Review: Alien Frontiers

Posted by James (admin) on June 12th, 2011

Alien Frontiers is a dice-placement and area-control game with a space colonisation theme for 2-4 players.  Players score victory points (VPs) by placing colonies on the planet (as well as for dominating planet areas and a few alien tech cards).  When any player has placed their 9th and final colony on the planet, the game ends and the player with the most VPs wins.

During the game, players take turns rolling their dice (spaceships) and allocating them to different locations (orbital facilities).  Each orbital facility lets you do different things such as gain resources (energy and ore), build spaceships, gain alien tech (special abilities), raid other players, etc.  Each facility requires dice to use it and most require a specific mixture of dice, i.e. doubles, a total of 8 or higher, a 3-dice straight.  However, the extra twist is that there are a limited amount of spaces for dice at each area and a player only gets their dice back at the start of their turn; therefore, opponents’ dice can block spaces so that other players are unable to use them.

Whilst gaining resources is necessary, the game is about placing colonies on the planet and there are 3 ways to do this: (a) Discard a value-6 dice at the Terraforming Station plus 1 energy and ore, (b) use 3 same-value dice at the Colony Constructor plus 3 ore, or (c) use the Colonist Hub where each dice placed progresses a colony 1 step (which can be placed on the planet after 7 steps when it costs 1 energy and ore).  The last method seems slow but is always available and any dice can be used so this is the slow-and-steady method.  The planet is divided into areas and whilst a player has the most colonies in an area they gain 1 VP plus that area’s special ability.

Each player starts with 3 dice of their colour and they can spend resources at one of the orbital facilities to gain extra dice up to a maximum of six (with the right dice roll, of course, and the more dice you have the more expensive it is to build a new one).

I like dice games when there’s a strategic element to them in their allocation, such as Troyes, Alea Iacta Est and Kingsburg.  So, I knew I wanted to play Alien Frontiers and I really enjoyed it.  The abilities and dice required at each facility sound strange to start but they combine very well to deliver interesting decisions each turn, plus the order in which you perform the actions is important too.  Whilst the game mechanics may not be innovative in themselves, they work well especially due to the combination of dice placement with area control on the planet (which adds other considerations and a lot of the player interaction).

One of the keys to success is working out how to chain different actions/abilities together to squeeze the most out of your turn – this will particularly appeal to players who enjoy this logical contemplation.  In fact, most (if not all) abilities have good uses and finding how to play to the strengths of your abilities is very important and can be very effective.

I believe the make-or-break factor to any dice-allocation game is how big a difference the luck of the dice roll makes – in a good game design, rolling not what you wanted can still be used for some useful purpose.  Alien Frontiers did well in this regard although I thought there could be a couple of improvements to reduce the effect of bad luck.  First, I’d like to be able to spend resources to slightly alter my dice rolls (maybe pay 1 energy to re-roll 1 dice, or 1 ore to re-roll 2 dice).  Some alien tech does allow dice manipulation but making this minor power available all the time (even if just for the player in last place) could take the edge off a player feeling like bad luck negated their turn.  Second, as the game progresses, players have more dice and some facilities can be blocked a lot.  As a result, I wondered if players who didn’t get to do something good on a turn (i.e. they only produced energy and progressed a colony along the track) could be given a chip which they can spend later to re-roll dice or progress a colony- a bit like the free coin you get when you buy nothing during a round of Die Speicherstadt

I only have one key criticism of Alien Frontiers which is that the playing time felt a bit too long.  In between your turns, you can think about what you want to achieve and what actions could combine well, but it’s not possible to plan too precisely in advance until you see your dice roll, where opponents’ dice are and what resources you have.  As a result, you can’t do much between turns and players need a bit of time to take their turn.  Also, analysis paralysis could be an issue if players allow it.  In the end, our 4-player game took 3 hours which was 30-60 minutes too long.

One minor issue was that the raiding ability seemed quite powerful as it just requires a 3-dice straight to use it.  I think it should be harder for players with more VPs and/or more dice to balance it a bit – otherwise, players doing well (with more dice) can raid more easily than those not doing so well, so the rich get richer.

Overall, I think Alien Frontiers is a very good and challenging game and I enoyed playing it a lot.  I definitely want to play it again, especially now I’m familiar with the abilities of the different spaces.  I’d like to play with 2 and 3 players as well especially as the spaces available for dice scale with the number of players – so I expect it to be just as challenging.


[Played with 4 players]

2 Responses to “Review: Alien Frontiers”

  1. Eric Martin Says:

    Our group may be the slowest group of players ever (every game of Stone Age takes a 2+ hours) and we’ve managed to whittle this down to at most 90 minutes for every 4-player game. It seems once everyone has seen the cards and the spaces once or twice they all start playing pretty fast.

    Also, I think it should it should be mentioned just how gorgeous the components and board are for this game. I think it’s the best I’ve seen in a LONG time…

    I’m hoping the expansion brings a bit more depth to the game, cuz I’d love to be playing this one for years.

  2. James (admin) Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Good to know it gets quicker with more plays.

    I really liked the way the board design was fully inline with the classic 50’s sci-fi look of the box. I always like it when games commit 100% to their theme. Also, the small plastic rockets for the scoretrack.



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