The way I imagine my ET factory on Karin B.
I first came across Sierra Madre Games' High Frontier back during the winter of 2010 and it immediately went on my must-buy list, but I only got it last week. Finally! It was created by Phil Eklund who's a bona fide rocket scientist and it's about the near future exploration of our solar system. Everything is based on real world physics and the first time you calculate your rocket's modified thrust is a feeling of both dread and awe! At its core High Frontier is a racing game: you want to get out there and prospect as soon as possible as well as grabbing the bonus "glory points" for being the first to succesfully return a crew from Mars etc.
At the start of the game you're all bidding for different rocket modules (thrusters, robonauts and refinieries) that you need to explore space. You need to decide if you want to travel light in an attempt to just gather some quick glory points, or if you want to bring a refinery to be able to actually build an extraterrestrial factory base which will allow you to advance your technology level. Then you need to start planning where to go and make sure you're rocket is not too heavy/slow and what to do when you get there.
The game map. Beautiful and terrifying at the same time! Actually this picture includes both the base game (right side) as well as the map from the expanded game (left side), adding Jupiter and Saturn (not to mention politics and space weather).
In our game I played NASA while Anders took control of the UN. We spent quite a few turns just constructing our rockets, almost going through the entire stack of availbale thrusters before we each settled on our respective designs. I think this was an artifact of our inexperience with the game and the fact that there were only two of us. With more players the race aspect would have been much more in focus and shorter flights would probably have been a more attractive goal. As it were we took our time to make rockets that could make it into the asteroid belt, each of us bringing robonauts and refineries.
NASA (white) on their way to Karin while the UN (purple) still linger in low Earth orbit.
I launched my mission one or two years (turns) before Anders and made it to the Karin family of asteroids. Since I had raygun-type robonaut I could prospect a lot of asteroids in one fell swoop, even though I needed to roll 1s and 2s to succeed. My prospecting succeeded on three of the planetoids and I used my refinery and robonauts to build a factory at Karin B. This allowed me to upgrade my raygun robonauts making it a lot more effective at prospecting. My next target was the nearby Vesta family.
In the meantime the UN had launched their expedition to the Gefion family of asteroids, which includes the dwarf planet Ceres. Anders had managed to get his hands on a fairly powerful engine and made it there quickly. He was unlucky and failed at prospecting Minerva, even though he had a re-roll when using his robonaut buggy. Ceres on the other hand is so large that you succeed automatically which was good news for Anders, however he discovered that if he wanted to build a factory there he wouldn't be able to take off as he would have to sacrifice the powerful thrusters of his robonauts. In the end he simply decided to decommision his entire rocked (basically colonising the worldlet) and then start over back in low Earth orbit. This is a perfectly valid strategy although he did miss out on gettin glory points for being the first to return a crew safely to the Earth and he would have to boost his rocket modules into orbit once again.
What it looked like after my initial asteroid prospecting spree! You can see my factory to the left (the cube) and Anders' to the right. The black discs are failed prospects.
While the UN was busy with Ceres I sent my now refinery-less rocket to prospect Vesta and the surrounding asteroids. With the upgraded robonaut and with no refinery my rocket was much lighter and could quickly zip around the belt! After prospecting three more locations (using up the last of my markers) I decided to return to Earth with my crew. This netted me some VPs and I got some more for being the first to prospect three or more S-class (stony) locations. Woo! Instead of boosting more modules for my rocket I simply refueled it and sent it on a quick science mission to Eureka, a Mars trojan asteroid which is easily reachable from Earth. This was simply to get more glory points of course. Next I went back to actually build a factory at Eichsfeldia, one of the asteroids in the Vesta family.
Anders had started construction on his second rocket stack during my asteroid shenanigans and he had his eye on the Nysa family of asteroids as well as the comet Encke. He succeeded in prospecting Polena and Hertha where he also built a factory. This being a two player game the fourth factory signaled the end and we started adding up victory points.
End game. As you can see we went exclusively for the asteroid belt which I think is a valid strategy as you're learning the game. Landing on planets require aero-breaking and crash hazards... scary stuff better reserved for next time. :)
Anders liked it as well, although he felt frustrated that he couldn't practically land on any of the large planets. Or that is what we thought at first at least. After the game we discovered that you can in fact land on the Moon and Mars. You just have to have a very light rocket (a thruster with a crew pod on top) with lots of fuel. So... kind of like the Apollo missions. Then if you want to get serious about it and establish a base there you might need to research some better technology first.
After having had a period filled with lots of wargames (Runewars, Twilight Imperium, A Game of Thrones etc) it was nice playing something different. And High Frontier is certainly different from anything I've played before. To my mind a very cool game with a very cool theme. That it's scientifically correct is just a neat bonus! Don't let the playmat and board daunt you, it's not nearly as complicated as it looks.
I need to play it a few more times, but then I'll put together a proper review.
The UN rocket awaiting refuel in low Earth orbit.