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Preamble


In this review of High Frontier (HF) I will not go over the rules, components, or operations of the game as they are very well covered in other reviews and comments. What I will do is try to give an honest evaluation of the game from someone that finds the game an amazing design accomplishment but an average and at times frustrating game. If you are reading this review and already think this HF is a great game at every level, there is no point in reading on. If you are trying to decide if this very unique and challenging game is for you, I hope this review is helpful.

Simulation: Do not try this at home


The first important point to know in High Frontier is that it is first and foremost a simulation, not a competitive board game. High Frontier is one of the most clearly researched and scientifically accurate games you will ever encounter. The background knowledge and effort for accuracy the designers include is impressive at every level. From ship construction to moving out into near space and searching for useful resources, this game feels as real as it can without a space suit. As a simulation it is nearly unmatched. This accuracy is however also the cause of some of the short sides of High Frontier as a game.

The Beauty of the Beast


One of the most impressive and notable aspects of High Frontier is the map and cards. The map is meticulously designed and fascinating to look at. It is so impressive that you can actually purchase the map poster sized and mounted and hang it as art. The cards, which represent rocket/mining components, are equally spectacular. Each one represents a real, or at least potentially real, piece of technology with scale drawings and relevant statistics. I learned more about space technology in the first hour of looking at these cards than I learned in my first 47 years of life. Visually, this game is as good as it can be.

The Long Dark Tunnel of Building


The first stage of the game is developing and assembling a rocket that can get you out into near space and begin the process of exploring asteroids, comets, and planets for minerals. A fully functional rocket/mining system contains a Thruster, Refinery, and Robonaut (basic game). Each of these pieces is purchased through an open auction with the phasing player selecting a component to be put up for bid. This is the first place where the game becomes cumbersome. The currency used in the game is “propellant”, specifically water. For the purposes of the game, water doubles as money and as fuel for the rockets. Each turn a player can perform one action; acquire one water, research one technology, sell one technology, boost rocket components, and a few other things that apply later. It takes a long long time to acquire the necessary currency, technology, and fuel to get your first space project off the pad. Due to the conditions that end the game (to be discussed later) this front end research and development can be 50 – 75 % of your game in time spent. As a simulation, this is perfect. As a game experience, this is too slow for many players; particularly if you are a Euro or a Grog customarily. The second drawback to this process is that the bidding has a gimmicky feel to it. A player bids on technology they have no interest in simply to up the price for other player’s pursuits. Players are often not able to research stuff they want for their mission but instead have to research other items to cycle through whatever techs are on the top of the stacks at the time. This does not create a feel of a focused mission and directed research but instead a strange economic subsystem that does not quite work. IT will for some, but not for many. This is not a game breaker and can be fixed with some house rules but I will not pose suggested alternatives in this review.

"Dammit Jim, I am a gamer not an Accountant"


In the expanded game, which it feels like was always intended but not included, rocket systems are more complex. They now additionally need a combination of Reactors, Generators, and Radiators. While the number of components doubled, the complexity tripled or more. This is where a potential player has to evaluate what they enjoy. Putting together a three piece rocket and keeping track of propellant, wet and dry mass, thrust capacity, and distance is daunting, but not yet tedious or overwhelming. Managing all of the above with the additional requirements of cooling and powering, with each component being dependent on one or two other specialized components starts to feel like accounting more than gaming. Again the bidding system comes into play here. You cannot research a three cooling radiator or a needed nuclear reactor, but only what is on the top of the deck. Now your start-up time percentage in the game can be more like 60 – 75 %, and that is assuming your rocket does not break down in Low Earth Orbit and survives the solar radiation that must be passed through on your way out of Earths back yard. Oh yes, I have not mentioned that in the advanced game you have to worry about radiation effects and purchasing highly resistant components or high thrust rockets to keep your ship safe. These added cards increase the realism of the simulation but make the game more of an abacus exercise than a competition.

Live on the edge, or live nowhere at all


Once you have your rocket, exploration of space can be exciting. It can also be very frustrating. Your rocket can explode due to radiation or hazards. This can be a game ender. You have to be willing to risk the whole game at times: exciting but frustrating. Most of the destinations are very difficult to prospect (stake a claim on), and in fact have a 1-6 chance of success. And they are a one shot deal. If you don’t find resources the first time, you never will. It is very possible you can spend 2 hours of the game building up your rocket and hauling yourself out into space only to roll a 4 on a 3 resource claim (and a 3 is a good site). At this point, unless all the players have been unlucky, you are done. At least you won’t win if that is your goal. Again, as a simulation this works, as a competitive game it feels random. This game favors the risk taker, but also eats them for lunch. If you like ‘live on the edge’ realism, it may work for you. If you like to have some measured probability of success based on strategy and tactics, this may frustrate you.

The objective is to score Gentlmen


The end game and scoring functions are the least simulation centered, and possibly the least satisfying part of the game. With 4 or 5 players the game ends when the 7th factory is built. The goal of the game is to locate resources, prospect them, create a claim, and develop factories. With 5 people the game feels like it ends just when it starts getting going. After enduring 15 or more turns getting out into space, each player gets down a couple claims, one or two factories, and the game ends. This feels like there was some point in developing the simulation that they needed to make it a game, so they pulled a number out of the hat. What is even less satisfying, and very hard to explain, is prior to 7 factories any person with 3 factories (clearly the leader) can spend 5 water and end the game immediately. I suppose this is to make the end game more mysterious, but what it does is allow the person in the lead to end the game based on nothing other than a small expenditure. This creates a “race” mentality that is artificial to the simulation. Scoring itself is somewhat odd. The game awards 3 VP’s for being first to get to certain places and back such as Mars and Mercury, while there are many other big achievements, Jupiter and Titan for example, that are equally interesting and in many ways more noteworthy. Similarly you get lots of points for having a monopoly in one factory type but then also get a large point haul for being the first to have three of one claim type. Claims themselves however are only worth one point when in reality they are probably the most valuable accomplishment in a true simulation. All of this to say that in a simulation that is this developed, the gamey aspects seem out of place and underworked. For me the game needs to have more objectives, last longer, and feel more like I am running a space mining company. Instead it feels like a 30 meter dash that I have to spend 2 hours stretching out for and is over before the echo of the starting gun has faded.

Where was I again?


My final point on High Frontier is one that many 4 – 5 player games suffer from. The time between turns is grueling. Now it may be said that after several plays this gets shorter as you learn the system. That is likely true. But not true enough. This is a game that takes a lot of meticulous management, planning and plotting, (as in plotting a course on the board). There will always be a lot of calculations that need to be made, and they have to be perfect. This is okay as I plan and plot for my turn, but it is not fun for others. There is very little interaction in this game. Yes I have to participate in auctions and be careful not to let my competitors get the components they are after, or at least make them pay for them dearly, but that is not enough. In each of our games there were several occasions where we did not know whose turn it was. We are not game wimps and have survived games such as Empires and Arms, World in Flames, and other monsters. Down time is okay if it is engaging down time. High Frontier has such a high level of accounting and flow chart management that the unfolding Solar System gets lost somewhere in the Frontier.

And for my last words gentlemen I will say this


So my take on High Frontier is this. It is a masterful simulation that will be nearly a religious experience for a small niche of players. It has a group of fanatic committed fans here on BGG. It deserves those fans. It really is a unique experience and a significant accomplishment if you learn it and play it. But it is not a game for everybody, and I would say it is not a game for most. The learning curve is very high, even for experienced gamers. The flow of play is realistic but cumbersome. The first half of the game feels like management, not gaming. I know this review will not win popular support from the fans, but I would like to have read this myself before I purchased the game. I still would have bought it, but I would have had different expectations.
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Christopher O
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Hi Dave... I was able to read your review, but in its current formatting, it looks a little dense. Perhaps a few more line breaks or spacing would help it "breathe" a little better?
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Kozure wrote:
Hi Dave... I was able to read your review, but in its current formatting, it looks a little dense. Perhaps a few more line breaks or spacing would help it "breathe" a little better?


At least it suits the subject matter.
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IMO you might want to edit it a bit with some whitespace, headers or pictures between the different parts of the text because it seems like your opinion is well formulated, but at the moment it is almost unreadable.

I lost the line that I was reading quite a few times.
your assessment that it is a niche game that won't reach the amount of players a more approachable game like Puerto Rico has is quite right but that's true for all of Sierra Madre Games products

edit: beaten to the punch as usual
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Kozure wrote:
Hi Dave... I was able to read your review, but in its current formatting, it looks a little dense. Perhaps a few more line breaks or spacing would help it "breathe" a little better?


Spaces added, working on pictures. Went with headers instead.
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Suddenly a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.
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Bah. No need for pictures.
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Fair points, all.

Here's what I've found after 21 plays:

Three players is the sweet spot.

Play the base game at least five times before adding the expansion.

The game requires all players to be familiar with the tech cards before it really starts to shine. This isn't about reading all the cards—it's a trial and error process that can take many plays. And you have to start all over again when you add the expansion cards.

Once you get over the hump of the (admittedly daunting) learning curve, the seemingly disjointed parts all smooth out and the mechanics fade into the background. The economics of research become simple and obvious and actually dovetail neatly into the rest of it.

This is a brutal but satisfying game if you're into simulated space exploration (which is time-consuming, expensive, and risky). Dumb luck can end the most meticulously planned mission—but that just ends up being part of your story. You may have dared and lost... but you dared nonetheless.

The intricacies of the game require many, many plays to show themselves as a cohesive whole; not everyone will be willing or motivated to give it that many goes to see where they end up. Those who are predisposed with a love of real space exploration and complex puzzles will be rewarded for their efforts with an experience no other game can deliver. When we play it's a lusty, sleeves-rolled-up, tense affair, a wrestling match of wit and will. Victory never goes to the timid or the careful nor the capricious or reckless; the winner is always the one who skated the edge of the abyss at sphincter-clenching speed.

I'm not evangelizing... just tossing my two cents in as you are absolutely right that it's not for everyone. Just those with the Right Stuff.

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HiveGod wrote:
Fair points, all.


Three players is the sweet spot.

Play the base game at least five times before adding the expansion.

The game requires all players to be familiar with the tech cards before it really starts to shine. This isn't about reading all the cards—it's a trial and error process that can take many plays. And you have to start all over again when you add the expansion cards.

Once you get over the hump of the (admittedly daunting) learning curve the seemingly disjointed parts ...

This is a brutal but satisfying game if you're into simulated space exploration (which is time-consuming, expensive, and risky). Dumb luck can end the most meticulously planned mission—...

The intricacies of the game require many, many plays ... Those who are predisposed with a love of real space exploration and complex puzzles will be rewarded for their efforts with an experience no other game can deliver... Victory never goes to the timid or the careful nor the capricious or reckless; the winner is always the one who skated the edge of the abyss at sphincter-clenching speed.



You and I are in agreement, depending on how you interpret "The Right Sutff".
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A much needed and a propos review. This game ask so much energy to learn (and to play), anyone should be advised before purchasing (which may be quite cumbersome in itself if you don't live in the US).
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A lot of the points made by the OP and HiveGod are definitely spot on. It's been a long time since my last game of HF, unfortunately. Perhaps I will be able to play it again in june...
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Confirming my fears, alas. This has been tempting me but I don't think I'd ever play it. I may pick it up anyway to recycle the map and movement rules for an SF RPG if I run one set in our solar system.
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selenite wrote:
Confirming my fears, alas. This has been tempting me but I don't think I'd ever play it. I may pick it up anyway to recycle the map and movement rules for an SF RPG if I run one set in our solar system.


Oh good lord man, you may be onto something. I could easily see a traveller or gurps transhuman or space being run on this thing. How have i been so blind? Maybe phil should expand his marketing for the zazzle map?
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selenite wrote:
Confirming my fears, alas. This has been tempting me but I don't think I'd ever play it. I may pick it up anyway to recycle the map and movement rules for an SF RPG if I run one set in our solar system.


YMMV, but I suspect that a sci-fi rpg campaign using HF elements might significantly bog down in the minutiae--something that is often already a danger if you are a gm who loves the technical side of the rulesets, etc. I love HF, especially for the story it constructs as part of game play, but as the OP has noted, it is a real challenge to navigate the game system to get to that story, especially for people new and inexperienced with Phil's designs. In general, unless it REALLY mattered to the story, when I have gm'd games with space travel, it was simpler to just abstract it to the level of "You pilot the ship toward the orbiting freighter for docking" etc. and assume it all works so the characters can get on with accidentally killing entire alien civilizations or starting interstellar wars or waking up malevolent AI's or pissing off space pirates.
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Dave Davies wrote:
My final point on High Frontier is one that many 4 – 5 player games suffer from. The time between turns is grueling.
The more grueling the better for me. The problem I have is the guys I play this with are much quicker than me. I no sooner finish a move and it's back to me, and I'm still resting my brain from the previous turn!
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HiveGod wrote:
.. Dumb luck can end the most meticulously planned mission—but that just ends up being part of your story.


Unfortunately for me I have discovered that being dumb can also end what one thought was the most meticulously planned mission..
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Congtulations to the OP on a clearly written review.

The comments on using High Frontier in some form or another in an SF RPG are also interesting although I'm not sure how well that would work in general, bearing in mind that the map and movement rules are really in a sort of energy/momentum space rather than 3D (x, y, z) space, as far as I can tell. A better way for SF RPGers might be to use the map and movement rules from Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century Game; IIRC, the distances and orbital periods are surprisingly accurate (and could easily be tweaked to make them more so).

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someotherguy wrote:
I love HF and don't entirely agree with the review or the posters.

HF is a great game. There isn't any math beyond some simple adding and subtracting. You can forget a rule or two here and there without ruining the game. Don't let a bit of complexity scare you away from a great gaming experience.


Dan
Thanks for your thoughts. Most of your points are not necessarily contradicting mine but demonstrating what I am saying. For you, and for a small group, this is a great game. I believe it is as well, for a small percentage of gamers. I do disagree with you saying that it is not a simulation. If this is not a simulation, no game is. The game here is secondary. Also I did not say there is complex math involved. There is complex system accounting. But I appreciate your post as an example of the passion and commitment that some have to this game. It deserves its loyal fans.

Dave
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My two cents:

Prospective players should spend a good bit of time reading through the rules, actually playing the examples presented, studying the patent cards front and back, and studying the map.

In fact, its best if they chart out as many high-speed (ie. minimal burns required) paths to the major planetoids, going so far as listing them out in a notebook or such, well before their first game. They should also spend a good while playing with the cards, working out optimal combination of thruster-radiator-reactor-generator and payloads (robonaut-refinery-supports), paying particular attention to the white sides as those are going to be the formative components available.

The solitaire scenario "Hermes Fall" is a good introduction to the rules, if a very abbreviated one. If nothing else, it will get the players used to the enormous frustrations involved in trying to get into space with current-day technology.
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merchantbard wrote:
My two cents:

Prospective players should spend a good bit of time reading through the rules, actually playing the examples presented, studying the patent cards front and back, and studying the map.

In fact, its best if they chart out as many high-speed (ie. minimal burns required) paths to the major planetoids, going so far as listing them out in a notebook or such, well before their first game. They should also spend a good while playing with the cards, working out optimal combination of thruster-radiator-reactor-generator and payloads (robonaut-refinery-supports), paying particular attention to the white sides as those are going to be the formative components available.



Merchant
Thank you. I could not have more clearly illustrated my point. 1 for you.
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