Fantasy Frontier, or Regular?
If there are two things everybody fantasizes about, it’s the exploration of virgin lands and captaining an airship as it unloads its cannons at another airship. I’d also settle for captaining the Starship Enterprise.
Fantasy Frontier makes both dreams a reality (provided you count a board game as a legitimate version of reality, that is), and that’s still only half the story.
Inside Fantasy Frontier’s box lid, there’s some blurb about the sad history of rocky North Aughmoore and how they desperately need to find a better place to live and blah blah blah. That’s about as far as I got. All you really need to know is that you’re an airship captain, there’s stuff waiting to be discovered, and did I mention you’re an airship captain?
For such a compact game, there’s a surprising amount going on. Perhaps the most notable surprise is that in addition to its elements of exploration and colonization, you manage your airship by playing a simple but clever worker placement game. You have five crewmen, and that’s it. Want to sail around the map? Assign one of your crewmen to the helm. If you’re in a piratical mood (and when aren’t you?), you can position men at the guns to attack other vessels, wrecking their stockpiled resources or disabling some of their worker stations, at least until they can assign someone to repair the damage. The flipside is that manning the guns all the time means you aren’t having your guys scout new tiles or draw new research cards, both of which are critical to winning the game. And if you’re still bent on picking a fight, take care when you drop your workers over the side to harvest resources from the abundant terrain below, because anybody not aboard isn’t going to be able to help defend the ship if another captain smells an opportunity to slow you down. Much better to collect your turkey legs and gold bars far away from predatory airships.
One of the things I like best about Fantasy Frontier is that each and every one of your airship’s actions has the potential to propel you towards victory. Not all possibilities are equally useful at all times, but even just pootling around the frontier gathering resources and seeing the sights isn’t completely damaging to your chances of victory, provided you get a plan together before too long.
The main way to get points is by exploring the landscape, scouting tiles and laying them out to match the diagram on your point-scoring map cards. It’s a daunting process, since you need to draw cooperative tiles and research cards, contend with the exploratory schemes of other air-captains, and travel to the right place at the right time in order to finally score the card. Gathering some turkey legs to replace bum terrain tiles or map cards can be a good idea too. And if you discover a region that perfectly matches one of your map cards other than a pesky stray tile, you can assign your crew to bomb the landscape into oblivion, letting you place a new tile in the obliterated one’s place. Which, yeah, makes no sense at all — “Sick of that lake? Blow it up and plant a mountain instead!” — but hey, whatever. Certain map cards would be nigh-impossible without this oddness, so let’s just chalk this up as the “fantasy” part of Fantasy Frontier.
The other major way to pick up points is by creating “townships,” which are these little resource-generating colonies. The downside is they cost a whole bunch of material and leaves your airship a sitting duck while under construction, and since the third source of points is dealing damage to opposing airships, you’re a prime target for attack whenever you have too many crewmen on shore duties. It therefore behooves you to time your colony-building for those moments when your opponents are too distracted or too distant to bother you.
Like an airship with a under-turning rudder, there are a few concepts I wish Fantasy Frontier had expanded on. The exploration comes off a bit bland at times, since all you’re doing is uncovering generic rolling hills and gently swaying forests. Even real-life exploration tends to discover cooler stuff, like angry locals and ancient ruins, and I would have loved to see something add some spice to this part of the game. Furthermore, because there isn’t anyone competing with you for space aboard your airship, the worker placement doesn’t really present any limiting factors until your ship has been damaged, which sort of defeats the entire dynamic of worker placement for 90% of the game’s playtime.
Even so, Fantasy Frontier has turned out surprisingly enjoyable, working best when a bunch of players are all working towards multiple goals at the same time. You might have a few juicy map cards in hand, so you’ll be working towards getting and placing the right tiles, and using your junk tiles to make a mess of anywhere that your opposition is clearly grooming to match a card. But at the same time, you’ll be pouncing on players who have disembarked too many workers, and repairing your own ship, and deciding whether to trade in that +1 movement upgrade card for extra resources or to cobble it onto your ship, and trying to hide in the corner so you can set up a town unmolested. Once it gets rolling, there are a ton of little things going on, all alternatively working together and at odds. For such a light game, it has a pleasingly broad decision space.
And it lets you be an airship captain and explore stuff. Win.