The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

High Frontier Basic Game Strategy Thoughts

(This was originally published in incomplete form. I hit “publish” instead of “save.” Lots of updates since then).

I remember playing Fugger, Welser, Medici dand realizing the basic game was too … basic. (I later relayed this to Frank and he said “it wasn’t for gamers like us, that’s what the advanced game is for.”)

High Frontier isn’t exactly the same thing. You need at least one basic game to learn the mechanics. (I needed lots). Jumping straight into the advanced game is optimistic. Even adding only the support module ridiculously increases the number of moving parts. But even for slow people such as myself the basic game does seem too basic after a few plays.

It ends just after it gets going. Industrialize a second colony, you are done (or almost). After the first few games,  TaoLing and I played “longer” extended games to seven colonies, where you might get something like a claim on Sycorax, but our most recent 7 colony game took …. 40 minutes. We’ve started adding advanced modules.

The basic game is not without interest, so some thoughts.

  • This is a race game. Only one action a turn, but also space travel in addition. If you start your trip a turn or two earlier that can be a big advantage because its hard (but not impossible) to make up time later on.
  • One rule I was taught wrong is that you can’t bid if you have three (non-crew) cards in hand. It turns out you can bid if you have less than four (so, three is OK).
  • My big mistake in my early games: buying random cards, then trying to make something work. Most cards are good for something, but trying to figure out what is hard.
  • In general, Robonauts before Refineries. Makes sense — Robonauts prospect. Yes, you can use your ISRU 4 crew but here’s the list of ISRU 4 sites inside of Jupiter: Mars (10 gravity, ugh), Ceres (a good target, although 6 gravity probably means you’ll need your crew) and eight inconvenient size-one sites (which aren’t near anything). It’s not a great list. Even an ISRU of 3 opens up a lot of options.
  • If you only looked at the asteroid belt for your first mission, you’d probably be right. (For your first game narrowing your decision space is a good idea). If you are playing to seven (or some higher number depending on # of players, which isn’t a variant) you can start looking at Jupiter’s moons or even more distant.
  • Remember — the map represents delta-v. Sites on opposite sides of the board but in the same belt are surprisingly close (in terms of number of burns and turns). You can run from Lutetia (a 3M-3 hydration site) to Hertha (ditto) for two burns in a single turn (via Sol-Jupiter L1 burn). Think of the board as “energy bands.”
  • There is no “C” class refinery, FYI. Type D and S sites are much rare (in the basic games) so those cards are slightly less useful.
  • Weight matters, but less with good fuel efficiency. A nice rule of thumb I found on BGG states “Your wet mass/dry mass ratio will need to be roughly equal to your fuel single-burn fuel consumption (or better).” So if you have the Metastable Helium thruster (5 Mass, 5 Net Thrust * 1 fuel per burn), then your wet mass doesn’t have to much exceed your dry mass, so you can get a heavy robonaut and refinery and still go tooling around for 4 water. But if you get the Mirror Steamer (0 Mass, 3 Net Thrust * 4 Fuel per burn, Solar, Push) you are going to have real trouble if your dry mass gets above three-ish, so you’ll probably need two trips. Bid up the 1 fuel/burn cards.
  • Getting your first factory ASAP is a big deal. It provides:
    • 8 free water for refueling. Even if your robonaut and refinery can’t be built, you can take a turn to refuel and send your (now light) rocket back to LEO to pick them back up instead of having to re-boost and refuel the rocket.
    • ET production. Not only are the black side of cards better (much, much better), you get a card out there a few years in advance, save the cost of re-boosting, etc.  ET producing a robonaut to prospect for your second factory (using your on-site thruster) is a big deal. If you have a robonaut and refinery of the type you just colonized, it’s probably a winner. (With both for Vs, aim for Vesta, which at size six means you can’t fail the prospecting roll, and only has a half landing burn. Getting both Ms aim for Lutetia then Hertha, for a 75% chance of a claim. Ds and Ss

Common planning pitfalls to avoid:

  1. Can you land? Remember, your net thrust must exceed the sites size. Some ways to get around this (if your main thruster isn’t good enough).
    • Afterburning.
    • Size games. Take everything, drop a part in orbit to lower a size class (increasing net thrust). Leave the first part on the site,take off, pick up the last part. (Dropping off and picking up is a free action, but you can’t pick up in the middle of a move).
    • Use your crew to land. It costs no fuel (if there isn’t a lander burn). Vesta and Ceres with their half lander burns are reasonable. (If you have to pay a full lander burn, your main crew’s rocket may be prohibitively expensive).
  2. Will you be able to take off? (This mainly applies to aerobraking). You can easily trap yourself if you use your crew to go someplace like the moon. (If you can’t take off, you can turn your crew into a colonist and get some VP).
  3. Do you have enough fuel? Seems obvious, but don’t forget fuel for afterburns. Size tricks may cost you some fuel as well
    • Consider Demos (or some other high hydration site) for a turn or two of refueling. Particularly if you have a low ISRU, you can get a lot of fuel that way. Seeing a ‘pit stop’ at the (already busted) Demos to refuel was my first “aha” moment.
  4. Do you have the ISRU rating to prospect the site (or refuel)? (Even after ten games I’ve still just said, “Oh, I’ll go there” and then realized my robonaut couldn’t cut it because I was so focused on fuel/thrust/etc.

Sites of Interest

The training book’s guide is good and worth reading for your first few games. Some thoughts:

Planets are Hard. You can go for Mercury (North Pole) or Mars but you’ll need 11 thrust (or aerobraking rolls). But those are basically one way trips unless you can build a factory. For those, you’ll need a crew with a 10 Net thrust and afterburn. You could also just send down a robonaut and refinery, but the advantage of getting your first factory is basically negated because you can’t really ET produce or use the factory to refuel unless you have a powerful crew rocket. On the other hand, these can be a guaranteed second factory.

The moon is easier, but you’ll need a good ISRU.

Ceres is a sure thing with four hydration, requires only 7 thrust (usually within the reach of a basic game crew) and only a half burn. Depending on your thruster you may need to stop at Demos. Vesta is also a sure thing but slightly farther away and requires an ISRU of 2. (To compensate, its a V world, which is likely to score better and will have a few refineries that can be ET produced there).


In the basic game the most important thing is Fuel per burn, because lower means you can go farther. High thrust is nice (because that lets you land on more places, or maybe get there a turn or two earlier) but you often get around that by taking your crew and using it (assuming no lander burns, or maybe a half burn). In the advanced game the worse rockets are balanced by needing more supports, or worse rad-hardness, but in the basic game? Nope.

If you ordered thrusters by FPB in the basic game, you’d be close to right. (Ignoring the solar sails, because 0 net thrust is a problem).

Key is [#Mass, Thrust * Fuel per Burn (After Burn cost, Class), P = Push, S = Solar]. I’m not going to worry too much about the advanced (black) side because you won’t for your first games.

In rough order of worst to best:

Photon Heliogyro / Photon Kite Sail [0M, 0*0 (-,C) Solar] — Basically the same. Not really useful in the basic game (said the guy who almost never goes inside the earth orbit]. You could use these to get maybe a free burn if you are a small light ship, so perhaps I shouldn’t discount this.

Mirror Steamer [0M, 3*4(2,D) SP] — Zero mass, but 4 fpb. Ugh. The one thing that’s nice is that you could boost this with a robonaut and leave really early, take a pot shot at Demos and refuel. But the problem is that the mass savings from boosting are (in the basic game) a one time savings. You’ll be paying for fuel the rest of the game. Also, this can’t land too many places.

Ablative Plate [4M, 2*2(1,V) P] — Two fpb isn’t bad, but nothing else is great. High mass, low thrust. If you get the black side you get a mass reduction and a thrust increase, but its nothing to write home about. You’ll almost certainly need to take your crew to land anywhere. The rare case where low fpb isn’t great.

Cermet NERVA [2M, 7*4(1,S)] — OK, terrible Fuel per Burn (fpb), but the 7 thrust means you can land on Ceres or Vesta (which are sure things], but you are likely making two trips. If you can flip this you lose one thrust (but can afterburn) but your fpb drops to 2, which makes this pretty good.

Hall Effect [2M, 3*2(-,C)P] — No afterburn and a low thrust means you’ll need your crew, but otherwise good.

Mass Driver [5M, 4*3(-,M)P, Dirt] –This is heavy, 3 fpb isn’t great, but being a dirt thruster compensates. You can always grab 10 fuel anywhere (dirt rockets refuel at ten and ignores ISRU rating!) so you really only need to pay to get to Demos and then jaunt out. If you flip this over you go to 3M 2*0.5, which basically means you never run out of fuel, but you’ll need another rocket to land most places.

De Laval Nozzle [4M, 5*2(2,M)P] — Decent thrust, decent fpb. Can even land on Ceres or Vesta (often taking two trips).

Ponderomotive VASIMR [3M, 3*1(1,V)P] — Compare with the mirror steamer. You pay 3 more mass, but you save so much fpb.

Metastable Helium [5M, 5*1(1,V)] — The king of rockets. Yes, its heavy. But 1 fpb rules. If you flip it over you’ll drop some mass and your fpb goes to a ridiculous 1/3rd, but even unflipped its a workhorse in the asteroid belt. With 5 thrust (maybe 4 or 3 due to weight) you can often make a hohmann pivot every turn and gain a lot of time. And you save time by taking your robo+refinery in one trip. Letting this go cheaply is a mistake.


Buggys let you get a re-roll or multiple sites (on a planet), so that’s nice. Missiles have a built in thruster (Uusually with terrible fpb, but in this case you save an auction and a part, so you could buy this and start scooting around early to make a bunch of pot shot claims and then buy/send a refinery later). And Rayguns let you go for multiple sites from orbit. Unlike thrusters (in the basic game) there’s lots of differences between robonauts.

There are a few different ‘classses’ of robonauts:

  • The 4 fpb missile. These are good to grab as a first card if you can launch and run to Demos (etc) to refuel and go get a claim, planning on getting a thruster and refinery later.
  • The rayguns. These let you hit a bunch of asteroids at once.
  • The oddballs (including buggies).

A quick note of sites: C are common, M aren’t common, but there are a few good targets. There are many S targets but they tend to have lower hydration (often zero). V and

[#Mass, type-ISRU (Type) ]

In alphabetical order:

Cat Fusion Z-pinch Torch — 3M, Buggy-2 (D).  Decent mass, decent ISRU.  Turns into a higher mass ISRU 0 Missile.

Explosive Gas Dynamic Laser — 3M, Raygun-2 (S). Improves to 2M Ray-0

Flywheel Tractor — 2M, Buggy-3 (S).  Improves to 1M Buggy-1.

Free Electron Laser — 5M Raygun-1 (S). Don’t let the 5 mass worry you (I mean, unless you have a 3-4 fpb thruster). If you get the Free Electron Laser you may want to go to the Karin cluster and hope to get one of Karin-a, b or c. That’s a 50/50 shot in one turn (you can raygun produce without going onto the hazard roll). If you get the claim you can ET produce this (as the Wakefield E-beam Missile with a quite decent 4*2(2) dirt rocket, but it becomes a Missile-1.

Kuck Mosquito — 1M Missile-3, 10 * 8(2) (V). The Mosquito pairs nicely with Ablative Plate or other low net thrust thruster, in that you only use this for the landing. You save weight on crew, its mass is low. If you happen to build it on a V planet, you can ET produce the Ablative Laser, which is a 3 * 1(3, push) Missile 2 with no mass. No raygun, but it can hop around quickly.

MET Steamer — 3M Missile-2 5*4(1) Push (C). This guy is a reasonable first buy. Buy, boost, fuel, go to Demos to potshot and/or refuel. By itself it can make a run at Ceres (small size for +1 thrust, afterburn for another). You’ll need another rocket to bring the refinery, but then you can ET produce the Nanobot, a zero mass Buggy-1.

Neutral Beam — 5M Raygun-2 (S). Slightly inferior to the Free Electron Laser, but this does flip over to the a 3*1/2(1) Missile.

Nuclear Drill — 2M Missile-3 5*4(1, Push) (M). Like the MET Steamer, this can be used as an early scout, planning on bring a rocket+ refinery later. This is an odd card in that the black side has a much higher mass (5), but it does become a Raygun-0 (while still having a thruster), which means you can scout a bunch of small asteroids (like the Koronis group) in one go.

Phase-Locked Diode Laser — 3M Raygun-3 (C). A very good robonaut, because there are lots of C targets, and it flips over to 0M.

Rock Splitter — 3M Buggy-4 (V). Buggy is good, but ‘4’ is bad. You could claim 2 Mars sites, I suppose. But there has to be a worst robonaut.

Solar-pumped MHD Exciplex Laser — 5M Raygun-2 (C). Doesn’t the name just roll off the tongue and fall like lead to the floor? This is another one of the 5M rayguns, and this one flips over (Quantum Cascade Laser) to a 3 mass ray-0. Ray-0 is great, and as a ‘c’ type card, this is the easiest to get.

Tungsten Resistojet — 2M 5*4(1) Missile-3 (M). Another decent “early thruster explorer.”. This flips over to a decent 4*2(1) Push missile-1.


In the basic game, basically you just want to get one. If it matches your target, that’s nice. Mass 3 is nicer than mass four, but unless you have a bad fpb its not a huge deal.


Written by taogaming

May 28, 2017 at 10:15 pm

Posted in Strategy

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