I’ve recently gotten the chance to explore High Frontier 4 All, the fourth edition of Phil Eklund’s science based space exploration game. This post is somewhat of a first impressions write up, given I have only played the game twice at this point, and haven’t fully explored the core game yet. I know there is a big community of hardcore High Frontier players, and I’m not writing this for them, I’m writing this for boardgamers who might be interested in giving this game a go. The two games I’ve played have been of the ‘introductory’ Race for Glory mode of the game, which strips out a few of the more complicated elements of the game while retaining most of the fundamental mechanics.
What Is The Game About?
High Frontier is very similar in many respects to the game Leaving Earth, which is one of my favourite tabletop experiences. I will probably find myself discussing a lot of the similarities and differences between the two games in this article, but hopefully it doesn’t matter if you aren’t familiar with either. After years of enjoying Leaving Earth, I stumbled upon a reference to High Frontier while browsing the Leaving Earth discussion forums. To be totally honest, I was really surprised I hadn’t come across this game earlier. It checks so many of the same boxes that Leaving Earth does, and of course I was instantly excited to try out the game.
When my copy of HF4A arrived I cracked it open and started working my way through the 135 pages of included rules. I was very into the level of technicality present in the game and the the inclusion of many plausible near future technologies. The main noticeable difference between HF4A and LE is the map – in HF4A you navigate space on a map that represents the solar system’s delta-v links, while in LE navigation is gravity well based. The gameplay loop between the two games is surprisingly similar otherwise – acquire technologies, assemble them into rockets, and then plan and execute missions. From there, the finer details diverge.
I will say at this point, learning the game for myself from the rulebooks was a slog. I put quite a few hours into understanding everything I needed to know to teach and play this game. This wasn’t helped by a mildly error ridden rulebook. In some cases errors/typos were obvious (e.g incorrect words or maths) but in others the mistakes were confusing and led to me having to look up errata or forum discussions for corrections. I know there is a ‘corrected’ living rules document, but my (reasonable I think) expectation is I can play the game out of the box. In any case, I found the ‘tutorial’ in the Race for Glory rulebook extremely detailed and informative, especially the ‘why does the player do this’ explanations.
Getting In To The Game
After about 4 hours of reading and understanding the rules I invited a friend over to play a learning game of Race for Glory mode. It was a bit quicker than I expected to explain enough of the mechanics to get started, about half an hour. From there we played through the early game of auctions and patent sales to get enough aqua to launch a basic mission.
This first phase of the game (I say phase, but it’s nothing formal, just the natural way you need to play the beginning of the game) feels very similar to early gameplay in Leaving Earth, where you are also trying to acquire and test technology, however the economic system in HF4A felt more oppressive to me. In HF4A all technology is acquired via auction, and so is an interaction between players. In Leaving Earth, you have a fixed yearly budget you can allocate to acquiring and testing technology, so the early phase of the game is about how to best spend these funds, whereas in High Frontier you need to carefully trigger and win auctions to be financially successful so you can launch your missions early.
High Frontier features a lot of points for player interaction. The most obvious of these is the auctions and secondary to this is ‘negotiations’. In my first game with two players I found the auctions to be pretty boring if not slightly broken. You will ‘spend’ more turns in a two player game starting auctions than at higher player counts. When I played again with three players I found the auctions a little more interesting but they still didn’t feel really very exciting or high stakes. Unlike LE which heavily encourages negotiation and trading in the early game, I also found basically no reason in my two games so far to co-operate with other players in High Frontier, but maybe that will come up in the future.
Launching A Mission
Once you’ve got all the parts you need to run a successful mission, you just need to save up enough Aquas to launch. Now, what a successful mission ‘is’ depends on what you want to do, but in Race for Glory, you pretty much need 2 components (crew & thruster, or thruster and robotnaut) to do a survey or bring back a glory token, or otherwise three components (thruster, robonaut and refinery) if you want to build a factory somewhere. I mentioned saving up enough Aqua to launch, and I found this process particularly painful, as it’s essentially waiting around for several rounds to get the aquas to boost your parts into orbit, and then another few rounds to get the aquas you need to move your rocket through space. So you are just buying and throwing away cards for maybe 5 rounds to achieve this.
Moving Around The Solar System
The way the rocket ‘moves’ in High Frontier 4 All is probably one of the facets of the game I found most interesting. The game board is an incredible map of the ‘delta-v’ relationships between the bodies of the solar system. It essentially shows how much fuel you need to spend to move from one place to another. Once you are moving in space, you can coast along for as far as you like (spending only time) for free. The map represents this with lines. Along the lines are pink dots representing places you need to burn fuel to move from one coasting orbit to another in order to navigate the solar system. You can also ‘turn’ at junctions on the map by making burns, and there are lots of Lagrange points marked that let you freely change direction.
Firing Your Rocket
To make burns you need reaction mass, which you store in your fuel tanks and keep track of on your player sheet. The player sheet has a gauge that lets you keep track of your rocket’s current mass and fuel reserves, and when you make a burn you deduct some fuel from the rockets stores according to the thruster you used. I found the system pretty intuitive and prefer it to the system used in Leaving Earth. Even though it’s a bit more complicated, it’s more interesting. Additionally, High Frontier is a bit more forgiving as it allows for ‘free movement’ at the start of each turn which can let you be a bit more flexible if things don’t go exactly to plan.
Planning a Mission
There is a lot of flexibility in High Frontier regarding the window around what your mission is intended to be and what it ends up being. I found this to be one of the game’s most interesting divergences from Leaving Earth. In High Frontier you plan a mission in the sense that you select your destination (or aspire to a destination), make sure you have enough fuel aboard your rocket to make it there, and then set out. Over the course of the mission, you might change your mind and decide to ‘pivot’ (this is a great HF4A pun, trust me). For example, if another player gets to your intended destination first you will probably want to change your plans. This is totally do-able, there are usually lots of other places you can reach with your rocket. In Leaving Earth this is very much not the case, where rockets are highly tailored to the mission you have planned and you would have to be very lucky to be able to ‘go somewhere else’ at a whim. This feeling of ‘freedom’ on the map is pretty cool. When you factor in refuelling, you really can hop around the Solar System quite freely in High Frontier.
Of course, planning missions is also planning to get points and win. There is essentially one primary way of getting points in the game, which is setting up factories on other worlds, and secondary to that, picking up glory chits and staking claims can get you some points too. With a bit of thought, a mission can snowball into a rock-hopping adventure through the system.
There is a big part of this game that I found pretty annoying and honestly, I think it could be the main thing that could turn me off the game. There are a few ways that you can fail in High Frontier, and some of them can be mitigated (e.g. Hazard Rolls), but the big one for me was the prospecting roll, which can’t be mitigated in any reasonable way. When you prospect a site, you need to roll the dice and get a number >= the number of the site. Most of the ‘early game’ accessible locations have lower numbers, and so this roll is a big gamble, and if it doesn’t go well it puts you in a very sad position. In the two games I played so far, this happened to me a number of times. Sometimes I was able to recover but other times it was a major setback, essentially putting me out of the game for several rounds. With so much effort, maths, planning and ‘science’ to go into a mission only to have a roll of a d6 fail it with no recourse … hmmm. I much prefer the way that Leaving Earth deals with this issue. Leaving Earth does have a risk/failure mechanic, however you can mitigate this risk by spending time and money to improve and test your technology. There is no concept of this in High Frontier for prospecting rolls.
The Gameplay Loop and Pacing
A round of High Frontier 4 All consists of each player choosing a major action, doing some free actions, and maybe moving their rocket if they have one. Players all start with nothing but a bit of money, and this essentially causes the game to be divided into some loose phases (this is something I’ve made up, not anything in the rules of the game). At the beginning of the game, players participate in what I would call the research and earning phase, which is essentially several rounds of players starting auctions and winning technologies, while also selling off things you win but don’t want to make money. I find the auction system for getting unique technology cards kind of interesting (in Leaving Earth everyone has equal access to all techs, but the early game has a similar feel with people acquiring and developing those technologies). Despite this, I find the idea of having to acquire things just to discard them to get more money a bit boring and tedious. I think Leaving Earth has a stronger opening than HF4A.
Once players have built up a decent set of tech the mid-game ‘mission phase’ begins, with players setting out on their missions through the solar system. The pacing of the game changes a lot now with player turns taking very much longer. The unfortunate consequence of the gameplay aspects I’ve described earlier can really be felt here. If you are still waiting to get your mission together or you have failed a mission, this phase of the game can turn into you sitting around waiting for 5-10 minutes for your next turn in which all you do is take some money and pass to another 5-10 min wait. It can be excruciating to say the least. This however does pretty closely reflect the feel of the mid-game of Leaving Earth too, however I think that decision making during missions in progress is a lot more interesting in High Frontier.
The late game kind of peters out to a whimper rather than ending with a bang. With a fixed number of rounds, players can see the end game coming, and often you will find yourself with not enough time to do anything meaningful with you last turns. You will probably also be in the position where you can see who has won and likely call the game early as there’s not much anyone can do to catch up. Of course, I haven’t played the game more than twice, and so I could find with more practised play the end game becomes more interesting, but I do doubt this is the case from how I understand the game to work at this stage.
My Overall Thoughts
Despite the many apparent issues I’ve found in my initial exploration of High Frontier 4 All through the Race for Glory introductory mode, I remain pretty excited to further explore the full game. As I mentioned in the beginning, Leaving Earth is one of my all time favourite tabletop experiences, and it has pretty much all the same flaws as this game does. I think that the reason I describe them as flaws is that I approach this write-up as a ‘boardgamer’, and for a ‘regular boardgame’, they would be flaws. But this game is not a regular boardgame, and I’m happy to deal with the drawbacks so that I can experience what this game has to offer. It will probably take some time to get in a few plays of the full game so that I can provide a full review in my regular format, but I look forward to working on that as soon as I can! Make sure to sign up for updates if you want to read than when it is published.
The copy of High Frontier 4 All used for this article was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Ion Games.