Friday, 22 November 2013

Review of High Frontier and Colonization

Friday, November 22, 2013

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High Frontier: Colonization setup
A few turns into a game of High Frontier: Colonization
Phil Eklund's High Frontier has made regular appearances on this blog since I first got it back in mid 2012 but, although I wrote a couple of meaty play reports (here and here), I have yet to actually review it. With the release of the new Colonization expansion that I have now hade the pleasure of playing twice I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone and review both the base game and the expansion.

However... that's not really accurate. The base game is a bit of a misnomer as it's more of a tutorial game to get you to understand the fundamentals, but it's not the way High Frontier is meant to be played in the long run. In fact, unless I was teaching the game fresh to someone I really couldn't see myself going back to that version of the game after having experience the full glory of a complete game of High Frontier! Even so, let's take a look at what High Frontier is and how it's played.

The game is written by Phil Eklund of Sierra Madre Games who is famous in the board gaming world for his very particular approach to board gaming and rulebook writing. High Frontier is the spiritual successor of his earlier space flight game Rocket Flight from 1999. Phil is a bonafida rocket scientist and judging from Bios: Megafauna and Bios: Genesis (fingers crossed!) he seems to be well versed in biology/zoology as well. In short, a man of science! This is something that certainly shows in all his games - both in the integration of theme and game mechanics as well as how often a large part of the rulebook is given to explain the science and/or history underlying the game.

At first glance High Frontier might look like a game about spaceship design and spaceflight. But while those are two of the elements of the game it is really more about exo-globalization - the industrialization of the solar system and (in Colonization) the future of mankind. How you go about this is very much up to you as there are many ways to succeed within the framework of the game. In other terms, this is a sandbox game that gives you access to a bunch of rocket parts and then lets you loose in the solar system!

The Tutorial Game

As I said above what is called the base game is really only a tutorial to make you into a steely-eyed missile man ready for the full glorious potential of High Frontier Colonization! Still, it's a good starting point in talking about how the game works and what you do while playing. But first, let's talk a little bit about the beautiful map of the solar system that forms the game board.

High Frontier solar sail play
PRC are using a solar sail and make several quick, cheap trips to get all the needed equipment to its destination. As you can see on the playmat the rocket's tanks are empty. Solar sails don't need propellant!
There are no squares to put your rockets and cubes in. Not even hexagons! Instead we have many intersecting lines that all represent... well, let me quote Phil:
The High Frontier map divides space into two topographies: circumplanetary burns (steep gravity wells around planets), and interplanetary Hohmanns (shallow heliocentric gravity fields). It scales to energy, not distance! Note that each spot represents a stable orbit, so rockets do not "drift". To change orbits, you must achieve a "velocity increment" that costs mass and energy. 
-High Frontier rulebook, page 1. 
So basically you move along the lines of the map and whenever you enter a pink circle you need to do a Burn which uses propellant. The number of Burns you can make and how much propellant is used each time is dependent on the thruster you are using and the mass of the rocket. More mass=more energy required to move=more propellant used. It all comes together on the player mat where you track your rocket's mass and how much propellant is in its tanks. There are other kinds of circles as well, sometimes containing different hazards, that are risky to enter. Where two lines intersect is also a space where your rocket can thrust into a new trajectory at a cost of either more propellant or more time. Alright, so with that out of the way let's continue with the rest of the game.

There are five different playable factions in the game; NASA, ESA, UN, PRC and the Shimizu Corporation. They have some different abilities like the UN getting money when anyone prospects or industrializes a site or ESA who can boost a rockets thrust by one, thanks to their laser powersats. Each also have a crew card that can be used for prospecting and some other stuff. What you first need to do when the game starts is get a rocket going as that is the main way of getting around the solar system. The game ends when there's a set number of factories built (usually two per player) at which time you calculate victory points that you get from how much you've been able to industrialize, from glory missions (like being the first to get your crew to Mars and back) and from "Space Ventures". At it's very core this is a (space) racing game.

In the base game there are only three kinds of parts, or patents, available through research. Thrustersrobonauts and refineries. You need thrusters to go anywhere (although some robonauts also have thrusters), you need robonauts for serious prospecting (they're much better than your crew) and you need a refinery to turn your prospected claim into an industrialized site (a site being anything from a small asteroid to the majestic plains of Mars). Researching in the game takes the form of an auction for the different patent cards and the one who bids the highest gets the card in question. Of course, currency in this game takes the form of Water Tanks that are used both in auctions as well as for refuelling your rocket and boosting stuff into orbit. Anyway, just slapping everything together and heading for the stars is usually not a good idea as that creates a rocket with very high mass that takes lots of propellant to get moving. If you have managed to find a thruster with very low fuel consumption, like the Metastable Helium thruster pictured right you might be able to do it, but even then you'll have to plan your expedition well.

High Frontier ESA VASIMR
ESA is running a more traditional rocket using the VASIMR thruster.
Don't worry about the generator and reactor... we'll get to those later.
Most of the time you start by going out just with a thruster and a robonaut to prospect some promising sites that you've had your eye on. This is not an automatic process and depending on the robonaut you are using there are many sites you simply can't try to prospect, and others that might be too small to chance it. Once you've got an interesting prospect or two claimed you leave your robonaut there, and start working on getting a refinery to the site in question as both are required for industrialization. If you have enough propellant left, or if refuelling in situ is an option you could go back and pick up the refinery. You could also decommission your thruster and simply boost a new one together with your refinery. Costly perhaps, but you might save time in the long run and don't forget that this is a race!

You also need to keep in mind the spectral type of the site as this decides which of your patents you can upgrade and make better versions of in your space factory. If you've industrialized a stony (S) site you can do a production action and flip one of your S cards over to its black side, which will give you a more powerful/effective thruster, a better robonaut or a refinery with some special benefits. So as you prospect more sites and build more space factories you can slowly upgrade your rocket with black cards that allow you to reach further and accomplish more!

As you industrialize a site you can also construct a simple "tea kettle" freighter that can hold one card in its hold and move one burn per turn, freeing up your rocket to do the heroic stuff instead of simply shipping parts around. This helps with logistics as you need to move one black part from a factory to where you're rocket is going, or back to Earth to sell.

High Frontier
More sites are being prospected and industralized.
Then as the fourth or sixth or seventh factory is built the game ends and you tally up your points. This might seem a little anti-climactic but remember that this is the tutorial game only, and all the really great stuff is coming later. Still the first few times you play this is more than enough to boggle your mind. Player interaction in the base game is usually limited to indirect action like buying patent cards your opponent dearly crave, prospect a site before your opponent get there or brokering deals for patents or assistance during the game. There is no direct confrontation possible, although the PCR can "claim jump" and steal other players prospect claims!

It's worth mentioning that the play reports I linked to above were played only using the tutorial rules. Now let's have a look at the full game.

The Full Game

Actually, it's called the advanced game, but that sounds misleading. This is simply the full version of the game and how it is meant to be played. Now we're getting into expansion territory, so let's talk a little bit about that first. At the same time the basic game was released in 2010 an expansion containing the parts needed to play the full game was released - some more cards and a second game board that extended the play area to include Jupiter and Saturn, as well as containing information about events and space politics. This is the original "Advanced Game".

However, it has been out of print for quite a while now and the new Colonization expansion contains everything from the original expansion plus some additional stuff that makes it even cooler, so this is the version I will be covering. For all intents and purposes I will continue writing the review as if the original expansion didn't exist in the first place. Just for simplicity's sake.

High Frontier cards and playmat
The eight different patent and colonists cards as well as the VP board, Sunspot cycle and Polity tracker. 
In the full game quite a few new concepts are introduced. Some of them core to the entire experience and some in a modular format that allows you to pick and choose which you want to play with (although, I personally wouldn't play without all of them). The core elements are the addition of three more patent support cards: reactors, generators and radiators. In the full game many of the thrusters, robonauts and refineries require support cards to run. A thruster might require an electric generator or a burst plasma reactor with two therms of cooling provided by radiators! So instead of just picking your favourite thruster and robonaut and get going you need to make sure they are powered and have enough cooling.

This is an entire game in itself as you want to build as efficiantly as possible. Having a thruster that needs a pulsed generator while your robonaut needs an electric generator might not be a good combination for example. If they both use the same generator you just need to bring one along to power both parts. So you'll spend a lot more time cajiggering with your rocket than in the base game. On one hand it's trickier, on the other you have a lot more options for making cool combinations and making thrusters that rarely get used in the base game actually workable thanks to efficient support cards. Getting a half-decent rocket together is one of my favourite parts of High Frontier and it's a great feeling when you manage to get something together that will actually get you where you need to go!

PRC has constructed a better solar sail, a nanobot robonaut and a lighter refinery using his space factories. For further exploitation of the Solar system! His promoted Bernal is still in its start orbit at Earth-Luna L3 with the Botany Bay convicts on board.
You will also need to keep an eye on the rad-hardness of your parts. Flying through radiation belts (like the one surrounding Earth!) can be risky if your parts aren't well shielded or if you're going slowly. And even if you pass through all right there's the ever present risk of a freak Solar flare or coronal mass-ejection which can fry your electronics. So keep the rad-hardness in mind. Especially if flying during the Red Sector.

Red Sector?! What the hell is that! Yepp, another core element of the full game is the Sunspot Cycle. It consists of twelve spots in a ring and every time the first player takes his turn you move a marker to the next spot in the ring. It is divided into three different cycles which can have different effects (red=solar flares, blue=election year, yellow=budget cuts) and every other spot comes with an event that you need to roll for. An event affects all players and can be anything from glitches in your rocket to pad explosions to government elections. There are ways to protect yourself from many of these things but you need to plan for them nevertheless.

During an election all the players make a bid and the highest player gets to move the polity marker one space. This can have different effects depending on where it moves and if it moves into the spot of a certain faction, say PRC's Press Gangs, it will be worth VPs at the end of the game. The marker can also be moved into anarchy and war. And yes, during war you can attack other players rockets and factories, using your robonauts and thrusters (as missiles)! I have yet to actually see any combat in the game, but it's a very real danger.

Besides these core concepts Colonization also introduces four new card modules: Freighters, Bernals, Colonists and Gigawatt Thrusters, and a new endgame module. So let's take a quick look at each of these.

  • Freighters. Using this module you don't automatically build a freighter when industrializing. Instead it is patent card that you need to research and then build at one of your factories. There are five different freighters with different capabilities. They have different movement and different sized hold. They can also be promoted to their purple side, making them more effective and providing a Future (more on this later). 
  • Bernals. A Bernal Sphere is gigantic space habitat in the vein of the O'neill Cylinder or the Stanford Torus and if you play with this module each player has a Bernal in a starting orbit near Earth. It functions kind of like a second rocket, except it's very heavy and slow to move around. If you promote it, by giving it a generator, it flips to its purple side and it can then move by itself as well as provide some special abilities. If it's placed adjacent to one or more of your industrialized sites it's said to have these sites as dirtsides, meaning you can produce directly to the Bernal. Basically it becomes your base away from low Earth orbit.
  • Colonists. There's a deck of colonist cards that you can recruit. Each of them functions pretty much like your original crew card, except they all have special abilities and some of them have built in reactors or generators. Bust most importantly, the provide you with extra actions during your turn! They also provide votes that are added to the players bids during an election (voting for the faction they areactually loyal to, which may or may not be the faction you're playing) and all of them can be promoted to their purple side, with some of them providing Futures. There are also some Robot Colonists that need to be built at a factory. They work a little differently and can't vote unless someone has performed the Suffrage Operation to give basic human rights to them, in which case they always vote for their Emancipator (awesome, right?!).
  • Gigawatt Thrusters. These are similar to your regular megawatt thrusters from the base game except they need to be built at a factory and they are stingy with their propellant - if it's an S GW Thruster it can only refuel at an S site. However they are very powerful and with one of these babies you can seriously start considering going beyond Saturn towards Uranus and Nepune. They can also be upgraded to their purple, Terawatt Thruster, side which is even more powerul and which also provides a Future.
  • Endgame Module. I've talked a lot about promoting and Futures. What is that? Well, all these four card modules really come together in the Endgame Module and this is why I feel it would be weird only playing with Bernals or only Colonists. You can promote a card by building a Lab and taking the card there. A Lab is any industrialized site at a trans-Neptunian science site... and they are pretty hard to get to. Your Bernal also becomes a Lab if it has a dirtside at any science site, which is normally easier to achieve. 
Many promoted cards provide Futures, and this is the new endgame condition of the game. In a two player game the game ends after the first Future is achieved or attempted. In a three player game it's after the second Future, and so on. So wha tis a Future? It is basically some neat sci-fi idea that you need to accomplish to show that humanity is carving its mark on the universe. Perhaps you need to build aerostat factories on both Saturn and Uranus, or maybe you need to try and create a mini black hole with one of your scientists, or it could be that you want to strap a Gigawatt Thruster to a comet and crash it into the Earth (ending the game with a bang!). If you succeed at a Future you get some VPs and the game is one step closer to ending.

And... that's about it. Sorry for getting a bit rules heavy there at the end, but I felt it was needed to get the scope across. Right now it might seem like all these things would be impossible to remember and keep separated in your head during play, but if you start out with the tutorial game and wrap your head around rocket flight 101 you shouldn't have any problem graduating to the full game!

Both ESA and PRC have managed to create labs at their Bernals as their dirtsides (at comet Elst-Pizarro and the subsurface ocean of Callisto, respectively) are Science sites. Some cards have been promoted already, like ESA's Frankenstein Navigators at bottom right. Now it's time to start looking at available Futures!
It's might be worth mentioning here that Phil has also constructed High Frontier: Interstellar which is a print-and-play sequal to Colonization where you use the resources you created there to move around the stars in generation ships. You could also start from the beginning with Bios: Megafauna, use the creatures you create there as the basis for your culture in Origins: How We Became Human, use the end of that game as the starting foundation to High Frontier and finally play Interstallar. Pretty neat!

My Thoughts

So with the workings of the game figured out what do I actually think of it. Short answer: High Frontier is my favourite board game. Full stop.

Long answer: High Frontier was a real eye-opener for me as a board gamer, or gamer in general. I've always been a fan of a strong theme in games and in the past that is why used to found myself oogling the stuff FFG et al with all the mountains of plastic and bright shiny cards. The word theme gets bandied about a lot and for many, including myself a few years ago, theme means just that - nice components. I've played most of FFG's games at one time or another, and I do like some nice components but a true thematic experience comes through the integration between theme and mechanics and there is often a disconnect there. That doesn't have to be a bad thing necessarily. Lords of Waterdeep is still a good game, even though the theme is just a thin veneer. And no matter how great looking the room tiles and miniatures are for Mansions of Madness it's a long way from actually sneaking through a haunted house.

ESA succeed in moving the Polity marker to the left, away from war and anarchy.
So where am I going with this? I think I said it in my firt impressions-article on Bios: Megafauna, and that is that when Phil makes a game he does it with the approach of a simulationist - as in 'how could I realistically portray function X in board game terms? Like, how do I simulate realistic rocket flight on a game board?'. In a game like Firefly, that has no aspirations to scientific realism, you simply move a number of spaces and draw some cards. In High Frontier all the trajectories, burn circles and Hohmann intersections are calculated correctly as well as thrust, fuel consumption, radiation strength etc and then the game is extrapolated from that. Again, let me quote from the Game Scale section of the rulebook:

  • A thrust of one is 0.75 kN (750 newtons, or 169lbs, the weight of the game designer on Earth!). Each additional point doubles this.
  • An acceleration of one is 0.38 milligees or 0.38 cm/sec², and each step more doubles this.
  • A size one world has a surface gravity of 0.75 milligees, and each additional step doubles this. Size 1 worlds have the following diameters based on density: comet nucleus 52 km (only Centaur comets approach this size), S-type asteroid 22 km, M-type asteroid 14 km.
  • Beamed power emits a 60 MW laser beam. Generators produce 60 MWe of electricity. Reactors produce from 650-2000 MWth of thermal energy, either in neutrons, pions, or plasma jets. Each therm radiates 120 MWth of heat. (Subscript e = electricity, th = thermal).
  • Each burn requires a delta-v (velocity change) of 2.5 km/sec. Each brachistochrone is 5.0 km/sec.
  • A solar flare die roll of 1 is an M1 flare with an X-ray power density of 10^-5 Watts/m². Each point more is 4 times this. Thus, a die roll of 6 is a X95 (Carrington-class) flare with a power density of 10^-2 Watts/m².
-High Frontier rulebook, page 13.

This might look scary to the casual observer, but remember that this is all under the hood calculations that have been wrested into a (relatively) easy to understand board game. It's just a great feeling to play the game and know that all the underpinnings are not simply numbers crunched to fit the game, but actual "real" numbers that the game has been wrapped around. And this design principle goes through the entire game, and all the other Sierra-Madre games I've played!

What this means is that the theme and mechanics of the game are so deeply integrated with eachother as to be virtually unseparable. For example, there is simply no way of re-theming High Frontier into anything other than a game about rocket flight and space industrialization, and the same thing goes for Bios: Megafauna. You might change the map around and give the parts different names perhaps, but you wouldn't be able to turn it from a game about rockets to a game about cooking food (something which can't be said of Lords of Waterdeep for example).

To win (or at least end the game) PRC need to create some antimatter! They can do this by using a promoted engineer at a factory on a science site and succeed with an "Epic Hazard Op" - meaning they need to roll anything but a 1 on a die.
Ok, so I've taken a long time to say that the theme is a core part of the game and not simply an afterthought. Great. But what about the game? Is it fun? That is the other thing. Not only is the theme well executed but the mechanics work not only as a simulation but as an actual competetive board game. Yes, I'll be the first to admit that I was a bit daunted when I first started reading the rulebook, but that is more about me not being familiar with this style of writing rather than it being a bad rulebook. The first time you go through it nothing will seem to make sense at the start, but by the time you finish it it has all become clear. Then read it again with your new eyes and you will discover how clever the design is. 

While FFG might make rulebooks that are better at introducing the game they are rubbish as reference tools. Sierra-Madre rulebooks on the other hand can be tricky to read the first time through, but then work great while you are actually playing and need to look up a particular rule or two. Especially with the new Alive and Complete version of the rulebook available for download.

I'm a big space exploration and rocket enthusiast so naturally High Frontier would appeal to me. The game might be a hard sell to players who are not as interested, but the actual game is meaty enough to get anyone hooked if they can just get past the inital learning hump. Most people will struggle with basic rocket movement for their first few turns, or their first game, but once it clicks you start looking at that map with whole different eyes!

At the same time ESA is racing to get their scientist to their Bernal where they would be able to score a Future! They're currently in low Earth orbit though. Will they make it?!
The tutorial game is a sandbox and this too can be daunting because there is no hand-holding involved. Nothing telling you exactly what to do or where to go. You need to decide what mission to undertake yourself, based on the patent cards in your hand. It requires planning and patience and going off half-cocked is usually a good way of stranding your crew. Still, the base game is limited in time. Usually, by the time you start getting to the really good stuff, like factory produced thrusters and robonauts the game is about to end. You rarely get to play with your new toys more than a dozen turns or so.

The full game changes all of this. If the tutorial game is a sandbox this is a desert! The sunspot cycle with its events and the polity tracker plays a large role in how the game will evolve and using the support cards means that you will see a lot more different rockets being used. These core concepts alone takes the game to the next level, but then adding Colonists and Bernals etc really helps making the game epic! These modules also help to make the game world feel more alive and as you play you can't help but make little stories in your head. While the tutorial game can be a little clinical in its execution the full expansion experience is gritty reality! You can really feel those Attican Secessionists who want to declare independance from Earth or your Bernal hauling new technology from its dirtside factories. It makes not only for a great gaming experience, but for a great storytelling experience as well!

PRC is quicker to get their Future and the game end shortly after. Counting the victory points it's a close race, but the PRC come out the winner, thanks to the 12 points for completing the firt Future!
The politics and deal-making of the game is also something to be mentioned. The first few times you play you'll usually be too busy making sure your rocket isn't exploding to really pay detailed attention to what the other factions are up to. But as you progress in the game and learn more about the different patents and good paths through the Solar system political and economical maneuverings will start taking place. Buying and withholding  a patent card critical to an opponent suddenly becomes an effective tactic (especially if you play the Shimizu corp.). You can make all kinds of deal throughout the game, like paying for an extra boost from ESA or trade patents.

The Political tracker might seem like a quaint detail mostly centred on theme at first, but getting the Polity disc into one of the spots providing special rules, like only allowing NASA to initiatie research, or banning any and all reactors can have quite an impact on the game. Not to mention anarchy and war - whenever the political climate turn into anarchy every player starts to eye the board for chances of stealing other factions claims!

The game usually starts out slowly with everyone getting their bearings and start working out plans on where to go and how to get there. During the mid-phase there might be some struggle for patent cards and sites to prospect and during the last phase it's all about getting your lab up and running to be able to promote cards to get some Futures available. It's more of a marathon than a sprint, but High Frontier is certainly a race!

I mentioned it at the start: this is my favourite board game, and I've tried to convey why in this article. It is tough to get into, the rulebook and the graphical design of the game might look odd to you the first time you encounter it, but if you persevere and actually learn the game you will be richly rewarded both in regards to a thematic, immersive experience as well as a tight racing game focusing on resources and maneuvers.

I really can't recommend the game enough, and it only gets better with Colonization. Get it!

4 kommentarer :

  1. Hi Martin,

    The best review of High Frontier Colonization I've seen and one of the best of the entire experience to date. As more of a game collector than a player (I barely have time to keep up with my modest collection, let alone play) with aspirations to actually introduce High Frontier to people in the future (I've done "show-and-tell" at Yuri's Night in the past), this is a great introduction reference.

    As you wrote Sierra Madre and Phil are legendary in the game world for their completely unique
    approach (reminiscent of Steve Jackson Games circa 1979 with respect to the rest of the industry) and it's going to be a huge stretch for casual or non-gamers to get involved (reminding me of my geek childhood going from Tunnels and Trolls to Star Fleet Battles) and I have always fallen on the side of trying to find ways to make the experience more "artistic" (I have the laser cut acrylic counters from Richard Jones:, am working on modular (children's plastic construction block) rocket minis and other mini's.)

    To that end, what is the "starfield' you are using as a table-cover in these photos? I hadn't even thought of that (or searched for something like it) before and it's pure genius!

    Thanks so much for the review and inspiration!

    Charlie Mote

    1. Thanks, Charlie! That's high praise coming from another High Frontier and space enthusiast. :)

      It can certainly be tough for a casual gamer to get into! I've tried a couple of different race scenarios instead of using VPs to keep everyone focused, and that has worked reasonably well.

      As for making it a bit more "flashy"... I have this plan to some day get some nice realistic spaceship designs from Shapeways to use sa rocket markers and O'neill cylinder models to use as Bernals. So far the onlything I've done is switch the flat WT markers to plastic "crystals" that look a little nicer and are easier to handle.

      Those acrylic tokens look pretty nice! But it seems like the guy doing them has disappeared and they would need to be updated with the parts from Colonization. Hmm... and since your factories becomes freighters if you Promote your freighter card the current solution would need to be modified. Still, nice plastic!

      The mat is from Hotz Mats and is made to order. Mine is plain on one side and has hexagons on the other. You can read my review on the site. I use it for spaceship gaming, but it works very well as a thematic felt mat for High Frontier as well. Hehe!

      Glad you found the review inspiring!


  2. Thank you Martin for this review, now you made me order the Colonization expansion. I´m still planning to get my liftoff with the High Frontier basic game and i have read the rule book one and a half time. So thank even to Radohs run through video at BGG, which made me a lot easier to go with the written words.

    1. Glad you found it useful, Bundyman! :D
      It really is an amazing game and when you actually set it up to play things that might seem confusing in the rulebook usually falls into place. Good luck out there!


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