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.

board games

The Dragon of Magdeburg – Designer Notes

 

Steve Jackson Games incorporated an Ogre scenario I created into one of their publications recently, so I thought I’d add a few words as to why I put it together the way I did. Why would I do that? Amethyst knows!

In this scenario, my aim was to add a few new elements to an entertaining game in order to make it even more enjoyable. While one of the draws of Ogre is its simplicity, it doesn’t take many easily implemented new rules to significantly change the experience it provides. Here’s some of the ideas I added in:

  1. Description. While not part of a unique scenario rules set, the description is still an important aspect of providing color to a scenario. It should outline the factions, the setting (place and time) and the reason for the battle that’s about to occur. In DOM, I step outside of the usual Combine/PanEuropean rivalry in order to focus on a situation occurring as a result of the war’s aftermath. A well-worded intro adds color to the game and can even add an aspect of role-playing.
  2. Factions. This complicates game play without the need for additional rules. While it’s difficult for one faction to coordinate its units, it’s much more difficult for two or more, especially when they have competing agendas, which in turn increases the chance of treachery.
  3. There can be only one winner. While two (or more) of the factions are nominally allied against the Dragon, only one party in the game will end up seizing the amount of city hexes required for victory. This brings a social element into the game as each player attempts to manipulate the others into attacking each other instead of themselves.
  4. Losing points for friendly units lost instead of gain points for enemy units destroyed. This easily implemented rule will likely make this scenario a very different experience as the players attempt to conserve their forces. The idea for this rule came from the behavior of warlords past and present, in that the army was not only used for conflicts abroad, but to guarantee and enforce their power at home. Given their lack of resources, the armies also represent a large investment of scare resources that could not be easily replaced.
  5. City hexes worth less if destroyed or damaged. This may make commanders hesitate to use their heaviest ranged weapons against city hexes, and instead choose to use their infantry to seize the valuable resources they represent since the latter, via another special rule, have no chance of causing their destruction. This provides a greater role for the infantry in what is traditionally an armor heavy game, leading to more realistic combined arms tactics.
  6. Combat Engineers. To facilitate the taking of town hexes, I gave the game’s engineers a combat capability in the form of a close combat bonus that they were lacking in the original game. This adds another layer to the combined arms picture, giving commanders another tool to take precious city hexes. As aside, SJ Games has since adopted a similar close combat role for engineers into the official rules set, albeit in a modified form. I like their version – it’s concise, well written and easily implemented, but I think my version works better for DOM.
  7. Command Posts. Ever since I started playing this game, I’ve had a problem with the way CPs are implemented. They are immobile (or very nearly so), unarmed and serve no purpose other than determining who the winner is by their destruction or survival. Given the highly mobile and destructive nature of the conflict being simulated, their vulnerability seems to be a recipe for disaster. To address this, I gave the Warlord faction the option to secretly record a Mk1 or Mk2 Ogre as being their CP. There are also consequences if it is lost in the form possible temporary immobilization for units due to loss of command and control. This raises the status of CPs from mere target to a vital element in its faction’s forces.

 

There is a downside to the extra rules I’ve added to give my scenario flavor. Playtesting revealed the rules were easily digested, but there were still consequences. The problem lay in the fact that one’s units were no longer expendable – that, combined with the inevitability of factional cross-fire led to caution and analysis paralysis among the Warlord players. This may or may not be a problem with your group of players, but if it is, a 2 – 3 minute limit could be imposed on turns, with any units not yet activated forfeiting their fire and move.

board games

Ogre Review

This game is best described as a futuristic look at armored warfare, with many different types of armored vehicles, including the Ogre itself, an AI driven behemoth anywhere between a few to a dozen meters in length. The game is tactical in nature, with pieces representing a single vehicle or up to three squads of battle suit infantry. Given the number of armored strategy games out there, what makes this one worth your time, you ask?

  1. Compelling setting. The game takes place in the far future, pitting the Pan-European Alliance against the forces of the Combine. Armored battle suit infantry, tanks of different flavors (light, heavy and super-heavy), ground effect vehicles (GEVs), artillery and the massive Ogres slug it out on battlefields created with a set of beautifully rendered geomorphic map boards. The Ogres themselves are the centerpieces, bristling with railguns and tactical nuclear missiles that can often decide a battle all on their own.
  2. Components. There are two different versions of the game – small (the pocket version) and extra-large (the Designer Edition). The small version fits easily into a handbag or large pocket, but has all the components necessary to enjoy a game. The individual pieces could be more colorful, but the maps make up for this, being both functional and attractive. What the large version loses in portability it makes up for in presentation and production values. The maps are still beautiful, only much larger, while the tanks, infantry and other pieces are sturdy, functional and pleasing to the eye. The real masterpieces are the Ogres themselves, rendered colorfully in 3D cardboard pieces (some assembly required).

Update:  There is now a mid-sized game with the big components, but less of them and fewer map boards.  My advice is to shell out the extra cash for the extra-large version – there’s just not enough game in the mid-sized box to justify the expense.

  1. Playability. This is one of the game’s strongest points. The entire ruleset can be read in an hour, and you can teach someone the essentials in about 15 minutes. Gameplay is fast and straightforward – a small scenario can be finished in 30 minutes while the largest scenarios might take 2 or 3 hours. The rules are very intuitive so one can focus on enjoying the game instead of having to stop and look something up every five minutes.
  1. Goofy, over-the-top fun. It’s difficult not to cackle maniacally as you use a ludicrously well-armed land leviathan to stream roll infantry and other lesser vehicles. Meanwhile, tactical nuclear weapons fly to and fro in what is probably board gaming’s most lethal battlefield. The only game that comes close in its sheer, overblown combat zaniness might be Warhammer 40K.

 

Cons. Simplicity, one of the game’s selling points, is a two-edged sword. While lending itself to accessibility, tactics in the game are unsophisticated, mostly involving mobilizing enough firepower to take out the units you’ve chosen to target that turn. Thankfully, the game’s simple ruleset allows for easy modification in form of scenario special rules that can add a few levels of complexity in order to simulate a particular event or circumstance.

While well-designed, Ogre is definitely for a niche audience and won’t appeal to everyone. The people it will appeal to – war gamers who don’t take themselves too seriously – will probably like it right away.

So which version should you buy? If you don’t have the time or inclination for modding the game, go for the pocket version for quick pick up games. If you’re into the idea of adding or changing rules here or there, or just want to experience the wonderful production values on a large scale, go for the Designer’s Edition.  It’s expensive, but well worth the money for the beautiful game you’ll receive and the hours of enjoyment it will provide.

board games

Game Theory

I know, I know – I said I’d use original artwork, and this is a piece done by TeeTurtle – it just fit the subject matter of my post better than anything I could think up.

So, here’s my first gaming review post – it’s more of a general overview of the different qualities a board game can have, and how those elements can come together to make a game that’s enjoyable to play. Feel free to mention any elements you think I missed!

Game Theory

What makes a game fun? To me, it comes down to four factors: simulation, evocation, elegance of design and humor. A game may have all, some or none of these qualities but it will need at least two of them if I’m going to play it more than once – all four or three done especially well and I’ll probably end up buying it.

I listed simulation first because of all the traits I listed it’s the one most likely to make a game interesting. For instance, if the game is about a historical battle, are all the decisive elements of that battle present, and if so, are they modeled in a way that they behave the way they did during the engagement? Are all strengths and weaknesses of those elements realistically portrayed? If all of this is done particularly well, a player can learn a great deal about why a particular battle turned out the way it did.

“Command and Colors” is an example of good simulation. Different types of infantry, cavalry, missile troops and artillery are all represented, with different modules of the game covering pre-industrial warfare from ancient Greece to the Napoleonic wars. The elegant rules system allows the game to be taught in 20 minutes and set up and played in an hour or two. The communication problems between commanders and their units so endemic of that era are simulated by a movement system based on a card draw that allows a player to command only a few of her units each turn. Missile troops can harass from a distance but are very vulnerable to damage if caught or cornered, while heavy infantry can inflict great damage, but is slow and may not engage at all or at the wrong time if held back to long or committed too early.

Of course, a good simulation game doesn’t necessarily have to be modeled on true events as long as the elements portrayed in the game act in a way that’s consistent with the reality being simulated.

The game “Firefly”, for instance, does an excellent job in choosing which elements of that story to simulate and does so in such a way that the players feel like they’re creating a new episode of the show with each game. The ships, gear, contacts, cargo and crew have all the advantages and drawbacks that make them interesting in the show.

The mirror side of this is what a designer chooses not to simulate, as some elements may add needless complexity without appreciably adding to either the simulation or enjoyment value of a game. Too much complexity can lead to decision paralysis as players try to choose between several options or to misunderstandings in regards to interpretations of rules.

This is a controversial opinion, as there are many gamers out there who are willing to trade playability for a more sophisticated reality model, but I firmly believe the game that models simplest models best. Most aspects of simulation can be abstracted, and it’s part of the game designer’s art to do this while still maintaining the feel and effect of the behavior being simulated.

Again using “Firefly” as an example, given the big picture scope of the game, combat is handled in an appropriately abstract manner that is both easy to learn and takes a minimum of game time to accomplish. If the game focused on tactical combat in the Firefly universe, a more complex   model would be warranted.

How the game’s reality model is presented to the players is the aspect of design called ‘elegance’. Elegance includes such attributes as concise and logical presentation/organization of the game’s rules and how intuitive those rules are in relation to what’s being simulated. Elegance also includes the coherent arrangement of information on the game’s various components (cards, pieces etc.)

The game “Star Wars: Armada” gives us examples of both good and bad elegance. Layout of information on the components is superb – vital information is available at a glance and is attractively presented – this makes game play go smoothly, as all the information a player needs to make game decisions is right in front of her with no need to access complex charts or matrices. With all of this elegant simplicity, there should be little need to consult the rulebook during play, which is a good thing, because the rules are a disordered mess.

Needlessly spread out over two books, the rules bury important concepts of play, are full of imprecise terminology, lack examples and don’t provide an anatomy for all of those elegant components, instead spreading this information across several different rules sections.

Fortunately, forums are available on the internet to help clarify and define vague game terms and concepts – without this resource, the game would be unplayable.

Evocation is more subtle than the other attributes, but no less important for an enjoyable game. The key question here is: Does the design of the game immerse the player in its reality?

There are several ways a game can accomplish this – photographs, well executed artwork, pieces designed with care and an eye for realism, and rules that add fun mechanics not strictly necessary to playing the game (also known as chrome).

Good examples of well-designed components are the ship photographs used on the cards for “Modern Naval Battles”, the miniatures of “X-wing” and the beautifully rendered cards and heavy poker chip pieces of “Splendor” that turn an otherwise mediocre game into something that is a joy to play.

Chrome is something that needs to be used sparingly, because the price for its implementation is added complexity. Almost any game can benefit from it, however, as it often adds a role playing element that personalizes the game experience. For instance, it’s cool to fly an Advanced TIE Fighter in “X-Wing”, but it’s much, much cooler to fly one that’s piloted by Darth Vader.

While it takes a few added rules to incorporate Vader’s abilities into the game, the payoff is worth it as you picture the Sith Lord hunting down rebel scum.

Finally, humor, while not appropriate for all games, can seriously increase the fun factor of others. Humor, however, is a difficult concept. While welcome if well done, it can make an otherwise good game unplayable (Munchkin’s Cthulhu expansion “Unspeakable Vault” comes to mind). It’s for this reason that most games skip it entirely – it can fall flat, and it isn’t really necessary for the creation of a good game.

Some games, like “Munchkin” and “Chez Geek”, are entirely about humor and gamers who are inclined to be serious forget this at their peril. In these games, the simulation aspect is replaced by satire and the point is to have fun by being silly.

In conclusion, a good game exercises the mind and the imagination. Situations outside the player’s experience are simulated with some of the excitement but none of the consequences. Games also bring people together into a shared experience, directly communicating and interacting in a fashion that in other spheres of life have become uncommon.