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Designer Diary: High Frontier

Phil Eklund
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Microbadge: Sierra Madre Games fanMicrobadge: Bios: Megafauna fanMicrobadge: Origins: How We Became Human fanMicrobadge: Pax Porfiriana fanMicrobadge: High Frontier fan
Board Game: High Frontier (Third Edition)
The third edition of High Frontier is the culmination of 37 years of design and development work! Here I talk about some of the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs from its early days.

ATOMIC ORIGINS. In the Navy, my father, Melvin Eklund, sent ASP sounding rockets into the "stabilized clouds" following atomic blasts on Pacific islands. Maybe the radiation had something to do with the way I turned out.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Melvin Eklund (middle) with an ASP sounding rocket

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L5 SOCIETY DAYS. Whether by nature or nurture, by 1978 I was a nerdy aerospace engineering student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After reading The High Frontier by visionary Gerard K. O'Neill, I joined the L5 society, a space activist group founded by fellow student Keith Henson. We helped defeat the UN Moon Treaty in 1980 on the grounds it would close space to private exploitation. I became an artist and contributor for the L5 News.

1978 ROCKET FLIGHT. My first original game production was a dozen copies of Rocket Flight, a typewriter and whiteout board game, with pen and ink graphics and a two-piece map covered with plastic. After each turn, you marked your rocket's location, altitude, and vector with a grease pencil. Each turn was two days; each hex a million kilometers. Combat interception required visualizing in three dimensions and vector addition. Decoys were common; so many missiles wasted on disguised chunks of rock. Each rocket relied on its "Forward Mass Detector" for IFF. I think this publication was the first appearance in any game of EMP and X-ray spalling as a damage mechanic. (Keith had advised me on the realities of space combat, as documented in footnotes in the first and second editions.)

FLEDGLING ROCKET SCIENTIST. The next year I landed my first big aerospace job with Hughes Aircraft and worked on various Star Wars projects such as the exoatmospheric kill vehicle. Among the remarkable rocketeers I worked with at Hughes was Dr. Hans Mauer, one of the transplanted von Braun rocket team who collaborated with Howard Hughes himself to found the aerospace division. Dr. Mauer distanced himself from my crazier projects, such as my 1982 paper on catalyzed fusion propulsion. This was instead sponsored at the Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland by Dr. Leik Myrabo, inventor of the Myrabo Lightcraft, and tireless promoter of rockets and aircraft powered by laser beam. Leik gave me his book, gave advice for my game, and in general baselined the rules for remotely-powered rockets, and the ESA special ability.

SIERRA MADRE IS BORN. I officially launched Sierra Madre Games in 1992, pretty much making whatever games I felt like, unfettered by customer preferences or marketing. My entrepreneurial mentor was Neal Sofge (a.k.a. Fat Messiah of Fat Messiah Games). Neal and I had much in common, including both having had Dr. Myrabo as a mentor. Neal is now with NASA Goddard and is a developer in High Frontier Interstellar, a solitaire game based on High Frontier.

GENIUS. Another Hughes rocketeer was Dr. Robert Forward, the free-thinking inventor of star wisp, space fountains, laser sails, antimatter propulsion, and the aforementioned mass detector. Robert rubbed elbows at Hughes Research Labs with Richard Feynman, another notorious genius. Robert explained how the ionosphere could be converted into a megawatt laser, and many other wonders. And patiently explained to me the more elementary stuff, like heat pipes. In a fever of productive excitement, all these elements were incorporated into the second edition of Rocket Flight, which appeared in 1992. This edition featured the first "delta-v" map, a map of energy rather than space, and the first rules for heat rejection.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

THE MAP. The biggest design headache was converting the map from one of distance (each hex = million km) to one of energy (each space = 2.5 km/sec). An energy map has a big advantage: Since each orbit is at a fixed potential energy from Sol, each space represents a stable orbit. No need to move markers around the sun or planets. But this leads to weirdnesses. Did you know that it is less energy to get to the surface of the moons of Mars than to get to the surface of our own moon? Have you ever tried to draw a map of the solar system where Mars is closer to us than Luna?

SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM. Furthermore, I felt the original hexmap did not reflect well the space-time "landscape" of a heliocentric system. Given rockets with low thrust and high specific impulse, gravity should dominate their movement. In an effort for Ad Astra Games (that was never produced), I designed a map with spaces as concentric rings around Sol. This used different rules for moving within the ring as for moving from ring to ring. A disadvantage to the rings was that players instinctively felt that they must drift their ships in circles.

ENERGY VS. SPACE. Robert Zubrin (Mars Society founder and game designer) was most emphatic about reverting back to a traditional map. He wanted the planets to be represented by tokens that revolved about the sun. But not only is this irritating — I have over fifty sites on the basic map alone — there are conceptual difficulties. For instance, the low-energy ("Hohmann") path between two orbiting bodies occurs not when they are close together, but when they are the farthest apart. How to represent this? Dr. Zubrin and I are developing a game called Space, which is a light High Frontier variant with chess-like qualities. This may appear in 2016, depending upon the success of High Frontier third edition Kickstarter campaign.

LABYRITHINE. Eventually, I discarded spaces in favor of "trajectories", paths from place to place, with spots on the intersections. The energy requirements were shown as small diamonds along the paths. The early game developers (Matt Eklund and Dr. John Douglass) were against this move as the resulting map resembled spilled spaghetti. Players were also negative. They found the map unrealistic, even if told the delta-v levels (i.e., energy levels) had been computed by LPL computers. Moreover, they were instantly lost in the serpentine convolutions, with no clue how to get anywhere. It was horrible.

CANDYLAND. We tried all sorts of things to tame the monster. Most of the routes were eliminated, and the important ones were rainbow colored and outfitted with signposts. This unfortunately made the map even more like Candyland, but players came to appreciate them. The diamonds were dropped, instead coloring certain spaces pink to show they required energy to enter.

THE FLY-BY PROBLEM. For years I struggled with the transition between circumplanetary and heliocentric space. My chief advisor here was Dr. Nathan Strange of JPL, who patiently explained to me the Oberth effect, and other details of slingshots that I must have dozed through in class. If you make a planetary fly-by, you can gain a gravity boost, but this energy is specifically not useful for entering an orbit around the planet. The energy gained is only with respect to the sun. The solution was to have the paths to the fly-by space not intersect any of the circumplanetary spaces of that world. An entire page of rules were replaced by a geometric arrangement of the map. Candyland rules!

HOME ON LAGRANGE. Other than pockets of circumplanetary space, the entire Solar System is dominated by solar gravity, yet there are null points here and there where gravity cancels out. These are the famed "Lagrange points". (The L5 society is named after Lagrange point 5.) While taking astrophysics at U of A, I became acquainted with the LPL programmers for the Cassini mission. They showed me their programs and porkchops and explained how to shoot for these points during a mission. With solar gravity canceled, one could freely jump to a new orbit. The "Candyland" map accommodated Lagrange points easily, as natural intersections and jump-off points for many other trajectories.

TIME. The energy map handled fuel requirements accurately, but time was a different matter. After years of tinkering, I used a system of marker facing to put "lags" into the routes to make the mission require the correct number of years. Later, the concept was simplified to costing extra energy (and propellant) to change direction at intersections. The advantage of a Lagrange point was that there one could change direction without cost, in either time or energy.

HYDRATION. Water is the key to the solar system! Naturally water is essential for many biological activities, but this is a drop in the bucket to its usefulness as rocket propellant. Fortunately my camping buddy Dr. Jonathan Lunine (currently with Cornell) had just published an article about the accessibility of water everywhere in the solar system, the basis for the game's hydration system. Jonathan went on to write two textbooks (to which I contributed illustrations and editing): Earth, Evolution of a Habitable Planet and Xenobiology.

THE OUTER WORLDS. Space is hazardous. Another camping buddy, Carolyn Porco, the Mission Director of Cassini, (and allegedly Carl Sagan's inspiration for the heroine of Contact) contributed information on the game's hazard system. Every time her team discovered a new moon or radiation current around Saturn, the game map got more complicated. Carolyn and Jonathan used to bicker around the campfire about which site (Jovian moons? Enceladus? Titan?) should get funding for the next outer planet mission. Naturally, they had opposite opinions about where I should locate my "high science" sites on the map: Carolyn favored Enceladus, which has a potential for subsurface oceans and life; Jonathan argued that his balloon observatory on Titan would give much more science results for the dollar. (Check the map yourself to see who I agreed with.)

Board Game: High Frontier

High Frontier, first edition game map

RAD-HARDNESS. Both Carolyn and Jonathan agreed that the radiation of Jupiter (the highest in the solar system) argues against the exploration of Europa, another potential site with a subsurface ocean. I was and am involved in the radiation hardening of the exoatmospheric kill vehicle at Raytheon. Thus, I know that shielding electronics from Jupiter's radiation belts would be heavy, costly, and risky. From this, radiation hardness evolved into the game's "defense factor".

A REGIME IN SPACE. I have extensively studied how politics influence the development of a frontier. (See the designer's notes in Pax Porfiriana for much more on this.) The key to any cutting-edge development is how much innovators are allowed the freedom to benefit from their own efforts, so including a politics diagram in the advanced game was important to me. (My son Matthew argued it detracted from the core themes.) Anyone who remembers the libertarian propaganda card containing the "world's smallest political quiz" will instantly recognize the Political Spectrum chart in High Frontier. It expands the traditional left-right polarity to two dimensions.

WHERE FIRST? My game shows how and why man might first venture off Earth. But where to first? I met with two activists, Avery Davis of the Moon Society and Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, with opposing views on this question. I eventually sided with Robert's position because of one key factor: water. There is water on asteroids and Luna, but the water on Mars is easier to attain. Water extraction technologies led to the breakthrough game concept of ISRU (in-situ resource utilization). ISRU, or "living off the land", is championed by Zubrin's "Mars Direct" proposals. Dr. Zubrin is also the inventor of the Zubrin salt-water drive and the mini-magnetosphere drive, both in the game.

THE THIRD EDITION. Almost four decades after the first Xeroxed copies of Rocket Flight, the third edition of High Frontier is emerging as the exhaustive culmination of its ideas. There are four "chassis" changes from the second edition: the new fuel strip, fungible fuel tanks, event triggers, and lander burns. All of these make the game simpler and more consistent, and replace rules conceived at a time when the game was not contemplated to go beyond Jupiter. They allow things like fully reversible landings and lift-offs, events out of reach of player triggering, and fully interchangeable WTs and fuel. The third edition also makes a big effort to make the rules more mature, streamlined, and accessible to the rookie rocketeer, while keeping new stuff and "simulation" rules in a second volume. As a final value add, the game balances the Futures and Modules, the results of literally man years of game-testing since the second edition.

Board Game: High Frontier (Third Edition)

High Frontier, third edition game map
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