Archive for November, 2010

Essence of a great war-game – I

Whiling away some time in Birmingham airport, delayed by snow in Edinburgh, I’ve recorded some thoughts on what makes a really great war-game for me.

I’ve discussed my current list below and summarised it here.

  • Convincing portrayal of topic
  • Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context
  • Excellent fit of mechanics to topic
  • Appropriate level of challenge

This is all personal and not terribly analytical, because players and designers have their own views of what makes a great board or card war-game. I’m looking for the essence here, not just examples, although I’ve tried to illustrate my points with concrete examples from my own experience.

First I’ll define some terms. I mean “great” not just good, so the principles have to be capable of producing excellence. “Wargame” – let’s use a fairly broad definition to include board and card games that have the topic of “warfare”. And I would include things like Twilight Struggle, that isn’t about “hot” war but is generally included amongst war-games. However, I’m excluding non-warfare conflict games and also miniatures from this exercise.

Topic is vital. This doesn’t mean that the game has to be in a popular period, or in an obscure one. Execution of the topic aspects has to make the game believable. What do I mean by “believability”?  I think this goes to the heart of the “theme v simulation” debate that I have rehearsed elsewhere. The game has to convince the players that it reflects an aspect of the reality or truth of the topic.  I think this could be achieved by theme or simulation.

An example of where this might be achieved by theme could be Up Front. I have heard it argued by people whose views I respect, that Up Front is a poor representation of WW2 infantry combat, and it pretty much fails on key simulation aspects – ground and distance relationships are abstract, command features are rudimentary, and you cannot carry out “realistic” doctrinal tactics. However, it seems to me that it captures some of the essence of fire, movement, morale and periods of inactivity that typify infantry combat.

An example of this from the simulation  perspective would be Paths of Glory. With its range of historical event cards that constrain play, and its effective strategic movement and combat rules, PoG gives an excellent flavour of the European strategic level conduct of WW1; it is a successful game and also to some extent a model of the WW1 European theatre, albeit that it compromises in favour of the game over the simulation.

The mechanics of our putative great wargame have to work very well within the game’s perspective and parameters (‘Weltanschauung’ is what I mean here).  This is not necessarily to do with how smooth and unwrinkled the game design is. Wargames are notorious for having clunky bits of law-based rules (the Germans in PoG shall not end their movement in the Channel ports in 1914 for example). Sometimes this feels necessary in war-games that attempt to portray or at least allow for what actually happened in history. Hence the predilection for card-driven systems, in which over-riding card can take care of awkward exceptions.

Great game mechanics have to do their job superbly within the context of the topic – they have to “fit” the topic. So a WW2 strategic game not only has to portray armoured warfare convincingly, but also has to have mechanics that enable players to carry out believable (theme or simulation) armoured operations. For a great game, I think this aspect of play should be positively encouraged, not just enabled.

This aspect is often helped by providing players with an historical role (a character or team) through which their actions are enacted. Typical strategic roles are high command teams, often implicit rather than explicit. “Being Napoleon” is a common wargamer role!

The mechanics have to either simulate an aspect of the topic very well or provide exemplary flavour or both. An example is the simple supply unit system in SPI’s La Grande Armee system, coupled with a forced march sub-system that allows French units greater latitude to break away from formal supply constraints than their Austrian, Prussian and Russian enemies.

The game also has to be a great game in its own right. It has to provide an appropriate level of challenge for its audience.

Component quality is a tricky one. Many would include this as a requirement, but traditionally war-games publishers have not been able to afford high quality components owing to the small size of markets. Personally I’m happy with cheap and cheerful hex and counter approaches, so I don’t include this as a requirement. Others may disagree.

To be continued …


Dramatic Consequences Game Library

6 Nimmt Key Market Traders of Carthage
7 Wonders Loco Transamerica
7Up London Troyes
A La Carte Magnum Sal Tsuro
Adlung Land Mai-star Vasco da Gama
Age of Industry Mamma Mia War On Terror
Agricola Master Of Rules Waterloo/Quatre Bras
Agricola G deck Medici v Strozzi Whack a Catgirl
Alles im Eimer Merkator Zooloretto
Alles Tomate Metro Zug Um Zug
Antics Mission Red Planet
Antigua Mosaix
Attribute Name Of The Rose
Ausreisser No Thanks
Ave Caesar Nobunaga
Battlestar Galactica Notre Dame
Battlestar Galactica Pegasus Odin’s Ravens
Bloody Legacy Parade
Bottle Imp Pass the Pigs
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose Playing Cards
Caligula Pocket Battles Celts & Romans
Canal Grande Pocket Battles Orcs & Elves
Cartagena Poison
Cartagena 2 Puerto Rico
Cat & Chocalate Quirrly
Coloretto Race for the Galaxy
Confucius R-Eco
Coppertwaddle Ricochet Robots
Die Fugger Roll Through The Ages
Dixit RRR
Dominant Species San Juan
Dominion Scandaroon
Einfach Genial Sceptre of Zavandor
Endeavor Shadow Hunters
Erosion Small World
Fairy Tale Spot
Farmers of the Moor St Petersburg
Filou Stack Market
Fzzzt x 2 String Railway
Gettysburg Sun, Sea & Sand
Grimoire Tara Seat of Kings
Igel Argern The Resistance
Inca Empire Thunderstone
Innovation Tier auf Tier
Inquisitio Totemo
Jet Set Trader

Roll Through The Ages Yucata Tournie

I only decided to do this because it’s a nice quick game! However, Spiel des Jahres nominee, very accessible game and creditable online implementation has led to very large demand. Over 500 gamers had registered an interest in this online tournament several days prior to the advertised closing date. So it’s all kicked off early with yours truly as one of the many. And a few more games than expected. Lesson: read the tournie rules before signing up.

Ah well. I’ve won the first of 7 games.

In the Western Desert

Our WW2 game in the Western Desert turned out OK on Saturday.  Some players were a little nonplussed, because we allowed the Brits to carry out an extensive turning manoeuvre that placed them in the Italian rear, through the efficacy of placing some more tables.  This was somewhat unconventional, but I’m hoping that players will get used to the idea that the world doesn’t end at the table edge in our historical games.

Interestingly there was virtually no small arms fire in the game, as most elements were engaging at longer than 250m and often at longer than 500m.  Infantry was mostly smoke shrouded, or in the case of the Italians withdrew before enemy infantry could get into range, in order to avoid the Matildas.  The Matildas were pretty much invulnerable, as expected, except to Italian large howitzers, which could kill Matildas and Valentines on a 6 – quite a few 6s were rolled.

There were a few game design and development points to consider as a result of the game.  The concept of Cold Bounds (15 mins) and Hot Bounds (5 mins) certainly speeded up the flow of game time.  With the game starting well before dawn and the first pre-planned action due at 05:30, we still managed to play till 08:45 in game time, nearly 30 bounds done.  If we’d stuck to the traditional 5 minute turns, we would have completed barely an hour and a half of game time.  I think this worked well, because units at the edge of 500m range could decide not to engage (not firing) and force a Cold Bound; a withdrawal would enable their rearward units to catch up.  In a more traditional game, forward units tend to get mixed up in long range action to little effect but expenditure of time and effort.

However, there were some glitches:

  • As all units can attack twice in a Cold Turn (although I failed to change it properly when I dropped the warm bound concept), artillery were able to bombard twice on the same location.  Nobody queried this, but moving units should only be subject to a single bombardment through a beaten zone.  This would possibly have made the Italian artillery a little less effective, though they did have double the normal allocation anyway.  We also failed to implement drift for newly targeted batteries, though actually most of the Italian fire was pre-programmed map fire so didn’t need it.
  • We need a ruling on what happens if a battalion HQ is hit – this may not directly affect companies, except for disruption of communications.  But this still needs handling in the rules, and similarly for higher level HQs.
  • The current rules don’t have an adequate sequence for air attacks, especially during Cold Bounds, so we improvised, allowing CAP to intercept and flak to fire prior to attack runs.  This was fine, so I’ll work it up to a proper sequence.
  • There needs to be greater clarity in the rules on interrupting Cold Bounds – direct fire or movement within 500m makes it Hot; if the latter, then this will immediately make the Cold Bound into a Hot one, with loss of movement rate if not co-ordinated correctly by the phasing player.  This should reflect friction better in a multi-player game, but will require sensitive or at least firm umpiring.

For the next game, I want to have re-written the whole ruleset and hopefully have changed the dicing, so that we just use d10s for consistency.  2d10 would give a useful % feel to it as well.  This will give us the opportunity to review the weapons and armour penetration stats, as well as to consider our new plans for companies: we aim to reflect a company’s capability within its elements, but not its organisation.  So we may decide to have AT capability as a separate element, even though it might be integrated into platoons.

Previous games I’ve done cards for commands, which is too labour intensive.  This time we went the other way and didn’t have enough information about the commands.  The best solution is I think to have a specific play aid that includes only the weapon systems involved in the scenario, plus copies of the whole command structure of their side for each player, so they can see how it all fits together, using standard NATO symbols.  These could be crossed off as losses occur, or players can just rely on the figures.

More preparation time for players is required.  Perhaps we should have a more explicit lead-up to the day, with all details out to players a week in advance to permit planning and recce.  Both planning and recce, if taking place before the actual day, should be finished 2 or 3 real days in advance of the game, so that umpires can adjudicate and tell players what has happened.  There should only be a minimum of decisions by players for this – umpire it within the broad plans of each side.

It would help to have a complete breakdown of the whole sequence of play in detail (a la FoG).  Plus some areas need a bit more work: minefields, particularly clearing them, effect of artillery on them, time to repair, doctrines for laying and marking; effect of artillery on telephone lines needs clarification – I think Stephen was too generous to allow buried lines to survive artillery bombardment with no effect; combat within area effect smoke screens; conversion dice for well-dug-in infantry in trenches (not just slit trenches).

Just realised that I should really have taken some piccies.  Oh well, next time.


An Essen veteran’s convention report from Essen Spiel ’10
From: Alan Paull, alias BenthamFish, a designer from a small UK publisher, Surprised Stare Games

It’s Spiel time again!

Tony Boydell, Charlie Paull and myself at Surprised Stare Games undertake a regular expedition to Essen in October each year that happens to coincide with Spiel. Since we always take along a van full of games on the expedition, it would be a shame not to exploit the opportunity to nip along to the Messe and present them for the delectation of the many gamers who congregate there. And with an empty van to bring back, why not add in a few new games for the return journey?

In short, it’s time for Spiel ’10.

Game Preparations [Monday]

This year Tony’s taking the van, while Charlie and I are driving across rather than flying. We can then meet up on the ferry both ways. Owing to stress levels, this is almost always a productive time for game design. Lots of notes and drawings are made, though sometimes the process can degenerate into games involving small brown cubes.

Stroud to Dover was our first leg – uneventful. Not even a traffic jam of note on the M25, though Ditzy (our satnav) took us south from Reading to link up with the M3 – didn’t feel like a great route.

We had to negotiate to get a little emergency help on the stand, because our German speaking helper was unfortunately ill in hospital – she wasn’t able to make it to Essen this year, but is happily back in action. Thanks very much to Chooi [Teik Chooi Oh] and Daniel [Daniel Danzer] for putting themselves forward and also to Philip [Philip Bolton], a friend of Chooi who was unstinting in providing his time and proved a worthy Totemo demonstrator.

Early start tomorrow (Tuesday) – up at 06:00 so we can get the early ferry and drive rapidly across to Essen, in order to put Totemo into the Press Room before it closes.

Game Preparations [Tuesday]

I’d prefer to rush through this part of the report, in the same way that we rushed through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany. Once you’ve done this drive a few times, it gets a bit stale and monotonous. Ditzy decided to give us a little bit of excitement. In preparation for the trip, I’d updated her maps, but she seemed to have difficulty interpreting the new ones. She kept insisting that we were on a parallel ‘virtual’ road at some distance from the real one. In the end we switched the SatNav off, when we realised that she’d placed the Messe to the south west of Essen in open fields with no roads and only a couple of railway lines for company. As it happens, we knew the way, so we could mostly avoid detours.

We also avoided the French fuel strike by remembering to fill up in Dover. My only worry was that there might have been a Dunkirk blockade – it’s happened before, but not around Essen time thank goodness. I guess there’s a game in there somewhere, but this time we managed our action points perfectly. Charlie and I arrived at the Messe in time to construct a nice little display of Totemo in the Press Room, complete with the large table-top blocks that Charlie had spent many an hour making and painting in the previous week.

Totemo in the Press Room at Essen 2010

Totemo in the Press Room at Spiel


Game Set-up [Wednesday]

All setup was done on time, so we were all ready by soon after lunchtime for the Thursday morning stampede! After our exorbitant expenditure on stand paraphenalia at our first Essen trip back in 2001, we no longer have special carpets and huge amounts of professional and expensive marketing materials and special furniture. We make do with 2 or 3 well designed banners, plus posters for the walls, lots of product, some shelving for the games, and most importantly chairs and tables for playing the games on. And for this year T O T E M O spelt out in large friendly blocks simulating the real wooden blocks of the game, made through the multiple talents of Mr Boydell.

Tony Boydell in SSG stand at Essen

Tony Boydell in SSG stand at Essen 2010

Most of our sales come from pre-orders, and converting players into purchasers. Essen is above all a convention for playing new games.

Thanks to Chooi and Philip for their help setting up. And also to all the old friends who dropped by to see us.

This year we are sharing our stand with Gavin, designer and producer of Cubiko. We’re also selling Octoputs, a game-for-charity produced by Mike Oakes.

Cubiko part of the SSG stand Spiel '10

Cubiko part of the SSG stand Spiel '10

Wednesday gives exhibitors an early opportunity to hunt out essential purchases while the mass audience has not yet arrived. It’s also press day, so it’s important with a new game to have the stand manned in case of media interest. At this time, we hope to encourage press who’ve seen the game in the Press Room to come to the stand for a closer look and a demo.

First purchases were High Frontier, Dominant Species (both on recommendation), Pocket Battles Orcs & Elves, Agricola G deck, Parade (a critical miss for us last year) and Bunny Bunny Moose Moose (and thanks, if that’s quite the right sentiment, to Kara from Leisure Games for introducing that one to us).

In the evening we play tested some stuff. Pete Armstrong had his game ‘Wild’, which looks like it has considerable potential. Its theme is African animals escaping from wildfire. Elephants, giraffes, rhinos & lions all are fighting to get away. Each player has one animal model of each type, and a hand of cards, either randomly drawn or from a pool of 3 face up cards, to try to match with their 4 animals. The cards are used to fight off opponents, though herding animals can coexist in the same space. Particular points in the design that I liked were: time pressure and graphics of the approaching wildfire; movement restrictions by keying each hex by animal; card pool for drawing from, which could probably be extended, and the basic combat mechanism – which was quick, simple and effective. We made several suggestions for possible improvemenst, and I’m looking forward to the next safari.

Then we had a quick 5-player go at Maureen Hiron’s new game ‘Up for Grabs’. I found it to be surprisingly fun! Not a game I would buy myself, but should have immense appeal to a mass market US audience.

The Spiel is A’Foot! [Thursday]

Unfortunately my post for Essen Thursday was lost when I published from the iPhone with no Internet connection :(. So this part of the report is a bit briefer than I’d like. After that I switched to composing the material in Notes then posting – see, I can learn!

We spent all day demonstrating Totemo (there’s a surprise). Players liked it a lot, particularly the graphics, and we were busy the whole time, which is always a good sign. Many happy gamers went away with a copy, though there’s always the disappointment when a group that obviously liked the game leave with a thank you but no copy. The nature of Essen is that people come to play and try out new games, but because of the hundreds of good and great new games that come out every year, no-one can buy everything that they want to.

Sales were moderate, bearing in mind that Totemo is not a traditional gamers’ game, and Thurday tends to be a gamers and collectors day. Totemo will perhaps have limited appeal to Eurogame collectors. We had lots of families on the stand which encouraged us for Saturday, the prime family day.

Phil demoing Totemo

Phil demoing Totemo

We like to have a few language experts on our stand, though this year our German was not our strong point. Our best moment was Philip explaining Totemo in Japanese to Banesto Games! Not many stands can do that. Also Chooi had a chat with a Malaysian importer too, so we had a very multicultural day.

We also sold a small number of Confucius and Fzzzt! 2nd edition plus 5-6 player expansion – the new tin box edition that we have licenced to Gryphon Games.

We had productive meetings with Schmidt Spiele, FRED and Cryptozoic about future products too.

In conclusion for day one, we were reassuringly busy.

Further game play [Friday]

And the campaign continues…

Vicki’s artwork is going down a storm! Specific companies that have been impressed included Adlung Spiele, Gryphon Games and Kosmos, amongst others. Vicki is our illustrator for Totemo, having already impressed us with the box cover for Fzzzt! last year. She has also produced the artwork for Braggart card game produced by Spiral Galaxy Games, unfortunately not out for Essen, but expected before Christmas. She’s also our daughter, and I confess that her artistic flair is inherited from Charlie and definitely not me.

Do Not Push!

Today we had the opportunity to take some more display or play space, because the stand opposite was empty. It’s a curious situation that a company can book a 20m frontage stand, then not turn up. Though I thought this would be to the advantage of the organisers and ourselves, it proved to be too expensive, because Merz Verlag wanted to charge €400, and we would have had to rent or purchase furniture on top, making an extra cost of about €1,000. I had a wonderful response from neighbouring companies reflecting cultural differences. Myself, being English, was playing by the rules; the Poles had to refer up to a higher authority for a decision, and the Italians were all for just occupying the space without asking! In the end, none of the companies potentially involved expected to be able to cover the extra expense, so the mini-project didn’t materialise.

We met up with even more old friends, including Jonathan and Lucy from Blighty. Both we and they run well-attended games weekends though at opposite sides of the country. We didn’t manage a game with them, because our evening plans did not quite mesh. Sometimes at Essen, we only get to say ‘hi’, because we’re so busy.

We bought Troyes, a new Belgian Eurogame, and played it in the evening, 4-player with Sebastian [Sebastian Bleasdale, a well known UK games designer] and Caroline, his partner. For the first try it took perhaps 2.5 hours – the rules look pretty comprehensive; no problems with them. It’s a medium to heavy traditional Eurogame, and will probably take the 90-120 mins on the box. There’s a lot going on in the game. Worker placement gives access to mechanisms to convert resources to other types, and to generate VPs. However, the resources are primarily in the form of coloured dice – yellow for civil, white for religious, red for military. While high dice rolls help, they are not essential – in this game you can pay to use the other players’ dice, the price depending on the number of dice – from 1 to 3 – that you want to use for your action. Conversion of dice from one colour to another, adding to the dice total or other dice manipulation happens as part of your action, not as a separate one. Another great twist is that bonus VPs can be achieved through meeting the conditions set by your mentor (a character card randomly dealt at the start and hidden from tht other players). But everyone can get the bonuses from all the characters, so there’s an element of bluff. Recommended.

The game hots up! [Saturday]

Frenetic Saturday arrived at Spiel ’10. For the first time Surprised Stare Games has a product, in Totemo, that could be thought of as a Saturday game; one that will appeal to families and the general public. So it has transpired.

As usual the halls were packed wall to wall – though some exhibitors have said it wasn’t as crowded as in previous years. For us, it was unusually busy. Previously we have had massive crowds ignoring us on Saturday. This time we were demoing all day. Sales were also good for a Saturday. It helped that we were high up the GeekBuzz rankings for most of the day. We were also pleased that for quite a lot of the time we had two games in the top 30 – Fzzzt! 2nd edition and Totemo.

Overflow Playing

Overflow Playing

I had earlier picked up a copy of Pocket Battles: Orcs v Elves – a follow up to Celts v Romans and one that I had helped to play test. It’s a Z-man game designed by Paolo Mori and Francesco Sirocchi. I was also lucky enough to catch up with Paolo, as he stopped by the stand. Vasco de Gama expansion is due out soon, I hear.

In the evening we met up with another Alan, Sebastian and Caroline, and Jonathan and Lucy. Caroline introduced me to Mijnlieff and promptly thrashed me (at the game).

Then we gave Ascension a go. It was enjoyable, but why buy, play or design this rather than Dominion?

Finally we had a 6-player game of Parade. Few turns and I think driven more by the draw of cards than skill (and I won). Probably better with three or four.

Game end

The final day of Spiel ’10 dawned at, well, dawn. A quiet morning (tumbleweed slowly passing by) was followed by a much busier lunchtime and afternoon.

We made a few sales to shops, including the final one in the carpark after we had packed up! Thank you to Swan Panasia!

A few last minute swaps for Totemo with other designers included Sun, Sea and Sand (Cwali), Thunderstone, Antics (thanks Gordon). Weren’t able to swap for Mines of Zavandor as there wasn’t an English one available.

We got our copy of the English 7 Wonders and special T shirt, so it paid to be at the top of the waiting list. Also picked up Sceptre of Zavandor for 10€.

Packing up was swift if fraught, as we couldn’t bring the van to the stand – something about health and safety or German bureaucracy, take your pick. It meant we had to lug the lot out to the van in the parking area, under a time limit, because you’re only allowed a short window of time (30 minutes I think) with the van on site; if you take too long, you lose €50 deposit. Thanks to all the crew (including Julian, Pete and Gavin + Gavin’s dad). It was only on the Tuesday after we’d arrived back in England that we realised that we’d not packed up the game in the Press Room, so we lost the game, the cloth it was on, and Charlie’s hard-won special cubes :-(.

Finally we had our usual wind down Mexican meal, a very relaxing and necessary ritual.

Team Totemo

Team Totemo

The Spoils of Spiel ’10

What we’ve bought at Essen Spiel ’10 – too much as usual.

A&C Essen 10 game purchases
Essen 10 Purchases

7 Wonders
Agricola Gamer’s Deck
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose
Cartagena 2
Cat and Chocolate
Dominant Species
Guided Lands
High Frontier + expansion
Inca Empire
Key Market
Magnum Sal
Pocket Battles: Orcs & Elves
Ricochet Robots
Sceptre of Zavandor
String Railway
Sun, Sea & Sand
The Resistance

Up in space without a warp drive: a review of High Frontier

The Basics

This is a very complex game.  On the scale of ‘fun’ to ‘serious’, it’s definitely well over to the dour side.  High Frontier’s theme is “realistic” space exploration in the near future, in which all the technologies in the game are presented as close to the scientific and engineering horizons. Brief checking on the internet – Wikipedia’s always right, isn’t it? – suggests they are too.  An interesting feature of the game is the interpersing of scientific and engineering information as footnotes throughout the rules, culminating in ten pages of patent descriptions. We may all learn some astro-physics from this game!

Meet The Factions

The basic premise is that there are competing blocs on Earth – the UN, NASA, Shimizu Research, ESA Powersat and Chinese Territorial Claims – that are investing in space exploration, not so that they can gather resources, but for the exotic products that can be made there.  Phil Eklund, the designer, makes a convincing case for the idea, at least to this layman.  Unfortunately it seems impossible to resist acronymitis in this particular genre, and it starts here with “basal societal unit” or BSU as a description of a faction.

Each player represents one of the factions and has a starting Crew card and an advantage. For example NASA gains a water tank in low earth orbit whenever any faction “boosts” equipment into low earth orbit.  In addition to Crew, there are cards for Thrusters, Robonauts and Refineries.  Thrusters are required to make the rockets that are essential for exploration.  Robonauts are what you’d expect – robotic astronauts; they have the ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) required for prospecting extraterrestrial sites.  Refineries make the space products that will bring you fame and glory.


Each turn players will carry out operations to further their dreams of galactic domination – well, solar system domination actually, because we’re not going beyond the asteroids until we get to the expansion game (not covered in this review).  Through operations you will get new Thrusters, Robonauts and Refineries, you will create rockets in low earth orbit, prospect sites out in space and create extraterrestrial factories and produce whizzy and terribly scientific interstellar tech stuff (WHATSITS… only kidding, I made that one up).  You’ll also need lots of water, which is held in low earth orbit in Water Tanks (WT) – these are the propellants for your rockets, and the scarcity of water in space is a primary reason for prospecting, lest your rockets get stranded.  Fortunately some places (Mars for example) have water in relative abundance, at least compared to its absolute absence in most of space.

Don’t get too carried away though.  Phil Eklund has managed to cram a lot of complexity into very few components that players can realistically get their hands on.  Typically you’ll only have one rocket with a small payload of one or two cards, a hand of not more than 4 research items, and a very few extraterrestrial bases.  The game ends when only a handful of factories are built.

If you need more stuff, you can always negotiate with the other players, and they’re likely to be equally needy, so I believe that player interaction may be an important part of successful play and a happy experience.

Blast Off!

A major complexity is moving your rocket.  The game has a workable, if not particularly friendly, movement system based on real physics.  Your movement rate will depend on the dry mass of your rocket including its payload, coupled with the thrust rating of the engine, modified by certain other conditions related to the type of rocket.  So you’ll need some fuel (water tanks), which will increase the total mass (or “wet mass”) of your rocket, resulting in a final acceleration figure that equals the number of burns your rocket can make in a single turn.  I hope you’re still with me; we have a way to go yet.

A rocket with robonaut and refinery payload

A rocket with robonaut and refinery payload

However, as each burn costs fuel, a very limited commodity owing to its mass, you’ll have to be very careful to consider the efficiency of your engine in relation to the wet mass of your rocket before you set off, or you’ll stop halfway to your goal.

While not having an insane vector movement system that some SF miniatures games have attempted, the game board is a bewildering 2D map of the near solar system, not unlike a deranged London Underground map (including the new Circle Line).  The lines on the map may go from side to side, as Pink Floyd said, but they also go round and round, and intertwine in a way that would have made the Great Cthulhu proud.  The lines are routes that space craft can travel along, complete with intersections for changing direction, and points at which you have to burn fuel (or more correctly, use your water propellant).  There are also planets, moons and asteroids, the targets of your journey.  Happily the designer has painted the most efficient routes in bold colours and labelled them with the number of burns required, so for example I can see how to get from LEO (low earth orbit, remember?) to Mars, and that it will cost me 3 burns.  Inexperienced space entrepreneurs are recommended to stick to these motorways and not to deviate onto the sideroads.

High Frontier: map section

High Frontier: map section showing Earth

Brace, Brace!

Ok, so now you know how to get to your destination. There is also the tricky question of landing.  If you don’t have large and efficient engines, landing can cost you huge amounts of fuel, which of course increases the mass of your rocket, lengthens the time it takes to get anywhere and restricts the payload.  But without a satisfactory landing strategy your rocket will be, as the game euphemistically puts it, “decommissioned”.  A lot of time and effort can be wasted by involuntary decommissioning.  Mercifully I leave the technicalities of “crash hazards” and “aerobrake hazards” to the imagination.

In short, before you even consider lift-off, make sure mission control has a Really Good Plan.

Rocket in Mars low orbit

Rocket in Mars low orbit

Darkness Descends

I had received mixed messages about High Frontier prior to acquiring a copy.  I’m now glad I have it, because it covers that niche of highly complex games that won’t hit the table frequently, but will be intensely enjoyable when it does, particularly in the company of experienced astronauts.  It has the admirable advantage of a script on the back page of the rulebook that you can read out to new players as an easy introduction.  And if their eyes glaze over after that, you can break out 7 Wonders instead.

High Frontier will not appeal to players who want an accessible, easily playable and fun game. Neither will it be of short duration, and the learning curve is steep.  For those who like an extreme challenge, planning in detail, and doing desperate deals with other players who can help you out with an extra water tank or that essential piece of kit you inadvertently left behind on Mars, then High Frontier is an excellent choice.

My favourite rule: “It is felonious to voluntarily decommission crew anywhere except at your ET factory or Low Earth Orbit”.

Published by: Sierra Madre Games
Designer: Phil Eklund
Players: 2-5 (1-5 with the expansion)
Age: 12+
Duration: 2-3 hours