Alien Frontiers represents the first real board game conversion in a long time. It is also a board game that we have known as coming for a good number of months. Now that it’s actually here what can we say about it? The short answer is that I like the game but that there are some glaring issues in its delivery. The game has far too much random dice rolling to be suited to my tastes, but this is almost offset by the variety of strategic options.
The game is based around a race to build the most amount of colonies on a planet, the eponymous Alien Frontier! You represent one of a few consortia attempting to place your colonies there ahead of the others. During a turn, you will roll a number of dice (each one representing a ship) and then allocate them to one of ten different orbital stations to induce their effect. All with purpose of gathering resources, abilities, and building colonies. The planet itself has eight different territories, each giving a permanent benefit to the consortium that has a majoritarian control over that area. The game ends when one player places their final unplaced colony on the planet, at which point the person with the most points win. Primarily you get points for colonies, for control of a territory, alien objects, and the positron field.
In general, there are lots of diverse abilities to this game, and much of the games tactics revolve around deploying ships for maximal outcome. Each station, card, and territory has short hand pictographs to remind you the rules for that area, station, or card. There are also two main resources in the game: fuel and ore. Ore is harder to come by and much more critical in terms of building colonies. You can build colonies with even numbers of ore and energy, but it will take you more turns. Roughly, your strategy is going to be a choice between using your turns to maximise ore production and build colonies quickly, but expensively, or to maximise ore usage and built colonies more cheaply across more turns. Getting colonies down quickly is ideal, but trickier to actually pull off; if done right you will simply blitz the game as you acquire more permanent abilities that just push you ahead of the game. There are limited spots for each of the orbital stations, and your dice are left there between turns meaning it is possible to block other players in their choice of action.
Here’s a rough breakdown of orbital stations: Alien Artifact lets you acquire artifact cards that let you modify existing rules; Colonist Hub is a track that allows you to build a colony after your sixth ship has been placed there (progress is kept from turn to turn); Colony Constructor lets you build a colony for three ore; Lunar Mine allows you to mine ore; Maintenance Bay is a holding station for any unwanted ships (though not sure why you’d do that when Colonist Hub is your real dump site); Orbital Market lets you exchange energy for ore at a ratio relevant to the dice placed; Raider’s Outposts lets you steal goods and cards from opponents; Shipyard lets you use increasing amounts of resources to build more ships; Solar Converter gets you energy relevant to half the visible value of dice placed there; and Terraforming Station lets you sacrifice a die to build a colony for one energy and one fuel. There are additional rules, in that only certain dice combinations can be used on certain types of placements. Lunar Mine requires you to place a die that is equal to or greater then the highest one currently there, while the Colony Constructor requires a set of three dice the same. In this, at least, you aren’t just relying on pure dice roles, but making optimal choices about your probabilistic outcomes.
Seven of the eight territories give you benefits relevant to seven of the orbital stations, giving you a distinct advantage, and the artifacts let you spend energy to make adjustments to dice, abilities, and other types of performances. So part of the race to placing colonies is to maintain your control over those permanent advantages, or blocking out other player’s advantages by removing their control.
It is the implementation where the game starts to fall down. Its first, major, and primary offense is the lack of a tutorial, a necessity for a game with a lot of individual rules relevant to a variety of sectors in the game. This is only exacerbated by the rule set being a basic scan of the book used for the physical game, which doesn’t present the rules in a way that parses to me as having a natural flow.
I read the rules, but having no point of reference to examine their context I had to use something of a trial and error approach to learning the game. Fortunately, the gameplay itself is basic enough that I got the general gist of it very quickly, merely needing to resort to constant checks of the rule book until I was completely confident of all the iconography. It took maybe two games before I was no longer referring to the book. Of course, it was at that point that I realised I wasn’t maximising territory placement, or artifact usage, and then realised the importance of fields.
Games like these must have tutorials, and must have means of instruction that do not require a back and forth between board and rules. When observing the iPad you have a relatively small amount of real-estate, and, by virtue of this, the developers are undoubtedly packing large amounts of information in overlapping ways, and this means that players are one step removed from observing the lay out in a single glance. While the developers have done a good job of packing all this in, there is still a lot to account for that doesn’t come intuitively all the time. This problem is only aggravated if you are then required to change screens to read a rule-set, because you aren’t able to view both of them side by side.
This game is still worth your time, but you must get over the learning barriers outlined above. No doubt if you are already familiar with the game you will be able to jump straight in and appreciate the challenge that the higher level AIs present.