While there is no shortage of board games set in space, few fill the niche of High Frontier. Even the simplest of voyages is difficult and dangerous in space, and likewise in this game. If you want to effortlessly hop from star to star and destroy aliens with fictional weaponry, move on. High Frontier is about the satisfaction of finding water on a distant airless rock, or rescuing your stranded cosmonauts before they die in a solar storm. For a true space nut, there is no comparison. It's the favorite game of my fellow grad students, and a rocket engineer friend gave it her seal of approval.
But for all its hard sci-fi glory, the original High Frontier had its imperfections. Aside from the learning cliff, more a function of the uniqueness of the rules than their difficulty or complexity, the game always seemed to end just as our extraterrestrial industries were getting off the ground, and some of the mechanics seemed a little arbitrary or clunky. Having the solar cycle progress based on player actions rather then an objective clock distorted tactics in weird ways: we saw players with craft in the distant solar system intentionally trigger CMEs when opponents were vulnerable, and no one ever even tried visiting a synodic comet because it's easy to change the solar season before an opponent arrives at his destination. And most of all, everyone wanted the next step: to progress from factories to colonies.
The Colonization expansion addresses all of these needs. It tweaks some of the more irritating rules from the original game. The solar cycle now progresses turn-by-turn instead of by player movement. There are mechanisms added to cycle the deck without player action, so no more games of chicken when weak cards are on top of the research decks. And factories now behave like factories: being able to produce multiple products instead of building one component and shutting down (yeah, they're nominally producing spare parts, but how are those parts getting to my rocket on the other end of the solar system?). These changes make for a more elegant, intuitive, and immersive game, but are only the beginning of what Colonization has to offer.
The new rulesets are the meat of the expansion. Rather then one monolithic entity, they come in modules, any number of which can be added to the game. I have only played with all at once, and some seem more easily separable than others, but in theory, all are independent.
The Bernal and Colonist modules strike me as the most closely intertwined. Colonists represent the new settlers of the high frontier: individuals who live and work permanently in space. Unlike the crew cards from the original game, which represent at maximum a dozen people, colonist cards represent roughly 100 individuals. In game terms, they are a new set of component cards and are acquired similarly to technologies. Colonist cards are quite powerful: they provide a special ability, allow one to make an extra Operation every turn, and many can function as a component. Additionally, each human colonist has a loyalty, not necessarily to their controlling player, and will vote according to that loyalty in elections and may even defect to their preferred employers. To balance their power, the number of human colonists a player is allowed is heavily restricted (initially: 1). While any number of robotic colonists are allowed, all but one can only be built on the rare and difficult to prospect D-type worlds. This module adds an enormous amount to the game, both in gameplay and theme. They open up options which would not otherwise be available, and successfully completing a mission with your rickety shamble of a rocket is that much more satisfying with the Juiced Cosmonauts on board. And who wouldn't enjoy sending the Vatican Observers (affectionately known in my group as the Space Pope) to Pluto?
Increasing your colonist count is where the Bernal comes in. Bernals represent large space stations designed for permanent human habitation. Each player starts with one. They can be upgraded to provide an additional player power, and can be moved, either under their own (inefficient) power, or via an attached thruster. A Bernal adjacent to extraterrestrial factories allows its owner to control additional human colonists in space, based on the hydrology rating of the adjacent sites. Since the high hydrology locations are in the outer reaches of the solar system, this provides a nice incentive to explore the distant parts of the map. But the Bernal is heavy, so hauling it out to a great location is quite an endeavor.
Transporting your Bernal to a valuable location is much easier with the gigawatt thruster module. These new technology cards are researched on their black side, meaning they can only be built at extraterrestrial factories. However they are all either very fast, very efficient, or both, roughly of the same power as the infamous Saltwater Zubrin thruster from the base game. In fact, the Saltwater Zubrin is now treated as a gigawatt thruster. To balance out their incredible power, these cards (including the Saltwater Zubrin), are subject to more restrictive fueling rules that ensure the standard thrusters stay competitive for quite some time. If the Bernal and Colonist rules provide the motivation to spend more time in the distant solar system, the gigawatt thrusters grant the means.
The Freighter module makes freighters less abstract. They are now technology cards acquired through research, or given for free to the first player to industrialize a site of a particular spectral class. The variety among freighters is not that high, and in many ways the freighter module is more restrictive and less powerful than the old freighter rules. One nifty piece of chrome is that factories at certain sites will speed up your freighters across the solar system, though this rules could easily be adapted into the base game. The freighter module is the weakest of the modules, and is the one I would be most likely to play without. What makes the freighter module worthwhile is the endgame module.
The endgame module, as the name suggests, changes what triggers the end of the game. Instead of being based on number of factories or space ventures, the game is ended upon completion of a certain number of "futures." These represent dramatic events which would completely change the nature of human society. These can be as diverse as terraforming planets, creating a group consciousness, or space colonists achieving political independence from Earth. To accomplish one of these futures, one needs to first "promote" a card. Any of the three new card types (colonist, freighter, gigawatt thruster) can be promoted at a lab. Labs are acquired primarily by industrializing a trans-Neptunian science site, but can be built in other ways. One simply brings the card to be promoted to a lab, performs the "promote" operation, and flips it over to its new, purple side. The purple cards are extremely powerful. Purple freighters become freighter fleets: making your factories mobile. The gigawatt thrusters become terawatt thrusters, and crew cards become...different crew cards. But what a difference! Remember those Juiced Cosmonauts from before? They promote to the Rental Body Guild, individuals who rent bodies to operate remotely while themselves residing in safety. Many of the promoted cards provide the opportunity to achieve "futures" by accomplishing various (frequently quite difficult) tasks. Futures are worth a large number of victory points, and a certain number must be achieved to end the game.
The endgame module begins to stretch the hard science fiction nature of the game. There's a large plausibility leap from solar sails to von Neumann machines. But while it may stretch, it does not break. The progression is sufficiently gradual to seem plausible, and over a game this long, it's nice to see these sorts of substantial developments. Since the game doesn't end until futures have been achieved, and they all but require substantial resources in the furthest reaches of the solar system, the end game module practically assures that every portion of the map will see play.
High Frontier presupposes that the future of humanity will be shaped by space, and the Colonization expansion allows you to determine how we will respond to those influences. Will we terraform the worlds of our own system, or search for habitable planets in others? How will our relationship with robots change as computers become increasingly powerful? Will we adapt ourselves to the extreme environments of the final frontier through genetics, cybernetics, both, or neither? Playing High Frontier Colonization, you start out feeling like a character from Apollo 13, but end feeling like a leader from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. And the transition feels completely natural. If that doesn't appeal to you, simply don't play with the endgame module, or even completely disallow promoting anything but Bernals, and the game will end while still feeling solidly like a gritty rocket engineering simulator.
Even just the changes made to the legacy rules make the expansion worthwhile. Before, it was fun, unique, and interesting. Now, it's finally become elegant, with the rules encouraging the kind of play everyone preferred. The early game is still a little slow. There are new quick start rules which I have not yet tried. If they are anything like the original quick start rules, they will be a disappointment, but I will amend this review once I've given them a try. If you liked High Frontier before, this expansion is a must-buy. If you didn't like it before, this probably won't change anything. It's the same game, but bigger, better, and more polished. I rated the original game a 9, but somewhat hesitantly. I suspected I liked the game more then it deserved due to simple excitement that someone would even try to make such a thing. With Colonization, it's a ten, without reservation.
"Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation"
Thank you for this excellent review. I've been on the fence about this expansion (I have the base + first expansion and am already pleasantly overwhelmed), but you've made a fine case .