Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Alien Frontiers


Alien Frontiers is a boardgame of resource management published by Game Salute in which players aim to colonise a newly discovered distant planet.  To this end it's a worker-placement game where you have a limited number of workers (or ships, in this game) to choose which actions you take every turn; collecting resources, building ships or colonies with said resources, scavenging powerful alien technologies, etc.   Of course it goes without saying that making the right decisions what to do each turn with your limited fleet is key to winning.  However, there's a twist.   Unlike most worker-placement games (of which Agricola and Stone Age would be prime examples) in Alien Frontiers your workers/ships are dice. At the beginning of every turn you roll your dice, each representing a ship; you begin the game with three dice/ships but can increase the size of your fleet to (usually) six ships.   Once rolled, the numbers they give determine how and where they can be used; high numbers are not necessarily better (unlike Kingsburg for example) and at any given point you may be aiming to get low, or high, or pairs, or a sequence, to take advantage of different orbital facilities.

Of course, the massive task of colonizing another planet isn't enough of a challenge.   Instead of co-operating with fellow travelers and colonists, you're going to compete against your rivals for turf and technology.   In game terms, once any player has their last colony on the surface of the planet the game ends, at which point the player with the most victory points wins.

The game sequence is very straightforward; a player rolls their dice to determine the value of their ships and then chooses which orbital facilities i.e. an action space to use, and carries out the actions as appropriate.  Once they've placed all their ships and taken the actions, play moves on to the next person.  The game is designed for two to four players, although one of the expansions provides pieces to allow a fifth player.  Turns rarely take long to carry out with the exception of a player facing an agonizing decision about what actions they need most when they can't do everything at once.

You can never do everything you want to in a single turn; just get used to it!

Around the planet are a number of orbital facilities, each of which allows you to perform a different action; the Maintenance Bay lets you build a new ship (i.e. get another die), the Colony Constructor (as the name suggests) is where you build your colonies before deploying to the planetary surface.  Each facility has a different requirement for the dice being placed there, and a limited number of spaces, so blocking/stealing an action is an entirely viable option.  If other players have been building ships, for example, and the shipyard is full of their workers/dice/ships... well, tough.  Or is it?  The Plasma Cannon tech card lets you spend a resource (energy) to shoot their ships out of wherever they're docked, freeing it up for you.  Failing that, there are techs that let you re-roll some or all of your dice, or even allow you to choose that dice you want modified in specific ways - these abilities usually cost resources to use, but give a great deal more flexibility than simply chucking the dice and hoping for the best.

Collecting Alien Tech is relatively easy, but of course while you're sending ships to loot the Alien Artifact for tech those same ships aren't gathering resources or building colonies.  Everything is a trade off.  Each tech card has two abilities - a once per turn ability, and a discard the card to use the big effect ability.  What can they do for you?   Well...  loads.  Basic stuff like permitting re-rolls, or adding to/subtracting from your dice once rolled, protecting you from raiders intent on stealing your resources or tech, the aforementioned Plasma Cannon that can be used to free up occupied docking ports and so on.  There's no limit to the number of tech cards a player may have (although duplicates are not permitted); each may be used once per turn (in normal circumstances) and only one can be discarded each turn for the big hitter event.

Placing colonies in a region grants the controlling player a unique benefit associated with that region (as well as gaining you victory points).  Why?  Well, that's never actually established, but as a game mechanic it works just fine.  For example, having the most colonies in the Asimov Crater sector can let you build your colonies faster than normal.  Ah yes, besides the distinguished Dr. Asimov's crater the name of every territory is a homage to a classic science fiction author.   A lovely touch which brings about a smile every play.

The game is a good balance of skill versus luck.  The random element of the dice roll often means you have to be flexible and modify your actions to best take advantage of your dice/ships.   But the territory bonuses and the Alien Tech cards mitigate this factor, so you can still aim for a specific long-term plan as you accumulate these.   I'm not a fan of too much luck in a game usually, but Alien Frontiers has pretty much struck the right balance of luck, skill and playing time (90 minutes according to the publisher).  For a two player game of Alien Frontiers, my partner and I would usually take about an hour playing at a leisurely pace, including setup.  It plays well with any number of players although as a five-player game it does feel a bit too long, with too much downtime between turns.  Parts of the board are covered up in games with less than four players, reducing the number of dice that can dock in the various facilities, thus scaling the board to suit the player count.

The quality of the board and components is extremely high.  The artwork is very Space Opera and evocative of the Sci-Fi that I used to read constantly as a kid.  The cards and board are high quality (there's a minor misprint on the board on the current printing, but it doesn't affect play, and probably no one would have noticed anyway). The rulebook is comprehensive and well laid out.  The first edition of the game was a Kickstarter project that was highly successful, and it has since gone on to several subsequent printings, and the current one is the 4th edition.  The initial cardboard components were upgraded by keen fans of the game, and these upgrades are now standard in the new edition: deck boxes to keep the cards, dice, colonies, resources, etc. tidy are supplied with the game, and the colonies themselves are very appealing tiny little cities under clear domes.

It's a game with a positive plethora of expansions.   I'm not a completest and will only buy expansions when I'm fairly sure they'll add to the game.  Do you need any of the expansions for Alien Frontiers to be a good game?  No; it plays very well out of the box.

But a few words on expansions anyway.

Alien Frontiers: Factions is, to my mind, the significant expansion.  It adds the components for a fifth player, which may be useful depending on your game group size: agendas, factions and some new alien tech.

Agendas are personal secret goals that every player has (starting with two random ones, but the the opportunity to add or swap them during the game); achieving one of the goals on the card gives the player one victory point. Each of the Agendas has two options: a score the VP as soon as you achieve it goal, and get a bonus VP at the end of the game if you've fulfilled the specific condition goal. Thus if a player has a face-down Agenda card come game end, you can't be sure if they've completed their hidden conditions, and will have bonus points coming to them.

The Factions part of the expansion gives each player their own unique abilities depending which factions they represent (for example, Dark Space Explorers gives new ways to acquire Alien Tech cards, the Smugglers' Alliance allows you to loot more often and return with more).

Of the two abilities each faction has, one is solely for the benefit of the owner.  Each faction has a small game board with an orbital facility on it, and this expands the main game board.  Ships can dock at your facility and pay you for the privilege of using the public part of the ability.  Of course you can dock at your own facility without the need to pay.  The box includes eight factions, all of which have interesting abilities; some are better suited to games with more players, and we tend to adopt a gentleman's rule (well a lady and gentleman's rule to be precise) of omitting one of them in two player games.

There are, at the time of writing, four Faction Packs, with each adding a single Faction.  There are also seven Expansion Packs, which add new Agenda and Alien Tech cards; the Outer Belt expansion adds (as you might well guess) an asteroid belt to the game board, incorporating its own mechanics and extra rules.   Of the existing expansion sets, I'd certainly recommend getting the one called Factions.

Alien Frontiers is a fun, relatively light game that hits the table fairly often at home and at conventions, and has proved popular with most of our gaming group.  The theme is fun, it's visually very appealing, and once learned, relatively quick to play.

Link to Alex's Veeps & Meeps blog on Boardgamegeek.

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