Alien Frontiers (4th Edition)
Board game. 2-4 players, ages 13+.
Designer: Tory Niemann
When humans first landed on the new world they knew it would be rough going. Building up fuel and ore reserves and constructing colony domes is hard work. But then the first alien artifact was discovered, and the secret tunnels, and the abandoned city. Now it's a race to colonize and control this Alien Frontier.
Alien Frontiers is a game of resource management, worker placement, and area control set in a retro-future scifi universe.
The dice you receive at the start of the game represent the spaceships in your fleet. Docking your ships at the orbital facilities will earn resources, expand your fleet, raid your opponents, discover alien technology, trade commodities, and build colony domes to land on the planet.
Winning will require careful consideration as you assign your fleet, integrate the alien technology and territory bonuses into your expansion plans, and block the other players from building colonies of their own.
COUNTER MAGAZINE REVIEW:
2-4 players, 60 minutes designed by Tory Niemann reviewed by Alan How
A new company on the block, Clever Mojo, have launched their first game on the market to great aplomb. They have done lots of things right for a new company - spreading the word about their game, getting buzz on the Geek as well, as getting a bunch of reviews out early. This one is in the latter bunch, but more importantly did they get a good game out?
Well that sort of depends on the type of game you like. You see Alien Frontiers involves dice rolling, then allocating those dice to move you closer to scoring victory points. There have been a number of these games that allow you to build up a game engine - To Court the King from four years ago to Alea Iacta Est and Kingsburg in more recent years. These dice rolling types of game evolve into worker placement games, where the combination of dice rolled can provide a game benefit. And this is how Alien Frontiers works too. You roll dice (spaceships in the Alien Frontiers environment), gain resources which allow you to land colonies on a planet, and claim victory points (VPs) for colonies landed and majorities for areas controlled on the planet.
All of this works well and you can see how your goals can be reached by following several development paths. There are also cards that you can pick up through using specific dice combinations and these provide additional benefits, such as manipulating your dice scores, providing more resources and generally adding to your options, with a view to reaching your goals more quickly.
And then there is the kicker. Some dice combinations allow you to steal resources from other players; cards can allow you to disrupt your opponent's plans and restrict your opportunities. I don't mind these games too much, though I certainly prefer to play games in which this staggered progress does not play any role, as I like to see progressions in my game planning rather than riskier uncertainties. And in a game where so much is good and helps you move forward, these side swipes cause you to plan your move knowing that if you have spare resources at the end of your turn they are vulnerable. So you are drawn into playing a game where the resources are fully utilised each turn rather than planning from turn to turn. This short termist approach is not one my regular gaming group or I like, as it promotes a negative style of game and I do not like that feeling as much.
However, there are gamers who like the tit-for-tat style and for them Alien Frontiers is nearly perfect. The uncertainty of progress is fun and my more reflective approach is less enjoyable, so this needs to be borne in mind when you get into a game like this.
The game itself is really well put together. The chunky dice, solid board and good components with a clear rule book are exceptionally good, especially for a first published game and many established publishers would do well to look at how Alien Frontiers have produced their game. The theme, from the graphical 50s' perspective, to the use of famous science fiction authors all hangs well together.
The detail in the game is that each player has a number of colonies - up to 8 depending on player numbers. These can be placed on the planet when they have been created and there are multiple ways to create them. I liked the range of options and the clever thinking behind them, and there are some well thought out rules, such as the way that ore cubes are acquired. One route is to play dice onto a track, but each die played must match or exceed the highest placed die, so this option needs higher valued dice. Another option is to use a pair of dice (such as double 1) and the other type of resource (fuel) can be exchanged at a rate of 1 to the value of the double used. So this option favours low valued dice - a pair of 1s means fuel is swapped on a 1:1 basis. A pair of 2s means that fuel is swapped on a 1:2 basis. There are plenty of other ways in which the resource collection routes can be made.
The ultimate goal is to gain victory points (generally by placing colonists on the planet). While the leaders may well be placing colonists at about the same speed, you can also gain an extra VP if you are the leader of an area of a planet in terms of number of colonists. This seems like a good way of breaking close scoring positions, but with 8 locations and only 6 to 8 colonist tokens to place, players will tend to focus on getting the lead in 2 to 3 areas, so this does not necessarily lead to one player being much ahead of another. Instead some cards provide a VP, but they are pretty easy to steal, so the game favours the tactical approach of deciding what to do on each turn rather than the gradual build up of a plan.
As you only start with only 3 dice, the obvious thing to do is to increase your dice to the maximum of 6 as soon as you can. More dice = more options and then more options means faster routes to colonies, so it is important to get more dice. The main route is by using doubles and then using one of each resource. If your resources are constantly stolen by other players, this is most frustrating! I talk from personal experience here, of course.
One other aspect of the game that I do not think works well is the possible down time. While the cards are well constructed and provide other ways to improve your lot, there are a set of cards that can be acquired (using a dice combination) and many cards can be stolen or removed from their users. Quite apart from the distraction from normal progress that I have mentioned, this means that you might need to read a bunch of cards across the table. All of them have writing on, so you cannot work out what they do from symbols. This means halting play to read the cards or ignoring them as a distraction. I do hope that the designers and publishers limit card mechanisms like this. It works ok in Dominion because the cards are described at the beginning of the game and there aren't so many of different types in play, and it works in Seven Wonders because you only look at the cards next door to you, but in Alien Frontiers the care put into the design of the cards is offset for me by way the cards are used.
All things being equal the game lasts about an hour, so if you don't do well then it isn't a long time to wait for the next game. Overall my personal assessment of the game is to applaud the designers and publishers for producing such a solid game, but the game does not appeal to my tastes as much as I would like from the subject matter. All other aspects of the game are well considered, and the game has had plenty of support from the gaming community, so there are plenty of people for whom this game has been a big hit, but for me it is replayable but not one that my gaming group will often request.