Space the final frontier, the high frontier. Who of is hasn't dreamt, in some capacity or other, of exploring those unexplored wonders which lie out there?
Our sun, resplendent in its glory.
If you are like me, much of your dreamt explorations of space include more or less fantastic elements. I don't go into detail about how my rocket or ship works... I just know that I have one. I don't go into detail about what sort of drive my ship has, I just know it has an incredibly fast and efficient star drive. I dream more of meeting aliens than in finding water... High Frontier 4 All is not that sort of game. There is nothing star trek about High Frontier 4 All.
High Frontier 4 All is a ridiculously complicated simulation of near future space exploration, and the game was designed by a literal rocket scientist. This game purports to be the most scientifically accurate and rigorous space game out there, and, I believe it.
Before I give my first impressions, I need to give a bit more actual game information.
High Frontier 4 All is the 4th edition of #High Frontier. Which in turn, was a remagining of #Rocket Flight. You would think that, being the fourth edition of a remagined game, that it would have figured out its issues and be a more or less definitive edition. And, indeed, Ion Game Design/Sierra Madre has claimed that this is THE definitive edition, and it should be stable henceforth.
In High Frontier 4 All, typically the game is made up of a predetermined number of years. And, typically one turn, or one round in a multiplayer game, equals one year. You use your turns to buy and sell patents until you have the patents you need to build the rocket you want to build. By then you are out of money, so getting the rocket fueled is a challenge, but eventually you get it fueled and you're off to explore the solar system. In the solar system you prospect planets and asteroids, you build factories, you establish colonies, you watch your rocket get blown up in landing accidents, in failing radiation checks, in pad explosions, or in landing accidents. Finally the last turn is played, you count up your points.... And determine the winner.
Now, that's the basic core game of HF4a. But, the situation is more complicated than that. There are actually three games in the base box. The first game is called Space Diamonds. This looks to be a very simple game, and indeed, I have heard reports of very young children playing it. It uses some the pieces and the board of HF4a, but completely different cards.
The second game is called Race For Glory. It is a simplified, but still complicated version of the core game. It uses the pieces and board of the core game, but it uses a somewhat simplified card set. Now, I "played" a three handed solo walk-through of RFG. I've, I will say, it's not a simple game. I would rank it rank as a 4 or 4.2 on the BGG weight scale. But, the huge advantage is that all of the rules in RFG apply in the core game. So, it's a great way to get a good start with the rules of the core game and work your way up. Now, there are several scenarios you can play if you so desire. I'm not very familiar with these scenarios, so I won't deal with them.
Set up for three handed rfg.
Lastly, we come to the core game. Now, this is a beast. I rank it as a 5 on the BGG weight scale, and it makes me think about downgrading some of the games I've ranked as 4s to 3s. There is just a lot of minutiae and a lot of chrome to remember. Adding to the cognative load, there are a lot of scenarios to choose from. They very in win condition, in length, in player count, and etc... In addition to the variants there are currently 4 modules available.
Module 0 comes in the core box, and it adds politics.
Module 1 is #High Frontier 4 All: Module 1 – Terawatt & Futures. This one introduces several new patent decks and some optional end game goals to work towards.
Module 2: #High Frontier 4 All: Module 2 – Colonization. Introduces orbital space colonies and space pioneers.
Module 3: #High Frontier 4 All: Module 3 – Conflict. Introduces war to the HF4a.
And, yes, I have all the modules.....
So, my play experience for this first impressions.... I "played" a three handed solo walk-through of the RFG game. I then played the CEO solo variant of the core game, I lost that one miserably. Then I played the Hermes Fall solo variant of the core game, that one I won, very very narrowly. For a game as complex as HF4a, this isn't enough experience for a review. But it is enough for a first impressions.
Set up for CEO solo.
Component quality + the components here are distinctly adequate. There isn't anything fancy or luxurious, but neither is there anything that is just really poor quality. I actually really like this sort of component, especially for a game this heavy.
Art + Look at the board, if that interests you, than the whole game probably interests you.
Also, the art on the patent decks are quite technical in nature which helps with the thematic integration.
Patent decks art.
Rulebooks ++- The rulebooks are very good, and very nicely illustrated. My knock against the rulebooks comes from the fact that they aren't necessarily complete. Like, sometimes the Rfg rulebook will reference a rule in the core book. I wish that each book would be complete in and of itself. If course, it would have added some cost, and a lot of pages, but I think it would have been worth it. That being said, they do a really good job telling you where and in which book to find what they are referencing, so its an annoyance rather than a really bad deal.
Soloability + I bought this game with zero desire to every teach it to anybody. I still never want to have to teach it to anybody. So, I'm pleased that the solo variants seem at least decent. Then there is another huge advantage. Some of the solo variants are approaching filler territory in length. I think I played the hermes fall scenario in 35-40 minutes. And it's still a super heavy game. I like heavy games, but often I don't have time for them. But if I can set up and play HF4a in 45 minutes.... That's huge.
I do feel like I should deal with several issues before I close this review. But, they are issues that don't fit in a Brian's Battery format.
The designer of the game is a certain problematic individual named Phil Eklund. He has always had viewpoints that were controversial, they have ranged from merely counter cultural to counter factual. Lately, however, some of his views have become more toxic. These views don't really come out in this game. However, money from sales of this game, as well as his others, do materially support him. There are many people who have decided to not buy his games because they don't wish to support him. If that is your position, that's fine. I don't want to tell you what to do, but I do wish to encourage you to check out the controversy surrounding him before you make up your mind one way or another, and for sure before you buy a game by him.
The second point I wish to address is randomness in heavy games. HF4a is an unashamedly heavy game. But it has a lot, and I mean a LOT of randomness. You can do everything right and have your rocket that you spent 12 years building fail a aerobrake roll while landing in Mars. Our, any number of other bad things can happen to you. I feel like the this does increase thematic immersion, but sometimes it is sorta antifun. There is a bunch of variants on BGG that do lessen the randomness. And, many people won't mind the randomness. I'm not quite sure where I'm at on this issue myself. I know I don't want that much randomness in a multiplayer game, but it's less nasty in a solo game. That being said, I do sorta think that, for me, there's maybe a bit too much randomness in the rules as written and I'll probably check out some of the variants on BGG.
My last point is the whole age old question of simulation vs game. HF4a leans hard on the simulation side of it. Hence the random uncontrollable events that happen sometimes. In real life, we can't control solar flares, so, in HF4e, you can't control solar flares either. I don't know how you feel about games that are more simulation than game. For me, I think I like it sometimes in solo. I really sorta dislike it in multiplayer games.
So, HF4a, what do I think about it? My thoughts feel as complicated as the game. I love it, it's gorgeous, it presents me with big meaty puzzles that are so so satisfying. I hate it. It ruins my best laid plans, planets that should have that I need, what I'm betting on, come up empty, my pad explodes and my rocket kicks the bucket. I think I can best sum it up in saying that it is an experience in glad to have had, and one I'm looking forward having again. I'm not sure I'm having fun while playing, but when I'm done, I want to do it again, I want to continue exploring this system, even if I end up modifying it to suit me better. This is an experience that is singular in my boardgaming life, and one that I wish more could experience, but one that I hesitate to recommend even if it feels right for me.