Friday, 19 November 2010

Alien Frontiers

Alien Frontiers is by a first-time designer and a first-time publisher, and the publication of the game was funded by a kickstarter project, where supporters and customers pledged to buy the game, and only when enough funding was secured, the actual printing went ahead. This kickstarter project received good support, and the first printing of the game had sold out. Some retailers bought some stock (Cool Stuff Inc and Fun Games Cafe), but I wonder how many units they had. I'm guessing it would be difficult to buy a copy of the game now. I wonder whether a 2nd printing is being planned.

The Game

In Alien Frontiers, the players compete to colonise an alien planet. You gain points for every colony you establish, and also for control of each region on the planet. There are a few other ways of gaining points, but these two are the most important. The game ends when one player has established a certain number of colonies, and whoever has most points at that time wins. It will not necessarily be the player who ends the game, but I think usually it will be the case.

Everyone starts the game with 3 spaceships, and in this game spaceships are dice. On your turn, you pick up your dice from the board, roll them, and then assign them to the various spaces on the board to do different things. The spaces are limited, and have different requirements before you are allowed to put a die or dice on them, e.g. some need pairs of matching numbers, one of them needs precisely a 6. When you place your dice, you gain resources (energy and ore), you gain special ability cards, you colonise, you can even rob another player. There are 3 ways of colonising, (a) spending a lot of expensive resources (constructing a colony), (b) spending fewer resources but one dice (using a spaceship as a terraforming station to construct a colony), or (c) spending fewer resources but having to commit dice over multiple rounds to complete the colonisation (colonising using colonist huts). You can also build more spaceships, i.e. get yourself more dice. You can have up to 6 dice. Naturally more dice mean better chances of meeting dice-placement requirements, as well as being able to do more on your turn.

Game set up and being explained. The game is for 2 to 4 players. Depending on the number of players, some spaces on the board are blocked off, and we used the red dice to do this.

I think these are bonus pieces. They are supposed to be your colonies. They look like an electronics component. The normal colony is the M&M-like piece on the right.

Correction 20 Nov 2010: Allen, who owns this copy of the game, clarified that he had bought these pieces from a hardware store. They didn't come with the game. My mistake.

The Solar Converter is one of the spaces on the board where you can place dice. You place dice here to harvest energy. The icons tell you how much energy you harvest for the different valued dice you place.

When you colonise a new territory, you gain a special ability. Every territory gives a special ability, e.g. an extra die (an alien spaceship), discount when using alien artifacts, faster colonisation by colonist huts. More than one player can establish a colony in the same territory. Whoever has majority enjoys the special ability provided by the territory.

So basically the game is a race to establish colonies. You need to collect resources to do that. Along the way there are many things that can help you - the alien artifact cards, and the special abilities provided by the territories.

Components (left to right, top to bottom): dice (i.e. spaceships), colonies, territory special ability tile, energy (orange discs), and ore (grey cube).

Well, this was what first came to mind when I saw these three discs. These markers come into play via some of the alien artifact cards. When placed on a territory, "R" locks the territory preventing new colonies or colony migration, "I" disables the special ability of the territory, and "P" makes the territory dominance worth 1pt more.

The Play

I played a 3-player game with Allen and Han. In the beginning we all went for new territories and did not compete. It was a race to claim the territories with the most attractive special abilities. By colonising a new territory, you gain 2pts - 1pt for your new colony and 1pt for being dominant in the territory. If another player establishes a new colony in the same territory, you'd lose 1pt because you'd no longer have dominance. You still keep the special ability though, even though you are tied on majority with your opponent. You only lose it when the other player outnumbers you.

I went for the territory that gave discounts for building spaceships, and focused on getting all my spaceships out. I also intended to use the terraforming station as much as I could, because it was a quick way of establishing colonies, albeit at the cost of losing a spaceship each time. Spaceships were cheaper for me anyway. From the start of the game, both Han and Allen claimed the alien artifact that protected their resources from robbery. There are only 2 copies of each type of alien artifact in the game, so I was out of luck. Throughout the game, I was robbed a number of times, which slowed me down. I was the only target available, since both of them were protected. We had forgotten that the robbery space (called Raider's Outpost) also allowed robbing an alien artifact card, and the protection card didn't protect against that. So in hindsight I could have robbed the protection card from them, to protect my own resources. It would also have made them reluctant to accumulate to many resources.

Mid game. Han (yellow) had 5 colonies, Allen (blue) 3, me (green) 2.

Baby Ethan was a good boy and slept through most of the game as Daddy Allen played.

Han was the quickest in establishing colonies. I turned out to be the slowest, although I later caught up a little. I neglected the alien artifact cards early, but later when I got myself some, I found them to be quite useful. E.g. they can be very handy in helping you make the die rolls that you want. Most of them have two uses, a normal power that you can use every round, and a strong power that forces you to discard the card once used.

Some of the alien artifact cards I had. I controlled the Pohl Foothills territory, which made it cheaper for me to activate the alien artifacts. Many alien artifacts require some energy to operate.

Close-up of the board.

As game-end approached, I used my Plasma Cannon card to force Han to return one of his dice. It was a bit too late though, he still managed to establish his last colony soon, ending, and also winning the game.

The Thoughts

Alien Frontiers is a very smooth game. Medium complexity. Suitable for families and casual players, and interesting enough for hardcore gamers. There is some luck in the die rolls, but you rarely feel you have nothing useful that you can do with your dice. You always have options, and you always have something interesting to do. The game is a constant race from beginning to end, at first to claim the lucrative territories, and later to compete for dominance. You can adopt different strategies. You should make the most of the territory special abilities and the alien artifact cards abilities.

The game makes me think of The Settlers of Catan and Cyclades, although it is not like either game. Well, maybe a little like Catan, in that you need to collect resources to build colonies. They feel similar in complexity and accessibility. And granularity. I can't think of a better word. The game gives me a feeling of being very succinct, that it has been simplified as much as possible, but not overdone that interesting aspects get left out.

Considering this is a first-time designer and a first-time publisher, I am very impressed with Alien Frontiers. The game design is solid. The game production is very professional. I hope there will be a second printing so that more people will get to play this game.


Gerald said...

Great article! where did you get your copy of the game, I see you got some special colony tokens. Great job on the review!

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Hi Gerald, Sorry, I had misunderstood about the special colony tokens. Allen (who owns the game) clarified that he had bought those from a hardware store. They didn't come with the game. He supported the kickstarter project and that was how he got himself a copy.

Clever Mojo Games said...

Thanks for posting your review of our game. Love those green colony pieces. Were the originals missing from the game? If so, let me know and I'll send replacements.

Clever Mojo Games

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Hi David,

No no, there were no missing pieces. Allen, who owns the game, bought these alternative colony pieces only because they'd look cool with a sci-fi game.

Congratulations on an excellent game!