Into space and beyond with High Frontier

, | Games

I’m twelve years old hiking through the desert east of San Diego. “What kind of modules?” I ask. We’re on a scouting trip and I spend a good chunk of the long trek interrogating a fellow scout about a game called Project Space Station. The possibilities were amazing. Which labs do I build? Are there enough Solar Panels? Which scientist to send up and what projects do I start? Where do you go after you achieve orbit? My adolescent imagination lit up.

After the jump, one small step for a twelve-year-old

Shortly afterward, space boardgaming would call again. A boardgame called Liftoff had been picked up and converted into a PC game. A famous astronaut lends his name and you have the magnificent Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space. I could play out an entire saga of spaceflight from little sub orbital hops to the goal of landing a man on the moon. I grow up, triple A games become shooters and I never find anything like Race Into Space again.

About twenty years after that first hike through the desert I find a little boardgame called High Frontier. This game is crazy. The rules are organized like a technical manual, the cards are detailed blueprints, and the map of the Solar System has lines all over it like someone designed it with a Spirograph. High Frontier is beautiful and magnificent. As I read through the rulebook, I rediscover the wonder and fascination I had with space exploration. Every mad curve on the board is a deliberate simplification of orbital mechanics, every blueprint on a card is an idea someone put forth in earnest.

Now my imagination is firing again. I’m braving the dust storms of Mars to land a rover. I’m sending a high powered beam drill to the asteroid belt. After I establish an extraterrestrial factory on one of these sites I’m building even more advanced designs to explore the outer solar system.

Since High Frontier is a game, there are victory points to collect. Every site you claim and every factory you build earns victory points. You’ll get extra prestige for some space ventures. It’s even a simulation of sorts. Sometimes it’s unfair. A solar flare or hazardous approach can destroy an expedition you’d spent a great deal of effort on. All that wiped out in a moment. Not to mention that the initial frustration of learning the game can be devastating.

If you do stick with it and learn the rules of the simulation, the payoff is great. When your refinery successfully enters Mars’ atmosphere and avoids the dust storms to meet up with the robonaut miners you’ve sent three years before, you’ll feel the joy of an entire mission control in the throes of celebration. Eventually, you’ll explore and industrialize space. At which point it’s time to try again.

High Frontier has been constantly expanding since its release. There are many ways to play. The latest expansion is called Colonization. It takes the map all the way to the edge of the solar system. It also adds space colonist “Bernal” space stations, freighters, and rules for an endgame project similar to a wonder victory in Civilization. For all its faults, including the sometimes impenetrable manual and the confusing board, the game has captured my imagination. There’s no better boardgame or videogame to indulge your inner astronaut. So if your’re frustrated by the rules, if it gets too confusing, take heart and remember:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

And why stop at the moon?

(Note: High Frontier is out of print.)