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Finally! Conquering the Belt

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A solitaire High Frontier Session Report

I broke open and sorted High Frontier and read the solitaire scenario (CEO rules). In this, you run a space agency and every 12 years someone (Congress? the Board of Directors? The manifested anger of Elon Musk?) reviews your progress and may cancel the space program.

After an aborted start, I decided not to do the full advanced rules. It was ugly. You can’t spell Brain Bern without Bernal.

Another few tries and I decided to play the same scenario with the basic rules. I couldn’t decide how victory should be determined, then realized it didn’t really matter. “Just don’t get canceled early,” seemed enough of a goal, and “getting seven factories” seemed like a good endpoint.

I lost again. Shouldn’t have gone to Mars.

I decided to try again and go slowly, taking notes. That seemed to improve my decision making process, so here I present the results. This is going to be incomprehensible if you haven’t played.

Year zero — I randomly drew the ESA, which gets the +1 Powersat advantage¬† and a 10 * 8 crew thruster. The opening offers were:

Thruster — Mirror Steamer (0 Mass, 3 * 4 with solar and push modifiers, afterburn of 2, =D).

(For those who haven’t played, I’ll unpack this. Mass makes fuel more expensive (practically), so zero mass is great. 3/4 means you have a base net thrust of three (which you need to be larger than the planet/asteroid you are landing on) and can only do three burns a turn. Each burn costs 4 fuel. You can get +1 thrust for 2 fuel (afterburning). Push (as explained before) means that the ESA (me!) can provide +1 thrust.¬† Solar means you gain thrust in the Venus or Mercury orbits, and lose thrust as you move farther out. Each card has a back side, which can only be built in space in a factory of the right type. D, in this case).

Robonaut — Solar-pumped MHD Excliplex Laser (Mass 5, Raygun 2, =C). Robonauts are used to find claims, but you need to have a rating equal or lower than the number of water shown on the site. 4 is worst, 0 is best. A raygun can prospect multiple sites from orbit. You need robonauts to explore and stake a claim (aka PROSPECT).

Refinery — Basalt Fiber Spinning (Mass 4, =S). Refineries are just used to build factories. Each factory requires decommissioning (removing from the board) a refinery + robonaut.

[My spell checker just gave two weeks notice].

Initial thoughts — OK, the Steamer looks promising. Negligible mass works. Pushable is in my wheelhouse, four fuel/burn is reasonable to reach the belt. The Robonaut’s raygun allows orbital prospecting multiple nearby targets (and an ISRU of 2 gives you options). Yes, it’s heavy, but there you have it. OK, that’s my plan — take those two and go prospecting in the asteroid belt, then refine.

The asteroid belt means the steamer will have two less thrust thrust because of solar, but I think I can work around that.

Year 1 — Buy the Mirror Steamer (and reveal the Mass Driver, a 4/3 push dirt rocket with Mass 5). Pay 2 Water, down to 2. (I had forgotten that you start with 10 water in this scenario. Of course, in the advanced game you have to worry about events, so starting with reduced water seems fair)

The Mass Driver intrigues me, but after some time I decide to not change plans. -2 thrust seems much better than five mass, especially if I’m going to have to build (and therefore boost into orbit) two copies.

Year 2 — Buy the S.P.MHD.E.L. robonaut. I think I’ll call him “Ray”. That’s another two water, so I have none left.

The new robonaut is the Kuck Mosquito, a 1 Mass missile 3 with a 10/8 (2) thruster. I spent a lot of time considering adding that to the package, but I declined (for now).

Time to get cracking!

Years 3-9, take water (up to 14, but apparently I dawdled for a year, because my notes only show 12 water). So, +12 Water.

Year 10 — BOOST my two components (-5 Water) into Low Earth Orbit. Create a rocket with dry mass (DM) of 5 and fuel it with 6 points, so wet mass of 11. And off I go on my mission to the Hygiea family! LEO to HEO to the Earth-Luna L3 point along the yellow line and stop at a Hohman pivot (the one on the circle with the Sol-Venus L2), so wet mass is down to 7. And I have one water left on Earth.

Year 11 — Go to the next intersection along the brown line, avoiding the left turn towards itokawa. This doesn’t cost any fuel, just time. I’m taking a slow, fuel efficient route. (You saw how many turns I had to build up to launch! Even one more burn would have taken 2 more years, because more fuel means more weight, and less efficiency of each point)

Year 12 — Go through the Sol-Mars L3 and another burn (Wet Mass down to 5 1/3) and stop at the pivot outside the Hygiea family. I’m basically out of fuel, but the rest of the trip just takes time. Back on earth, take two water (up to five) and sit through the board’s first review (which has no VP requirements).

I am sternly lectured on water auditing procedures and that I’d better have at least 10 VP of results by next review.

Year 13 — Arrive at the family and have Ray inspect the surroundings. I get claims on Friederikle (“Fred”) and Hygiea. That’s good. If I had busted I doubt I would have won. In fact, if I had just gotten Hygiea I would have lost, I think. (I didn’t realize that until after I did the maneuvers I had to pull to land on Fred).

At this point, I stopped to plan again. The first part was easy. I have to get a factory by year 24. Therefore I need a refinery.

Year 14 — Buy the Basalt Fiber Spinning. (Down to 3 water). This reveals the Atomic Layer Disposition refinery. It’s mass 3 instead of 4 (and =V). So the question is? Do I take the time to improve my mass. I run some fuel and time calculations.

Year 15 — I think the answer is yes. I sell the Basalt Fiber Spinning (up to 8 water).

Year 16 — Now I buy the ALD refiner. (Revealing the Electoforming Refinery, M4, =M). Down to 6 water.

Year 17 and 18, “Need Mohr Water!” Up to 10 water.

Year 19 — Leave Ray as an outpost, decomission the mirror steamer (bringing it back to hand) and BOOST the new steamer and ALD, and put all 7 water as fuel. (DM=3, WM=10) and start again on the same route. Having a zero mass thruster means that the decommission and reboost is effectively free.

Year 20-22 — As before, just move along the same path and take water. But the final year is different. I have 3 thrust, (Base of 3, -2 for Ceres zone solar, +1 because of my ESA push, and +1 because Wet Mass of 3 classifies as a probe) . So my ship waves hello to Ray as it lands on Fred and leaves the ALD refinery as outpost #2.

Year 23 — Take off from Fred (even easier, since I have less mass) and merge the Mirror with Ray. After the mass adjustments I have a DM of 5 and a WM of 6. On earth, I take more water, so I have 8 now.

Year 24 — Land on Fred again. This time the rocket is heavier and not a probe, so I only have a net thrust of two! That isn’t enough to land. But my planning was accurate. I afterburn for that critical extra point, leaving my tanks almost dry at 5 1/3 WM. Now that I have a refinery + robonaut on Fred I can INDUSTRIALIZE and build a factory, decommissioning RAY and the ALD refinery in the process.

(A good manager plans a big win right before a performance review).

I have 13 VP, more than the 10 required. The board shakes my hand and re-ups for another solar cycle, but it will now require 20VP. Now things are looking pretty good.

Year 25 — Because I’ve got a factory on a “C” asteroid I can ET PRODUCE the black side of Ray (since it is an ‘=C’ card) as the Quantum Cascade Laser. This is a mass 3 raygun with ISRU of zero. Better and lighter. We’ll call him “Super-ray,” but Quantum Cascade Laser (QCL) sounds pretty good, too. I attach the QCL to my Mirror Steamer.

Year 26 — I factory refuel the whole shebang up to a Wet mass of 8. I could go higher, but that’s as big as I can get and still take off from this rock.. Go the same Hohman pivot I entered from.

Year 27 — Take some water and fly through the Sol-Jupiter L1 and then prospect the Nysa family. Claim Hertha and Polana.

Judging from my notes I actually didn’t take off until year 27, or perhaps I prospected somewhere else and missed.

Year 28 — Take some water (12).

Year 29 — I can practically dust off the prior mission plans. Leave SUPER RAY as an outpost, decommission the Mirror Steamer and boost it and the ALD refinery (DM3, WM=11). This costs me 11 water of course so I have 1 left.

(I say of course, but I didn’t realize until counting once that your total cost equals your final wet mass if you haven’t already boosted).

This time I fly the L2 Blue signpost route. I don’t get the flyby (basic rules) so I just stop there anyway after three burns.

Year 30 — Take two water and heads towards Polana.

Years 31-33. I buy the Kuck Mosquito (revealing the Phase locked Diode Laser, another Mass 3,=C raygun, but this one doesn’t improve its rating, but has Mass 0 on the reverse). I have to do the same “two landing” trick on Polana as before, while also taking more water. On Year 33, I industrialize for my second factory which means I’m at 22 VP with a full three years to spare.

I use the time to take some water. (Probably not ideal).

Year 37 I boost the Mirror Steamer, Atomic Layer Deposition Refinery, and Kuck Mosquito (DM=4, WM=11) and head out. I also take some more water and buy electrofarming, since its a Type M refinery and I’m going to industrialize Hertha (a type M asteroid). With the mosquito’s powerful 10 thrust, and refueling, I don’t have to worry about eking out the last point of thrust to land, I can just use it for landing and takeoff (using negligible fuel, since there are no landing burns). This is a relatively fast process. I industrialize Hertha in Year 41 (for another 11 VP) with the ALD and QCL. I don’t use the Kuck. I want to leave it out there and I can ET produce the QCL and the black side of Electroforming (Impact Mold Sinter) instead of launching from earth. IMS doesn’t have a great ability, but is only 3 mass instead of four.

Years 43-47 see a bunch of prospecting busts in the Karin cluster (raygun can prospect through hazards, so that was safe) and elsewhere before I slap my face and realize I know where I should be going.

It doesn’t matter, I was already going to ace the Year 48 review, since I had 33 points once I got Hertha.

For the last year and the next solar cycle, I drag everything (which isn’t much, mass wise, only DM7) over to the Vesta cluster. Vesta is size six, so automatic, but I get lucky and hit 3 out of the remaining 4 claims (missing only Kolana). I claim the 4C and 4S asteroids, which means I can ET produce a refinery + robonaut pair to support the chain the remaining claims. (Since I had two =C rayguns, I have to claim the S world first, rebuild the refinery, claim the C world, the rebuild both). I don’t have all 7 factories by Year 60, but my review is glowing.

The final factory is inevitable, so I can retire with 65 VP (40 required in year 60).

Having played once, I think I got a lucky-ish draw, but this is a reasonable variant for beginners. I think the full rules would be:

  1. Basic Rules (no flybys, events, etc).
  2. Start with 4 water (more for an easier game)
  3. Normal turns apply
  4. When you buy something, you reveal the next card and can either a) buy the first card for two (as per the rules) or b) discard the first card and gain a water (letting someone else ‘win’ the auction’).
  5. No buying the bottom card for 1, as per the advanced CEO game.
  6. VP Requirements at the end of each Solar Cycle is 0, 10, 20, 30, 40. This maybe needs to be a touch steeper.

Incidentally, tonight I tried two more advanced (but no Bernal) games with Supports and never even got close to making my first factory by year 24.

Written by taogaming

April 17, 2017 at 8:34 pm

Posted in Session Reports

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What is Winning? Factorio, High Frontier and the Goals of Games

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(Update — Fixed some typos, fleshed out thoughts, added links. Also, I don’t wish to imply that Mombasa or Jump Drive are bad. I like both. I use them because I played them during the same week).

During my time at the Gathering, I played 31 games. Eclipse, Colonists and 3 plays of High Frontier took roughly 21 hours. The remaining 26 games took about 20 hours.

I spent my first two games of High Frontier doing terribly. I earned 1VP apart from Heroism (aka “The Challenger Explosion card” aka “Pity Points”).

Suppose winning just involved earning VPs at a fixed rate (ignoring opponents). It takes about 40 VP to win High Frontier, so I would ‘win’ after four hundred hours of gameplay.

Let’s flip that around. Wins/hour. For those first two games I earned 0.0025 WPH.

Among the other games I played were Mombasa and Jump Drive. For Mombasa I earned about .7 WPH, since I generated enough VP to win in my game, which was about 1.5 hours. A nice rate. My Jump Drive rate was 4 WPH for the Gathering, slightly higher than my typical 3 wins per hour. But I taught the game twice.

So, for 10 hours of High Frontier (roughly 1/4 of my gaming time) I was arguably the least effective game-player in all of the gathering. I’d have to go to ten gatherings to eke out a single win. (I have some true anti-skill in that game. But I did eventually get a bit better). Apparently I did OK in my only game with second edition (although it left me cold), but we did the fast start, so I may have randomly gotten a good setup.

Of course Wins Per Hour is a somewhat ludicrous idea. Isn’t it? It seems obvious, but winning isn’t the problem. And we routinely praise games for being “tight” or “fast” or having a high decision density.

I was already pondering the similarities between High Frontier (the current hotness) and Factorio (the current hotness is not necessarily a singular). I mean, they both have Rockets, but there were other similarities. I’d been thinking about it (vaguely) even before Jeroen asked me to pitch Factorio to him over breakfast. One of the random thoughts I blurted out was its old school scoring. (It was a long pitch. In my defense, I had previously warned him that if he asked about Factorio he should set aside a day for my answer).

Anyway, old school scoring. Launching one rocket (aka “Winning”) gives you a score of …. one. Its like how the original pinball machines had scores like 1-2-3 for each bumper, but now you get a million points for simply launching the ball. But after you get on the scoreboard in Factorio, you can keep going.

Factorio is optimization, but you are free to decide what to optimize:

1) Speed (the speedrun: how fast can you win?)

2) Throughput (how many rockets per unit time can you get? This can be subdivided to a final sprint, ignoring the setup time, or over the lifetime of your game).

3) Size (How small a factory can you get a rocket out of. This is currently a challenge on Reddit. Yes, these rockets would take roughly one year of real time to be built, but they are ludicrously small factories).

There are others. People play without using robots (or just logistic robots, or just personal robots), or without lasers, or trains. Some play peaceful, some play Deathworld. Factorio has a victory condition, but people often ignore it. You can keep playing after you win. It’s a sandbox. You make what you want. I’m watching “The Belt Diva” on youtube, and its like watching Bob Ross. Happy little conveyer belts. She wants to build a mega base. I have no idea if she’ll launch a rocket. Does it matter?

Mombasa is not a sandbox. Neither is Jump Drive. You could argue that High Frontier isn’t a sandbox either, it has VP and end game conditions, but the standard criticism again Eklund’s games is: “Great simulations with arbitrary endgame/VPs attached.” (The latest edition of High Frontier’s scoring seems reasonable and at about the right time).

Ignore the victory conditions for High Frontier and just play with the system and it would still work. (Also true of American Mega Fauna, or other games like Seven Ages. You could just tell people to play in the best interest of their species/nation and not the actual victory conditions).

You could add self imposed conditions on your game. Only use solar sails, or “try to get out to Neptune with only basic cards,” or “Make the Kessel Run in 7 parsecs.” For any Eklund game, you could take a reasonable goal (“Expand your species,” “Become President of Mexico,” “Kessel Run”) and if you achieved it, who cared what the VPs said?

High Frontier feels like a sandbox (much like all Sierra Madre games).

Can you do that with a Euro? I suppose you could just say “I’m trying to maximize my red cubes and not VP” But that seems silly. The goal is to maximize VP.

Objectively, there’s no difference. You lose, the other players win. You may throw the game by being silly. But in a sandbox game it feels acceptable.

You might not even mess up the other players. (If you didn’t mention you had mentally altered your victory conditions, they might not even notice, assuming you chose something ‘reasonable’) We’ve already quietly accepted the premise that in a sandbox game the VPs are somewhat not the point when we criticize the poor victory conditions in otherwise good games.

We wouldn’t play a Euro similarly broken. Wouldn’t make sense.

I once knew someone who built a Magic deck with 58 islands, 1 mountain and 1 fireball. (Several of my readers should remember him). The point was to build a deck that could theoretically win (if you drew the mountain, the fireball, and then managed to play 20 lands). He’d pull this deck and lose and lose to people who often did not notice that their opponent never did anything except play islands. He was truly Andy Kaufman, CCG player.

Or perhaps Stanley Milgram.

When I’m losing a game like High Frontier (or Combat Commander, or Seven Ages, or Here I Stand), I may flounder and grasp for a way out of my situation, but I feel perfectly happy just exploring the system even though the time invested is well out of proportion to what I’d normally give to a game.

I’ve dismissed countless games after one play (or less), games I’ve won included. Games I won especially. Those tend to fail the test of time (unless everyone was new).¬† A game where I can beat experienced players probably isn’t that deep, or has too much luck.

Whereas games I lost repeatedly include Titan, 18xx, Magic Realm (counting dying as a loss), Chess, Go, Bridge.

Clearly, I’m not optimizing my wins per hour. Knizia has that quote….

When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning

Pretty Zen, but I get (and approve) the idea. Those guys who crushed that sub-sub-Mendoza line Magic deck and chortled and kept playing it again and again to rack up wins? Not great gamers.

But is the goal really to win? Usually, yes. When I played American Megafauna with non-existent or terribly wrong Victory Conditions, I don’t recall having less fun. In High Frontier I started out trying to win. Mainly I was trying to do something constructive. A Winning-adjacent goal.

Some play games to explore systems, but that requires a system worth exploring. Which is not to say that Mombasa or Jump Drive’s design is not deep. Just (relatively) transparent. You can argue about the best path to winning, but that path is well defined. With Combat Commander or Magic Realm or High Frontier, you aren’t sure what’s going to happen, and sometimes the joy is just in unlocking the secret or even seeing that rocket take flight. In fact, defining the direction of the path is surprisingly hard … the player that did best may be the one that lost, according to the rules. It’s like that old Supreme Court definition of pornography. You know who won when you played it. Who cares what the rules said?

Its like watching your factory grow, then deciding what you want to optimize next.

Written by taogaming

April 15, 2017 at 11:04 pm

Posted in Ramblings

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Mars needs Women, and also robonautic ISRU

So I finally got a chance to experience High Frontier. (“Play” would be the typical word, but like many of Phil Eklund’s “games” I’m not sure it’s appropriate). We used some of the advanced rules (namely, all 6 component types, but not combat, slingshots, events, solar cycles or the extended map). We also used the fast start (each player has six patents) and, in general, didn’t bother making too many deliberate hosey maneuvers (like bidding up stuff we didn’t need). So the 2.5 to 3 hours were spent contstantly tearing apart my rocket to rebuild it, finally launching a martian mission (with a buggy robonaut, so I could take all three sites) and building the solar-lens energy generator technology and shipping it back to earth. Meanwhile, another player got Mercury and the other set up a factory on one of the larger asteroids. I built a lunar factory while the Venusian mission went belly up.

At that point, we pretty much called it. I probably needed 30 minutes to figure out my next mission, one player was out of it, and the other was going to use rockets with frikkin lasers to prospect about a zillion asteroids at once.

An interesting experience. Glad to have played. But High Frontier is more puzzle than game for my tastes. I think making it a game would mean a player (or two) sitting out for an hour or two after their risk fails.

Rating — Indifferent.

Written by taogaming

May 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Posted in Session Reports

Tagged with