Picard gives Riker the freedom to choose anyone for his crew save for Lieutenant Commander Data, and he chooses, among others, Worf, Geordi, and Wesley. Kolrami is perpetually condescending toward Riker, which irritates the other bridge crew. Riker decides to earn Kolrami's respect by challenging him to a game of Strategema, of which Kolrami is a 3rd degree grandmaster. The game involves controlling dots on a grid via sensors on your fingers in an effort to capture the entire board. Riker does not expect to win and simply wants a challenge, but Kolrami crushes him embarrassingly.
In preperation for the exercise, Riker and his team beam over to the Hathaway and begin fixing her up, but they dont have much to work with. Geordi looks over the engines and deems the ship incapable of warp drive, since even if he got it running, he doesnt have any antimatter to fuel it with. Wesley is dejected and believes they're simply being set up to fail, but Riker insists that the test is about being innovative. Suddenly Wesley says he needs to return to the Enterprise, because he left an experiment running and needs to shut it down. Picard allows it, on the condition that he be escorted and not allowed to do anything but shut down the experiment. Wesley announces that his experiment is busted and needs to be transported outside of the ship to dispose of safely. Geordi is surprised to see the experiment materialize right in the Hathaway's engine room. With that, the Hathaway will have warp drive after all... for two seconds, at warp 1. Its not much, but Riker thinks it may be useful as a surprise tactic.
Pulaski has decided that Kolrami needs to be brought down a peg and twists Data's arm into challenging him at Strategema. The crew eagerly gather to watch their comrade best the cocky tactical expert, but it takes Kolrami only a little while longer to defeat Data than it did Riker. The crew, and Data himself, are stunned. The android reasons that if a humanoid could defeat his computer brain, then he must be a malfunctioning. He withdraws from bridge duty until he can locate the error. Even after Troi and Pulaski assure him that he's fine, he remains absent from duty.
Kolrami continues talking smack about Riker, until Picard pulls him aside and asks what his problem is. Kolrami says that Riker could never be a good leader because he doesnt take things seriously. Picard insists that Rikers jovial attitude is how he gains loyalty from his men. Picard then confronts Data and tells him that yes, he might make mistakes, and even if he doesnt, he might still lose, but this doesnt mean hes malfunctioning. It's just a part of life. Data takes his words to heart and returns to his post.
The battle begins. Worf uses his security knowledge of the Enterprise's computer to hack into it and make it see a Romulan warbird. As Picard struggles to address the threat, the Hathaway attacks. Picard orders a counterattack while Riker prepares to make his warp jump. But at that moment, a Ferengi ship appears, and this one isnt Worfs doing. With weapons offline, both ships are at the Ferengis mercy. Kolrami immediately tells Picard to abandon the Hathaway to save the majority of the crew, but Picard is unwilling to do so. He hails the Ferengi, who want to know why two Federation ships were fighting each other. They assume the Hathaway has something valuable aboard.
Picard and Riker cook up a plan and put it into action. Picard announces that he'll destroy the Hathaway rather than let it fall into enemy hands. The Enterprise fires a proton torpedo at the Hathaway, which uses its warp drive at just the right time to make it look like it was destroyed. Next, Worf fools the Ferengis sensors into seeing another fake ship. The Ferengis flee, seeing no further profit in fighting. Humiliated to have been proven wrong, Kolrami is forced to concede that Riker did admirably well and promises to write a glowing report.
But the crew are not finished dunking on Kolrami. Data challenges Kolrami to another Stratagema rematch. Instead of trying to win, he purposely keeps the game going for so long that Kolrami eventually loses patience and quits. So the moral of the story: always look for a third option.
Tropes in this episode:
- Achilles in His Tent: Dr. Pulaski references this trope by name when she tries to talk Data out of his Heroic BSoD.
- Armchair Military: Kolarmi is a master of strategy, at least when it comes to theory and games. When he's put into an actual battle, his first impulse is to cut and run. Only Picard, the seasoned captain, has the bravery and ingenuity to come up with a successful gambit.
- Attack Pattern Alpha: The Kumeh and Talupian maneuvers are used during the simulated battle.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Kolrami is a Fat Bastard whose face appears to be melting off. He's not sympathetic.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Granted, we never learn enough about Zakdorn culture to say whether or not Kolrami's behavior is normal for his species, but by Human standards he's a real oddball; the only other Zakdorn ever seen (in Unification) is less arrogant/objectionable than merely self-confident.
- Character Development: Pulaski started the season treating Data with distaste and accusing him of being a walking computer. By this point, she's fully on Data's side and even believes that his withdrawal from duty is about a bruised ego, something she would have thought to be impossible at the start of the season.
- Character Shilling: Picard goes on in his episode about how Riker is the best officer he's ever worked with.
- Conflict Ball: The crew raise several objections to the whole idea that don't make sense in-character.
- Picard states that Starfleet is supposed to be about exploration, not conflict. But he's already been in numerous space battles and is proud that a space combat maneuver was named after him. He also has first-hand knowledge of the threat of the Borg. If Starfleet isn't going to protect the Federation against them, what will?
- Worf states that the training exercise is useless because a victory with no chance of death would have no honor. But we've already seen that he trains his fighting chops in his holodeck "calisthenics" programs.
- Crying Wolf: Riker gets Worf to use the Enterprises sensor codes to feed them a fake image of a decloaking Romulan ship, startling Picard into trying to cancel the exercise and letting the Hathaway get some shots in. Picard orders the codes changed, only for a Ferengi ship to appear. He wonders how Worf managed to circumvent the changed codes but resolves not to fall for it this time—and it turns out to be a real Ferengi ship that attacks them.
- Curb-Stomp Battle:
- David vs. Goliath: The Hathaway vs the Enterprise. Discussed by Riker and Kolrami.Riker: What's the Zakdornian word for "mismatch"?
Kolrami: Challenge! We do not whine about the inequities of life, and how you perform in a mismatch is precisely what is of interest to Starfleet. After all, when one is in the superior position, one is expected to win.
- Death Glare: Picard has this look on his face whenever Kolrami annoys him, which is often.
- Dirty Coward: It's implied that Kolrami's insistence on fleeing to save the bulk of Picard's crew is largely influenced by the fact that Kolrami is part of the crew to be saved.
- Do Well, but Not Perfect: Data's winning solution for Stratagema: ignore openings that might lead to a win (but which are, in fact, ploys by Kolrami to defeat him) and consistently play for the tie. His opponent cannot understand why Data isn't falling for his gambits and eventually Rage Quits.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Everyone treats combat training as a foreign and unnecessary concept, with Picard stating that Starfleet is not a military organization. While the show has already referenced conflicts with other nations in the past, Starfleet's role in fighting wars becomes a more overt part of the plot in later seasons. In fact, according to "The Wounded," two seasons later, the Federation is currently at war with the Cardassians during this very episode!
- Endless Game: Data can keep Kolrami playing Stratagema forever by continually playing for a stalemate instead of playing to win.
- Fake Ultimate Hero: Discussed. While talking about Zakdorn history, it's noted that they've been renowned for their strategic prowess for centuries, which is why the Federation is seeking their advice now. However, they've never once had to prove their skills in battle. Worf believes that makes the reputation worthless.
- Fictional Sport: Stratagema provides an example of TNG's typically incomprehensible games.
- The purpose of the exercise is to plan for an attack by the Borg by acknowledging how outmatched Starfleet would be. It sets up the idea of Riker in command being forced to come up with innovative tactics against an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, which he indeed goes on to do when the Borg actually do invade.
- In the exercise, Riker goes up against Picard, with Picard having clear advantages in strength, firepower, and personnel numbers, and Riker relying on his wits to overcome that advantage. A year later, the same dynamic plays out for real.
- Also, early in the episode Worf notes that everybody is so intimidated by the alleged strategic brilliance of Kolrami's people that nobody will risk attacking them, thus leaving their actual military competence untested. Sure enough, Kolrami is mostly useless when the Ferengi attack, and his people seem to play no role in Federation conflicts with the Borg, the Cardassians, or the Dominion.
- Funny Background Event: Kolrami is constantly doing odd things in the background. After getting embarrassed by Picard and Riker's success, he begins awkwardly shuffling around and pats a Gold Shirt on the back.
- Guile Hero: Riker proves to be a master in this episode. He even discusses it with Worf.Riker: You're outmanned, you're outgunned, you're out-equipped. What else have you got?
Riker: Join me.
Worf: The honour is to serve.
- Heroic BSoD: Data goes through one when Kolrami beats him at Stratagema in their first match. Data cannot fathom that he could have lost after making no errors whatsoever in the game, and concludes that he is somehow damaged or deficient and thus cannot function competently as a Starfleet officer. It takes Picard shaking him out of it by telling Data that it is possible to make no mistakes and still fail.
- Hyperspeed Escape: The Hathaway pulls this off during her faked destruction. The Ferengi then do this when it looks like The Cavalry has arrived.
- I Know You Know I Know: Data begins a potentially endless chain of this when analyzing Riker's probable tactics, but Troi talks him out of it by telling him to focus on Riker's personality.
- Insistent Terminology: Wesley didn't cheat; he improvised, like Riker told him to.
- Insufferable Genius: Kolrami is confident to the point of arrogance and has the strategic knowledge and skill to back it up.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Kolrami's advice to abandon the Hathaway. The crew on the Hathaway are in no way expendable (there's several key officers on that ship) but staying would put more than a thousand lives on the Enterprise at greater risk. Even Riker admits that Kolrami may be right, until they Take a Third Option.
- Mildly Military: Picard describes Starfleet as a non-military organization whose primary mission is exploration, but still wants to engage in the tactical simulation for the sake of preparedness against the Borg.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Picard refuses to leave a single member of his crew at the mercy of the Ferengi.
- Not So Above It All: Despite being a total dick regarding Riker, Kolrami can't help laughing when Riker and Worf pull the sensor trick against the Enterprise.
- Paintball Episode: A sci-fi Space Navy version — the Enterprise and the Hathaway use low-power laser weapons to simulate phasers, with "damage" recorded by computer.
- Planet of Hats: We are introduced to the Zakdorn race, whose hat is strategic thinking. Apparently they are so unbeatable that no other race has dared to challenge them. Data points out that merely maintaining this reputation has been an effective strategy in itself, as it's resulted in thousands of years of peace for them. However, Worf is only interested in whether or not they live up to their reputation in an actual fight.
- Pride Before a Fall: Kolrami's humiliation in the second game of Stratagema against Data, which becomes an eternal stalemate. Kolrami is not pleased at being made a fool of.
- Rage Quit: Kolrami is practically unbeatable in a straight match of Stratagema, so long as his opponent is playing to win like he is. After Data alters his goal to making the game last indefinitely, Kolrami stops the game in a tantrum and accuses Data of making a mockery of him.
- Resurrect the Wreck: The Hathaway can only be generously described as "functional", with power systems barely supplying anything and no warp drive. Over the course of 48 hours, Riker and his team get her working enough for the battle simulation, with Wesley giving them what they need for a brief warp jump.
- Self-Punishment Over Failure: Data loses at a game, surprising everyone including himself. He relieves himself of duty and hides in his quarters doing one self-diagnostic after another. As he tells Picard, "I have not been able to isolate the problem. I might make a mistake." Picard has to tell him that it's possible to lose without making a mistake, and that this is a part of life.
- Take a Third Option:
- Picard has the choice of fighting to protect the Hathaway and risking the destruction of the Enterprise, or retreating and sacrificing the Hathaway to save the Enterprise. He instead fakes the destruction of the Hathaway.
- Data takes a third option of playing Strategema to tie rather than win or lose.
- A Taste of Defeat: Pulaski persuades Data to play Stratagema against Kolrami with the intention of taking the haughty Zakdorn down a peg. It doesn't work the first time, but it does in their rematch.
- The Strategist: Kolrami, and his entire race as a whole.
- Worthy Opponent: Picard is most impressed after the Hathaway crew pull the sensor trick—referring to Riker as "the best."