Thoughts on Alien Frontiers

Initial impressions

Jason (N): The basics: it’s a worker placement game from Clever Mojo Games. It was originally a Kickstarter project. It’s interesting in that your workers are also resources, and you can trade them for short term or long term advantages and rebuild them later.

Aaron: It felt similar to Stone Age. The resources in the game served multiple functions, but everything felt like it fit well together, and the resources seemed relevant and useful in different ways. I didn’t feel like there were any wrong paths or things that were unbalanced.

N: One of the more subtle design elements that I appreciated was that the game never really stopped, but was a continuous loop. There was no big ‘end of phase’ where everyone says ok, round over, let’s count, let’s score. It felt very fluid and cyclical which created some interesting strategic elements. There was also an element of immersion because of the way the game flowed. I found it very involving.

Jordan: I appreciated the idea of tension in the game, the idea that every turn counts and each turn you have big decisions to make. I think the scoring design also deserves credit for that; the games we played were very close throughout.

A: I agree. Going back to the circular nature of the game: none of my actions felt too combative (although inevitably they were), but because of the circular nature of the game and the way the dice mechanics worked it wasn’t a total deny-others game.

N: I don’t know about that. One thing I found myself using a lot was the terraforming station which granted you an immediate colony ship. I found myself using that as much as possible, not necessarily because it was my top priority but because nobody else could use it.

J: That said, the blocking mechanics still felt positive—you’re helping yourself but there’s a denial element there, though it’s not purely negative or zero-sum.

A: I think a good example of that was the ore mine, which allowed you to mine ore as long as your die number was higher than anyone else’s die in that spot. So I could use my 6 die there, which is valuable in other locations, but it hinders others at the ore spot.

Is there too much to do?

J: There are so many ways of doing the same thing in the game, which I found fascinating from a balancing perspective.

A: It was satisfying to see that we all had clearly different strategies: cards, dice, and colonies.

N: Did you feel there were too many ways to do things?

A: A couple points to that: I did feel a little overwhelmed at any given turn on the number of things I could do, especially because I tended to have a large pool of dice. I know Jordan also went back and forth on tech cards and the order of his play. One thing I really did enjoy was the number of dice rules for each placement, similar to yahtzee. There were still good and bad dice rolls, but there was enough variation in the placements to feel like you could do everything somehow.

J: there were times when I felt like the minor adjustments (cards, etc.) were difficult to keep track of, but it’s only because you’re juggling so many ways of being efficient and I found that fun. It’s very exciting to get one of those turns where everything comes together and you really get everything you wanted. I also don’t think the complexity overwhelmed or obfuscated the goals of the game, I think those remained clear.

Scoring

N: The game is built on small choices; it’s all about incremental benefit, which is sometimes frustrating.

J: I felt that in the way the point system was designed. There’s only 12 points total, right? So it’s always very close.

N: But was it actually close? It felt that way, but I’m not sure if the actual game reflected that.

A: I felt like I was winning for a good portion of the game, but then I made a few missteps around colony placement and spread myself a little too thin. But my lead diminished more quickly than I had imagined it would. I don’t know if anyone else noticed that. It felt like there was almost a benefit in laying colonies later and adjusting to what’s on the board.

J: I didn’t realize it until now but I feel like the non-accumulative VP is the most radical part of the game. You don’t have to jump onto the points bandwagon at the start, because it’s  relative. As opposed to other games where it’s hard to stop someone’s quest upward, this is much easier.

N: I think you’re right and I hadn’t thought of that. A lot of resource management games —take Stone Age for example—are based around accumulation of victory points. The more you get early, mid, late game, dictates how the mechanics must be balanced. But when you take that out of the equation and create a situation that’s always being tested—they become less about numeric quantity and more about positioning and placement. That’s a very subtle way to have a huge impact.

J: The way the scoring mechanic works, I’m not sure if the lead player has any advantage. If left unchecked those colony bonuses are big, but because the points aren’t cumulative your lead can quickly evaporate.

A: It’s similar to longest road or largest army in Catan. Which are usually big battles in that game.

J: I think so, especially with the colony placement. Although at the end it was less about accumulating points, it was more about who I could bump down. It’s not about accumulation, but shaking up the VPs to your favor. It’s also great to see how a player that’s losing can make a big impact even in the final stages of the game.

The good, the bad

J: Did any of the placement options seem underutilized, overpowered…?

N: I do. I’m going to refer to the colony construction elements. The colonist hub—unless you had the bonus—I think was underpowered. I never felt good using that mechanism. I also never used the colony constructer because the barrier to entry was so high. So much forethought and resources were required for it.

A: I would disagree a bit, mostly because each one fits a particular strategy. If you’re going for a minimalist, quick bonus route you’ll want to sacrifice your die to create a colony. I think the constructor was a little difficult to use—you needed triplets and three ore. I didn’t feel like the associated colony bonus was good enough to help speed that up. You needed a very specific strategy for that.

J: There may be an element of early, late game possibility. The terraforming strategy feels early game, while the constructor seems like a possibility once you have the right cards or number of dice. Once you produce efficiencies the constructor is very strong.

I also don’t think this game is designed for you to exclusively focus on one method of construction—I think the hub is something you use when you have a random die left and you can just throw at it, eventually it’ll produce something.

N: Anything else underutilized?

J: We never used the generators. They were placed only a few times, which I think we underutilized.

N: I think the chief worry for those is that they can be modified so easily. Similar to the raider, which I used a lot at first, and then I eventually realized was not a great idea.

J: I will say that there are only 3 things which give you a straight-up VP, which makes them even more powerful.

A: I thought the alien tech cards were a little too expensive, so I never felt like it was a good decision to throw away for a generator.

J: The cards were very powerful. They reduced the risk and changed the rolls so they could be whatever you wanted them to be. Although I think my mistake was holding onto them for too long and not using their discard abilities, which were more powerful than I thought.

N: Like tools in Stone Age, I thought they helped control the random element of the dice roll.

A: drawing a parallel to Stone Age’s tool mechanic as a means of preventing risk, I liked AF’s alien tech cards to mitigate the randomness of the dice and make your turn a little more consistent, which I found to be very important. If you ignored them, it felt risky.

J: You’re at the will of the dice.

 
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