Once more unto the breach, dear Jem'Hadar!
Star Trek: Conquest is difficult to describe without actually playing it, but I’ll do my best. First of all, it is not a port of Star Trek: Legacy, which I first thought it was. Second, it’s not so much a video game as a board game. Neither of these facts should keep you from playing the game, though, as it’s quite good. At its core, Conquest is a bare-bones turn-based strategy game with a Star Trek license slapped on. You spend the game building fleets, resource structures, and special weapons while defending your territory and overtaking enemy systems on a large map.
At the game’s outset, you choose which of six Star Trek factions you want to be, and how many factions you want as your enemies. Conquest then generates a board, throws you some money to start, and says "sink or swim!" Unfortunately, there is no tutorial, which I found vexing. Now, I did eventually find that the game is incredibly simple, but it took me a few tries to really get into it. A tutorial would help new players get accustomed to the turn-based game flow. Each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses, but the gameplay for each is exactly the same. During your turn, you may choose to build structures or ships, recruit new admirals, or build a special weapon. There are only three types of structures: star bases, mining colonies, and research facilities. If your system does not have a star base, you cannot build ships or repair your existing fleet, and every system can have a star base. But you must choose between a mining colony and a research facility for each system (try to balance them out). The more mining colonies you have, the more money you earn per turn, thus allowing you to recruit more admirals, build more ships, and upgrade your star bases. The more research facilities you have, the better your access to special weapons and fleet upgrades (like better defenses or lowered costs).
In addition, your admirals (there are only three per faction) and thus, their fleets, all have a different attribute bonus. Among the Federation, for instance, there is a defense admiral, attack admiral, and movement admiral. If you build three fleets, you will have a very well-balanced team. Each admiral gets control of seven ships, and each ship serving under a certain admiral will get that attribute bonus. Don’t worry—the instruction booklet and I make this game sound more complex than it really is.
At any rate, the whole point of Star Trek: Conquest is to expand your faction’s rule to extend to every corner of the map. You can only see as far as your sensors allow, so most of the board is invisible until you start overtaking star systems. To do so, you merely order one of your fleets to attack a system (the more stars a system has, the tougher it is to overtake). Early in the game, you will be fighting with "neutral" races like the Ferengi and the Borg. The challenge really begins when you start entering systems controlled by your enemies, at which point you must contend with not only enemy fleets but also their heavily-fortified structures.
Battles are controlled either by the computer or by your hand. When entering a battle, you can choose either "Sim" or Arcade mode. Like its name suggests, Sim mode is carried out by the computer, and although you can choose an offensive, defensive, or neutral strategy for your team, the battle is not really in your hands. Sim mode is useful for battles that you know you can win, thus saving you time. Arcade mode, though, is very fun. You actually take control of your fleet (one ship at a time, toggled with the + Button), flying through space and firing all manner of photon torpedoes and phasers at attacking ships and enemy structures. Control is very simple—hold Z to move faster, and press A or B to fire your primary and secondary weapons. What impresses me most with the Arcade battles is, oddly enough, the shield system. Just like in the Star Trek universe, ships have varying degrees of shield strength before you can start pummeling their hulls. The largest ships and structures have three tiers of shields, but they are very slow and open to attack. The smaller ships have only one shield tier, but are quick and agile. Whether in Sim or Arcade fights, you can always choose to retreat, thus saving an admiral.
Admirals gain experience with each enemy structure (or ship) defeated, and their attribute bonuses rise accordingly. In addition, after about nine or ten turns of planting research facilities, you’ll be getting access to upgrades and special weapons virtually every turn. Happily, special weapons are free and can be built whenever your research points allow. There are all sorts of special weapons, and they all have different effects on the map. One allows warping between any two spaces on the board, one decimates an enemy system, one disallows attribute bonuses in a specific system, etc. A single game takes a pretty long time, because the map layout is enormous, but it’s never boring.
I have very few criticisms of the title. First and foremost, though, the Star Trek license isn’t really taken advantage of. Sure, the ship designs all conform to their respective factions, but there are no species-specific names. Instead of calling a small Federation ship a "runabout," it’s called a "scout," just like the small Cardassian, Klingon, and Jem’Hadar ships. Also, of the six factions you can play as, only a few are actually worthwhile. The Jem’Hadar are overpowered, the Romulans are underpowered, and the Federation is most obviously balanced. Also, one of the playable races is the Breen. Seriously? The Breen? I’m a Star Trek nut, and I didn’t even remember who the Breen are. (They’re the guys who look like Princess Leia’s mask at the beginning of Return of the Jedi.) Also, there’s some voiceover during the battle sequences, but each species only have five or six distinct lines, which they repeat, ad nauseam, for the entire battle. And why is there a female voice for the Jem’Hadar? None of my Vorta admirals are female, and I don’t remember any female Dominion troopers on Deep Space Nine! Also, the Federation admirals are no-name captains who had one-shot, supporting parts in past episodes. There is no Sisko or Picard. Instead we get Admiral "Weren’t You in the Matrix?" and Admiral "I Think You Defected on Next Generation." The other species have better luck. General Martok is a Klingon admiral, and Vorta Weyoun commands a Jem’Hadar fleet. My only other real complaints are that there’s no tutorial, and multiplayer is entirely absent. I’m not really sure how two players could play on a single screen without giving away each-other’s positions, though.
It’s a good game overall, especially for people who like strategy games but aren’t very fond of the frantic pace that something like Starcraft brings to the table. Conquest also lacks the complexity of a tabletop trading card game or series-based board game, which is fine by me. And there are plenty of reasons to keep playing: by completing the campaign mode as each faction, you will unlock a neutral faction for the one-shot "Skirmish" mode (which is basically a fast-paced version of the main game). Star Trek: Conquest isn’t for everyone, but I found it to be very fun.