In Space, No One Can Hear You Colonize
Outer space is not for the timid. It is an unfathomable abyss that cares not for the achievements of the tiny humans struggling within it. Clever Mojo Games’s Alien Frontiers sets the stage for one of those brutal struggles, pitting two-to-four would-be colonizers against each other on the frontier of a newly discovered planet.
Alien Frontiers is not a game about long-term strategy. It is about adaptability and short-term goals. On your turn you roll your dice and, depending on the resulting configuration of pips, you will be able to place them in one or more of the different locations on the gameboard. Doing so allows you to gather resources, draw support cards, gain more dice or construct colonies. To fans of worker placement games like Agricola, Stone Age and Kingsburg, the mechanics will be familiar, but they are intelligently and intriguingly assembled. There is much you need to do, but never enough dice to go around.
Die placement often means edging your opponents out of key locations. In many titles this is a fun piece of meta-gaming. In Alien Frontiers, the joy of such playful cruelty is tempered with the knowledge that, in the desperate scramble for location abilities, you are likely to be screwed next turn.
Colonies are the lifeblood of planetary settlement. Constructing them and taking control of planetary regions is how a player gains victory points. They are also the endgame trigger: the game ends when a player places their final colony. But since ending the game is not instant victory, just because you can doesn't mean you should. There are multiple paths to colony construction, so every player is in contention until the bitter end. It makes your next turn feel light years away.
Like Settlers of Catan, scores are low and close together. As such, often a single strong turn can push you past your opponents to victory. In my last game, where I was ahead by two points, an opponent used a resource card to move one of my colonies, costing me the control of a region. There goes one point. She then placed her final colony, which gave her a point to tie. That colony gave her control of the region I once held, giving her one final, soul-crushing point. My comfortable lead was not nearly as comfortable as I had believed it to be. I sorrowfully stared at a scoreboard which served only as a grim reminder of how close I had come, and how far I had fallen.
One cannot adequately strategize against the sheer immensity of space. Alien Frontiers instead demands malleability and adaptability, as your short-term gains gradually build into something tangible. Roll your dice and roll with the punches. It is a tense and nail-biting experience, but those willing to struggle over this cold rock will find Alien Frontiers to be an intelligent and satisfying game indeed.