Sunday 16 February 2014

Review: High Frontier Colonization

Are you willing to gamble an hour of time, sweat and frozen tears on the roll of a dice? That's the question High Frontier will ask of you, and if you're not willing - and the randomness this game tempts you with can always be overcome with more turns and more water (its unit of currency) - the steely eyed missile man next to you will be, and he (or she) will win the game as a result.

Phil Eklund designs board games by building a simulation then letting his play testers tell him what is fun; and High Frontier is the simulation closest to his heart and some twenty years in the making. The basic game (sadly out of print) outlines the template of colonising the solar system by flying a rocket to a planet or planetoid which comes in five spectral classes, prospecting and (if successful) industrialising it using a robonaut and refinery, and then ET producing advanced technologies in the resulting factory which allow you to fly further, faster with less mass and get more water when you get there. The Colonization expansion takes this template and turns it into a compelling, deep, rewarding game.

Each turn you get two types of actions: operations, which lets you progress towards your goal by doing things like earning income, researching patents (cards) in auction, boosting cards into orbit; and moves, which lets you form and move a spacecraft. You begin with one crew operation, and one rocket move, and by acquiring additional technologies, many of which are presented in the Colonization rules as self-contained modules, you can get additional moves as you build and promote freighters, and promote your Bernal - a self-contained space habitat that I strongly recommend you include the rules for if you are playing with the political and event tracks, and additional operations by recruiting and boosting colonists.

The political track comes into its own with the colonist module which lets you recruit would be space farers from the mundane (Islamic Refugees) to the theoretical (Blue Goo Symbonts) - each of which has political allegiance to and votes for one of the five factions in the game, and not necessarily the faction who is its employer. The current politics determines how much you get when you free market patents back to the bottom of the deck; but also who is in power and able to antitrust duplicate card types out of any other player's hand. Extreme politics also restrict some or all players in the game and otherwise mix up the rules; intervening politics takes the form of anarchy or war, which allows felonies and even combat between factions.

High Frontier has been criticised for being inaccessible: and this inaccessibility takes two main forms. The first of which is mechanical. In the perhaps 25 turn basic game, you'll spend the first 15 to 20 turns doing nothing but auctioning for patent cards and boosting rocket parts in order to build and fuel your first rocket. The basic rockets in the game use water for fuel, and 40 tonnes of water in low earth orbit (1 WT) is the basic currency of the game, so you literally are burning dollars as you move around the solar system. The last few turns involve a rapid and risky land grab and industrialisation and then the basic game is over just as it feels like it is beginning - a fault Colonization rectifies but unfortunately by extending what is otherwise a briskly paced 2 hour game.

The second point of inaccessibility is conceptual: and it involves understanding the map. The High Frontier map is an elegant and beautiful artefact - the London Underground map of the solar system out to Sedna in the Oort cloud. Moving about this map, once you grok it, is both graceful and frustrating, as planned routes fall short by one tank of fuel, or the mass of the fuel required to get your rocket to its destination instead brings it to a dead stop. For beginners that frustration manifests in failed missions, where the price of failure often involves many turns of effort to reassemble the rocket and recover the stranded crew.

The map is organised in concentric zones with the sun as their centre, named for each of the planets (plus Ceres) and inscribed with helical paths which allow you to move between zones, planets and asteroids. The primary obstacle in your path takes the form of burns. Each burn uses a number of steps of fuel depending on the efficiency of your spacecraft's thruster: the highly inefficient built-in crew module thrusters cost six steps of fuel per burn, the typical workhorse thrusters you build use two to four fuel steps per burn and highly efficient rockets less, to the point where you reach star drives which effectively use no fuel to move (but so do solar sails which you can research immediately, but whose thrust level and dependency on solar power restricts them to the inner solar system unless you know what you're doing). The lighter the rocket, the more steps of fuel you get for each tank of water you invest (but the more fuel carried, the lower the payoff for adding another tank).

Burns appear at the edge of each zone and around planets - the larger the planet, the more burns intervening; and you typically plan starting routes so that you cross no more than three burns before you reach your destination or a refueling point along the way. But you have to balance burns against thrust requirements, because to land on an usable site requires that you have a higher thrust than the size of the site, or you pay a penalty in fuel steps equal to the size of the planet when you land, and again when you take off. The Moon is size 9 in this scheme, and is one of the more inaccessible places in the whole solar system when you take this into account. High thrust thrusters are hugely inefficient (crew modules are thrust 8 or 9, most starting rockets are thrust 3 to 5), so you'll want to carry a second thruster for the landing, but that adds mass which reduces rocket effectiveness...

When you do reach somewhere; and provided you've managed the more complex task of bringing a robonaut or crew with you, you may be able to prospect the site and claim it. You can only prospect if the ISRU rating of the card you're using to prospect is less than or equal to the water rating of the site, both on a 0-4 scale. Crew starts with 4, most beginning robonauts are 2 or 3: the most easily accessible sites are 0, 1 or 2. This is a hard limit, so you have to envisage the board as if sites with lower ISRUs than you can access simply don't exist, for both prospecting and refuelling purposes. But the roll for prospecting depends on the site size, where you roll one dice (or two, with a buggy) to try to get less than or equal to the site size. Comets are a great example of this trade off: they are wet (4 hydration) but small (size 1) and have adjacent hazards which you must spend 4 WT or avoid a roll of 1 to pass through safely, and the majority are synodic comets are only accessible for part of the solar cycle.

A successful claim is only the beginning, because among the heavier cards in the game are refineries, which you combine with a robonaut to industrialise and build a factory on a successful claim (returning both cards to your hand). It is at this point the spectral class of a site matters: because all the technologies you can build also have a spectral class, which allows you to produce the black side of the card but only at your factories with the matching spectral type. Black cards are typically improvements, but the best white cards typically have the most underwhelming black sides, and the most powerful black sides (including the legendary Salt Water Zubrin) are on the black side of the worst white cards. The most easily accessible spectral class is C but few powerful cards are this spectral type (and no gigawatt rockets), the majority and most powerful of cards are spectral class S, but S sites are amongst the smallest and driest in the game (Lunar excepted), and V, D and M spectral classes are distributed in smaller quantities in harder to reach places.

And when you've built the first of your factories and can begin producing black cards that the game of High Frontier Colonization gets going. I can only describe a 2 player High Frontier Colonization game I played recently over at the Board Game Geek forums where I was UN playing NASA in order to capture the flavour of the game.

NASA was able to establish an early claim on Deimos and started shipping water and ET produced D technologies back to his Bernal. I had tried slowing the game down by going anti-nuke, and using my diplomatic immunity to allow me to continue to research and boost reactors but when it became clear that the game was going to run away from me, I forced two elections using Activism, with a threat of going Egalitarianism forcing him to move to Anarchy after he spent an unprecedented 7 WT on the first election to do so to try to counter the political dominance that my Vatican Observers gave me. With my second election I declared war, and hit his Bernal with boosted Kuck Mosquito powered by a Lyman Alpha Trap, killing his Siren Cybernetics Inc colonists who had threatened me consistently with antitrust, along with 7 other cards including two blacks.

I followed this up with a successful water theft on Deimos, avoiding two of his missile counter salvos, and tried to move my Bernal (with the Vatican Observers) to Vesta to avoid further attack which I had already industrialized but it was destroyed moving through the Karin group which I had bust previously.

I was forced to rely on the Ablative Laser and Biophytolytic Algae Farm to moving and prospecting from comet to comet (unsuccessfully), until just before the red synodic comet, which (due to turn order) he was able to get to before me and prospect successfully - I managed to industrialize a non-synodic comet one burn away. I had been able to research and produce both the V freigher and GW thruster which held out some hope, but with a comet dirtside (along with M class Hertha he used to build his terawatt thruster) he was able to boost more colonists, turn his Bernal into a lab and reach Europa. I conceded when he researched the D freighter after a long inspiration burn: it would have been a short step from there to emancipate the robots and build the Beehive future victory with 4 spectral classes Europa would have given him he needed for the Epic Hazard op.

I want to stress that I conceded at what would normally be the beginning of the High Frontier Colonization late game - because the game had been so one sided. I had failed every prospect I attempted except the last (and where prospecting was automatically successful), he had succeeded at every prospect no matter how unlikely. But what sticks with me, is no matter how far behind I was, there was a possibility at almost every turn which I could leverage, if I looked hard enough. The game felt like playing chess, but where I could find cracks between his bishops and rooks with which to move my remaining pawns.

And this is why High Frontier Colonization rewards the time you invest in it. There is no game winning tactic, easy synergy or cheap trick: and yet when you look hard enough, every move you make takes advantage of your knowledge and understanding of the interlocking systems in the game.