Loving the Alien – Alien Frontiers review

I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never get to go to space. Despite Richard Branson’s best efforts, the $200,000 it’ll cost to get myself on board the VSS Enterprise is somewhat beyond my reach. Watching grainy footage of moon landings as a kid, I always dreamed of one day breaking away from Earth and seeing what was out there. After learning that you need pretty good eyesight to become an astronaut, I cursed my glasses and picked up my books filled with tales of new worlds and new civilisations. I’d have to rely on my imagination, not shuttles and rockets.

It’s a wish that still remains, albeit one tinged with “never going to happen, Michael”. However, the moment I opened up the package that held Alien Frontiers, my mind immediately went back to those days of wonderment. The glorious retro artwork on the box cover gave me a severe attack of the warm fuzzies, while rifling through the contents, the cards and that beautiful board brought me back to the days of reading piles of old Dan Dare comics in Eagle. Forget it, Branson. I can fly further than you’ve ever dreamed. All I need is a Clever Mojo’s latest release and a fistful of dice.

The game itself is pretty simple – roll your dice, each one representing a space ship, place them around the board, perform the actions, move on to next player. Simple! As your dice stay on the board until it’s your next turn they take up valuable space, so you can never truly plan on what your next turn will be. You need to make sure you have a couple of ideas as to what to do, and even then a crappy dice roll can scupper you. Alien Frontiers is a game that is dependent on rolling dice – the true skill in the game comes from your ability to use what lands on the table in front of you and still be victorious.

Early in the game, no-one's really done anything yet...

Each location has a limited number of spaces and a different set of requirements that need to be met in order to get the action represented – Solar Fuel is easy to come by, for example, as all you need to do is place a dice in there to claim some (a 1 or 2 gets you one fuel, 3 or 4 two, 5 and 6 three). The other resource, Lunar Ore, is trickier to claim – any dice placed there must be equal to or more than the highest one already at the location – players putting a 6 in there can really mess up opponents’ plans! Meanwhile for the really mean, should you manage to roll a straight (two – three – four, for example) you can put them in the Raiders Outpost and procure any combination of four resources or a single Alien Tech Card from another player – nasty but fun.

The resources are needed to use most of the other locations on the board (in conjunction with more specific dice rolls). New dice/ships can be bought from the Shipyard using doubles, and considering you only start with three it’s a good idea to build up your fleet as quickly as possible. Roll a double (hopefully a low one) and you can trade that amount of fuel for ore cubes at the Orbital Market – useful if there’s no space at the Lunar Mine and you have no high numbers. You can also get your hands on Alien Tech Cards by rolling a combination of eight or more and putting them on the Alien Artifact area. These bestow bonuses that allow you to bend the rules, but if you don’t like what you see you can cycle the three on display and get new ones by putting a single die of any value in the space.

Launching colonies, the main thrust of the game, can be done in one of three ways, all of which also require resources. There’s the slow and steady way, pushing them along the Colonist Hub track, each space costing you a die of any number – get it to the end of the track, pay an ore and fuel, then off it goes to the planet’s surface. Next there’s the jammy/expensive way, requiring you to roll a triple to put on the Colony Constructor and spend three ore that allows you to place a colony immediately. Finally there’s the crazy/expensive route – the Terraforming Station –  requiring you to sacrifice one of your ships that rolled a six. Again, you get to place a colony, but come the next turn you’ll be one ship down. A hefty price to pay, but sometimes worth it – especially towards the end of the game when you’re racing to get a final colony on the board.

But where do these colonies go? In the centre of the board sits a large planet divided up into sectors. Develop a colony dome and you get to choose into which sector you place it, scoring yourself a point. Should you happen to have the most colonies in that area, you’ll also get a bonus point and (even better) a special ability that only you may use. This could be anything from paying less to get resources to picking up an extra dice, known in game as the Relic Ship – and being able to use seven ships in a single turn can really give you a huge advantage. The moment a player’s final colony hits the planet, the game ends – as usual, the highest wins. As the game is scored in real time, it’s easy enough to keep an eye on those who are in the lead (and who needs to be taken down a peg or two). There are bonus points available from certain Tech Cards, so just because you’re in control of a few areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean that winning is assured.

Another game, another ass-kicking for Michael.

I have been having a ridiculous amount of fun with Alien Frontiers. For me, one of the signs of a really great game is that no matter what the end result is, you enjoyed yourself playing it. I’ve been on the end of some utter hammerings but there hasn’t been a single time I’ve walked away from it with a frown. Admittedly the game is not for everyone – it’s the very dictionary definition of a dicefest – but even the most staunch Eurogamer would do themselves well to give this a try. It challenges you to think creatively about what you need to do to stay ahead of your opponents, even if you’re having a poor run with your dice. The game is well balanced too – even if you don’t manage to get your hands on extra ships early on, with judicious play (and good use of the more aggressive Alien Tech Cards) you’ll easily keep in contention with other players.

Considering this is the first large-scale release from Clever Mojo Games, I was blown away by the production quality. Components are sturdy and of a high standard. The art throughout the game is gorgeous, reminiscent of schlocky sci-fi novels from the 1950s. As with many games that I return to again and again, there’s loads of little things that bring a smile to my face that combine to add to the experience. The face that the planetary bonuses have little dotted lines linking them to the facility they effect (that took a few games before I noticed it). The ‘Assembled on Earth’ tagline on the back of the scoring track. The simple iconography on the board and cards that help make everything really easy to remember. The fact that a semicircle is cut out of the side of the box so it’s easier to get the board out! Amazing!

Obviously, these tiny decisions would mean nothing if the game wasn’t any good, but thankfully it’s beyond that. Alien Frontiers has won many accolades since the release of the first edition late last year, winning fans around the world – and there’s a simple reason for that. Alien Frontiers is a brilliant game, a pile of fun that appears light and throwaway at first but reveals a deeper game as soon as those first dice are thrown. Do what you can to make sure you add a copy of the third printing to your collection the moment it’s released. This, seriously,  is a must have title.

Alien Frontiers was originally released in 2010 by Clever Mojo Games. Designed by Tory Niemann with art by Mark Maxwell, between two and four players can live out their dreams of planetary domination in around 90 minutes. Copies of the second printing are still available in very limited quantites for around £30-35 – the third printing will be available later in the year.

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