Buzzworthiness: Alien Frontiers

Going way back in this blog’s history, back to a game I first talked about in my third post.  It’s time for a review of:

image by BGG user CleverMojo

Here’s a brief overview: Alien Frontiers was published in 2010 by Clever Mojo Games.  It was designed by Tory Neimann, is for 2-4 players aged 13+, and takes about an hour to play.  It was the game that kickstarted the Kickstarter phenomenon, being one of the first and most successful of game projects being funded on that site.  The game itself is all about trying to colonize a distant planet while managing your resources and trying to mess with your opponents.  I just got a copy for Christmas, and after a couple of games, I’m ready to give a few thoughts.

Game play is pretty simple.  On your turn, take all dice you have and roll them.  Then assign them to various places around the planet based on what you want to do.  You could go to the Solar Converter for some fuel, or to the Lunar Mine for ore.  You could even go to the Orbital Market to turn fuel into ore.  You could go to the Alien Artifact to collect some alien tech cards.  You could go to the Raiders’ Outpost to steal stuff from your opponents.  You could immediately build colonies at the Colony Constructor or Terraforming Station, or you could work on them over time at the Colonist Hub.  You could also go to the Shipyard to collect more dice to roll.  As time goes on, you’ll be earning points for colonies on the planets and controlling regions, as well as for some alien tech cards and having a positron field.  Once a player has placed their last colony, the game is over and the player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: One of the most striking things about Alien Frontiers is the art.  It’s very evocative of a bygone era in science fiction, and if you’re into that, it’s pretty great.  The components are of a high quality – Clever Mojo invested their Kickstarter money well.  Cubes and discs represent ore and fuel respectively, but the colonies are represented by some pretty cool dome-shaped wooden bits.  The cards are linen-finished, and the territory counters are very solid cardboard.  The dice are nice and easy to read.  The scoreboard only goes up to 14 which seems like it might be too low in an overmatched two-player game (my two-player final score was 14-10).  The box also seems bigger than it needs to be – it fits the board perfectly, but is way too deep for the remainder of the stuff.  Overall, I give the components a very high grade.

THEME: Alien Frontiers has a retro sci-fi theme, complete with retro art and territories named after famous classic sci-fi writers.  However, the theme is really just dressing for what is essentially a basic worker placement/resource management game.  I’m always talking about how even small tweaks to a theme can make a game more interesting than it would have been, and this is a good example – it very easily could have been developers in Renaissance-era Italy building on plots of land, or settlers in colonial America trying to gain control of new lands.  By going all out with the retro sci-fi feel, the game becomes that much more interesting.  The theme, though present in everything you’re doing, is not very connected to game play.  There’s a certain amount of abstraction to everything, especially in the bits you’re pushing around.  You’re not going to get a deep thematic experience with this game – it’s more flavor than anything.

MECHANICS: Alien Frontiers is essentially a worker placement game where your workers are dice.  People often compare it to Kingsburg because you roll the dice, then place them in different spots on the board.  The games really have nothing to do with each other (except for the dice rolling thing).  Kingsburg uses dice as influence, whereas the dice in Alien Frontiers are essentially payments for certain privileges.  What you roll determines what you can do, but there are ways to change it, particularly through the use of alien tech cards.

Resource management is another big factor in the game.  You have to collect resources so you can place colonies and build ships, as well as to activate your alien techs.  Fuel is much easier to collect than ore, but it also has more uses, especially with the techs.  There’s some area control in the game as well as you jockey for position on the planet, trying to control certain regions that give you special benefits.  Control of a region also increases your score.

Scoring in Alien Frontiers is much like the scoring in Settlers of Catan in that you’re not adding to your score throughout the game.  Colonies, controls, and certain tech cards are worth points, but if you lose them, you lose the points as well.  Looking at the scoreboard just tells you where you stand at a particular moment in time.

I’m not sure I really like the endgame condition.  When a player places their final colony, the game ends immediately.  I feel like everyone should get one more turn, or play should continue until everyone has had an equal number of turns.  Otherwise, you could potentially get someone in the role of kingmaker (i.e., someone deciding who wins just by placing a colony).

Overall, the mechanics are very easy to understand, and the game flows very well.  There’s a bit of a downtime problem, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Dice rolling games always run the risk of being luckfests.  However, there’s enough things to do that luck doesn’t play so much of a factor.  In the early game, you’ll only have three dice, so you probably want to collect as many resources as you can.  As you add dice, you can spread yourself around the board, working on colonies, collecting alien techs, and building more ships.  It can be frustrating if you’re looking for a specific roll and can’t get it (such as needing a pair for your fourth die), but clever play can take that away.  For being a dice game, there’s a surprising lack of luck in the game.  You may have to adjust your strategy depending on the roll, but there’s always something to do.  There’s also some strategy in figuring out where to put your colonies, particularly since control of regions gets you special abilities.  You have to figure out which ones are most advantageous to you, or if someone else is getting too much help from certain regions, how to go after them.  Since all information is open, you can see where your opponents are, deduce what they might be trying to do, and use your turn to block them.

ACCESSIBILITY: Alien Frontiers is an extremely simple game to explain and to play.  You roll dice, you spread them around the board.  Each of the locations is clearly marked so that you can tell what each one does.  The big problem in the game as you get more dice is the potential for analysis paralysis.  There aren’t a lot of choices to be made, but figuring out the best combo is sometimes tricky.  The downtime is not bad by any means – there are games out there that take much longer between turns.  But it was an issue that came up in one of my games, so I thought I’d bring it up.  I think it’s a game that a lot of people can play and enjoy.

REPLAYABILITY: I feel that there is not really a whole lot of variation in the games.  Once you figure out the best colonies or alien techs to have, there’s not a whole lot to explore in the game.  If there were a few more colonies randomized over the planet, or more than the 22 alien tech cards, there would be more variability.  It’s not a long game, which is a plus, but I worry that games won’t feel very different after a while.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Maybe.  I like the game, but both times I’ve played it, the response from my opponents has been kind of underwhelming.  Nobody has actively hated it, but there have been mixed opinions.  After a four-player game, most of the players thought it would be better with 2 or 3, and after a two-player game, I thought it was better with 4.  So who knows.  It certainly has earned its place in history with the Kickstarter connection, and it’s a very well-produced and good game.  But buyer beware – it doesn’t seem to be for everyone.  Thanks for reading!

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