Published on October 9th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Play This Instead: Yahtzee / Alien Frontiers
Summary: This is a game that I'm always in the mood to play, always.
Yahtzee is a game that I played a lot with my family as a kid. It was simple, fairly luck based and a little skill based around knowing probability. Yahtzee isn’t very competitive and there isn’t really anything you can do to disrupt other people’s games if that’s something you’re interested in. It’s also pretty light on theme, not even playing to a casino type vibe, probably for fear of alienating parents who don’t want to encourage gambling in their elementary school children. While Yahtzee isn’t a bad game, it’s certainly not very exciting and it could be much more deep and engaging. This is where Alien Frontiers comes in.
The game is set in a 1940’s or 1950’s American version of the space age future, when we first begin to colonize the planet Mars and encounter traces of alien civilizations. Your dice are called “ships” and the resources you use during the game are fuel/energy and moon rocks; advantages can be gained in the form of alien technology and you can cannibalize ships to help terraform parts of the planet. All throughout the game there is this great Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein inspired art, and the sections of Mars you are trying to control are named after influential science fiction writers of the early 20th Century.
Alien Frontiers has a really solid production level, and is right up with big publishers in terms of quality. Components are well designed and durable, and newer editions of the game are coming with molded plastic figures to represent things that in the past were represented with wooden discs. While I personally prefer little featureless wooden discs in this case, as I think it adds to the sci-fi nostalgia feel, I can’t argue with the prettiness of the plastic options as well. The art is somewhat subdued and not as exciting as one might think it would be, coming from the outrageous pulp science era, but it does invoke a sense of serious science fiction and it stays out of the way of the gameplay. So, nothing amazing, but everything is satisfactory.
If you like rolling dice, looking for poker/rummy hands and then placing those dice in tactically advantageous areas, Alien Frontiers is the game for you. Alien Frontiers is one of the better games in a new style called “dice placement”, which is essentially a worker placement game that uses the random results of dice to determine where you are allowed to place your workers. Alien Frontiers is different than many of the other dice placement games, in that it has you finding runs and sets to be able to use the more efficient worker slots, and because it does feature an area control section that is essentially the most important part of the game.
On a typical turn you roll your dice (three to start the game) and then place them in any section you like that isn’t already taken by someone else. The dice placement sections give you resources, let you advance a tracker to place colonies, let you steal resources from other players or gain alien technology cards. Because there are a limited number of spaces available for each of these areas, much of the tactics of the game are involved in trying to block your opponents out of things you think they need. This makes not telegraphing what you’re doing part of the gameplay for advanced gamers to take advantage of, something that I really like.
The end goal is to have more victory points than the other players, which you get by placing colonies (one point each) and controlling a section of the Mars map (also one point for each you control). Gaining control of certain areas is important as well because the person who has the most colonies in the area also gets a token with special bonuses on it. One of the areas gives you an extra die to use, others make using the more difficult placement options more convenient. In the end, your understanding of the flow of the game from resources to colonies is what gives you a better chance to win, but there is also a significant luck factor between two equally matched opponents.
Much like Yahtzee, a lot of the fun of Alien Frontiers is rolling the dice and coming up with the best play that you can with what fate has given you. The other major fun for me is intentionally placing my dice to block others out of moves I know they want to make. Alien Frontiers has a lot of replay value because you will never get the same rolls, so a consistent strategy between games is hard to come up with. This could be considered good or bad, I guess, but I always enjoyed the different take to the same game that I am forced to make every time I play it.
(Note: Alien Frontiers is not currently in production, though they do release new editions through Kickstarter. Skip buying it from Amazon usually and try eBay, they tend to go for more reasonable prices.)