Captaining a space station is hard, they say. You’ve got on-board intrigue, weird space diseases, hostile aliens and mind-bending extra-dimensional beings. While you’re facing all these threats, your computer systems are going buggy, your navigational computer has an insidious virus, and the crew that would otherwise be fixing these problems have become space-zombies.
And that’s just before lunch.
Frontier Stations is a cooperative resource management game that pits between 3 and 6 space stations with the worst day they could possibly imagine. Players work together to face threats, build out their stations, and destroy enemies, all the while watching as the ranks of hostile forces arrayed against them gather more strength each round.
Captaining a space station is hard, they say. They don’t know the half of it.
– Frontier Stations is a great family co-op. It went over well with my family, a mix of experienced gamer kids and new gamer adults. However, it might be a little thin for more advanced players, and if you’re not already inclined to like co-ops this is going to be way too light for your tastes.
– The game hinges entirely on a few dice rolls and some basic understanding of probability. This makes for good discussion at the table and an almost educational experience as kids are challenged to talk through balancing risk vs. reward, who should get what resources, etc.
– As in past Victory Point Game titles, the pieces are laser cut and sooty. This remains a bit of an annoyance, but they appear committed to this particular way of producing their games. Prepare for some ashy fingers the first play.
– The game is hard without being brutal. There’s a real tension every time the die is rolled as you wait to see what Systems and Threat cards will be activated and to decide how you will respond. Because Frontier Stations is ultimately pretty short, losses don’t feel that bad, and it’s likely you’ll play a couple of games back to back until you pull off a win.
– I hope Frontier Stations has some expansions in its future. You’re going to go through the Threat decks every game, so after a few plays encountering the same threats will start feeling stale. The same isn’t the case for the Systems deck, which you may go through but will get very few chances to bring many of the cards into your station. Some card-only expansions bringing new threats and systems into the game will be welcome. Given how well Victory Point Games has supportedDarkest Night, I suspect we’ll see the same here.
Frontier Stations works under a fairly straightforward mechanic. Each round, the first player – the Captain – will roll dice: a single die for the first half of the game, two dice for the latter half. The value of the die or dice will then determine what happens over the next three phases of the game: which threats activate, which cards in each player’s space station activate, and how much currency the Captain has for either purchasing cards or destroying threats. The bulk of the game involves the players working together to construct ships which have good chances of generating the needed resources, and making hard decisions about whether to expand their stations, thus increasing the chances of generating resources later, or destroying enemies, thus reducing the need to defend against them.
Play starts by sorting the threat deck into Early Threats and Late Threats, removing 5 cards from each deck. These are placed near the central play mat. Then, players each take a Nexus card and seed it with its starting resources. Players can choose to use the standard Nexus, or either a Heavy Nexus or Light Nexus, which reduces or increases the game’s difficulty respectively. Then, the Systems deck is sorted and cards are drawn and revealed on the play mat. A player receives the Captain card, which identifies as them as the first player, gives them final decision in any arguments that may arise, and gives them the right to spend one of the players two Emergency Beacon tokens, which they can cash in at any time if they aren’t able to meet the resource demands of a particular threat.
Play is broken down into five phases: roll die, activate threats, activate systems, upgrade systems, draw new threat. For the first round of play, the activate threat phase is skipped – since there are no threats on the board – giving the players a free round to purchase an upgrade. After that, and for the rest of the game, each player draws a threat at the end of his turn and places it between him and the player on the left.
Each threat card in the game contains three sections: the activation number, the threat cost, and the destruction cost. The activation is a number or range of numbers that will correspond to die rolls in the game. If at any point one or more threats’ activation number(s) match the value of the die, all threats that match will activate. Players deal with activated threats by spending resources to match the threat cost. The trick is, only the player to the left and the right of the threat can spend the required resources (though some Systems cards will allow another player to spend resources on the active players’ behalf).
If at any point the players are unable to pay the threat’s cost, the game ends.
So, yeah. Yikes.
If the threat is successfully dealt with, all players may activate systems cards whose activation number matches the die roll, collecting all appropriate resources and storing them in their station. Each Systems card both generates one or more resources as well as provides storage capacity for those resources, so players must carefully balance how they gain, use, and store resources.
Then, the active player may – using the value of the rolled die as currency – purchase one of the revealed Systems card and add it to his station, this generating new resources or adding new special abilities in future rounds. Alternatively, the player may spend the currency to destroy a Threat card by meeting or exceeding its destruction cost. In either case, the player may spend Energy tokens – one of the resources generated by the station – to augment the value of the die roll.
Finally, the player then draws a new threat and play passes to the left. The dice are rolled, threats are activated, resources generated, and stations expanded. Once the Early Threats deck is exhausted, players move on to the Late Threats deck and two die are rolled instead of just one. Play continues until both threats decks are exhausted.
Based on my experience with Darkest Night (for which, in retrospect, I wrote a harsher review than it really deserved given how much play the game continues to get – in fact, I just recently ordered both the From the Abyss expansion and theEnchanter promo hero), I was eager to try out Frontier Stations to see if it would make a good addition to my family-game, cooperative-play lineup.
It definitely fits the bill.
I’ve had a few plays of it with my regular game group and my family, and thus far it feels like a better fit with the latter. It’s a remarkably difficult game; not in the sense of offering complex mechanics to navigate, but just by being a hard game to win. There’s a lot of luck involved – every round hinges on the roll of just one or two dice – though on the whole I found the game tense rather than punishing. For my more experienced game group, the game felt a little too thin, perhaps. Like Darkest Night, it strips down some cooperative game concepts to their essentials. In Darkest Night, it’s survive while you search. Here, it’s just make it to the end. Because Frontier Stations does that with relatively few choices – which Systems card do I buy? Or do I destroy a Threat instead – an advanced player may not feel satisfied with a win, and a lose may feel like the luck of a die roll.
But as an advanced family game, Frontier Stations really worked.
First, cooperative games are a great choice for us now, as we’ve got a mixture of newer gamers (my girlfriend) and kids who aren’t always big fans of losing, so cooperative games allow us to make decisions together and take the sting out of failure since we all rise or fall together. The decisions may be relatively few, but they are important, and because of the wayFrontier Stations handles threat management it’s important to discuss card purchases and consider long-term strategy with the entire group.
Second, it has just enough interesting mechanics to be challenging without being overwhelming. Resource generation, management, and storage is certainly a staple among designer boardgames, and that is the core of Frontier Stations. What’s more, the resource generation is contingent on a basic understanding of probability – indeed, each Systems and Threat card bears a row of dots that indicates how likely the card is to be activated on a roll of two dice. Players are always working together to balance out low probably vs. high reward and vice versa, making sure that there are a distribution of cards and resources around the table so that each pair of players are able to fend off their threats, and so forth. It’s mathy – indeed, you could almost argue educational – without making too big a deal about the fact.
In the end, we lost most of the games we played. That’s how it goes with cooperative games – you’re almost always going to lose more than you’re going to win. And that’s fine, because Frontier Stations engages its players well enough to make you want to dive right back in and give it another try. With Frontier Stations, Victory Point Games and Jeremy Lennert continue a trend of solid cooperative games.