Ever since I was young, my favorite science topic was always astronomy. Perhaps it was those saturated color images of distant nebulas and planets, or just the seemingly surreal nature of what can exist out in space. I eagerly asked my parents to get me a telescope in 6th grade… and it lay dusty in the basement, moldering away, forgotten. For a time this love of space was forgotten, until the new version of Cosmos reignited a latent passion for the subject again. So when I discovered the joy and complexity of Bios Megafauna, the natural next step was to explore Phil Eklund’s game of near-future space travel: High Frontier. After all, what could be better than a game about space travel by a real rocket scientist?
Since I had survived the rulebook of Bios Megafauna, I knew what to expect. Still, when you take a look at the map that comes with the game, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s modern art, or some kind of science diagram vs a useable game board. The key aspect of Eklund’s space opus is that it is near-future. While the technology addressed in the game does not yet exist, all of it is theoretically possible. This is not your average Star Trek or Asimov fueled science fiction, but genuinely speculative science POSSIBLE.
In the game, each player takes on the role of a space agency aiming to make a profit in the solar system. Players auction technological patents, launch rockets, and plot space travel and mining operations right here orbiting the sun. Every site you can visit in the game, barring one named after Eklund’s wife, is a real place that we know about through our current scientific knowledge.
Not that it’s easy to get there! Eklund’s game is fantastic at capturing just how challenging the science and planning behind space travel really is. The brilliance really comes in the map, and the cards that represent the different technologies.
The map, which looks like a spider web of confusing spaghetti and iconography is really innovative. Eklund realized he could not represent the scale of space, even our immediate solar system, in a reasonably sized board. Even doing things “to scale” based on distance would result in a giant black empty map. Case in point. So the innovation was to represent the map in terms of energy vs. physical distance. The spaghetti lines represent possible courses through space, and each pink circle represents a “burn” of rocket fuel. Mars is a minimum of 3 burns away, various asteroids are 4 or 5, etc. You can navigate the spider web of space travel in more energy costly ways, and more quickly if you have a lot of fuel… or you can slowly travel to a destination, one burn at a time over the course of several game turns, each representing a year of your space program. Through this genius change of scope, Eklund is able to represent a vast amount of information and travel destinations in a board that can fit on the table… if only barely.
The map would not be nearly as interesting without the technologies on the cards however. Each card represents a possible space technology, from solar sails, to orbital laser mining equipment. Players must combine the right combination of rocket parts to get to where they’re going, and it’s not possible to pack the kitchen sink here. The mass of your rocket is a very real problem, starting with just getting it off the earth in the first place! Then there is the puzzle of putting together technologies that actually work together. Different rockets, buggies, and refineries require specific types of generators, and reactors, which have their own cooling challenges along with their own mass. Planning a successful mission to Mars involves getting the right pieces of technology together, plotting a course and fuel to get there and quite possibly relying on the atmosphere to slow you down before you hit the surface, certainly the most terrifying die roll I’ve ever made. But all of this makes the missions feel meaningful and real. So much so that the group I play with has a house rule where we name all of our missions. I will never forget for example how Socrates II and its crew did not make it past earth’s radiation belt.
The great news is that High Frontier third edition just hit shelves and is the most refined version of this masterpiece yet. I can’t wait to dive into the new changes as Eklund continues to refine rules and improve upon his gameplay systems, and the production of this latest edition really gives the game the components and quality it deserves. I’ll be sure to check in with a session report in the coming months, although it take a good afternoon to play this game so it might be a while.
Once again Eklund is puts on a master class of integrating real science with a board game. His games are intimidating for sure, but intensely rewarding. And he covers a broad range of subjects, and not just science. Bios Genesis covers the formation of life, right down to the acids, while his historical Pax Pamir and Pax Porfiriana cover Afghan and Mexican historical wars in incredible detail. I am thrilled to have stumbled upon his designs with Bios Megafauna and will be a fan for years to come.