We did it. It took about 8 hours but by golly we played a complete game of High Frontier.
A buddy and I had bashed our brains against this ridiculous thing last week before our regular (board) game night, and the vertical learning curve turned out to also be greased with industrial lubricant. We juuuust barely assembled a single mission after about 3 hours and called it quits. But it lodged in my head, and I’ve been obsessing over it all week.
The game comes with four thick rulebooks, no joke, which if you’re being honest isn’t that far off from learning a hefty trad RPG. It’s also a hardcore sandbox, which IMO has more in common with traditional roleplaying than the abstraction of most boardgames. So, yes, of course High Frontier features lots of abstraction, no need to quibble and it’s not a binary yes/no thing, but what I mean is that there are all these procedures for handling various small simulative bits, and it’s on you to assemble those bits into something that carries you to your end goal, which is victory points at the end of the game.
Last night’s game used about 80% of the available rules, which are very cleverly modular. I think the brutally ugly graphic design of all the non-map elements hides the fact that there’s a breathtaking amount of hardcore fucking design in this game, largely in how any combination of modules produces a functional game. Some aspects become more important or difficult, and it’s mostly a matter of taste as to just how deep in the weeds you want to go.
We were pretty deep in the weeds. I played with:
* A suite of must-use procedures that differentiates the “Basic Game” from the “Colonization” game: politics, an event table, and a few additional fiddly things that make sense in context with multiple other modules.
* Support, where the basic three bits of gear — thrusters, robots and refineries — are supported by an interlocking array of reactors, generators and radiators.
* Bernals, space stations that start out at a lagrange point for easier mission starts, that you can also rig up with an engine and take out into deep space.
* Colonists, additional crew you can hire for extra actions and/or turn into space colonies for more VPs.
* Gigawatt Thrusters, hyper-efficient engines, think the Epstein Drive from The Expanse, which you can research and build at an extraterrestrial factory. And can be upgraded to terawatt thrusters which are totally insane-o scifi. Apparently that’s how one goes about moving your Bernal waaaay out into deep space, which I didn’t do and explains why I arrived stranded for fuel. Lesson learned!
* Freighters, which are automated ships that haul goods from your ET factories to wherever you need them. They also facilitate “digital swap” (use an on-board 3D printer to tear down whatever you were shipping and print up something different) as well as mobile factories eventually, which is so way out there I can’t really wrap my head around it.
What I left out was the Combat module (seems like an awful lot of work for not much payoff; the BGG forums suggest that the lesson to take away from that is that it’s not worth going to war in space) and the Endgame module. The Endgame module is utterly fascinating and I’d love to add it once I’ve indoctrinated more players into the basics of how to plan a mission and play the game with basic competence, which none of us actually has yet. But the Endgames! So cool! You basically aim for these radical hard-sci-fi future scenarios, like where you liberate your AI robot workers and give them full citizenship, or you load a Bernal with a zillion colonists and head off to Alpha Centauri, or you fully populate the moons of Jupiter, whatever.
The sandbox thing is very compelling. You basically get VPs for every marker you’ve left on the map via prospecting, industrializing, colonizing and your Bernal(s). Then you get bonus VPs for your factories on a sliding scale based on how many of them have been built — the more the fewer — plus special points for building factories at “science sites” that are now labs, and a couple other. Lots and lots of ways to score.
Honestly, we were so utterly immersed in working out our plans that the eight hours flew by and none of us were really thinking about our VPs. I knew I was losing, and I knew it early, but it was such an engaging challenge! I had ended up with a really bad piece of tech in my hand that hamstrung me all game long, although I did achieve a personal aesthetic victory in shuttling my Bernal out to Callisto. Couldn’t do anything once I got there! But by gum I got there.
The winner of the game patiently built a really strong hand of rocket bits and headed off to the asteroid belt. There, he was able to prospect lots of rocks at once without landing, set up a variety of factories, fabricate even better shit right there in the belt, then pick up and keep going, over and over, until he’d squatted or busted almost every rock out there. Amazing. His final build was a Ferrari of a scout ship, easily zipping out to the asteroids one year, returning the next, back and forth until he’d outbuilt and outprospected us.
The science in the game is allegedly airtight, like tight enough that you can learn actual rocket science playing it, but some plays seemed uh…iffy from a realism standpoint. The second-place player, knowing he was gonna get crushed by Scouty McAsteroidpants, made a personal goal of building a super-juiced rocket on Mercury, making a ginormous slingshot around the Sun, slingshotting around Jupiter, zipping out to fucking Saturn for one more slingshot and then landing on Titan. In one year. I have no idea how many Gs those poor astronauts were pulling for those 12 months but I’m pretty sure they got poured out of the ship when they made Titanfall.
It’s crazy how deeply this game has embedded itself. The puzzle aspect is unrivaled, and the audacity of some of the out-of-the-box solutions you can come up with (because you get many discrete small processes rather than one big abstraction) is thrilling. That shot from Mercury to Titan, for example, totally badass even after 8 hours of slogging through bad inventions and bad luck. There’s also a roleplaying-ish aspect to this, in that you play a space organization with a particular political agenda and that agenda makes itself felt all game long. In fact if you can push Earth out of its centrist policies and into your faction’s preferred politics, things get super weird. I was playing the European Space Agency, which is all liberal and hippie to the point where I could set a policy of just taking money from everyone (egalitarianism!) if I was behind. My opponents were playing libertarians via Space-X, and hard-right ‘Murica via NASA, but we just didn’t have the bandwidth to get into that part of the game.
It’s hard to ask people to come along on a ride like this but it reminds me a lot of being in grade school and convincing your friends that there’s no better way to spend a whole weekend than learning and playing D&D for 16 straight hours.