The grinding hostility of extreme pioneering in the darkness of space, that is the draw of Outpost. It's not grinding in that an analytical gaff can cause a rocket to spectacularly "disappear" into the Great Unknown, a la High Frontier. This grind is all numbers and return-on-investment analysis. But it's in space so it's cool.
In Outpost, players start out with two Ore Mines and a Water Mine on an unnamed hunk of rock floating in hard vacuum, or perhaps enshrouded in toxic fumes. Players build increasingly efficient factories and increasingly sophisticated upgrades in order to exponentially increase the monetary output and point value of their respective outposts.
The Upgrades are special power cards. There are 13 different types and over the three eras of the game better Upgrades become available.
So here's the scenario: a two player game of outpost, me vs. the Inimitable Don Juan, neither of us having played before.
These were the upgrades available.
Era 1: Data Library x 2, Heavy Machinery x 2, Warehouse x 2, Nodule x 1.
Era 2: Scientist x 1, Orbital Labs x 2, Robots x 2, Laboratories x 2, Ecoplants x 2, Outpost x 1.
Era 3: Space Station x 1, Planetary Cruiser x 1, Moon Base x 2.
One thing I noticed while reading the rules was that New Chemical factories could only be purchased using Research Production cards. After setting up the game I noticed that there was only one Scientist available. From the outset I was shooting for dominating Research production in Era 2. So I focused on getting Data Libraries in the first Era.
The Inimitable Don Juan rejected this white collar approach and went after Heavy Machinery and an early investment in Titanium production.
The first Era ended around the same time we bought up all the upgrades available. I had both Data Libraries and a Warehouse. I had my two starting Ore Mines and four Water Mines. I was up against my Colony Support Limit so one of my Ore Mines was unmanned.
The Inimitable Don Juan had both Heavy Machinery Upgrades, a Warehouse and the Nodule. Other than one extra Water Mine he had exploited his Heavy Machinery Upgrades to pioneer Titanium production. He was winning with slightly more points, a better income, and most importantly more colonists.
The first round of the second Era brought out the one Scientist Upgrade and the one Outpost Upgrade. The Scientist would allow me to produce Research Production cards and doesn't need to be manned. But the Outpost was the last available Upgrade to increase the Colony Support Limit. The fact that I couldn't support any more than five was killing me.
I decided to stick to my guns and the Inimitable Don Juan and I got into a bidding war for the Scientists. While he had more Credits, I had a discount from my Data Libraries and was able to get the Upgrade. He settled on the Outpost.
Fortunately I was able to make my initial plan work out. It was a couple of turns before the Inimitable Don Juan was able to get one of the Laboratory Upgrades and during this time I was able to heavily invest in New Chemical Factories and the income gap turned in my favor.
With the end of the Era -- which coincidentally happened as we bought up the last of the Era 2 upgrades -- the Inimitable Don Juan was still leading in points. He had purchased a Laboratory, two Ecoplants and the afore mentioned Outpost. His production had branched out into Research and a nascent New Chemicals industry.
I managed to get the Scientist, both Orbital Labs, both Robots and the other Laboratory. If the Inimitable Don Juan had managed to deprive me of the Robots it was game over and he would have ridden victorious into the poison gas sunset. As it was I managed to significantly invest in New Chemicals, even producing Mega New Chemicals as we moved into Era Three. Despite being down on points, I was now making more money.
The first round of the third Era brought out a Planetary Cruiser and a Moon Base. I was behind the Inimitable Don Juan by a mere 4 points. I out bid him on the Moon Base and he picked up the Planetary Cruiser. Now I was ahead by one point, the score was 56 to 55. There were only two more Upgrades available, and if either of us bought the Moon base the game was over.
I started the bid for the Moon Base at the 200 Credits minimum. At this price it has an exceptional VP per Credit value. The Inimitable Don Juan upped my bid. We went back and forth one upping each other until he passed on my bid of 204 credits.
There was nothing on which he could spend his 203 credits (by the way I had 222) to make up that 21 VP deficit. Thus I became the Hard Vacuum Hero.
Some thoughts after one play ...
The game always has the same 13 Upgrades available. What is unknown is the exact order they will become available. I haven't played enough to know what upgrades have the best synergy with each other. But it seems like there's potential for the same few strategies being used over and over. Hopefully it's not too strategically static.
The auctions give the players the ability to undermine each other's strategies, which is not only enjoyable, but refreshing -- I'll take an auction over worker placement any day of the week. But the economy is so tight there are times when the only thing worse than your opponent buying a particular Upgrade is you having to buy it after making a defensive bid. As our game played out, Ecoplants were completely useless to me, so the Inimitable Don Juan was able to purchase them at his leisure when they became available.
I've heard people complain about run away leaders in Outpost. Our game came down to who had the most money on the last turn, so that situation did not occur during our game. Personally I don't consider runaway leaders in general to be a game flaw as long as the situation is born out of skillful game play rather than luck of the draw.
The other complaint directed at Outpost regards how "mathy" it is. Overall the math isn't any worse than in Power Grid. But what makes it feel worse is that your Credits don't come in nice easy denominations and you can't make change. In Power Grid it's easy to look at your stack of cash and see that two 50s, a 20, a 10, a 5 and two 1s adds up to 137 electro. In Outpost you may have a pile of production cards of values 1, 3, 5, 8, 11, 30, 17, 19, 21, and 22. Quick, how much money do you have? After adding up your money you have to be careful to remember how much you have while budgeting and spending during the turn. If, in the middle of a heated bidding round, you forget whether you have 86 or 88 credits you have to stop the game for some arithmetic.
My initial impression of outpost is: Great Game.
I like the theme, the bidding and the unforgiving economics. I'm not good at holding a bunch of numbers in my head so it's kind of frustrating at times. Let's hope there's enough complexity in the game's tactics to keep it exciting from game to game.