New worlds, new technologies, new frontiers. The outer reaches of space are there for the taking, and you’re intent on making them your own. Whether by peacefully settling or using military force when necessary, your empire is about to expand. But can you outpace your competitors?
How It Works
New Frontiers is a role selection and resource management game for two to five players. Players are the heads of galactic civilizations with a mind to expand through colonizing worlds and developing technologies. The player with the most points wins.
To begin, each player receives a double-sided empire mat and chooses their start world. The technologies are placed on the development boards, initial player order is determined, and each player receives credits based on turn order. The role tiles are set out, and twelve colonists and twelve victory points are placed in a general supply per player. Play begins.
Each round, players will choose a role that everyone does, starting with the chooser and following in turn order, but for which the chooser receives a bonus. The roles are explore (draw new worlds from the bag), settle (turn an explored world into a colony or gain colonists), develop (pay for a technology tile), produce (place goods on production worlds), trade/consume (sell goods for credits or consume them for points), retreat into isolation (the chooser gets credits), and send diplomatic envoys (the chooser gets a point and takes top priority).
Players have to manage several currencies: credits, which are used to settle non-military worlds and develop technologies; colonists, which are required to settle all worlds; and goods, which can earn either victory points or credits. Technologies and most worlds offer the player who has them in their empire special abilities like offering discounts or rebates during certain actions, allowing goods to be consumed for points, or scoring special bonus points at the end of the game.
Once each player has chosen a role, the round is over. If the produce role wasn’t chosen, it receives a credit on it. All roles are reset and available, and play continues.
If either one player settles their eighth colony, one of the red technology spaces on a player’s mat is covered up, the victory point supply runs out, or there are fewer than five colonists in the reserve at the end of a settle action, the game will end at the end of the round. Players score points for the value shown on all their tiles, loose victory points earned during the game, and variable points based on their empire for some worlds and developments. The player with the most points wins.
Note: There is also an advanced variant included, which replaces the “retreat into isolation” role with “chart galactic goals.” The role brings in goal tiles, which everyone will score at the end of the game. The chooser of this role gets to look at three and choose one to be in effect and also turns a previously chosen goal face-up.
A New Race for the Galaxy
When I think about what makes a new board game great, I tend to think in terms of the revolutionary. I want a game that I haven’t seen before, that creates its own niche in my collection. But this tendency to favor the novel ignores the importance of iterative genius. A case study in iterative genius is New Frontiers, the latest evolution of the Race for the Galaxy formula.
New Frontiers is a return to first principles for the Race for the Galaxy series. What began (at least in part) as Puerto Rico: The Card Game is now Puerto Rico: The Card Game: The Board Game. And more than a decade of experience following Race for the Galaxy looks great on New Frontiers.
After my first game of New Frontiers, I wasn’t sure what to think. I loved it, but I wasn’t sure why, and I wasn’t sure it was anything more than that I love Race for the Galaxy and this is another game in that line. In fact, players who are familiar with Race–especially the concepts of worlds vs. technologies, military vs. non-military worlds, production vs. windfall worlds–already have 90 percent of the basics for New Frontiers down. So was I simply enjoying what I’ve already enjoyed in several other forms?
Well, in some respects, yes: the tense decisions and the joy of putting together a combo are still here. But in many other respects, no. There really are some key differences in New Frontiers that, if they don’t objectively “improve” Race for the Galaxy, at least align it a little more with my preferences and sensibilities–essentially making a great taste even better.
For starters, just about everything in a game of New Frontiers is open information. How many credits a player has, how many points, which worlds and goods, and even which technologies will be available for the entire game–all of this information is fully visible to all players at all times, and because of the large components, it’s easy to see this information across the table. This may seem like a simple switch from Race for the Galaxy’s hidden hands of cards, but this one change has huge ramifications on how the game is played.
Having all the technologies available at the start of the game, for example, means players can plan ahead and work toward the technologies that will best help their strategy rather than praying they draw the one they need and hoping it isn’t buried as a good on someone’s world. Technologies in New Frontiers are quite limited–there aren’t enough to go around–but this heightens the tension in another area of open information: role selection.
Rather than Race’s simultaneous card selection or Roll for the Galaxy‘s behind-the-screen dice assignment, in New Frontiers a player chooses a role and then all players activate it in current turn order with the chooser getting the bonus. This is slower than Race (and a lot more like Puerto Rico), but it makes every decision count. Most actions can be handled more or less simultaneously–producing and consuming goods and settling colonies. But the game slows down and gets tense as players choose the develop and explore roles.
The reason for this is that players are drawing from the same well. I suppose that in Race for the Galaxy, players are also drawing from the same well; it’s just that in Race they are choosing from that well for only themselves. If each player looks at two or three cards during an explore action, they choose one to keep and the others are thrown back into a discard pile. If there’s a card you know an opponent needs, so much the better; it will be a while before it comes around again.
In New Frontiers, it’s clear that what you choose determines the options for the next player. With explore, seven worlds are on display for the chooser, six worlds for the next player, and so on. And here, whatever a player doesn’t choose gets offered to the next player in turn order. This significantly increases interaction in the game. If one of the high-scoring planets helpful to another player’s strategy was drawn from the bag, there’s a temptation to deprive the other player of the planet. If nothing else, having all eyes directed to the same portion of the table feels like a welcome change from the frequent accusation against Race for the Galaxy that it’s multiplayer solitaire.
And again, for technologies, which are available from the start of the game and limited in supply, the slowdown in gameplay is very important: players have to gauge what other players can afford and might have to adjust their strategies on the fly. If another player purchases the technology you had your eye on, you might have to go a different direction. Because technologies are limited, turn order is very important.
Turn order is the most frequent gameplay complaint leveled against Puerto Rico–it’s not uncommon for a game’s outcome to be, if not determined, at least influenced by seating order. Being downwind from an inexperienced or unobservant player can be a huge boon to the opportunistic player. Thus, Puerto Rico is the kind of game that is best enjoyed among players of equal skill. This concern is almost completely absent in New Frontiers–partially because there is less scarcity and fewer harsh denial opportunities, but also because of the included turn order track. Players can alter the turn order to their own advantage. In the basic game, there’s only one method to do this (“send diplomatic envoys,” which jumps a player to the front of the queue), but in the advanced game, “chart galactic goals” allows players a little more maneuverability in how they manipulate turn order. Because of this, New Frontiers is less fragile than Puerto Rico, and I’m more willing to just sit down and play with new players rather than trying to gauge whether skill levels are equal before the game begins.
All of these changes are huge gains in terms of the approachability of the game and the enjoyment of new players. Race for the Galaxy gets flak for its difficulty, and the chief culprit is usually the icons. But really, the icons aren’t the main source of difficulty. There’s an included player aid, harder powers are spelled out on the cards themselves, and most of the powers are variations on a theme. That being said, the game still has a steep learning curve. There’s a flow to Race for the Galaxy that can be hard to learn, and the main barrier to learning is that so much of the game happens, undisclosed, in players’ hands. Sometimes to ask a clarifying question is to tip your hand, strategically speaking, and so learning the game can feel like a solitary struggle. By making all of the actionable information in New Frontiers readily accessible to players, there’s an initial information overload (twenty-four different technologies! seven different roles!), but it’s very easy for players to ask questions, discuss strategy, and so on without giving anything away. Aside from Jump Drive, New Frontiers is the most accessible game in the Race for the Galaxy line.
Another gain in approachability for New Frontiers is the components. Unlike the other games in the series, New Frontiers returns to its Puerto Rico roots and offers discrete components for each different resource. Goods are cubes, and there are four different colors available. There are separate chits for victory points and credits. Colonists are a separate material and shape. Technologies and worlds are different shapes, and the empire mats clearly indicate to players which things go where. The end-game triggers are also clearly marked, and the graphic design at every point reinforces how the game is played. Technologies and worlds have icons for those who want them (namely, experienced Race and New Frontiers players), which are easy to read across the table, but they also include text for new players. Again, Jump Drive is probably the easiest game in the Race for the Galaxy line to teach, but surprisingly, New Frontiers isn’t that far behind it.
Replayability for New Frontiers is already high with the game you get in the box. It’s true that there are forty technologies, sixty worlds in the bag, and sixteen starting worlds, meaning there is variety, but I think the true test of replayability is whether I want to keep playing. If I only saw 25 percent of what a dull game has to offer, that’s not incentive to come back and see the other 75 percent. New Frontiers’s replayability, to me, isn’t reliant on its variety (although that helps); rather, it’s the player interaction. Because there are limited technologies of each type, and because most of these technologies are double sided, you aren’t guaranteed to put together your pet combo in every game. What other players leave for you in the develop and explore phases can force you into new strategies you might not otherwise choose, even if the variety of worlds, start worlds, and technologies don’t. I like this.
One of the things I like about New Frontiers is how balanced the different strategies are and how much room for improvisation there is in the different strategies. What I mean by this is that you don’t need to find a specific magic combo to make a strategy work; there’s enough strategic framework in the developments to point players in a direction and enough tactical variety in the available worlds to allow for good variance from game to game. My first game of New Frontiers, the player who went heavy military won the game, and I was a little worried this might be the dominant strategy. But since that first game, I’ve seen every other strategy win, even against heavy military. New Frontiers strikes for me the ideal balance between strategic and tactical planning, and one of the things I like best about it is trying to work with what’s available each game to find a path to victory.
New Frontiers includes an “advanced” variant, which uses galactic goal tiles that start out hidden and score for everyone based on certain criteria. I like the advanced game better than the normal game (mostly because there’s another element to the decision space), but New Frontiers doesn’t feel like it’s missing something without it. Still, it’s nice to have the option in the box. With the options already available, New Frontiers doesn’t really need expansions, but I’m enjoying the game enough that I will be first in line if they are released.
There aren’t really any negatives for me in the gameplay of New Frontiers (hence my perfect-10 rating). I knew what to expect going in (some variation on the Race for the Galaxy theme), and I wasn’t disappointed. Still, some who like Puerto Rico’s opportunities for harsh interaction or Race for the Galaxy’s speed of setup and play may be unimpressed with the changes in New Frontiers. For me, while New Frontiers doesn’t necessarily replace either of the other two games (although I’m less likely to to play Puerto Rico with this around), I think it aligns with my sensibilities the most, and it might end up being my favorite of the lot. (I’ll also say that I own Race, Roll, New Frontiers, and Jump Drive, and even in a ruthlessly culled collection, I find them different enough to warrant keeping them all.)
The only things I wish were different relate to niggles with the physical product. First of all, the game box is very large–larger in length, width, and depth than the standard Euro game box. (My friend who loves American-style games questioned my Euro cred when I brought it to game night–it looks more like a typical Fantasy Flight box.) Designer Tom Lehmann has commented on the necessity of this box size, but I almost wish the game itself were a little smaller if that’s what it would have taken to fit it in a standard size. Nonstandard box sizes usually don’t last long on my shelf because they’re awkward to store. Nevertheless, in this case, I like the game enough to grin and bear it, and I suppose on the bright side, now I have space for expansions. The other issue is its price point–$75 MSRP. I paid a little over $50 at an OLGS. Some will balk at this price, and indeed, I did too before playing the game. But for the amount of fun in the box and the quality of components, to me, this is worth it. While most games I purchase these days I end up playing a few times and passing on, this one has the marks of a classic.
I think New Frontiers is excellent, but I think the question most Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico owners are asking is, is it necessary? And the answer is: maybe. It depends what you like about those other games. If you like Race for its quick playtime or Puerto Rico for its opportunities to screw over opponents without full-on conflict, you’ll probably prefer what you’ve already got. Part of New Frontiers’s neutralization of the turn order issues with mixed-experience Puerto Rico players is the removal of some punishing denial opportunities, and one of the consequences of non-simultaneous play (not to mention open information) is that it lengthens the playtime. However, if you’re not interested in Race solely as a “super filler” and would appreciate some new twists on Puerto Rico, there’s absolutely room for New Frontiers. For me–who these days only gets to enjoy Race for the Galaxy through its excellent app–New Frontiers is exactly what I’m looking for: a game that’s easy to jump into, not intimidating to new players, and beautiful on the table.
As a Race for the Galaxy fan, it’s no surprise that I like New Frontiers. However, I am a bit surprised at how much I enjoy it. It takes something I love and, through a few simple twists in the formula, makes it something I might love even more (jury’s out). New Frontiers isn’t a revolution, but it is a masterful evolution. And there is nothing wrong with that.