Sunday, 6 November 2011

Is this a game, or is it my science homework?

Tonight was a special night for the GNN regulars. Tonight we were to attempt the board game High Frontier. This leviathan of a game (about exploring the Solar System) with its many rules is a sort of north face of the Eiger for semi-casual gamers such as us.

We began at seven o’clock on Saturday. I had taken precautions and read through the rules online, taking notes as I did. Joe also had read through them, and Adam too had some knowledge of the rules. Sam, however, had no idea of what the game entailed. As it turned out, this was like turning up to base camp in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops.

I am delighted at the clarity and thoroughness of my notes

After the rules were explained, the game got under way at around eight. We slowly built up our technologies and water tanks, when I decided to break free of Low Earth Orbit and set off to a new planet. Or moon. I landed on Deimos at 9.20 – the first of our group to successfully touch down on alien land! I was so excited, I wanted to text someone to boast about my achievement. Unfortunately, the only people I knew who’d be interested were with me in the room at the time.

Soon after that, Adam colonised the Moon, and Joe set off towards Jupiter or something. It’s hard to say, because he then looked at his cards, said “oh, fuck” and before long his ship had disintegrated. Sam, meanwhile, was getting frustrated. He had two thrusters to build his rocket with, but both were rubbish. They were solar sails, and one barely used any fuel until you needed to perform a “burn” at which point it became very inefficient. The other barely got you anywhere at all.

I successfully identify the playing area on the table

Adam and I continued to build up our extra-terrestrial concerns, while Joe tried again at the outer Solar System. But at 10.45 Sam discovered he couldn’t land on Mars with the ship he had, and so he resigned from the game rather than go all the way back to Earth and build a new one.

After Sam left, Adam and Joe began to prospect in the Asteroid Belt and they discovered just how mean a die can be, as one asteroid after another came up blank. Meanwhile (twelve minutes past eleven), I got some Glory points for taking a human crew to an asteroid (Phaethon) and safely back. The ticker-tape parade and extensive media coverage had to remain in my imagination, though, as Joe and Adam were too busy trying to find anywhere worth claiming as their own to acknowledge my epoch-defining achievement.

Joe and I discuss the rules. Adam can barely hide his excitement.

The game struggled on. I headed back out to Phaethon, hoping to refuel and tackle the outer Solar System, but by the time I got there, it was midnight and I was exhausted. By now Adam had succeeded in finding another asteroid worth prospecting and Joe finally got a bit of luck with a dice roll and landed and prospected on his first extra-terrestrial lump of rock. It was ten past twelve. We had been playing for four hours.

I called an end to proceedings with barely any argument from Joe and Adam, and I counted up the scores. To be honest I thought I had won, but I forgot about the scores for different types of factories. My “D” factories scored nothing at all, but Adam and Joe had other types of factories, giving them eight points each. In the end, it was:

Adam 12
Joe 10
Andrew 8

It was a game that promised a lot of geek-driven joy, but in the end did not deliver. Even I, who did quite well at the start thanks to some lucky rolls, found it quite a grind towards the end.

We ended the evening by ruefully admitting that we'll probably never play this game again, but I'm not sure. If I see someone setting this up at Stabcon, I may be tempted to join in. Assuming it's still early afternoon, that is.


  1. Though it actually wasn't as bad as I feared, it was too much for me; one of those times when a game makes me feel extraordinarily dim.

    Nonetheless, I should not have broken the fourth rule of games night ("never mock games night along with Charlotte") and I apologise for that. I hope the sentencing will be lenient...

  2. What are rules 1, 2 and 3?

    1 must be "Nobody talks about games club".
    is 2, "Everybody plays"?

  3. I think HF has an absolutely unique place in the pantheon of games. The foggy cloud of numbers and calculations you have to work through positively adds to the theme, and makes that first extra-terrestrial landfall a joyous thing. It's a damned shame we stopped when we did, because I had finally got my game off the ground, built a factory and was ready to head into the outer reaches.
    I did feel a little underwhelmed at the end of the evening; when you've spent a whole, big evening learning and playing a single new game, there's always the nagging feeling that you could have spent a glorious time playing two, three even, of everyone's favourite games (it's how I felt after lying Cuba a couple of weeks ago).
    Added to that, maybe, there is a little bit of the law of diminshing returns. A bottle of wine that costs £500 is not going to be 100 times better than one cositing £5. Similarly, a game that is 3 times as complex as the games you normally play isn't going to be 3 times as much fun. Perhaps that analogy doesn't quite hold up - I'm sure there re those who would argue that High Frontier is three times better than Alhambra, for instance.
    So I have to put aside the feeling of what the evening could have been; it could have been Brass. It could have been Alhambra, Ascending Empires and Poker, one after the other. It could have been Twilight Struggle and A Few Acres of Snow, played side by side in pairs (that would have been weird).
    But it wasn't. It was, FINALLY, High Frontier. And I would have happily played on. If we were in a log cabin somewhere, I would have left the board set up and resumed this morning. Or started again this morning, even. The sense of exploration, of not only space but also a fantastically complex and open game system, is hard to match. I love that it achieves this with relatively few bits and pieces, albeit with the most complex and detailed (not to mention beautiful) game board in the history of gaming.
    Thanks to Adam, Sam and Andrew for rising to the challenge, and apologies to all the other GNN-ers that it wasn't an open invitation - any more than four would have made it impossible. If anyone fancies a go, just say the word.
    And now that we know it, I'm not sure a tuesday evening is out of the question?

  4. Great review as always Andrew. I think I had the opposite experience to you - the start of the game was an incredible grind just trying to get a ship together that was capable of getting off earth, but then, once you have one factory set up in space (better on an asteroid than a planet) it started to get interesting.

    Perhaps we could give it one more go, but with everyone starting with an asteroid factory rather than random cards.

  5. I also enjoyed the fact that Charlotte came and watched for a bit. It was a bit like someone wandering into Kennedy Space Centre asking for a latte and an almond croissant . . .

  6. I certainly had plans for my next few moves, but I wasn't sure if I could keep up the white heat of astrodynamics for much longer. I also got lucky with the thruster I got, which was pretty useful for a beginner.

  7. Adam I'm not sure your suggested quick start wouldn't break the 'shape' of the game. That build-up is important I think - plus it gives you plenty of time to get a plan together. There is a variant called 2020, which gives everyone a starting hand of 10 or so cards tailored to their faction . . .
    Anyway, it looks like it's you and me Adam - maybe we should pencil in a return to space one evening soon, ie before we've forgotten everything we learned last night.

  8. Hey, let's not be too hasty. If you're playing, then I'm in. I just hit a wall around midnight and couldn't go on. I realised I had to ask for an explaination of yet another rule, and I sort of caved in at that point.

    But with the rules in capsule form, and our holo-bots telling us what to do, next time it should go much faster, right?

  9. Once upon a time I liked long games, and maybe if my kids start waking up later than 5.30 I will again. But I'm not sure a foggy cloud of calculations will ever be a plus for me - it's not something that feels like fun to an academic straight-C-er.

    That said, unlike Battlestar Galactica, I can be imagined being coerced into playing this again. It looks lovely, the theme is interesting... But next time I'll buy a decent thruster.

  10. Yeah I forgot about your suggesting a similarity to Battlestar Galactica, Sam. Sacrilege!

    And Andrew, that 'wall' you hit was a gigantic bar of chocolate that materialised between Mercury and Pluto.

    So the big question is ... do we pack it for Stabcon?

  11. Oh yes.

    Plus 4D and 10D dice. I'm not sure if the usual 6D is nice enough to starship travellers.

  12. Start bringing many-sided die into a game and I begin get the D&D fear.
    I think the key is minimising the need to make those dreaded rolls.

    I should have gone straight for Davida on my first trip out there, given it was a shoo-in for prospecting; collecting enough WT at LEO during the trip to negate the hazard roll when I got there.
    I like the thematic explanation for the fact that WT you have at LEO can avoid a hazard roll in remote space — a 'software upload'.

    And I did notice that once we got our rockets in motion, turns got a lot quicker — once you wrap your head round the key concepts, there's suddenly a game in there!

  13. The space turns getting quicker is why I think we should start with a factory - that way we can play a game with lots of the fun bit (space travel) and less of the tedious bit (trying to work out how on earth to get off the earth) - then if we like that maybe a full game will appeal.

    Anyhow see you tomorrow night...

  14. Dude, D factories are wild, they are worth whatever other letter you chose for them

  15. Whaaaat?! I DEMAND A RECOUNT!

    Yes! After five and a bit years!