In Space No One Can Hear You Chuck Dice - Alien Frontiers Review

This game I've heard about constantly on The Dice Tower. The crew praise this game every chance they get, but for a while it's been out of print and nobody I knew had owned a copy. I then managed to get a try on Tabletop Day which convinced me to spend the cash on acquiring the new recent 4th edition reprint to see if the potential of this game could be met.

My initial hesitation on this front came from the fact that I already owned Kingsburg, which has mechanics very similar to this one and I wasn't sure if I could own both. This is naturally a question that a lot of gamers will also be asking, so for those people I will endeavour to answer that question near the end of this review.

Unique ways to use dice will grab my attention. We have already seen how much of an effect Seasons had on me, I enjoy Kingsburg (hopefully I'll get to reviewing that some day) and I recently got to try Quantum which performed above initial expectations. I like dice, most gamers do, but I don't like "roll and move" and we've all seen dice used for combat values, etc. Here however, we get to use dice as our "workers" in a worker placement game (and no, don't get confused with Castles of Burgundy, that's area control!) so let's see what the fuss is about. 

"Not a great deal of difference on the cover besides an extra woman astronaut - strange addition""

Designer: Tony Niemann (2010)
Publisher: Game Salute (4th Edition)
# of Players: 2-4
Ages: 13+
Play Time: 90+ minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: 94/7.53
Dice Tower 2013 People’s Choice Rank: 40
Category: Dice Worker Placement with Area Control
  
Bang! Zoom! Straight To The Moon

Alien Frontiers is a worker placement game with a slight area control element. Except the quirk here is that your workers are dice that represent your ships. On your turn you roll your ships and the numbers that come up will dictate the options available to you on your turn. The various stations on the board that you can dock your ships at all have restrictions based on the values of the dice. Some require multiples or totals, some need sequential numbers, some have to higher than previous and one even sacrifices your ship.

The stations will allow you to gain resources and technologies to improve your game, but eventually you will be popping out colonies on the planet surface and attempting to control areas to gain further special abilities and earn victory points. After the last player pops his last colony out on the planet, the game ends and, you've guessed it, the person with the most victory points is the winner.

"Great design point to show the links from the planet to the stations for special abilities"

The "New Edition" Hype

Not a great deal has changed between the earlier editions and this new 4th edition. In fact the only significant difference is that this includes the upgrade pack that was released for the game a while back. This contained some chits to cover unused spaces, some funky models for the field generators, but best of all they replaced the "smarties" that were used for colonies with these cool, little plastic domes with a building model inside separated by colour. I found those smarties a big let down before and a cop-out on component quality, but these domes look great and when you've got lots on the board, the theme of building colonies on a planet is more obvious.

"The dice are chunky enough and nicely rounded. But I love the domes!"

Other than components, there's practically no change - maybe one or two wording tweaks on cards, but otherwise, it's the same game in the box. Would have been nice to have a more interesting looking score track, but that's a nitpick. Oh and there's a woman on the box cover now - equal rights for astronauts movement or something to promote that change perhaps? Also I don't like the ore and energy tokens, they're just basic wooden discs and cubes - would have been nice to have seen some cosmetic improvement here.

"Yeah, compared to the colony domes? Not the best!"

It Can't Get Any Tighter!

Spaces are limited on each station so if you like the tension that comes from a worker placement game, you'll find it here no problem. Some are easier to access than others and in one case you can actually "bump" them off the space, but generally you will get situations where that other player nicks your spot.

There's even a little take-that element where you can steal cards and resources from each other, which can certainly mess up players, but it's not overpowered by any means as you can mitigate it. It's designed to punish those who hoard resources for too long, so you simply have to spend them as quick as you can or accept the risk that on your next turn they might get stolen. But you'll find that the leader is the one getting picked on anyway!

But where it's really tight is the point scoring and that's one of the major pluses of this game. Some games will have a huge spread of points between first and last or just far too many points than is necessary (Stone Age and Ticket to Ride: Netherlands are good examples). Here the points are strict (one per colony, one for control, one for certain technologies) and you are constantly leapfrogging each other for the lead. Taking control of a planet area from another player is two points for you with your new colony and one point deducted from him - a 3 point swing in your favour. It's common to have games end where there are less than 2-3 points between first and last place and tiebreakers can also occur.

"The tuckboxes come with the game and are a great means of storage, but . . . . yet again . . . the box for the tech cards . . . . CAN'T HOLD SLEEVED CARDS! Come on publishers, get with the programme here!"

Now one worry that a lot of players who like Euro games have is the element of randomness. You're rolling dice and using them as workers after all so of course there is an element of luck, but there's lots of different stations to dock at, all of which are pretty useful. On top of that you can build more ships so you're rolling more dice and the alien technologies allow you to augment your rolls so there's plenty of mitigation. That being said there does appear to be a big flaw in the design in that building more ships/dice is categorically essential to every player's ability to win. If one player is rolling six dice and you're rolling three or four, that other player has a major advantage over you. You can afford to have one less die than another player but basing your strategy on only using three, possibly even only four dice is doomed to failure. So the Shipyard quickly becomes contested and if you're unlucky enough to not roll those doubles you need to use it, you could find yourself being held back as a result in the early game allowing others to gain a lead.

"Very useful in game and some allow you to mitigate the luck element on the dice"

Cabin Fever In Space

The base game can be played with 2-4 players. Adding "Factions" to the mix adds player powers (which sounds great but I've yet to test it yet) and introduces a 5th player. Well there is no way I'm ever playing this game with 5 players. It's long enough with 4 with a typical game lasting easily between 90-120 minutes especially if teaching new players. 3 players is ideal for this game as you'll easily finish within 90 minutes and if you're playing with 2 you can even manage 60 minutes. With spots being added or removed based on players, the game scales well.

Four players is hit or miss if you have AP players though. There's plenty of options you can usually do on each turn and some people will take far too long to decide between them. Not a major issue with this game, but bare it in mind if playing with four players as any game of Alien Frontiers that lasts more than 2 hours is dragging on too much.

Science Fiction vs Fantasy

Now we come to the big question. Alien Frontiers vs Kingsburg - Can I Own Both Or Is One The Clear Favourite? Well to be honest, there really isn't a clear favourite here. Both games are good and use the idea of placing worker dice to gain special abilities, but I feel that both games play out very differently and have their own pros/cons to the extent that you could feasibly own both in your collection. I for example have both and don't feel like leaving one or the other to gather dust.

The luck mitigation in both games is achieved in different ways (Alien Frontiers has alien tech cards and Kingsburg has the +2 tokens and building effects) and each has their own glaring luck issue (Alien Frontiers ship-building is essential to victory and rolling consistently low in Kingsburg won't do you any favours).Therefore you can't distinguish one on randomness either.

"Courtesy of BGG - Kingsburg, the rival to Alien Frontiers, with dice used as workers also"

Both games have room for improvement that are resolved by expansions, both are of good production quality, both have good artwork, both are Euro's - it's a nightmarish pair to separate.

However I believe that the flow of play is very different. Alien Frontiers requires you to place all of your ships and resolve all of their effects in an optimum order before the next player has their turn or can even roll their dice. This means that players will strategise what they want to do on their next turn but might have to suddenly change tactics once their turn starts because of what the other players have done, which can cause additional AP issues. Kingsburg on the other hand has everyone roll their dice at once and then place them one set a time. As such there is less downtime between players.

The flow is smoother using Kingburgs timer track, however this does mean that the end-game trigger is fixed so you know it's coming. In Alien Frontiers, it's less evident because the endgame doesn't occur until the last colony is placed, though depending on how quickly this is done will affect the whole game length.

As you can see, this is a difficult topic, but you will have noticed that I've mentioned a lot of different aspects of each game. That alone should show that they are both separate games in their own right and thus it is possible to own both and still enjoy both. That said, if budget is an issue then see if you can co-ordinate with other players, one buys Alien Frontiers and the other buys Kingsburg. That would work well and trust me, both are worth playing.

Verdict

This is a good Euro game with a difference - well other than Kingsburg obviously! The retro theme comes out fairly strongly for a Euro and coupled with the high quality board, it brings in a lot of attention from passing gamers.

"Courtesy of BGG - The board already looks nice, but with lots of dice and colonies, it's really colourful!"

It's not a complex game to teach, but be wary of AP players who can slow this game down. Playing with four players will mean a long-ish game, but even then it's fairly short compared to a lot of Euro's out there. It's not a game that I would want to play continuously, but there's enough variety in paths to victory that will keep you busy. And there's more to be had in Factions, but I will get round to reviewing that another day.

I should point out however that as well as Factions there is a new expansion on the horizon for this game by Game Salute called "Outer Belt" which will feature an additional side board where you can dock at passing asteroids and gain benefits - sounds pretty cool, but not one to teach to new players.

You Will Like This Game If:

  • Worker placement is a mechanic that you like in your games.
  • You enjoy rolling dice and using them in unique ways
  • You have played Kingsburg and like the retro sci-fi theme used here.

You Will Not Like This Game If:

  • You play with AP players often - some people can drag the game out with too much thinking.
  • You aren't comfortable with "take-that" aspects of games - you can get messed over here.
  • You don't like random/luck elements in your Euro games.

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