board games

High Frontier, 3rd Ed. Review

Hi Everyone!

Update: Still working on Advent of Carcosa – I’m currently getting through the equipment section, designing various pieces infernal gadgetry for characters to amuse themselves with. I’ve finished the character creation portion, but the magic section, bestiary and world overview remain. That’s a lot of writing, but I hope to be able to start working on final draft by early next year.

In the meantime, here’s another game review! The picture is of my spacecraft crew during one of the very safe and fun missions I send them on, this one probably taken during a Solar Oberth Flyby 😉

The first time I saw Phil Ecklund’s game ‘High Frontier’ was at a board gaming convention in 2012. I had never heard of the game before, but was immediately attracted to the map board with its intersecting lines indicating different pathways to planets, moons, asteroids and comets. It was a functional work of art. When I discovered it was about industrializing and colonizing the solar system, I knew I had to try it.

While I’m not a physicist or a scientist, books about rockets and space travel were once common picks for me from my local library. High resolution pictures of planets, moons and other celestial bodies endlessly fascinate me, as do descriptions of their weather systems and geology. Later in 2012, I would fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Cape Canaveral. Keeping all of this in mind, the questions that arose were: Was this game playable for someone like me? Was it a good simulation, and if so, was it a good game? The answers to these questions turned out to be ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’.

I’ll start by review by saying this write-up concerns the 3rd edition of the game, which is far better than the previous ones. The rules have been streamlined and clarified, the maps improved, and new features included that add complexity but increase the simulation and entertainment value of the game.

The rules stand out as being the most noteworthy improvement – they’re intelligently laid out with numerous examples to walk the player through some of the more complex operations. They also include rules from all of the expansions of the previous editions into one neat package, which have benefitted from having gone through a few revisions. While complex to someone like myself with no background in the concepts being modeled, I was able to grasp them after reading through them a couple of times, returning to the examples given often and playing through a complete solitaire game using the basic rules. If this sounds tedious, it wasn’t – it was a joy to read through a rules system so artfully crafted and begin to grasp on a basic level some of the science behind space travel.

Interestingly, the friends I ended up playing the game with had a background in some of the physics and science simulated in the game. They picked up the rules in no time after a brief overview by myself and even got into some interesting discussions about what was taking place in the game and how it reflected many of the challenges involved in interplanetary exploration.

The map and other components, which were of high quality in the earlier versions of the game, have been improved as well. The map’s symbology is now much easier to understand, with lander burns clearly marked and the map’s edge moved outward from Jupiter all the way out to Pluto and beyond. To add icing to the cake, there are two versions of this map included with the game – one encompassing a single board for smaller playing areas, and a much larger version made up of two boards for those who have the space. Also included is a map for a different but related game, ‘Interstellar’, which is designed for solitaire play but can be multi-player if desired.

The cards, representing different technologies, have been expanded as well to include new thrusters, robonauts and refineries. Colonization cards representing various factions able and willing to brave the dangers of the void to advance their agendas are also present. Supporting components such as power plants and radiators are also included in the advanced game, occasionally offering some extra benefit in exchange for their added mass. Detailed descriptions of all the different spacecraft components are included in a reference book for anyone who wishes to understand the science behind their operation.

Gameplay is simple, with tactics and strategy complex (always a hallmark of a good game). Players bid on different components in auctions, bidding water tanks that act as both fuel and the game’s currency (an abstraction, but a pretty ingenious one). Once the player has the needed components (at the very least a thruster and a robonaut, although some robonauts include thrusters so can be sent up by themselves), they boost them into orbit (costing one water tank per mass point) and assemble their rocket for interplanetary travel, the question at this point being ‘where?’ – and here’s where a large part of the game’s complexity comes in. Your strategy will mostly be dictated by what type of rocket you’ve constructed, and how well you do in the game will be determined by how much you understand the benefits and limitations of your design. A solar sail, for instance, will do well operating close to the sun, does not burn fuel, but has very low thrust, which restricts both its speed and ability to move heavy payloads.

Once the destination has been determined, the mass of the rocket’s components are added together (including the mass of any fuel carried). Low mass equals superior fuel efficiency and a bonus to thrust, while high mass means more fuel will be needed, with especially large rockets losing thrust and possibly taking longer to reach their destinations. Once this calculation has been done, the rocket can move through a number of burn spaces equal to its thrust, spending steps of fuel equal to its thruster efficiency. As long as fuel remains, the rocket can move each turn toward its destination – once it arrives, it can land as long as its net thrust exceeds its target’s size, only having to spend fuel if a lander burn is indicated.

Players then continue to take one of several possible actions (boosting payloads into low Earth orbit, starting auctions for tech, taking an income action to get more water tanks, etc.) and sending their rockets to various destinations with the object of claiming and industrializing them, and possibly even starting colonies. Industrialization results in being able to manufacture more advanced examples of available rocket components, as well as making refueling at the site far more efficient.

This continues until a certain number of sites are industrialized – when this number is reached, the game ends after another round. Points are then awarded for claims, factories, colonies, spectral type of the sites the players industrialized (the rarer the better) and venture cards (awarded for doing certain extraordinary acts).

Is this game a good simulation? Yes. Is it fun? I would say it can be if the players are willing to put the time in to make it fun. During a recent game, play ended after the required amount of factories had been built. Using this metric, games last about 2 or 3 hours, which also happens to be the amount of time most players begin to burn out when playing an intellectually challenging game. Unfortunately, in ‘High Frontier’, this also happens to be the time Really Interesting Things start happening. There was little opportunity to utilize any of the advanced tech manufactured at the exo-global factories, and intriguing missions to exotic destinations had to be scrubbed. While the somewhat artificial metric of number of factories created signaling the end of the game is good in terms of keeping its length manageable, it works less well in providing a satisfactory outcome for the players.

It seems this can be fixed in the advanced game by the inclusion of ‘futures’, which represent a player reaching a level of techno/sociological achievement that can take humanity to its next level of development. Instead of measuring factories, a game ends when a certain number of these futures have been reached. According to the rules, this will add an hour of game play for each player present – the chance for a more satisfactory outcome seems more than worth it to me, even if the game has to be played over a couple of sessions. While I haven’t tried the futures rules yet, I plan to the next time I break the game out, and will try several other of the advanced rules as well and will write a further review once I’ve done so.

In conclusion, the basic game of ‘High Frontier, 3rd Ed.’ is a wonderfully crafted simulation of interplanetary exploration. Its fault lies in an unsatisfactory endgame and conclusion. Will this be cured in the advanced game? We shall see.