Eleven Game Changers: Alien Frontiers

Time for the tenth in my series of Game Changers. These are games that, whether mechanically, thematically, or culturally, changed the face of the tabletop gaming industry. So far, we’ve covered:

This month, we’ll be looking at a game that had a significant cultural impact as it was the game widely recognized as the one that started the Kickstarter craze:

image by BGG user CleverMojo

Alien Frontiers was designed by Tory Neimann and published by published by Clever Mojo Games in 2010. It’s a 2-4 player dice placement game where you’re trying to colonize a planet. The game is notable for its use of classic sci-fi style art, as well as for its numerous homages to classic sci-fi authors. But for all its qualities as a game, it is primarily going to go down in history as the first major game to successfully use Kickstarter for funding.

Back in 2010, Kickstarter was just one year old, and was still a fairly novel commodity. The concept of crowdfunding, where creators get money early from their consumers with the promise of a product later, was not new – war bonds are an example, where the US government got people to invest in the war with the promise of controlling inflation. And Kickstarter itself was not the first crowdfunding platform – it had been preceded by ArtistShare, Kiva, and IndieGogo. One of the things that made Kickstarter different was that it opened up its campaigns to anyone with an idea, and consumers had some security in pledging because they would only be charged if a campaign was successful.

On April 26, Clever Mojo Games launched Alien Frontiers on Kickstarter. They had been developing the game for some time, but being a small company who with only a couple of titles so far, they were finding it difficult to make the game as manufacturing costs were going to eat up a lot of capital. So they put it out there with a modest $5000 goal. The game ended up raising $14,885, which doesn’t seem like a lot now, but it far exceeded anyone’s expectations at the time. The game was delivered later that year to resounding acclaim, and this led to a second and third edition being released in 2011. Also that year, Clever Mojo funded the Factions expansion through Kickstarter. In 2012, Clever Mojo used Kickstarter to fund a digital version of the game, which was released on iPad. Also that year, Clever Mojo merged with Game Salute, who released a fourth edition in 2014. A Big Box edition was funded in 2015, and 2017 saw the release of a fifth edition of the game. As a comparison, the fifth edition raised $101,882 on Kickstarter.

5th edition art – image by BGG user Game Salute

The game, inspired by Kingsburg, is a dice placement game. On your turn, you collect and roll all of your dice (you start with three, but could collect more as the game goes on). Then, you assign those dice to open spaces around the board:

  • Any value can go to the Alien Artifacts, allowing you to wipe the slate clean of Alien Tech cards. If you keep placing dice so that they total 8 or more, you can take a card.
  • At the Colonist Hub, you can advance a colony piece down a track with any value die. When it gets to the end, you can pay one fuel and one ore to place it on the planet.
  • Playing three dice of equal values at the Colony Constructor allows you to pay three ore in order to place a colony on the planet immediately.
  • At the Lunar Mine, you need to place a die that is equal to or higher than any dice already there. Each die you place gets you one ore.
  • The Maintenance Bay is where you place dice that can’t be placed anywhere else this turn. It does nothing.
  • Two dice of equal value can go in the Orbital Market. This allows you to trade fuel equal to that value in order to get ore. So playing two 2s allows you to pay two fuel to get one ore.
  • If you send a straight (three dice in sequential order) to the Raiders’ Outpost, you get to steal a combination of four resources from your opponents, or take one card from one opponent. If there’s already a straight there, yours needs to have a higher value to bump them out.
  • At the Shipyard, you can use two identical and spend 1-2-3 fuel and 1-2-3 ore to get a new die for next turn. The amount of ore and fuel you pay depends on whether you’re getting your fourth, fifth, or sixth die.
  • The Solar Converter allows you to turn any die into fuel – a 1 or 2 becomes one fuel, a 3 or 4 becomes two, and a 5 or 6 becomes three.
  • Finally, there’s the Terraforming Station. Put a 6 there, then spend one fuel and one ore to immediately place a colony on the planet. The die is then forfeited, and will not be available for you to roll next turn. Since you can never roll fewer than three dice, you can’t use this unless you have at least four available.

When placed on a planet, a colony immediately scores one point. If that colony also gets you majority in its particular region, you gain an additional point, plus the special ability of the region you went in. If you ever lose majority, you lose that point as well as the ability.

When one player places their final colony, the game is over. Points are not cumulative through the game, but based on what you have when the game is over. The player with the high score wins.

image by BGG user DanielCG

The third post I ever did on this blog was about Alien Frontiers. I hadn’t played at that point, but have my own copy now. I have enjoyed it, though the people I’ve played with haven’t been all that impressed, which is too bad. I think it was improved by the Factions expansion, which I have only had the opportunity to play once. Still, there’s no doubt that this game is a Game Changer. It is the title that ushered in the Kickstarter era for board games (which is still going strong), and that cultural impact is enough to make this game a legend.

That will do it for another edition of The Eleven Game Changers. One more coming in a month – what will it be? Place your bets now, and thanks for reading!

2 comments

  1. I must say, with all respect, I find there are some notable omissions from your list. Particularly Puerto Rico (invented the variable role mechanic), Tikal (invented the action point mechanic), and Caylus (invented worker placement). Those are all more influential games than Kingsburg or Alien Frontier.

    • Thanks for your comment. However, the variable roles (or role selection) actually came about through the game Verräter (1999). Action points had been around for about 50 years before Tikal. And worker placement is commonly thought to have been introduced in Keydom (1998). These games made them more popular, but didn’t invent them.

      I did strongly consider both Puerto Rico and Caylus for this list. But I wanted to talk more about the merging of traditional Euro and American concepts, so I went with Kingsburg. And with Kickstarter being such a force in the industry now, I had to give Alien Frontiers a spot.

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