Alien Frontiers

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It’s a new frontier! An Alien Frontier. Someone has found a ripe juicy fresh dried up husk of a planet and everyone is keen to colonise it!  They also took the liberty of setting up some useful public facilities in orbit to help prospective settlers on their quest. Oh yeah – and apparently some dead aliens left behind some cool tech for us to hoover up. Sounds good, first to deploy N colonies wins!

2-4 Players (up to 6 with expansions) | 1-2 Hours | Designed by Tory Niemann

Alien Frontiers‘ style is reminiscent of the pulp sci-fi retro future of the 60s, and the game includes homage to the greats of that era by way of naming territories after them – Asimov Crater, Bradbury Plateau, etc. I found this quite endearing as a sci-fi fan myself, and the art / theming really does draw you into the setting – new settlers fighting over territory on a newly rediscovered world.

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The Alien Frontier. Look familiar?

How does it work?

Alien Frontiers is a worker placement game at its core, with the primary victory points system being area control based. In this game, the workers (called ships in game lore) are dice – an interesting development. There are a few other games that do this (Euphoria, Kingsburg), but it is certainly uncommon. Each turn you roll your dice/workers/ships and assign them to various spots on the board, in whatever combination you choose. Most of the locations have a requirement to place your dice there, e.g. you need a set of doubles or to match/increase value of other player’s dice currently at that location. Using these actions, you gather resources, build more workers/dice/ships,  build and deploy colonies to the planet, and gain Alien Tech cards that give variable special abilities to the player holding them.

Colonies placed in territories on the planet are worth one point each, plus another point if you have the majority in a territory. You also get a powerful bonus for controlling a territory, which generally allows you to take a certain action at a discounted cost, or with some bonus. In this way, the early game consists of gaining cards, dice and points/territory, and the mid to late game consists of fighting it out over territory control, juggling points between players. Once someone deploys their last colony to the surface, the game ends and the person with the most points at that moment wins.

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The Colonist Hub is one of the three actions that can deploy colonies.

What do I think?

I’ve played Alien Frontiers four or five times now. Most recently I played a 5 player game with the Factions Expansion. Factions adds in special player powers in the form of faction boards, that also provide new action spaces that all players can use by paying the owner and placing a dice/ship/worker/ on it.

The Good Stuff

  • Using dice as workers presents the interesting challenge of having to deal with your roll, and figuring out the most efficient way to use workers that have constraints on placement. As the game goes on, options for mitigating dice randomness become more readily available.
  • There is a clear path to victory – getting your colonies out quickly and dominating control of the most territories. The puzzle on how to get there the fastest while dealing with randomness is an interesting one. Choosing when to lose a dice/worker/ship for an easy colony is a tricky decision to make.
  • Player interaction is high,  which makes for an engaging and entertaining game
  • The theme is cohesive and charming. The artwork is all very high quality, with the 5th edition having great bits and production quality.
  • The rulebook is laid out well and is very comprehensive, it’s easy to find information regarding a specific rule during a game. It even includes descriptions of every card and ability, and clarifications of edge cases associated with them.

The Bad Stuff

  • The game has several aggressive player vs player options that can have a significant impact on the game. It can feel quite deflating to have your resources stolen, especially when it was just because you were the only one who had them. There are lots of situations where there are no good options but to disadvantage an already disadvantaged player in order to try to catch up; it’s not always an option to target the leader. Additionally, in the late game, the only way to get a point delta is to essentially take them from other players.
  • You can’t necessarily plan your turn in advance because you only get your dice back to roll at the start of you turn. This can lead to long turns when a bad rolls leaves you with a non obvious turn.
  • The game can suffer from a runaway leader problem – those who build the earliest colonies and manage to get more workers quickly get a significant advantage with special abilities and extra actions. Though this is somewhat mitigated by the dog-pile effect (everyone get the winner) it can sometimes be hard for other players to combat this if it gets out of hand.
  • There is a heavy suspension of disbelief required to believe that the plastic cubes that look like dice and are rolled like dice are ‘ships’. I’ve never found myself referring to them as that in game.
  • Early game luck mitigation is scarce and thus it’s easy to get a few bad rolls and end up quite behind. The best way to mitigate luck in the early game is to buy more dice/ships/workers, and this requires doubles which could take a few turns to come up.
  • Factions (expansion) seem unbalanced – some are always useful (strong) and some are very powerful but highly situational (less strong).
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The tiny domed colony pieces are an awesome touch.

Despite criticisms, I really like Alien Frontiers. Randomness may not seem desirable for all games but sometimes it’s fun to throw a spanner in the works. I’ve heard others complain about the game length but with a good group of friends you can have a bit of a chat over player’s turns and it’s not that bad. I’m sure many would say I’m crazy to be keen to play this with 6 players, but I honestly don’t mind down time as gaming is also a social activity for me. All in all, if you like worker placement and love getting blocked and having your stuff stolen constantly even when you are coming last, definitely get Alien Frontiers.

 

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