Tuesday, April 03, 2012

High Frontier: an exhaustive (and exhausting) space sim game, or "In space, no one can hear you scream because you screwed yourself and are out of fuel"

Recently Nich Vitek (of Indented Blank Dice and Living Worlds Games, publisher of 1955: War of Espionage and upcoming Schlock Mercenary-which you can preorder with a discount) and I, along with some other folks, have managed to get in games of High Frontier, an extensively-researched simulation about space exploration. The designer, Phil Eklund, worked at NASA for many years, and has been working on High Frontier for the last 3 decades or so. The final result is impressive, but is it fun? (Spoiler: it depends!)

Oh look, I've got a bunch of cards!

There are rules for aero-braking, space piracy, regolith thrusters (conversion of Moon/Mars dust into fuel), how the distance from the sun affects the thrust you get from solar sails, how afterburners cost differing amounts of fuel, which generators one needs for powering things, sizing radiators with mass differences based on cooling needs etc., etc. If you like lots and lots of tiny, fiddly details, this is your game.

Yet, there's a certain elegance to it. Once you get the details down, High Frontier turns are basically 20 seconds of "move a rocket, based on your prior planning, then buy one thing/sell one thing/take a buck." Okay, it's a water tank (water is propellant is currency), but it's also a clear plastic disc.  Nich, being Nich, used his industrial acrylic laser cutter to make totally sweet acrylic markers for the claim sites, with little flags and factory cut-outs that fit into the site bases (see picture of the universe).

The technologies available are frustratingly random. Some are Just Plain Better Than Others (see Magic: The Gathering for why this is bad) which you won't understand the first game (see Power Grid or Greg Costikyan's fine game design essays for why this is bad).  Eklund has more pages of notes on the technologies presented than rules... and there are a lot of rules. The balancing for the different technologies comes from two things, neither of which work perfectly. First, auctions! The technologies come in either 3 stacks, or 6 stacks, depending on if playing the base or expanded game. Almost everything has a significant amount of mass, so over-equipping a rocket is almost worse than under-equipping it. That would be elegant, were it not for the squirrely movement rules about when you burn fuel and how much... which are based in physics. Rockets with fuel can drift in space or hang out in Lagrange points, hopping from orbit to orbit. But burning fuel is necessary in a lot of spots, so careful planning is essential. In every game, I think every player announced, "Crap, I don't have enough fuel to get there and back!" at least once. All this really costs you is calculation time unless there's really nowhere in space you can go... in which case, you're screwed, freighter the crew home (more on this in a moment).

The coolest part of High Frontier is in solving the challenges of getting a robonaut and refinery, along with assorted reactors, radiators, whiskey bottles, makeup cases, handbags, and other accessories, to a site you can then prospect and claim. Prospect? Yes, after all this time and effort, winning a claim, and potentially winning the game, may be based on the results of a single d6 roll. After that, you dump some junk out of your rocket and make it into a factory. This lets you flip a card in your inventory to the other side, upgrading it to (usually) a much better and lighter version, then build the tech and put it in your rocket. Or, if you failed the roll, pack yourself and all your junk back in the rocket and get back on the road to the next die roll. The die roll always succeeds at large sites, which require a bigger rocket to leave. It'd be nice to have more than one rocket... but you can't. (You CAN pack multiple thrusters, including a solar sail, which, yes, Virginia, can be fed into a regolith converter to yield fuel. Heck yeah.)

OH YEAH. Everyone only has one rocket. Just like in real life, each space agency has a monomaniacal focus on only a single moving stack of junk in space.  Screw it up and strand your folks around Jupiter? Ship them back home in a freighter cube that only moves one space per turn... which could be 30 minutes of game time where you do little but relaunch some parts.

There are three ways the game ends: a set number of factories are built in total, two totally sweet Space Ventures are claimed by the same person (I got one in two games), or someone builds 3 factories and spends 5 bucks to end the game. The problem is this: all of these are based on die rolls, unless you're going to the very largest of sites where there are tons of exploitable resources about. We ended one basic game about 2/3 of the way through... which is a segue into another point. Even in the base set, there are two ways to play, basic and advanced. Advanced offers many, many more ways to die, including radiation attrition. You can build the perfect rocket, then roll a 6 and lose parts to radiation, and be stranded/screwed. Whoo! Realism!

The auction rules are also limiting in that if parts fall off your rocket or it blows up, you may be at your hand maximum number of cards, and be unable to bid in auctions. When this happens, other players get fantastic bargains. One faction, the Shizumi, can always buy patent cards and indeed, I locked the expanded game by doing so and rendering two other players unable to progress. We paused the game, argued tensely, and resumed after house-ruling me to a hand limit of 10 cards.  Since Eklund is a regular participant of two lively Yahoo groups devoted to High Frontier, I can't wait to see his reaction to our dilemma and resolution thereof.

There are also combat and piracy rules, and one of the special powers of the Chinese space agency is being extra-heartless about voluntarily killing your crew. We never tested the missile/ray gun rules, nor the kamikaze space buggy rules. One oddity/oversight is that there are only 5 space agencies, so in a 5-player game, you'll have the same set of special powers to haggle over. It seems strange, and I wait eagerly for an expansion with new agencies/powers. ("The Canadian Space Ministry is used to dealing with moose. Any component with a mass of 4 or more is reduced by 1 mass." "The Brazilian Agency has Samba powers, and can do a dance that shuffles one patent stack at the start of any player's turn.")

Another odd non-oversight is that, other than patents flipping to their extra-terrestrial improved side, which you'll do at most perhaps 3 times per game, there's very little you can do to improve your overall lot in life. It's your brain, your crews, some water, and whichever patents you win in auctions, versus the board, and expansion board if you buy that as well. I longed for the ability to do research on general improvements, but that would probably make it too easy.*

In conclusion, High Frontier is brilliant, and also has a lot of depth for those willing to play a few times and get the hang of it, yet there are many groups for whom it won't work. Even one or two players who have a low tolerance for failure or are prone to analysis-paralysis will wreck the experience (we had none of these). Also, it's entirely possible that some approaches will pay off much more handsomely, based entirely on 10 rolls of a single d6... and if the first 5 rolls are fives or sixes instead of ones or twos, that could be the difference between last place and first place.

We managed to play out the Expanded game in about 2.5 hours, which is much less than I expected, and our game finished with scores of 21(me), 20, 19, 18, and 11 (that player got irradiated and/or hit by space junk in Low Earth Orbit more than anyone else combined). Nich's preparation for the second game and willingness to speed us through auctions definitely eliminated at least 20 minutes of mostly-dead time. Even on the second play and being tired as hell, most of the mechanics were second nature to me, and it's gratifying to be able to look at a stack of patents and work out where in space you can head profitably.

Do I recommend High Frontier? Fans of Eklund's earlier American Megafauna, or other longer high-learning-curve games like Outpost, 18xx, Tales of the Arabian Nights, Arkham Horror, Up Front, or Star Fleet Battles will be intrigued. Standard/new-school/young gamers are going to frustrated by the high learning curve and slow pace, and should stay away. We had a hearty debate about whether or not High Frontier is a outlier Euro-game, or a category-transcending unique beast. To be perfectly frank, I don't know if I'm up to playing again soon; I had originally finished the session declaring in frustration, "I'll never play this again, even winnin' ain't fun!" but in writing this review, I had time to reflect on the nature of the game. I am glad I got to play the 2 High Frontier games in short succession, as it was helpful on bringing more game ideas forward and required all (or more!) of my concentration. You don't get that from Dominion or Carcassonne.

I'll also add that the expansion makes the game better.  More tech means more options, and the reduced masses on each patent makes them easier to mix 'n' match. Play a game or two only with the basic set, then jump into the mix!
* "Too easy," of course, meaning "easy at all, in any way, shape, or form." Space exploration is dangerous and difficult, and every turn of High Frontier is a reminder of this.

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