Neither Race Nor Roll
Race for the Galaxy: Puerto Rico Edition. That’s my dismissive, elitist, reference-choked review of Thomas Lehmann’s New Frontiers, sequel to Roll for the Galaxy, which itself was a sequel to Race. If I were more of a snob, I might leave it at that.
Instead, I’m precisely enough of a snob to feel like there’s something more I could add to the conversation. And in particular, that I might answer the question, Why does such an obviously solid game leave me so cold?
Let’s start with the basics. In fact, let’s pretend for a moment that we’ve never even heard of Race, Roll, or Rico.
It’s hard to identify a single thing that New Frontiers is “about.” There are moments of discovery, when circular planets are drawn out of a bag and claimed by everyone at the table. Moments of expansion, when those worlds are paid for, populated with settler meeples, and flipped over to their colorful “now you own it” side. And of course there will be a whole lot of engine-building. Planets produce cubes, which can then be traded for credits to buy things or consumed to generate points. Everything is worth points, from the grimiest backwater to the grandest empire-spanning economic incentives program.
Not that this is a problem, mind you, especially when it’s pulled off with such style. Those planets are more than just a “one-point bargain bin planet that produces cheap novelties” or “three-point world that doesn’t produce jack but makes settling yellow worlds cheaper.” Rather, they’re an Artist Settlement and Alien Rosetta Stone World, respectively. And that interplay between their title and their details — their cost, their points, their bonuses — makes perfect sense. A settlement of artists would indeed be a bargain bin planet. A world with an alien Rosetta Stone would indeed be mostly valuable for its ability to translate, and therefore colonize, alien worlds. Of course.
Which is why it’s so easy to feel charitable toward New Frontiers, even when it occasionally hits the reverse-thrusters and makes you wait around to pick a planet or scrutinize twenty-four distinct development tiles every time somebody wants to buy an upgrade. We play games for any number of reasons, from the sheer joy of flexing our problem-solving muscles to the tactility of the pieces beneath our fingertips. What’s the constant? Most of the time, I suspect, it’s the desire to generate a story, whether permanent or disposable, whether told above the table or upon it. And a game like New Frontiers, which dangles tendrils of story in front of your face, just enough to spark something familiar and let you fill in its bounteous gaps with color, weaves its narrative with effortless grace.
More than that, those blanks are practically on auto-fill, at least if you’re paying attention to the way you score points. In part this is because the game prizes synergies, but doesn’t make you bust your brain to find them. Crud, they’re color-coded. Literally. Uplift Gene Hunters, the tile that awards points for claiming Uplift planets, has it encoded in living color right there on the tile. Uplift Gene Hunters. Alien Tech Institute. Galactic Imperium. One of them prompts you to find Uplift planets, another requires Alien worlds, and the third is a curve-ball because it prefers Rebels. Don’t worry, Rebels also get their own key color. Regardless, writing the tale of your star empire is as easy as claiming planets and developments until a few synergies reveal themselves, then constantly hunting down those synergies. The story that results will be logical, more or less.
And in case I sound too snarky, this is absolutely great stuff, the result of a veteran publisher that knows exactly how to maximize its setting. That’s part of game design, after all. Every game wants to distract you from its rougher patches. New Frontiers happens to be uncommonly excellent at it.
Still, want to know the main thing I think about while I play New Frontiers? Futzing with the turn order.
At the heart of New Frontiers lies a contradiction. A completely minor one, true, but a contradiction nonetheless — that despite being a heads-down points-tallying sort of game, where nobody ever invades anybody else, or conducts espionage, or undertakes any form of aggression of any kind, there is still only one of each planet, and only one to three of each development, depending on the player count.
What I’m saying is that New Frontiers is very much the sort of game where certain actions are incredibly powerful when taken by you or the person directly ahead of you in the turn order, and entirely frustrating when you’re the last person who gets to choose something.
Let’s rewind. Strictly speaking, every action is more powerful when you take it. Claiming an action lets everyone use it, but you alone receive its bonus. If you choose to produce goods, for example, then everybody else produces on eligible worlds, but you alone also produce on a normally-not-eligible world. Choosing develop gives you a discount. Choosing exploration lets you pick the first and the last planet.
In a game of space conquest where the only actual conquest is rubber-stamping a claim before anyone else, watching a rival preemptively nab a tile that could have been the linchpin of your developing strategy — and therefore your unfolding manifest destiny — is nothing short of galling. It’s akin to arriving at the bank forty seconds after closing with a critical deposit in hand. You try to make eye contact with the teller through the window, but she knows your tricks and steadfastly refuses to glance up at your waving. What’s your recourse? You weren’t on time. So instead, New Frontiers provides an action that moves you up in the turn order. At least the pity prize victory point makes it feel less like a wasted turn.
Like I said, this is very much a minor problem. Not even a problem. A quibble.
But it’s emblematic of how New Frontiers sometimes switches from this completely fluid experience to this weirdly mechanical one. Exploration grinds the game to a halt while planets are drawn and examined and claimed. Development prompts everyone to lean forward to study those rows and columns of available tiles. The advanced game does the same with an action that lets somebody select from a bunch of goals. None of these are major delays. They don’t take that long. One or two minutes at most.
Then again, every other detail is polished to such a supernova shine that the occasional stutter is like watching a gymnast trip over an untied shoelace. You’d expect that of me, not a professional.
I’m not saying that New Frontiers isn’t a good game. Rather, it’s precisely the sort of glossy heads-down affair that seems to attract fans effortlessly while leaving me longing for something more… Bold? Experimental? Unpredictable?
Regardless of the proper term, New Frontiers is the work of a veteran designer who knows precisely what he’s doing — namely, updating Puerto Rico with the flesh of Race for the Galaxy and the bones of the principles of modern design. In that regard, it’s a success. Unlike its originator, however, don’t expect a revelation.