Good things come to those who wait, but better things come to those who wait just a bit longer. I intended to review Alien Frontiers for iOS soon after its release, when it was fuzzy due to lack of Retina support and worthless due to a bad AI and no network multiplayer. Fortunately for all involved the developer patches his apps faster than I write reviews, and the latest 1.1 version is a must-buy.
PLAYING THE GAME
Alien Frontiers is a combo area control/worker placement game that uses dice instead of meeples for the workers. The goal is to score more points than your opponents, and the main way to do this is to place colonies on an alien world divided into eight areas. Each colony landed is worth one point, and if you have more colonies in an area than any opponents you score an additional point for controlling it. Controlling an area also grants a special bonus that the controlling player can use on their turn.
Players start with three standard six-sided dice and one Alien Tech card that lets them bend the rules in a particular way (more on those later). On your turn, you roll all your dice and then place them in various orbital facilities surrounding the planet. There are eight of these, and three of them involve placing colonies while the rest let you get more dice, Alien Tech cards, or resources in the form of Fuel and Ore. Fuel and Ore are needed to activate the orbital stations that place colonies, and Fuel is also used to activate Alien Tech cards.
Getting more dice is important because it lets you visit more orbital stations on your turn, and also because certain dice combinations are needed to visit many of the stations. For example, the Colony Constructor lets you immediately place a colony if you pay three Ore, but you have to place three dice with the same value there to activate it. Similarly, the Raiders’ Outpost lets you steal resources or cards from other players, but you need three dice in sequence (like 1,2,3) to place them there.
There are limited slots at each station where dice can be played, and whatever you play stays there until your next turn, so it is possible to block other players from using a station. Good examples of this are the Terraforming Station, which lets you sacrifice a die with a six showing to immediately place a colony, and the Lunar Mine, which lets you collect one Ore for each die you place there, but each die has to be equal to or higher than the highest die already placed. Putting even one six there dramatically cuts down on your opponents’ chances to use it while you are waiting for your turn. Planetary bonuses cut down on the number of resources you need to activate an orbital station or Alien Tech card, or let you use a station in a different way than it is normally used.
The aforementioned Alien Tech cards provide a final twist, adding a layer of tactical and strategic depth. Most can be activated each turn by paying a fuel cost, and do things like let you flip a die to its opposite face, remove an opponent’s die from one of the orbital facilities, or let you use a planetary bonus from an area that someone else controls. You can also discard one of these each turn to activate a more powerful one-shot effect. These often let you manipulate the map, moving or swapping colonies, or placing force fields that change the rules for colony placement where that field is located.
As soon as any player places their last colony the game ends and final scores are tallied. Typically it is a tense game that provides plenty of options to mitigate bad dice rolls, and while I don’t like it as much as Kingsburg (another dice-based game), it is easy to learn, enjoyable, and generally plays quickly.
SO HOW’S THE iPAD VERSION?
I wouldn’t have recommended this game at all in its initial iOS implementation. The AI often fought with itself, leaving the map wide open for consistent blowouts by the human. It rarely placed colonies, preferring instead to gather resources and mess with the player through raiding. It also did extremely silly things, like placing dice on stations it didn’t use or even skipping its entire turn. Many people also complained about the lack of Retina graphics, which was understandable considering how much information is crammed on the screen, but the game was fully playable without them and was in all respects other than the AI well-coded.
Now that 1.1 is here, there’s no reason to hold off. The developer has been proactive about soliciting advice from the community regarding AI fixes, which were incorporated in the patch. The improved Pirate AI is now biased against the player, and while it doesn’t cheat, playing against even a pair of them is brutally difficult. They focus on getting their colonies down and getting in your face. They still aren’t great at using their Alien Tech cards as efficiently as possible, but there are so many permutations involved with those that they would cause an AI coding nightmare for anyone. All I know is that before the patch I had games where I beat the AI by 7-10 points consistently, and they often had 3-5 colonies left to place when I got my last one down. Now if I play against two Pirates the scores stay close throughout the entire game, and there is always a real chance of losing. That’s good enough to keep things interesting, though I feel the Pirate AI should be tweaked a bit more to focus on expanding into empty territory before attacking human-controlled territory. Playing against one Admiral AI and one Pirate is a decent compromise while I await the next patch.
Nearly everything else about the transition to iPad is fantastic. The interface is cramped but packed with information and easy to use. There is no tutorial, though the game is easy to learn just from playing and reading the included rules. As far as I can tell all the Alien Tech cards are now working as they should (there were a few bugs with them in the initial release). There’s an Undo button that lets you rewind stupid mistakes or mis-taps that should be standard on all iOS board games. Everything is now rendered gloriously on the iPad 3 thanks to full Retina support. And you get all this for the absurdly low price of $5.
The developer has promised to add network multiplayer, and based on his community involvement and coding skills I would now believe him if he said the next version would beam real Wonka bars to your iPad. Even without it, this is an easy recommendation for fans of the game or newcomers who want to learn how to play it. The AI is now challenging, it’s a beautiful pass-and-play implementation, and the price is frankly ridiculous. I can’t wait until it gets more multiplayer options, but until then I’m content with fighting those damned dirty Pirates. If you have an iPad, get this.
NOTE: This game was part of a successful Kickstarter campaign that hit some terrible snags at release. Developer Clint Herron bought hundreds of redemption codes to send to foreign backers, but those supporters were not able to redeem them. If you live in the US and want to buy this, I urge you to contact Clint and pay him directly for one of those codes. He got screwed over by Apple pretty badly and deserves better.