look at this deck, I'll probably remove The Spirit of Kahless as my opponent gets to choose where the dilemmas go, and they probably won't put them under Brute Force or Honor the Fallen.
Don't be scared to copy these decks, or others that are legal in the Excelsior card pool! There will be more examples as more people play the format so you'll be able to find something that matches the type of game you want to play. After you've played them once or twice you'll start to notice gaps in them that you want to explore. Keep a note of what works and what doesn't, which cards just stayed in your hand unused. You'll find some things mostly useless in the games you play locally. Top players are normally preparing decks for the possibility that they might see anything, but you might know that certain cards never get played in your group.
That's a lot to take in, I hope you enjoyed reading . Go forth and play cards!