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Designer Diary: New Frontiers

Tom Lehmann
United States
Palo Alto
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With New Frontiers, Race for the Galaxy comes full circle. Inspired by Puerto Rico and with permission from Andreas Seyfarth, New Frontiers blends together elements from both games.

For 2-5 players, New Frontiers takes from Puerto Rico its sequential action selection, colonists, and the notion of buildings "on offer", combining it with Race's theme, its worlds with many varying powers, military conquest, windfall goods, and consumption. The result is a fast-paced space-empire building game, typically coming in at about 2/3 Puerto Rico's play length.

Design Objectives

When designing New Frontiers, my objectives to make gameplay feel similar to but different from either Race or Puerto Rico; to ensure there would be variety both within a game and from game to game; and to emphasize that New Frontiers is a board, not a card, game.

One aspect of board games is table presence. In New Frontiers, round worlds slot into each player's empire mat, goods are futuristic, semi-transparent "crates", and the chevron-shaped developments emphasize their diamond icons. While Race's familiar icons are used, text explanations on the tiles explain every power, making the game more accessible to occasional players.

Board games differ from card games in that players can generally see the possibilities available to everyone, unlike most card games' hidden cards in hand. In New Frontiers, all the developments used in a given game are determined during set-up.

Doing so addresses one complaint about Race: that some players found that assembling plans "on the fly" as they drew and spent cards was too chaotic and frustrating. Having developments fixed within a game allows these players both to form plans from the game's outset and to "see" each player's position during play. For players who are primarily board, not card, players, this is a huge difference.

Each action tile details the action performed by all players and the bonus that its selecting player receives. Unlike in Puerto Rico, the only action tile that gains credits if unselected is Produce.

Ensuring Set-up Variety

In each game, 24 of 40 developments are available: sixteen of the 1- to 5-cost "small" developments that represent technologies and eight of the 9-cost "large" developments that provide both powers and scoring bonuses.

Eight of the 1- to 5-cost developments are always in play, providing a core structure to the game, while the other eight are two-sided, with each having a 50-50 chance of being present. For your first game, a preset set-up is provided.

Space Marines is always in every game to guarantee that some Military is available. Drop Ships and Galactic Salon are on opposite sides of the same tile, so these two developments are never present together.

Drop Ships is this tile's preset side, so that a "big Military" strategy is easier to pursue in your first game. In games with Galactic Salon instead, players can either eschew Military, pursue a low Military strategy, or rely on finding low defense worlds that provide Military to conquer high defense worlds.

Picking which developments were on opposite sides of tiles was an interesting design task. There are two broad options: put functionally similar powers, such as two Settle powers, on both sides of a tile so that each side forms a "variation on a theme" present in all games, or put two related developments on different tiles, so that a given "theme", such as development discounts and rebates, might be completely absent, strongly present, or in between, varying from game to game. For the "small" developments, I used both techniques to achieve varying effects.

The 9-cost developments are two-sided, with a preset side for your first game and a 50-50 chance for each one to be present in later games. Here, I mostly went with the "variations on a theme" approach to ensure that all strategies are potentially available in every game (even though their supporting small developments may or may not be present). The 9-cost developments above are different sides of the same tile and guarantee that a Military strategy can be rewarded, though its nature varies between "big Military" versus a strategy focused more on building developments as well as conquering worlds.

Using some fixed tiles and some varying two-sided development tiles to provide either different takes on a play element or to contrast games with or without a given element gives the game both a solid structure and lots of variety. While only one of each 9-cost development is provided to ensure competition for their endgame scoring bonuses, 1-3 tiles of each small technology is present, scaling with the number of players.

During testing, we quickly discovered that one consequence of developments being available was that development strategies were too strong compared to Race. This required increasing the cost of the large developments from 6 to 9 and reworking the costs or benefits of tiles with development powers.

The empire mats are two-sided with different — already colonized — start worlds on either side. For the first game, each mat has a preset side. In later games, after seeing which developments are present, players pick start worlds in order, so that players late in the initial order can pick their start worlds partially based on what the earlier players chose.

Each empire mat includes both a military and a non-military world. One will be either a windfall or a production world, while the other is a gray non-good world with a strong power. Of course, every combination of these options would be four worlds. Players are given a choice of just two, ensuring some trade-offs between them and preventing players from stereotypical play from game to game.

Ensuring In-Game Variety

In contrast to developments, non-start worlds are drawn randomly from a bag of 60 tiles during Explore. This is thematic and provides a sense of discovery during play, as well as in-game variety.

Worlds are two-sided, distinguishing between their explored and settled sides. When you explore a world, you claim its tile gray side up and add it, inactive, to your empire. To settle an explored world, you must not only pay for or conquer it, but you also need one or two colonists as indicated. Developments don't require colonists.

A player who is unable or doesn't wish to settle a world must take two colonists instead. Running low on colonists is one of four different ways that the game can end (after finishing the round).

Colonists gave me another way to vary and balance worlds, in addition to cost/defense, powers, windfall vs production worlds, and their goods' type.

Exploration, unlike in Race, occurs with all players drafting from a set of drawn tiles. Worlds are far more powerful and vary much more than plantations do in Puerto Rico. Due to this, each Explore action adds new information and synergies to the game, creating player interaction. Do you draft the world that benefits you the most, or do you deny the leading player the world that they really want?

The costs of non-military worlds (and developments) are paid in credits. This addresses some players' complaint that spending cards to pay for cards in Race created too much "angst" due to the fear of spending a card that you later wished you had saved.

To aid color-blind players, worlds that provide goods have a "moon" in an associated quadrant, as in Jump Drive and the second edition of Race. For the goods, we use a combination of hue and two sizes, in addition to color, to differentiate them. This worked better in practice than using just size and having four sizes, as size differences became too small when a medium-sized good was viewed in isolation.

Playing the Markets

As in Race, converting goods to VPs requires players to build developments or worlds with consumption powers.

Trade and Consume are combined into one action, which links gaining credits for empire building with consuming goods for VPs.

This greatly reduces the "voting problem" present in some three-player games in which being the odd person out strategically can result in having to call too many actions to be competitive with two players calling complementary actions. In New Frontiers, everyone starts out quite poor, struggling to get going, and then is often awash with credits, vying for 9-cost developments, near the game end.

Prosperous Economy, a development always present, leverages consuming goods and substitutes for Race's Consume 2x bonus.

Compare and Contrast

Unlike Puerto Rico, there is no Trading House to sell goods and no ship-equivalents to place goods on. This gives New Frontiers a very different "feel" during play.

Puerto Rico is all about making careful calculations and pressuring interactions to limit the choices of the next player via action selection and choosing which goods to trade and ship.

Race is all about managing your hand constantly, bluffing interactions during action selection, and "making lemonade" from the cards you draw, as befits a card game. Its icons and the advantages that flow from "knowing the deck" are designed for players who play it frequently.

New Frontiers is all about empire building, planning, and managing overall game tempo via action selections, while leveraging small power effects into big advantages over time. Its more accessible nature (text on tiles) lends itself to being played "in the rotation" by a game group who enjoys a variety of games.

While some players enjoy all three game types, I believe there's a core audience for each of these games, depending on whether blocking and pressuring interactions in a very "tight" game, portability and hidden information in a card game, or neat bits and a board game's open information to allow ease of planning is more enjoyable for a given group.

Jumping the Queue

Actions are done in player order (not clockwise). Dropping simultaneous play gives the game a less "frenetic" feel (another complaint sometimes leveled at Race).

Further, player order doesn't change rotate automatically. It changes only when a player spends an action to move to the front of the queue.

This action allows a player — say one of two players going "big military" — to shift their relative turn order so that they aren't always getting second choice of worlds relative to the other military player whenever another player selects Explore.

Some testers wondered why the last player each turn doesn't automatically pick this action. This gets to a subtle point of managing overall game tempo. By picking last, a player can generally ensure that multiple actions needed to support their strategy all get done in a round. Spending an action to become first player in a four-player game may mean that a particular action gets selected once in seven actions (across two rounds) instead of twice in eight actions. Hanging back until there is a particular tactical reason to become first player turns out to be quite useful in practice.

In two-player games, each player adds their colored ID disk to the turn order slide (we assume players can remember their colors in two-player games) and selects two actions each round. These actions begin interleaved among the players, but Send Diplomatic Envoys may result in both players successively selecting two actions in a row.

But Wait, There's More

After testing and revising, I had a game that satisfied many players who had tried Race and found its use of cards too random or frustrating and which testers enjoyed and felt was sufficiently different in feel from either Race or Puerto Rico.

However, I ran into an issue with players who enjoyed and were familiar with both of these games: They demanded something new, something in neither Race nor Puerto Rico. This led me to add goals to my design, replacing Retreat Into Isolation with Chart Galactic Goals.

When a player chooses Chart Galactic Goals, they look at three goal tiles (from an initial stack of eight), pick one secretly, and discard the other two to the bottom of the stack. This secret goal applies to all players at game end, but isn't revealed until another player chooses Chart Galactic Goals (or the game ends). Getting both a choice and private information allows a player to often gain an edge on their opponents.

For example, a player picking Diversification might Explore and Settle all four kinds of worlds, possibly gaining 8 or 5 VPs at game end over more specialized opponents. Goals that always score for all players, but in varying amounts, is different from the approaches used for goals in either Race or Roll.

Some goals allow players to stockpile certain game items, such as resources, explored worlds, or credits, on their stockpile mats. A player may reveal a hidden stockpile goal at the start of its relevant action, allowing all players to potentially stockpile that item. In games with five players, stockpile goals can potentially create shortages of resources or worlds, adding a new element to play.

Goals worked well to add an extra scoring element to New Frontiers for players experienced with both Race and Puerto Rico, but they posed an issue for players who hadn't played these games (or were "rusty" on them). For them, Goals tended to be "one thing too many" to learn at once.

I strongly prefer games that play in a single way so that online strategy discussions and play groups don't get fragmented. I normally put options in expansions (which, by definition, are optional).

Here, I was faced with a quandary as one group of testers strongly wanted Goals while other players found them too hard to appreciate and use strategically while learning New Frontiers. My solution was to bring back Retreat into Isolation as a preset action for players' first game, placing Chart Galactic Goals on this action tile's reverse side and making Goals optional.

My hope is that most players will eventually move to Chart Galactic Goals as the standard way to play, except when playing with novice players. My fear, of course, is that some experienced players will use Goals right away, even when playing with new or "rusty" players who may end up feeling overwhelmed.

The Weight of the Galaxy

Finding the right world size was tough. We had to present a world's kind/cost, VPs, power, power text, colonists needed, title, and — for a few worlds — special scoring, while still providing enough room for attractive artwork and tolerance for die cutting in all directions. The world size dictated the empire mat size, which in turn dictated the tile layouts in their frames and the box height and width.

The result is twenty sheets of thick cardboard, a stack 1.75" (45 mm) high. That's quite heavy and can easily result in the side seams of a game box splitting with normal handling during shipping. Further, this weight shifting about can easily dent a typical box insert (which is why other games with lots of cardboard, such as Terra Mystica, don't have one). But we had a large bag of components (plastic cubes, colonists, and disks) that we needed to keep separate from all this heavy cardboard during shipping and, after components are punched, having an insert well is nice for storage.

Our solutions to these issues were to stack the cardboard sheets in pairs cross-wise to take the strain off the box sides to reduce seam splitting and, for shipping, to place the insert and components above the cardboard sheets to, hopefully, prevent any damage to them.

The resulting box is as small as we could make it within all these constraints. Luckily, it still fits many common shelving systems! After everything is punched and the empty tile frames removed, there is about an 1" of space left depth-wise. If New Frontiers is successful, I hope to fill that space with an expansion...

Sorting these issues delayed production considerably and created uncertainty as to when the game would ship, hampering publicity efforts. My first BGG "teaser" post for New Frontiers was back in May 2018 when I, mistakenly, thought its production would be straightforward. Little did I know that this preview would fall smack in the middle of many people's holidays!

Galactic Credit

When Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games first proposed this project to me, my response was that Andreas Seyfarth, Puerto Rico's designer, needed to be okay with it. I'd like to publicly thank Andreas for graciously giving us permission.

Wei-Hwa Huang was instrumental in developing the prototype, working with me to design new shapes and icons as we turned Race from a card game into a board game.

Martin Hoffmann and Claus Stephan did the cover and tile illustrations, adding new artwork for some tiles and extending Race's card images to fit well on round tiles on others. They also contributed the distinctive idea of slotting worlds into the empire mats.

When Mirko Suzuki was too busy with all the production work for the second edition of Race and the upcoming Roll for the Galaxy: Rivalry expansion, Martin stepped up to do the production work for New Frontiers.

Rob Shankly provided insight into color-blind support. Ken Hill, RGG's new production manager, tirelessly dealt with all the production and shipping headaches.

Finally, thanks to all the testers who shared their feedback and thoughts with me. Enjoy!

Tom Lehmann
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