High Frontier

High Frontier

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.

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32 thoughts on “High Frontier”

  1. I also Kickstarted this. I periodically open the box and fondle the bits, choosing one of the manuals to flip through idly before packing it back up. I’m intimidated. But I’m still happy as a clam to have backed it. 🙂

  2. There are a few recipes online for learning the game if you think you can drag anyone along.

    The one I like, which we ended up doing, was to start with Basic (which is kind of too basic, esp. once you know what you’re looking at), then add Supports, then Bernals, then everything but Combat and Endgame. Still! Four games to full competence, really? It really is like the learning curve of a crunchy RPG if you’re a kid who’s never played anything trickier than Risk.

  3. That’s an excellent write up. You almost convinced me that I should be trying it. Perhaps it needs something like those intensive driving courses where you go away for a week and then take your driving lesson at the end of. I guess a week of High Frontier would kill you?

  4. Play again soon! We restarted our learning curve three separate times in the first edition because we waited too long and couldn’t consolidate the rules and successful mission procedures.

  5. If I can get 2 or 3 people up to speed and then keep us all up to speed then I think we could have an extremely rewarding game of High Frontier over a long day. It’d be no different than an all-day game of Twilight Imperium in terms of commitment and footprint, except without any of the ugly acrimony that seems to come along with TI.

    Ralph Mazza we need to find jobs but IL has been on our maybe-list for a while. Esp. when our AC breaks.

  6. Paul Beakley Illinois? Don’t set your sights so low. You need to move to England. The mountain biking is lovely and in the North you don’t need a/c.

    Apologies to your great state Ralph Mazza​. 😉

  7. I think one of the keys to playing the game well is to be able to eyeball your patents and, knowing what’s possible on the map, come up with a useful mission. We easily spent four hours (!) just playing the card game and not even putting anything on that map, because we did it backwards and looked for missions we wanted to do (everyone went to Mars, which sucks because Mars is bullshit) first and went shopping for cards based on that.

    Our winner did not do that and waited ’til he could get out to the asteroids with the right ship. He had an amazing robonaut that he instantly upgraded to an even more amazing ET version, which unlocked the map for him in ways we couldn’t begin to attempt.

  8. Neil Robinson it’s only a great state because I’m in it. Otherwise…not so much. We’re on year 3 without having been able to pass a budget with $15bn in unpaid bills…

    But the important thing is playing games with me.

  9. “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”

    I want to hear more about this. Or make comparisons to game experiences I know and see which is closer.

    Sort of a sandbox procedurally generated story esque-kind of game? Could you call it a crunchy version of the Quiet Year?

    With the victory points and many avenues, seems deeper than scythe and possibly more complicated than a COIN game but also more generalized? Caverna might be close?

    Though the idea that 8 hours flew by does just remind me of dnd 3.5 and the Magic-esque thrill of assembling a character for combat. I guess the bonus of this game is the game does all the heavy lifting of creating an ‘encounter’ and I would get to be a player.

    The way you came up with personal goals though it reminds most like minecraft or something…

    /ramble

  10. Aaron Berger ooooh boy. Okay. Is it like a storygame? I would say definitely not as I understand and think of storygames. Probably way way more like an OSR hexcrawl kind of thing, where you need to track your food, water, sleep, wear and tear on your equipment, profitability of going to certain places, being able to get back somewhere you can spend your profits, etc. Whatever narrative arc comes out of all that is totally emergent and not purposefully constructed. Again, that’s just as I understand the phrase “storygame” and use it myself. There’s no narrative awareness but there’s lots of pattern-matching that our brains do regardless.

    Imagine a hexcrawl where you started with a map full of known features, likely payouts, and a process by which you need to pack for the expedition but your town has only one long rope, one pair of crampons, six different kinds of magical torches that each throw light under different circumstances (only in the spring, only in a narrow cone, only around moisture, whatever), specialist hirelings that are only good for certain small ranges of endpoints (so Harald the Dwarf is awesome at finding his way around mines, which are typically only in mountains, so you’d better get your hands on that rope and those crampons and oh shit no crampons, got bought up, now we need to rig something out of caltrops on our feet…).

  11. Paul Beakley Yeah I wasn’t shooting for storygame label, was more thinking about a map where there are several projects being worked on. I think your hexcrawl metaphor though is much more fitting and insightful. Thanks.

  12. Aaron Berger continuing: now I would say that COIN games are very much the storygames of board gaming. They’re abstract and quite narrative, insofar as you never really care what the logistical range of your Special Forces specialists are in A Distant Plain, right? What you do care about is that the Americans Coalition kicks ass at murder but murder isn’t how they win, so they need to parley their murder skill into help from the local Afghan government in achieving local support. Lots of little fictional bits cordoning off the fruitful void of the game where you constantly negotiate frenemy relationships to eke out temporary advantages. Make sense?

    This game goes the other direction, giving you procedures that are much more literal: how to get a rocket launched, how to extract fuel, how to prospect, how to maneuver through space, how to balance the mass of your ship against the thrust you need to get safely through radiation belts. And those literal procedures cordon off the fruitful void of trying to maximize your eventual VP payout based on what technologies you have and what deals you can make at the table. The deal-making is a very big deal and more necessary than the book lets on.

  13. A 10 AU trip (Earth on one side of the Sun and Saturn on the other would take about 9 days at 1g. If you had a year you’d only need a couple of micro g’s of constant thrust.

  14. Yabbut what about slowing down and landing somewhere? That part is, apparently, baked into the map paths and I trust that it is, I was just surprised. It conflicts with my mind-model of how big space is and the fact that it takes years and years to get probes out to Saturn now, and that’s without the slowdown.

    Is it that our rockets currently don’t produce a year’s worth of 1-G thrust? Like 6G or whatever to get out of our gravity well and then just coast?

  15. Paul Beakley Yes, that’s basically it. Constant boost adds up super-fast if it’s actually constant. The reason that it’s not generally done is that carrying around enough reaction mass to do that is a big problem because no one’s figured out how to make SF-nal antimatter drives or whatever. But this is why some people get excited about things like laser propulsion and solar sails.

  16. Oh yeah, laser propulsion and solar sails are a really big deal in this game. Well…the sails are nice really close to the Sun, but it’s hard to prospect there.

  17. Physics works out that the most fuel efficient way for rockets to get around the solar system is short high thrust burns close to big planets (or the Sun!) to gain the maximum gravity boost. Airless moons are not too bad if you want to get really low altitude (tens of kilometers) from the surface during your maneuver. Fun!

    Constant acceleration is ridiculously inefficient, but even at low thrust it gets you places fast.

  18. I’m sure there are some maybe-iffy fundamental assumptions buried inside the patent cards that make this stuff possible. Although every card is in fact discussed and footnoted, should you want to dig in more.

    When it was 90-some degrees in the bedroom last night and I couldn’t sleep, I read most of that.

  19. I think the [non-ET] sails are a trap, in a full game. They’re so cheap! But you can’t get enough mass moved to make them worth it in most cases.

  20. Paolo Greco you know, I’m not really sure player count matters. It is very much parallel solitaire except where you need to make deals.

    I’ve been fiddling with the solitaire game all week as part of my obsessing.

  21. It’s the race aspect that makes solitaire a bit less interesting, imho. You need to get to X before an opponent gets to Y, and that forces you to take the die of doom instead of waiting a few turns for income.

    Two players is super-viable, though.

  22. Aaron Berger yeah, several scenarios. Adam Blinkinsop is correct that you’re missing the race pressure, but in the solitaire scenarios you still have to achieve X before Y turns.

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