High Frontier

Final Thoughts (for now)

I think this last 10-ish hour game of High Frontier has left everyone in a state of prolonged satisfaction and/or profound burnout. I’m shelving it for a while! Maybe a month. Then I’ll probably start hustling for more suckers victims converts.

The process has been interesting and frustrating and deeply satisfying for me in several ways. It kind of reminds me of the process of really mastering Burning Wheel back in the day. Some thoughts in no particular order:

* The early game is both the slowest and most interesting part of the game, and it doesn’t even really require the map (other than to provide you goals for ship building). The non-quickstart version of the game starts you with four bucks and literally nothing but your crew (and Bernal). It is slow! Probably added an hour, maybe even two, to the game. We all felt it. But it’s also very tactical and, like the rest of the game, utterly unforgiving. I think probably the next stage of our committed players’ (me and one or maybe two others) development is speeding the early game way way up. Nailing down some kind of mission to start running as early as possible. We’re all still in the mode of curating a perfect first mission, so there’s no pressure to speed that up.

* The midgame is, for me, the most fun: you’ve got some kind of janky ship cobbled together and you need to hustle and balance and work out clever solutions. This is the part where you build a ship, fly it, do an operation, maybe outpost the bits for later, build a second ship, get factories going, and so on. It’s the most dynamic but it took us close to three hours before that part started happening. And early bad rolls can really eff up your plans, which maybe you can blame on bad planning — a “good” plan in High Frontier probably needs a couple backups — but mostly just generates a lot of frustration. Three+ hours into your game, if you’re not playing with perfect Zen serenity, makes your bad rolls feel even worse.

* This was, I think, the first time I’ve ever really deeply experienced the true endgame. I was chasing Futures, one of my players dropped out, and the last one to stick it out starting sniping the various Glory and Venture opportunities. And that is, I think, my only legit gripe about the game: if it’s taken you 7-8 hours to get to the endgame, it’s not unreasonable to be impatient to wrap it up. And the game kind of feeds that impatience! By then you’ve refined down to your final hand of stuff you can ET produce and/or have lab-promoted. That part of the game is over/solved, and now it becomes a pure efficiency race: can I earn my points faster than my opponents? And since it’s Futures that bring the endgame about, and they’re so darned hard to complete, it seems kind of like you’re either just handing the game to the player avoiding the hard work, or you’re playing chicken with who can complete their Futures first while you both compete for other VPs on the board. Which means you’re accepting the game is gonna run a couple more hours.

I don’t see any solution to the endgame other than extreme and prolonged experience on the part of all the players. If you have one uncertain player, that functionally triples the play time. Orrr they’re making random-ish choices and getting nowhere, because every mistake is suffered tenfold. And who wants to put up with that, just for the vague promise of maybe someday getting better at it?

The investment required to play the game at the level it needs to be played “well” is like nothing I’ve ever attempted. I feel like I’m now, basically, competent. It would probably take 8-10 more plays of 8-10 hours each before I felt like I could play “well.” There are whole realms of play I’ve never even experimented with: felonies, combat, freighters, robot colonists. And now that I’ve seen the endgame up close and personal, I feel like I need to revisit my entire early game approach so that I’m steadily pursuing as many different kinds of VPs as possible. The Futures feel like they should be a race, not a grenade for one poor sap to throw themselves on.

Goodbye High Frontier! For now! I’m sure the bug will not leave my system entirely.

High Frontier

The full meal deal today: no weakling “quick start,” combat rules in play, aiming for Futures. We’re not quite smooth enough players to make it a quick game.

I keep thinking I’m getting good at the game, and I’m improving for sure, but dang…it’s hard to be tactical. I strongly suspect our early games are mind numbingly slow as we toddle toward better card sets. Whenever I read play reports, you know…the good players sound so good! I’m sure the same thing happens with rpg reports out of good groups.

One good thing we’re figuring out is some ad hoc collaboration, stuff like fabricating advanced tech and then trading it around. It’s neat! Less neat once you’ve left Earth forever for the greener pastures of Callisto.

EDIT 1: About four hours into play, I finally hit my stride and maybe found a game breaking advantage: once you’ve gathered lots of water, you can hire lots of colonists and then the extra actions start to stack up in a bad way. I’ve got five actions and the folks behind me have 2 or 3.

EDIT 2: At hour six I’m ready to step up to the terawatt thruster game. Need to haul one more piece of hardware from Earth to support it but it so close I can taste it.

Seriously, this game gets me so amped up! 

EDIT 3: I’ve got an ultratech lab doing unethical things on the back side of Europa. They built me my terawatt thruster, then upgraded my genetic engineers into “blue goo sybonts.” Those things want to find life in deep space, so now we’re industrializing the Jovian Trojans in search of our Future.

That was pretty easy. Headed to my second future, which looks crazy-hard on paper.

EDIT 4: We’ve officially hit burnout for two of the three players at hour 9. The end is in sight, I’m probably going to win, and we’re kind of going through the motions. It feels quite a lot more like a traditional optimal-point-salad game here at the end, other players gaming out how many points they can squeeze in before I finish my second Future.

Ah well, it’s been a good run. I finally got to play the full meal deal, no holds barred, and it only took about…80 hours of intense play and who knows how many hours of study.

I could have earned a master’s by now. 🤤

EDIT 5: I ended up losing anyway! And I’ve got thoughts I’ll share later, now that we’ve seen the complete endgame up close and personal.

I’ve had the longest 7-9 kind of week…

* Your kid has lice! You catch them in time but you almost burn the house down what do you doooo

* You keep your house from burning down but your air conditioner needs to be replaced what do you doooo

* Your suddenly unlivable house means you must now relocate your niece’s birthday party! You move it to the grandparents’ but they have a family friend die and must cancel all social engagements what do you doooo

If I were a player in my game I’d be so ready for a dungeon.


$750 to get all-in on this. Every expansion plus the core game.

If I bought literally everything and split the cost eight ways (for the eight player full meal deal) we’d still be paying nearly $100 apiece.

Not a critique. Not at all. Just…whew.


Prep-hate and Hate-prepping
Premise vs Theme vs Setting

Maybe it’s the overloaded week-and-some I’m still in the middle of — on top of nearly burning the house down after a lice scare, now I’m managing an AC replacement and my niece’s birthday party — but I’ve got serious reservations about my decision to run Torchbearer next.

Low investment? Not after I start plowing real hours into prep! Maybe that’s a sunk cost fallacy thing. More likely, I just forgot what managing a more traditional RPG really felt like.

It doesn’t help that I hate prepping. It’s not a waste of time but lonely fun is my least-favorite form of fun. It is kind of nice to sit there and daydream about what all we’re gonna talk about. Especially in a game like Torchbearer that has at best a lightly implied setting, there’s quite a lot of work I feel like I need to put in on making a sensible place full of sensible pressures that support the game’s focus. At least in Torchbearer it’s got laser-like focus: you’re all losers who can’t hold down a real job, otherwise no way in hell you’d be going down dirty holes looking for old junk.

But where did those holes come from? Why are there such downtrodden, yet variously skilled, people at loose ends?

The dungeon-delving fantasy adventure genre, I think, has always had something of a post-apocalyptic quality to it. A fallen age that’s left behind scraps of wonder and hints of beauty. A very loose and localized power structure where strongpersons hold sway through fear and allegiance. Tremendous ongoing fear of the Other. And if you’re doing it right, a strongly superstitious worldview. I mean this stuff is all readily obvious, right?

So I’m going through Torchbearer for the first time in … four years? A lot of years. And while I’m ostensibly tightening up my grasp of the game’s procedures, what my brain is really chewing on is the why, the fictional through-line, the themes. It’s probably a huge and frustrating mistake; Torchbearer isn’t really a theme-y game. But I can’t avoid it. I just … cannot shrug when someone asks “so why are these losers risking life and limb spelunking for trash?”

It’s bearing some fruit. Other than the big core theme of hard-earned heroism baked into Torchbearer itself via its economies and procedures, the rest is left up to the GM. Or not, fuck it, just start hitting obstacles. What a difference from my long streak of more story-oriented play! I’m very much hoping some stoooory percolates up out of my prep, character setup, and Town events.

The game starts with a sorta-collaborative exercise in creating a map of the adventuring area. There’s always an elven land, a wizard’s tower, a big city, a small town, a religious bastion, dwaven halls, etc. Those all match up one-for-one with the home town question you have to answer during character creation, so that’s all good. I remember, when we were playtesting this, that we ended up with a pretty good but utterly generic fantasy setting. I guess it’s the ease of falling back onto an utterly generic fantasy setting that makes me wrinkle my nose a little. Then again it’s not really that different than the utterly generic cyberpunk sprawl we all probably end up with running The Veil or the utterly generic urban fantasy city you get from Urban Shadows.

Now I’m kind of treating my prep as hate-prep. Like, I hate it so much that I’m doing it just to get angry. I get angry at the tropes I’m drowning in! So I cook up something weird and novel and probably alienating to the players who really just wanted to show up and dodge gnoll spears. Then I get angry at that and think, ehhh fuck it, it was supposed to be a low-investment exercise until the school year starts and everyone’s schedules settle down. Probably if I left all this to the players, we’d end up with a perfectly playable pastiche and nobody would be unhappy. Except me, of course, for all the worst reasons.

Oh yeah we also played a few rounds of Mechs vs Minions. Still very cute, but with four smart players it feels pretty easy. The maps get big!

The mystery box gets opened in the third scenario so it’s really not much of a mystery: a “boss mech” with its own command line and cards.

Xia + the expansion

I think I might have too many boardgames.

The expansion (something something Ember something) for Xia is good, quite good, but we haven’t played Xia in maybe a couple years because Xia without the expansion is uh…not great. And because it wasn’t great (although arguably it is pretty good), it didn’t get a lot of play. So my players swam ever forward, like sharks.

We played this today but it took hours of relearning the rules, stumbling through edge case stuff, grinding through web searches for faqs and forum threads. It didn’t put us in a great mood to want to try it again. It’s not the game’s fault! If we were playing between eight or ten games, gosh, we’d know them all very well. This wouldn’t come up. And because the collection has so many genuinely great games in it, it’s very hard to rationalize investing the time to master something that might not ever prove to be great.

It’s quite a conundrum. And its leading to some real frustration among my friends.

Anyway, so Xia is a sandbox space adventure game. There are a dozen ways to earn points, you can upgrade your spaceship, you can dodge around NPC ships or go exploring or carry out missions. It’s a physically beautiful game, full of painted ships and gaudy boards. The expansion fixes just about everything we had problems with (however many years ago), and I think with regular play it wouldn’t even take that long to play. There are now more map sections, more missions, more titles, more ships, more more more.

Maybe in some alternate universe I could play several days a week and keep my hundreds of games straight in my head. I could be okay occasionally inflicting less than great games on people just for the pleasure of the journey. The opportunity cost of free adulthood time would not be so high.