Star Trek collectible games have been around for a while, but Star Trek ConQuest Online is the first designed for the PC, and more importantly, for the Internet. You couldn't ask for an easier way to find opponents, trade pieces, and compete in tourneys than with this online-only game from the creators of the acclaimed online collectible card game, Chron X.
There are two ways to get started playing ConQuest Online: by downloading the starter pack, which is under 20MB, or by buying the game at retail. The download is free, and as soon as you pay the $10 registration fee, you can play against a computer opponent or go online and square off against carbon-based life-forms in unranked games. The registration fee is waived for owners of the retail game, and the boxed version comes with a retail-only Ambassador Spock piece (which Activision says will never be available in online booster packs). Even so, the download is considerably cheaper, unless you just don't feel confident starting your first game without that Spock piece.
Regardless of how you begin playing, the game automatically sets up five control groups, or decks, each with 41 playing pieces necessary for basic games and ten additional pieces for advanced-game auctions. The five groups fall under five different racial affinities: Federation, Klingon, Borg, Romulan, and mixed. You can create as many new control groups as you like, and once you register, you can start trading pieces with other players. Other benefits of registration include entry in a global ranking system, the option to purchase booster packs and boxes (the box carries a hefty $30 price tag, but it's got a lot of content), and the ability to participate in official tournaments.
You play as a Q and use ships, people, and technology from the Star Trek universe to gain control of planets both in the neutral zone (where there can be one or three worlds) and in your opponent's home region. The basic game is divided into three phases: deploy, attack, and move. During the deploy phase, you can place three types of pieces from your control group onto planets, regions, or people. How many pieces you deploy is limited by how many control points you start the turn with, and control points are determined by how many points you spent on the last turn and how many planets you have. Attacking is simple enough - you and your opponent can engage in space combat or in battles on planet surfaces - and during the move phase you can beam people aboard ships and move ships between regions. To win, you either "cheQmate" your opponent by trapping his Q for a full turn on a planet where you have more influence (determined by whom you've placed on the surface) or by controlling the most planets.
After you run through the tutorials, you'll find yourself completely comfortable with the principles of the basic game. But once you get into a real match, you'll discover the subtle strategies and deep challenges that ConQuest Online offers. Many of the pieces you deploy can be placed on enemy ships to cripple them - the crippled ship might not be able to beam anyone on board down to a planet, or lose its special abilities such as sensor arrays or isolinear chips. Yet, if you get too carried away loading your control group with a bunch of sabotage pieces, you might find you didn't allocate enough ships or personnel to take control of planets - or even to fight your way to the planets.
Therefore, finding the right balance of pieces for your control group is critical, and it'll take time and patience, particularly when you move up to the advanced game. Advanced games add two new phases: The specials phase lets you use special abilities of certain pieces, and the auction phase puts a piece up for grabs to whomever offers the highest number of control points. It also adds in other factors like valuable Q points, the ability to move to (or be sent to) the continuum, and positive and negative planetary effects that aren't revealed until you actually place somebody on the surface. Besides the standard victory conditions, you can also win by being the first to rack up ten Q points or by having the most Q points at the end of the game.
The graphics in Star Trek ConQuest Online are more than adequate, and even the minimalist sound effects are serviceable. However, the interface could be better - it's cramped, and it offers no way to peruse all your pieces other than with constant scrolling. It also shows only a few people onscreen in the chat lobby, which requires more scrolling. Furthermore, it would have been more convenient if there were a way to expand your control group to a full-screen view during play.
At 800x600 resolution, only two ships are displayed in each region of space, along with a tiny blue arrow as the only indication that you might be facing more ships. As such, you might occasionally overlook additional enemies or even forget that you yourself have more ships in play. Though the game plays better at 1024x768 resolution, there still isn't enough graphical information onscreen. ConQuest Online also could have benefited from some type of audible cue for when your foe sabotages one of your vessels; as it stands, you have to methodically check each and every vessel by selecting it and scrolling down the items list to see what's onboard. If you were playing ConQuest face-to-face using real pieces, you'd know when your opponent used a special ability - and the game ought to have reflected this.
But as with other addicting games, ConQuest's problems disappear when they are stacked up against the game's engrossing gameplay and easy matchmaking system. Together with the ability to trade for those pieces that you desperately need to build the ultimate control group, you've got the makings of a game that can offer months and months of enjoyment. And because you pay only for the pieces and not to play, it's also an affordable obsession. If you're into collectible card games, even if you're not a big Star Trek fan, then you should take the time to download the starter pack and give the game a try. Chances are you might have just started a brand-new hobby.