Radio Review #2 – Alien Frontiers

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(2010  Clever Mojo Games)

“Ground Control to Major Tom….take your protein pills and put your helmet on.”

2010 was a big year for up and coming designers in the world of board gaming, and a lot of that had to do with the fundraising site, Kickstarter.com. One of the largest, early successes on Kickstarter was a Clever Mojo project created by first-time designer Tory Niemann called Alien Frontiers. Since its release towards the end of 2010, Alien Frontiers has been a unique surprise in its success and a model of how well a board game’s theme, mechanics and components can all mesh together.

At its most basic level, Alien Frontiers is a worker placement game. But unlike previous worker placement games such as Caylus and Agricola, Alien Frontiers adds a dice rolling mechanic to its structure. Each dice represent a player’s ship, and each of these ships can be placed at the multiple facilities in order to take various actions in the game. What makes Alien Frontiers different in this sense from say, Kingsburg, is the ability to combine your actions into a snowball effect of resulting rewards, as well as controlling different areas of the map for continuous rewards. This takes the game from a simple worker placement design and adds area control, dice allocation, and bonus manipulation.

Before I give an overview for how the game plays and my thoughts on it, let’s first look at the game board and its various sections, as knowing these areas and what they do will be the biggest part of learning the game. The game board is essentially broken up into two main parts. The various facilities that orbit the planet on the board and the territories on the planet itself.

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Game Board Areas:

Think of the facilities as your worker placement areas. These nine areas will be where you can “dock” your ships and take their corresponding actions. One of the brilliant designs to the game board is how the rules and actions of each facility (this is also true for each territory) is streamlined and printed onto the board itself. Each of the facilities will require certain types of ships that are allowed to be docked there, and there are six different types of ships available to you. Each of the pips on the dice equal a different type of ship. So each time that you roll your dice at the beginning of each turn, those are the types of ships that are available to you each round. Make sense? Pretty neat.

Let’s breakdown the various facilities and what they do:

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Solar Converter: Energy and Ore are the two main resources used throughout the game. You will need these resources at a majority of the other facilities, so managing Energy and Ore is a huge part of the game. Energy is the easiest of the two resources to obtain and can be purchased at the Solar Converter facility. In order to take this action, you may dock any number of ships at the facility. If it is a value 1 or 2 ship, you receive one Energy token. If it is a value 3 or 4 ships, you receive two Energy tokens. And if it is a value 5 or 6 ship, you receive three Energy tokens.

Strategy: Since Energy is fairly easy to obtain, the Solar Converter is mostly used out of basic need or when you have only one ship left to dock and don’t have any other options. It is used a lot more than Ore however when paying for Alien Tech card abilities (which I’ll get into later), so if you are taking that strategy, Energy becomes a bit more important and you’ll want to visit this facility fairly often.

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Lunar Mine: This is the facility where you can obtain Ore. Though Ore is a lot harder to come by than Energy, and here’s the reason why. When player’s dock their ships at a facility, those ships stay docked until it is that player’s turn again. Thus, a main part of the game is blocking opposing player’s from facilities. The Lunar Mine makes this even harder. The first player that docks a ship here can place any type of ship they wish, but each additional ship must be of equal or greater value than the previous docked ship. You will receive only one Ore per ship at this facility.

Strategy: Ore is very hard to come by in this game, and very important in building your colonies. Because of its docking rules, many player’s will place a 6 die on the space, thus blocking all opposing players from the Lunar Mine unless they roll a six. If you can control the Lunar Mine, opposing player’s will need to be a lot more creative in building their colonies.

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Shipyard & Maintenance Bay: Each player begins the game with three ships (or three dice) of their color. But a total of three additional ships (and a possible fourth one, but we’ll explain that later) can be added throughout the game. In order to get more ships, you must build them. And this is the action that can be taken at the Shipyard and Maintenance Bay facility. In order to take this action, you must place any two ships of equal value and then pay the specific amount of Energy and Ore for each ship. Each additional ship’s cost in resources will be higher than the previous one. After paying the resources needed, the newly built ship is placed in the Maintenance Bay and can be used for the rest of the game starting the following turn.

Strategy: Ships, Ships, Ships!! The number one strategy starting the game is to try and build ships as fast as you can. This facility will be clogged up early in the game. The more ships you have at your disposal, the more dice you can roll, thus the more actions you can potentially take.

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Colony Constructor: Building colonies is how you score victory points in the game. Docking at the Colony Constructor will allow you to build an instant colony that can be placed on a Territory. To do so you must place three ships of the same value at the facility and pay three Ore.

Strategy: One of the quickest ways to build a colony, but you have to be prepared for it. Rolling three of the same value dice isn’t going to happen a whole lot, but when it does you’ll need the Ore ready to pay for it. Also another reason why you want as many ships at your disposal as possible.

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Orbital Market: This facility is a marketplace of sorts. You can trade in Energy for Ore, but the value of your docked ship will determine the exchange rate. First, you must place two of the same value ships at this facility. If they are 6 value ships, you must pay 6 Energy for every 1 Ore. But if they are 1 value ships, then you can pay 1 Energy for every Ore.

Strategy: A lot of player’s miss out on this facility, but it can be very helpful. The Orbital Market is a great alternative if the Lunar Mine is being filled up, and you need some Ore but don’t have a lot of high value ships. While a pair of your ships are docked there, this action can be taken as many times during your turn as you wish. So it is always a great idea to go here if you roll two 1’s (essentially trading in Energy for Ore at no cost).

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Alien Artifact: This isn’t so much a facility as it is an explore area. When docking at the Artifact, you are able to obtain different Artifact objects (the Alien Tech cards) that will give you special bonuses, unique abilities, and ways to manipulate the values of your and opposing players ships. An Alien Tech card is made up of two parts: a special bonus that can be used once per turn for the remainder of the game while you own the card, and a more powerful special ability that can be used if you choose to discard the card at any point.

Any value ship can be docked here, but the total of your ships docked must be equal or greater than an 8 to obtain an Alien Tech. It is possible, if you don’t want any of the three objects available, to place any single value ship here and see three new objects before placing additional ships in order to purchase them.

Strategy: The more I’ve played this game, the more I’ve realized how important having Alien Tech cards can be. Being able to manipulate rules, ship values, and area control on territories can be crucial to winning the game, especially if timed correctly. There are only two copies of each card (and only one copy of each in the expansions) so if you see a card you want, grab it fast.

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Raider’s Outpost: You can dock at the Raider’s Outpost facility to steal and plunder from your enemies. Any combination of four resources or an Alien Tech card can be stolen from any player you choose if you are docked here. To do so, you must dock three ships of continuous order (1,2,3 or 2,3,4 etc). Another player can still choose to dock here as well even if other ships are docked there as long as their continuous order is larger than the previous one.

Strategy: A great way to maximize your resources and cards, while minimizing your opponents. How often this facility is used really depends on how cutthroat of a game you want, but it is one of the most used areas, especially towards the end of the game.

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Colonist Hub: This facility will allow you to build colonies, but at a much slower pace than the Colony Constructor. Each player has a docking station consisting of three spaces where you can dock any valued ship. For each ship docked here, you will move a colony along the colony track until it eventually reaches the end. At that point you can spend one Energy and one Ore to transport that colony to any Territory.

Strategy: This is the facility you go to when you have a couple ships you can’t use anywhere else. It’s a good backup plan facility, but not one that you’re going to strategize around (well unless you control a certain territory).

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Terraforming Station: This facility is pretty basic in function. You can dock any 6 valued ship at this facility, pay one Energy and one Ore, and immediately add one colony to any territory. However, you must remove that ship from the board at the beginning of your next turn (you can build another at the Shipyard to eventually get it back).

Strategy: The biggest risk/reward facility on the board. If you are leading towards the end of the game, or are a point away from the lead, this is by far your best chance at victory. Though, you have to roll a 6. I have seen many games come down to the final colony being laid, and this is a great way to do so. However, if you don’t pull it off correctly, you lose a ship and that can hurt you in the long run. So timing is huge here.

While the various orbiting Facilities are going to provide the worker placement areas of the game, the scoring will be done by area control which is represented on the planet itself. These are made up of different territories and each gives a different bonus to the person controlling that area. To control a Territory, a player must have a majority of colonies in that area. So if both players each have one colony in the same Territory, while they will still score Victory points for that colony, they will not get the bonus associated with it. Victory points are also scored on an area control function. Every colony on the planet scores one point for that player, but an additional point is scored for every individual Territory controlled by that player.

Each Territory is also neatly tied into specific Facilities represented by a dotted line connecting the two on the board. This makes it easy to visually remember which Territory Bonus ties into which facility. On a side note, fans of early science fiction will notice that each Territory is named after a famous sci-fi author. I thought that was a neat touch.

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I will briefly go over the bonuses for each Territory.

Herbert Valley: Majority control of this Territory will allow a player to pay 1 less Energy and 1 less Ore when building ships at the Shipyard

Lem Badlands: Control of this Territory will allow a player to take an extra Energy for each ship docked at the Solar Converter.

Heinlein Plains: Control of this Territory will grant the player a ratio that is always 1:1 at the Orbital Market (thus a 6 value ship will be able to trade 6 Energy for 6 Ore, instead of 6 Energy for 1 Ore)

Pohl Foothills: Control of this Territory will allow a player to pay 1 less Energy than normal when using an action on an Alien Tech card.

Van Vogt Mountains: Control of this Territory will allow the player’s first ship docked at the Lunar Mine to be any value, no matter the value of the previous docked ship.

Bradbury Plateau: Control of this Territory allows the player to pay 1 less Ore when using the Colony Constructor.

Asimov Crater: Controlling this territory allows a player to advance their colony an additional space along the Colonist Hub track, as long as they have docked more than one ship there.

Burroughs Desert: The only Territory not tied in with a facility, controlling this Territory will allow a player to pay one Energy and one Ore to obtain a Relic Ship (an extra ship) that can be used the following turn for the rest of the game until they are no longer control this Territory.

Players can use these bonuses in these ways until they are no longer majority controller of said Territories. So many times during the game, Territory bonuses will be swapped between players.

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Thoughts:

On a player’s turn, they will roll all their available dice and then allocate them in any order how they see fit. This is one of the best parts of the game and it can take a few plays to learn how to maximize your turn. Since dice can be used in any order you wish, you can choose to take an action that will award you Ore that can then immediately be used to take the next action.

It’s what I tend to refer to as the Snowball Effect and Alien Frontiers is one of the best implementations I’ve seen of this mechanic in a board game. Be wary with whom you play with however, as this can lead to some A.P. issues for some players, but I’ve never found it to be a huge deal with my own game group.

Once a player has taken all of their actions, their ships will stay in place on the board and the next person can then roll their dice and start allocating. As you can see, spaces will fill up quickly, so it’s important to be creative and figure out ways to manipulate actions into your favor. Territory bonuses and Alien Tech cards will help out, but blocking off others from facilities you know they want is also a valid strategy.

The game will continue until a player has placed their final colony on the planet. Once this happens, the game automatically ends and the player with the most victory points will win. Be careful however, just because you are the person that placed your final colony down does not guarantee victory, so sometimes you may want to hold off on doing so until you can figure out a way to get ahead. On the same note, if you see a player is close to ending the game, you may want to figure out a way to take over or manipulate his territories so that he loses Victory points and won’t end the game.

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I haven’t talked a lot about the components in the game, but they should be mentioned, as they are top notch. One of the best board productions as far as quality goes that I have seen in awhile. It is very thick and has a hard texture. While I have purchased the Upgrade Pack that features new colony markers and minis for the bonus fields, the original components of these are well made.

This game has a great theme and every action you take makes sense. A Colony Constructor constructs colonies, a Solar Converter converts solar power into Energy, the Shipyard builds new ships, etc. But if the theme doesn’t grab you, the gameplay will. The game has tons of strategies going on, but you never feel overwhelmed. The rules for each facility and territory are neatly printed on the board and corresponding tokens, so you’ll never feel the need to pause the game and look through the manual. If I had to say anything unfavorable about the game, it would only be that it plays very slow with a five-player game. Only because it takes so long to reach your turn, but that’s a very minimal slight on the game.

I absolutely love this game. It should go to show other designers out there that there is quality in not being lazy when producing a game. You can tell that lots of thought went into every detail of Alien Frontiers, from the theme, to the components, to how well the mechanics meshed with the player interaction. All very well done and it deserves to be on gamer’s shelves everywhere.

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