Wednesday 23 October 2013

The Loneliest Frontier

If you have been following me on twitter, you will know I've taken the plunge into the world of board games*. This almost happened by accident: I'm still tweaking the Civilization Revolution variant that I've written the manual for (and little else); and one of the resources I'm using is the rocket science fan site Atomic Rockets. One of the games which gets the Atomic Rockets seal of approval for scientific accuracy in space flight is High Frontier, a game which has been around for a few years, but has just released a new version of its game expansion High Frontier: Colonization. And this, along with Bios: Megafauna by the same designer, are the board games I've decided to first buy and play.

The designer, Phil Eklund, is an actual rocket scientist but surprisingly High Frontier was not his first game - but he has gone on to develop it as a part of his magnum opus: a board game series which allow you to play through the history of the earth (currently from the Permian catastrophe using Bios: Megafauna), mankind (using the now out of print Origins: How We Became Human) and out into space using High Frontier, High Frontier: Colonization and a solitaire game High Frontier: Interstellar which uses the HF: Colonization playing pieces along with a poster map you order online and simulates the first interstellar colonization attempt. Phil has promised further games in the series: namely Bios: Genesis which will cover the origin of life from RNA to multi-cellular organisms, and Bios: Insecta which presumably will cover the pre-Permian period from invertabrates to vertabrates and for which he has made few details available other than the name [Edit: Insecta exists and is mostly in print]. Each game in the series also details how you move from one to the next (another poster release, Bios: Origins expands the Bios: Megafauna and Origins maps, and includes the rules to get from megafauna to High Frontier).

The whole concept is gamer catnip, and I am extraordinarily surprised that the games are not more highly coveted and praised. As a board game neophyte, I can see several reasons for this:

  • The barrier to entry for playing a board game is much higher - namely you have to have two to five people in the same room at the same time, with a similar understanding of a set of rules which only knowledge of these rules is capable of enforcing. So a lot less games get played, and the process of developing and testing these games is a lot less likely to find game design issues which are only obvious after repeated plays.
  • There is an accompanying weird fetishization of physical objects attendant with owning a board game. The process of shipping creates a dissonant anxiety (did I order the right things? when will they arrive?) not to mention the process of handling and taking care of the game (I bent a card! what do you mean I have to cut stuff with scissors?). I can happily report I had absolutely no issues with the procurement process: for High Frontier, you buy the base game here, and the Colonization ziploc expansion here (which fits in the original box) and you'll need to get both to get the 10/10 game experience. Phil has also mailed the pieces to the two players who ended up with a single missing component without prompting when they mentioned it on the Board Game Geek forums.
  • It is not entirely clear which games to buy and which are still available, especially from the Board Game Geek site. At the moment, you can only get High Frontier + High Frontier Expansion, and Bios: Megafauna; and two posters, one for High Frontier: Interstellar and one for Bios: Origins. I'll put together a poster buying guide when I take the plunge. Additionally, you'll need to download the living rules for Bios: Megafauna (and Bios: Origins - there's an optional rule about Herbivore immigrant placement which is recommended by enough people for the main game) and email Phil Eklund to get access to 3 'Alive & Complete' Google docs: for High Frontier, High Frontier Civilisation and High Frontier Interstellar.
  • The way these particular games are designed to work involve a high level of randomness which results in repeated set backs. Coming from a roguelike background, this isn't an issue but the randomness is anathema to what I understand is the Eurogame style of play that a lot of board gamers ascribe to. The alternative school of board games, called Ameritrash, would bounce off the set back side of things, combined with the fact that playing requires a lot of forethought and set up turns (each turn in High Frontier is quite quick to resolve, but if you don't build your rocket right, or miscalculate the fuel required for a trip, you need a lot of turns to recover).
  • The themes and expression of these themes are pitched hard into my hard science fiction ball park ("Blue Goo Sophonts, New Attica Secessionists"), but could be incredibly off putting to your average Star Wars/Star Trek nerd, if such a beast exists (what do you mean there's a whole game dedicated to making one trip of less than 10 light years?). Similarly the balance between game and theme is way off - over half the basic High Frontier manual is a detailed explanation of the technologies involved, and the average High Frontier card has the same balance between information and chrome of a face card in a standard deck of cards - although a lot more information needs to be packed onto a single HF card.
  • The scale and scope of the games is quite different to conventional games set in the genre. Science fiction games are typically multi-solar system spanning space opera epics; civilization games are usually technology centric; rather than socio-technical. Part of this challenge is due to Phil's naive Objectivist and rather perplexing climate change denialist stance, as well as his adoption of some offbeat ideas which sound like cards straight from Steve Jackson's Illuminati (L5 Society!).

It is this scale which is a refreshing change from video games: while the games are simulationist, they are only so in a sense that can be captured simply and expressed clearly - but they achieve much more than an equivalent computer game would dare to. Climate change in Origins involves submerging and exposing continental shelves and in Megafauna whole species can be wiped out in a single card draw. There is a profound cause and effect relationship in these board games which video games lose: were these games be ported to iOS (plz kk thx), people would treat the random number generator as biased against them.

As is my wont, after playing a game and a half of solitaire rules, I've already written a set of house/optional rules/variants for High Frontier: Colonization to address some imbalances in the political side of the game, and Phil has graciously indicated that if I can get them playtested, he'll include them as options in the online rules. That in itself poses a challenge, because I need to find 3 to 5 willing test subjects in Sydney who already understand (and preferably own) the game - or devote the time to learning the online Vassal module. I can't include myself in those games in case I need to tweak the rules while running live, but the changes I've made are simple enough I'm hoping they don't required much amendment.

But the sheer thrill of successfully building a rocket and landing it on Mercury has hooked me. I look forward to the rest of the series.

* Writing this post, I realise I actually mean a plunge back into the world of board games. I owned Steve Jackson's Illuminati at one point and possibly the original Civilization board game and expansion which predates Sid Meier's game. And I'm not sure whether Car Wars counts as a board game.