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.

Ops

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

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