When I heard about the third installment of the Race for the Galaxy, I was a little excited. Race for the Galaxy managed to convince board gamers that you could have an amazing engine building full of tactical decision making and bluffing without elaborate components. Roll for the Galaxy proved to the world that dice can still be a focal point of the game yet still give players plenty of meaningful choices from one game to the next.
New Frontiers is the fourth installment of this long-running series of sci-fi games by game designer Tom Lehmann with its major inspiration coming from classic Puerto Rico. It’s also an excuse for Rio Grande Games to use the same art assets they have been using since 2007.
The idea behind New Frontiers is aligned with previous games in the Race series: You are a small insignificant faction with a unique power in a big galaxy. You want to become Space Famous by amassing the most victory points which are done by consuming goods, getting development, and colonizing planets.
New Frontiers is an “action selection” game, meaning that each round there is a set of actions the active player will pick and everyone else will do that action. Once that single action is done by everyone, it goes to the next player who will then pick another action but not the ones previously picked in the round. The twist is picking an action gives a bonus for the active player and does the action first before everyone else. For example, if you select Develop as your action, you will get an exclusive discount for getting a development and get first pick.
This might sound boring until players start colonizing planets and getting new developments. Almost every development and planet has a rulebreaking effect that triggers when a particular Action is selected. You might be thinking about picking Explore because your militant faction wants to colonize more planets, but my Survey Team development gives me a random new planet whenever Explore is picked. Are you sure you want to do this?
The developments and planets modifying the actions is the central struggle in New Frontiers. Each game will be slightly different because players will optimize their strategies around a particular series of actions they want to perform while trying to find ways to leech other players who might be doing something else. To make the game feel more dynamic, acquiring planets via the Explore action is done by pulling seven planets randomly from the bag and using a drafting system. This mechanism leads to variance and replayability since you can’t expect a portion of your empire to be completely under your control thus forcing you to adapt to the circumstances thrown in your direction.
After playing the game over twenty times, I can say with confidence that I don’t see any particular strategy being dominant. There are certainly some strategies that are easier to pull off than others, but they are quite predictable and easy to counter. This is a game that rewards players who understand the systems and economics behind the mechanism while still giving some variance to the players to work around.
With all this being said, it sounds perfect, right? Well…
Let me be clear here: I like this game, but I don’t love it. Compared to many other “action selection” games, I find New Frontiers to be the best out of all of them. I also find this game to be more enjoyable than Puerto Rico mainly due to the way it handles the issues of seating order and not being as unforgiving.
However, I find the game to be very repetitive and lacking tension. Once you understand how all of the underlying details work, it’s quite clear that if you are going for certain strategies, you will be keep hammering two or three actions throughout the entire game once you have acquired the necessary developments. Do you want to dominate the galaxy with your military? You want to developments that give you military might and enhance your explore, then you will mainly focus around Explore and Settle actions. Want victory points for consuming your goods? Get developments that help you with production and trading, get planets that produce said goods, and continuously pick Produce and Trade.
This isn’t a problem exclusively to New Frontiers, since I had the same issue with games like Eminent Domain and Puerto Rico, but it is still a problem nonetheless. I know some players won’t mind it, hence why Puerto Rico is still in print despite it being a 17-year-old game, but it was something that became a central issue for me as I kept playing the game.
Besides the repetitive nature of the game, there is also the overwhelming information for new players. Like Puerto Rico, players are given a buffet of options at the start of the game without given much context on what to do. To give some perspective, there are 16 small developments and 8 large developments designed for end game scoring. Throw in the random planets that give additional benefits and the newbie will slowly start losing their mind. Fortunately, the unique powers each player gets does give a sense of direction, but it is crushed beneath the overwhelming information.
While it does sound like I dislike the game, I still find New Frontiers to be great action selection done quite well and it does fix many I’ve had with previous titles in the genre. It is worth checking out despite retaining the issues of the genre.