Game: High Frontier
Publisher: Sierra Madre Games
Playtime: 120-240 minutes (one hour per player)
Genre: Rocket Science
What's Hot: Compelling, hard science-based theme; original mechanics and gameplay concepts; lots to explore and experiment with; advanced game and expansion options greatly extend possibilities for play
What's Not: Complicated rules; visual organization of information needs some serious improvement
by: Michael Barnes
During my last game of Phil Eklund’s HIGH FRONTIER I found myself making a very difficult decision and dealing with some pretty harsh consequences. I had spent what amounts to about twenty years of game time attempting to build a factory on Mars to manufacture highly valuable products that cannot be made on Earth. This epic journey from constructing a rocket on the Blue Planet to harvesting resources on the Red Planet included an earlier unmanned mission where I was able to stake a claim to the site thanks to orbital prospecting.
I also had to spend time and resources in acquiring the patents necessary to build a suitable thruster system, a resource-extracting Robonaut, and a refinery to make the trip and set up shop. I also needed to acquire enough 40-ton bags of water, not only the game’s abstract measure of capital but also a handy storage solution for hydrogen, in order to boost the mass of all this equipment into low Earth orbit so that I could then stage the mission. And then there was the matter of balancing out fuel consumption with thrust and making sure I had enough gas to get there.
That was a huge problem. Landing on Mars required more fuel that I could really afford, or even take given the build and weight class of my vessel. I decided on a route that would take me through a couple of orbital aero braking zones, which eliminate the need for spending fuel to make planetfall. All I had to do was not roll a one in either of them. The first one, I passed. My heart was pounding. I felt a sense of uncertainty and fear. On the second roll, the result was the dreaded one. My craft—along with all of the time and resources spent to get so close to my goal…disintegrated. It was the single most thrilling die roll of any game I’ve played all year.
HIGH FRONTIER’s message is abundantly clear. Space travel is incredibly difficult on an economic and logistical level and extremely dangerous to boot, but the rewards of extra-global exploration and exploitation can be immense. Each player represents a base societal unit (a government agency, a private corporation, and so forth) attempting to “exoglobalize” industry by sending spacecraft to prospect planets and celestial bodies and eventually set up refineries to make special products. There is a VP-based award system, but managing to accomplish even the most basic of goals in the game feels like a tremendous achievement.
This game, like Mr. Eklund’s previous titles including the magnificent evolution-themed ORIGINS, is renowned for rigorous scientific basis as well as their idiosyncratic, authorial interpretation of factual details through their translation into gameplay mechanics. It is very much an expression of Mr. Eklund’s experience, expertise, and theories surrounding space travel and exoglobal industry. It almost feels as if he could have written a book on the subject, but instead he wrote a game. Between the copious footnotes, real-world justification for rules, bibliographic citations, and cards illustrated with technical diagrams, this game definitely shows the marks of a creative endeavor some thirty years in the making, according to the designer.