Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Final Frontier (review)

This is a game I’ve waited for a long time.  It’s number six in the new Counter Strike line from Fiery Dragon.

Even though the title echo’s the old Star Trek TV show cliche, it actually is an appropriate title.  Post Nuclear War earth nations struggle to colonize the solar system.  Planet counters move turn by turn across their orbital tracks.  Players set up mines and colonies on moons and planets.  Game play is a fast moving blend of Risk and Monoply, and the rules are fairly straight forward and easy-to-learn.

There’s not really anything new here in this game.  Nearly everything’s been done before somewhere or another– the ship combat is reminiscent of Imperium, and the ship hit point and repair system echos the old Empire computer game from the 80’s.  However the game puts it all together to make something very unusual.

Income is determined by a combination of your National Interest, which measures your nations overall willingness to invest in the space race.  As your colonies and mines expand, your GNP rises.  The higher your National Interest and the higher your GNP, the higher your budget is for colonies and military expansion.

Unlike Risk and Axis & Allies, the strength of your position is not determined so much by the number and location of your military units.  An edge in production is much more important even if its by just one or two points.  Once someone takes a lead in their budget, they can generally afford to keep it while slowly expanding their military defenses.  Their opponents then have a great deal of interest in attacking that player– the longer they wait, the greater the gap between them will be.  This makes the first several turns of the game agonizing, because several minor mistakes can cost you the game.  The game forces you to develop the best overall “foreign policy,” and sabre rattling can be even more effective than actual attacks!

The political dimension is modeled by the National Interest (NI)measure.  Each time a player expands their largest colony, they raise their NI by one point.  The higher the National Interest, the more likely the player is to trigger a random event, the greater their income, and the further their units get to move in a turn.  Also, each time a first space battle, a first orbital bombardment, or a first ground attack occurs, everyone’s National Interest increases by one and the victim’s Interest increases by 2!  As a consequence, tensions mount until someone is willing to “give” their enemy that extra bonus.  This forces players to develop their positions before beginning any fights.

The actual combat system is more interesting than those in other Risk-like games, however there tends to be very few units in the game as everyone starts with nothing.  This also makes players think twice before fighting.  You can loose most of your military in a botched attack!

The random events add a great deal to the game.  Everything hinges on getting an edge, and even small effects such as loosing a single unit or dropping in GNP or NI can completely change the situation.  Furthermore, as the game goes on, the chance of there being another World War goes up– so games that stay primarly on the economic level can suddenly change to an all-out-war endgame.

When I played my first “real” game of this I lost within 2 hours and 12 turns due to several small mistakes.  In my opponent’s opening he chose 1 NI and 25 GNP while I went with just 2 NI.  It turned out that the GNP made a huge difference after just a few turns.  Second, I conceded Mars to him once he put military on it.  We both had Colony-2’s there.  I chose to colonize the Jupiter moons instead.  That took more time and forced me to start over in my attempt to establish a Colony-3.  Finally, when my opponent made a move to colonize Jupiter as well, I shot his stuff out of space.  This gave him an extra bonus to his NI and didn’t give me all that in return.  The outlook was so bleak at this point that even with all of my luck, I’d be unable to take him militarily.  I conceded the game after making a failed suicide attack on his Mars colony.

This is a thought provoking, agonizing, fingernail chomping game.  It doesn’t play like the typical Risk game or Wargame.  Your ability to make longterm plans and policies is much more important than any mastery of tactical gimmicks. 

I was really excited about this game at first because of the orbits, colonies and space battles the game would so obviously simulate.  It takes a half dozen ideas from some of my favorite old games and puts them together in a small package that can be played in a couple of hours.  But there’s much more to this game that what’s on the surface.  I look forward to exploring the winning strategies of this gem.  (And I also note, that you’ve got just about everything you need to simulate a war between the Browncoats and the Alliance.  So far, two-player games tend to fall into an Inner System vs Outer System split!)

http://www.fierydragon.com/counterstrike/frontier.htm

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