High Frontier Colonization

High Frontier is one of my very favorite games of the last 5 years, and I realize that somehow I’ve never written anything about in my blog. With the expansion out, it’s time to rectify that.

Four of us sat down to play the Colonization for the first time. It begins much the same as the classic game, with players starting on Earth with a bit of money and grand ambitions, trying to acquire the exotic speculative technology required to explore and economically exploit the solar system. Some of the most esoteric pieces of tech available are the game’s two solar sail thrusters: lightweight and requiring neither fuel nor propellant, but slow-ish and unable to carry much mass in a game that’s mostly about hauling around heavy robotic prospectors and refineries. Also, a major premise of the game is that on-site water is key to exoglobalization. The solar sails are primarily useful for exploring sunwards; as you may have noticed, the sun is hot and so there isn’t much water to be found in the inner system. For all these legitimate reasons, everyone else usually rolls their eyes when these come up, but me, I’m a sucker for a challenge. I snap up the Photon Kite Sail nobody wants, attach it to a Solar-pumped MHD Excimer Laser orbital prospector and start putting together a mission to Mercury. While   proximity to the sun makes most the planet brutally hot, Mercury is believed to have significant amounts of water near the poles, where the Sun’s rays never reach due to quirks in its orbit and axial tilt.

The problems with Mercury, like most things in this game, all revolved around gravity. The sun is massive, which makes maneuvering so close to it very difficult. Mercury is also large (on the scale of the asteroids that are the typical targets in High Frontier anyway), so it requires a lot of thrust to land on and take off from. The solar sail solves the problem of getting there by harnessing the solar wind for thrust, but is unable to move that much mass and the tech required to do prospecting is heavy. So it requires two missions – one to put a prospector in orbit, and a second to bring a refinery (I was lucky and got the CVD Molding refinery, a relatively light one). Then you’re presented with a new problem that the sail doesn’t help with at all: getting all that onto the surface. Unlike Mars or Venus, Mercury has no atmosphere to assist by allowing aerobraking. The only thing for it is to bring a powerful thruster or a lot of propellant (i.e., water). Mercury has too much gravity for any of the basic thrusters to land on without the ESA beamed power, and the ESA isn’t in the game, so I’ll need to bring 200,000kg of water to use as propellant for landers instead. So that’s a third trip in and of itself. This is all hugely expensive – I estimate the trips took 4 years each and a total weight of roughly 500,000kg of equipment, fuel, and propellant with a total investment of 20 WT (water tanks), the game’s unit of currency. Each WT represents 40 metric tons of water in LEO. Assuming the cost of the water itself is basically zero, the cost of this mission is roughly that of getting 800,000kg into LEO. By way of comparison, the ISS is about 450,000kg. Wikipedia estimates the cost of the ISS at $150 billion. There is probably a lot of politically-driven waste in there, but nonetheless, it gives you a sense of what these missions would cost given the current technology for lifting mass into LEO. It’s hard to imagine my Mercury mission coming in at less than $200-250 billion, all with no prospect of any return at all for 20 years. It’s outside the realm of possibility in the immediate future, but it’s not unimaginable. Apple alone almost had that in cash lying around at one point.

Anyway, despite a solar flare wreaking havoc with one mission and pushing the total duration out to about 15 years and causing a 20% cost overrun (yet another hazard of operating so close to the Sun), I got a factory set up on Mercury. This is now where the magic starts to happen. Mercury is a comparatively rare V (Vestoid)-type world, and the metals you can find there can be used to build some fancy high-technology thrusters and refineries. I finally dip into the expansion technology to pick up a Levitated Dipole ^6Li-H Fusion reactor to power an incredibly efficient thruster capable of reaching the outer planets (I’m eying Jupiter) at relatively low cost; its rate of fuel and propellant usage in game terms rounds to zero, although the amount of thrust generated is relatively low (making journeys longer and landing on large bodies difficult). My Mercury factory can also produce a Biophytolytic Algae Farm refinery, so I’m in good shape – only the prospecting tech needs to be manufactured and lifted from Earth.

One of the cool things about High Frontier is that it really gives you a sense of just how vast our solar system is, and how difficult it is to get to many places (and conversely, where the comparatively low-hanging fruit might be). As you look at Jupiter or Saturn and start counting burns and orbital transfers and how much propellant you need to get there and how much thrust it takes to land, you really feel just how difficult interplanetary travel would be with any technology that is currently at all plausible. Then, once you get your hands on one of the powerful reactors/thrusters in the much more highly speculative expansion,  you can feel the options opening up, that maybe, just maybe, you could set up on a moon of Uranus or Neptune, or make the fantastic voyage to the TNOs – things that seemed utterly impossible with the basic tech.

Anyway, once you get a high-efficiency thruster, you fully enter the Colonization phase of the game. The extraterrestrial manufacturing premise of the classic game requires a leap of faith, but not a huge one. It’s much harder to figure out a near-future scenario in which sending people into space makes any sense at all, given the truly enormous costs and risks and the fact that robots are so highly capable. So we need to do some satisfactorily plausible handwaving. The handwaving High Frontier Colonization does is to speculate that there is research that you could do at an extraterrestrial lab that you couldn’t do on Earth for whatever reason – either due to local conditions (vacuum, microgravity, something cool about Io), politics on Earth, or the fact that you’re screwing around trying to create a black hole or a massive fusion explosion and people get nervous when you try do that on or near to the only human habitation in the universe. Given how speculative the game becomes at this point, and the possible political and long-term technological benefits of having off-planet colonies, this works well enough. So the goal becomes setting up a personed lab at a remote science site, typically an exotic moon of Saturn or Jupiter or a comet. People require water, so places like Europa are attractive, but if you really want to support lots of people you’ll want to get to fantastically remote TNO’s where water is plentiful. The Bernals in which people live are heavy and hard to move – at about 600 tons (with needed generators and radiators) far heavier than anything in the classic game – so in most cases to even start to think about this you’ll need one of the gigawatt thrusters from the expansion.

Which, thankfully, I’ve now got. Like the base game, Colonization opens up a lot once you get a decent exofactory. Planning a mission to Europa is easier now I have a stepping stone on Mercury; the thruster and refinery fuel up and boost off from the factory there and rendezvous in LEO with a prospector built on Earth. The bernal itself has a mass driver, so it can make its own way for a little bit stopping off at tiny but accessible rocks like 65803 Didymos and loading up on dirt for the next “short” hop. On arrival at the Sol-Jupiter Lagrange point, the fusion thruster takes over navigating the gravitational complexities of the Jovian moons, parking the Bernal in orbit around Europa and landing a factory in the Conamara Chaos.

Now we’re cooking with gas, as they say. The Bernal around Europa becomes a lab, and the Islamic Refugee colonists in residence there (really, you probably don’t want to ask) can upgrade my gigawatt thruster into a Dusty Plasma terawatt thruster which is even lighter, more efficient, and faster, putting impossibly remote sites in range of exploitation. More importantly, it activates a Future, one of the victory conditions that makes Colonization quite different from the classic game: the Mass Beam Future. I honestly have no idea what this is beyond something that beams potentially a lot of power, but it requires factories on Mercury, Venus, and Io as “push factories” that can send power to remote spacecraft and outposts. Fortunately I’ve already got Mercury, and Io is reasonably accessible to Europa where I can build the technology (a Quantum Cascade Laser) to prospect and industrialize the waterless Venus.

Fulfilling this future and its very large chunk of VPs (12) is well within reach, but after 4½ hours it becomes apparent that Colonization has added a lot of time to High Frontier, and we are done. In fairness, the time required to play classic High Frontier is brought down dramatically with only a little bit of experience; my first game with just the basic rules was 4-5 hours, but after only a few games it settled in for us at about 2 hours or so for the 3-player game even with most of the advanced rules. We were a bit rusty on even the basic High Frontier rules after not having played in maybe 6 months, and I would expect experienced Colonization players could do the game in 4-5 hours, which is honestly pretty good given its vast scope (one of the other players was working on the Footfall future, which involves attaching a terawatt thruster to a synodic comet and pointing it at Earth, forcing the other players to turn their orbital prospectors into laser platforms and put warheads on their missile prospectors). But given the time commitment involved in learning the game, how many people are going to be able to become experienced players?

I love High Frontier, but after playing it about 20 times between the classic basic and advanced games, it had gotten a little bit tired. As strategies were explored and played out, it developed that asteroid exploration (usually Ceres or Vesta) was the way to win – consistent with the premise of the game, but it meant it ultimately lacked variety. Anything that would open things up again would be welcome.

So for me, playing Colonization was incredibly entertaining. No longer do you have to just get a couple factories to win, but you probably need to work with Bernals, colonists, high-power and high-efficiency thrusters, and transports, all of which have very different tech requirements from the traditional “cheap exploration-blitz” strategies. Moons of the outer planets, with their lab potential and rarer spectral types, become central to development in the midgame. In the classic game an early factory on a small, common C-type rock might be enough to bootstrap you to victory; now, although the game has become longer, its tableau is also vastly larger and encompasses a much wider variety of legitimate infrastructure bases.

It also does a few key bits of streamlining to the core game system, including an automated way to cycle the technology cards, less restrictive and much easier-to-play rules for factory products, and doubling the value of the income operation. While seemingly minor, these significantly improve the playability of the game.

Also worth mentioning, High Frontier Colonization will probably – like many Sierra Madre Games – benefit from a little bit of seasoning to taste with house rules. While I like the new event model and the politics rules now seem to work much better than they did in the original expansion, I’m not a huge fan of the occasional glitches and pad explosions and we may house-rule those particular events out at some point. In the classic game we ignored the combat and politics rules, and I think you could do that in Colonization also, although a couple futures may require combat. Shimzu’s and the PRC’s faction powers can be a little bit annoying, and tweaking them very slightly is unlikely to hurt (we play that you can only jump a if you immediately industrialize it, and I’m thinking about making Shimzu’s hand size larger but not unlimited). We also disallow tie bids for anyone except the auctioneer. Anyway, High Frontier is a game that supports modifying a little bit to adapt to your group’s tastes and play style, but – as always – you do want to make sure you know what you’re doing before you fiddle too much.

All in all, I felt like High Frontier Colonization is very successful at doing what it sets out to do. It’s longer and more complicated, and there is absolutely no way you should try to tackle this without a number of games of classic High Frontier under your belt (if you have a friend who absolutely insists on throwing you into the deep end, play the solitaire scenarios a few times first). But for fans of the original, Colonization is  worth it and, if you’re like me, it will help renew this endlessly fascinating game.

You can get the High Frontier Colonization expansion here. The base game sadly appears to be out of print, although I hear there may be another printing in the works.


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