Alien Frontiers attracted me with its theme. What red-blooded geek doesn’t groove on the idea of colonizing alien planets, after all? The box art made clear that the game was intended as homage to classic SF, and the gameboard briskly carried that forward: Our alien planet, divided into seven regions named after Golden Age SF authors, surrounded by orbiting installations like the Colonist Hub, Raider Outpost, Alien Artifact, Solar Collector, Terraforming Station, and more.
The actual game mechanics do rather resemble Yahtzee; you have a dice pool, which you commit to perform actions at orbital installations each turn. But instead of directly scoring points as in Yahtzee, some of the actions drop colonists on the planet; others collect ore and fuel (resources required for, among other things, dropping colonists); still others allow you to snag an alien artifact, which may give you victory points or allow you to modify die rolls or teleport colonists around or use various other rule-bending special abilities.
An unusual feature of the game is that victory points aren’t cumulative – your VP score is a pure function of the board state and the cards in your hand, and victory points can be lost as well as gained. For example, having majority control of a planetary region gains you a VP, and losing control because another player has tied your number of colonist counters in the region loses you that VP. VP leaders can expect to get sniped at a lot in the late game.
The game is designed for 4 players. There are 3- and 2-player variants in the rules, but I suspect they don’t work as well – part of the tactics depend on players getting crowded out of slots on the orbital stations, and that would be a more difficult outcome to manipulate for with fewer players.
One virtue of this game is that it will play really fast with players who know what they’re doing. Poorly-organized rules make initial learning more difficult than it should be (the objective really should have been explained before turn flow, for example) but the mechanics are basically pretty simple and once you learn how to read the possibilities in your dice a turn will often take less than 60 seconds.
Despite the simple mechanics, I think the replay value of this game should hold up pretty well. There are multiple paths to victory, and always options to balance. Early on, should you try for a lead in colonies or concentrate on building ships (enlarging your dice pool) for later? Alien artifacts are expensive but can be game-changers; how much to invest in chasing them? Will raiding net you more than trading?
Overall this game is perhaps a bit lighter than I normally like, but it’s a fun social gaming experience for four SF fans. I’ll play it again, and I’m definitely going to lean on the Colonist Hub more next time….