Frontier Stations is a cooperative game published by Victory Point Games and designed by Jeremy Lennert, the publisher/designer team that created one of my all-time favorite games, another cooperative game called Darkest Night. Both games are dice heavy, both are difficult to win, and both take a traditional, if not overdone, setting—Darkest Night with fantasy and Frontier Stations with sci-fi—and put just enough spin on them to make them feel different from the norm. With that being said, I was very excited to try out Frontier Stations and, while it doesn't quite reach the lofty heights that Darkest Night does, it's still a great game.
Frontier Stations places each player in control of a struggling space station on the far edges of an interstellar empire. Rather than accomplish some grand goal, such as saving the known universe from some evil threat, Frontier Stations tasks the players with simply surviving. Working together, the players must outlast all of the threats presented by the game. If the players manage to survive until all 40 Threat cards have been drawn, 20 from an early Threat deck and 20 from a late Threat deck, the players are victorious.[caption id="attachment_63168" align="aligncenter" width="587"] The early Threats are generally easy to destroy and deal with.[/caption]
Threats are always placed immediately to the active player's left, between their station and the next player's station. Threats can only be dealt with by players directly adjacent to them, so players need to be mindful of which resources will be required for the Threats that they can actually deal with. This also means that each player will always be dealing with Threats on two fronts, so each player will have to work with their two neighbors to be most effective and ensure that they have all of their bases covered.[caption id="attachment_63169" align="aligncenter" width="587"] Late Threats can pose quite a difficult challenge.[/caption]
The entire game revolves around the roll of a single die during the first half of the game and a pair of dice during the second. Each card, both player controlled and Threat, has a number or numbers that show which die roll will activate them. If a Threat is activated, the players have to collectively spend the supplies shown on the Threat card. If a player's System is activated, the player gains the resources listed or takes the action listed on the System card.[caption id="attachment_63170" align="aligncenter" width="587"] The Shop shows which Systems are currently available for purchase and holds the extra resource tokens.[/caption]
The die roll doesn't just determine which cards are activated though. After Threat and System activation, the die becomes currency that the player can use to upgrade their existing Systems, purchase new Systems, or remove Threat cards from the game. A new Threat is added to the table each player turn, so players have to balance their need to produce resources and install Systems that cover as many numbers as possible against the ever growing number of Threat cards.[caption id="attachment_63171" align="aligncenter" width="587"] Systems have a wide variety of abilities. Players need to balance their resource need against the odds of the System activating.[/caption]
Players also need to keep in mind the fact that the number of dice rolled changes half way through the game. As soon as the early Threat deck runs out of cards, players start to draw Threats from the late Threat deck. These Threats are generally more difficult to deal with than the early Threats, and the way that the dice roll is calculated with two dice can make it much harder to activate Systems that only show low numbers. This is because, while you can combine or separate the two dice for purchasing Systems or removing Threats, you total the value of both dice rolled when determining which Systems and Threats activate.[caption id="attachment_63173" align="aligncenter" width="587"] The player who is currently the Captain gets the final say in all group decisions. Additionally, the Captain has two wild card tokens that can take the place of any resource. Once they are gone, though, if the players fail to produce a resource when required they lose the game.[/caption]
Since it isn't possible to roll a total of 1 on two dice, and many Systems activate on low numbers, it becomes increasingly difficult to accrue resources during the second half of the game. Finding a balance of resource producing cards that can store enough resources to carry the players through the game while still dealing with the early Threats is a fun and exciting challenge.[caption id="attachment_63172" align="aligncenter" width="587"] Players can alter the game difficulty based on the Nexus cards that they choose to use.[/caption]
Trying to weather the storm during the second half of the game, knowing that resources will be much harder to come by, can be tense and exciting as long as the players managed to collectively build up a strong resource pool. This is where the one slight downside comes in to Frontier Stations. Because the System shop draw is randomized each game, some games will be easier and some games will be more difficult based on what is drawn and offered during that playthrough. This means that the difficulty can vary quite a bit game to game but, thankfully, players also have the option to play with different Nexus cards. Playing with the heavy Nexus gives players a viable option for upgrading when the shop just isn't providing helpful cards while players seeking an even greater challenge can play with a light Nexus and really ramp up the difficulty.
A note on solo play: Solo play is possible in Frontier Stations but, due to the nature of the way the Threats sit on the table between stations, it can be clunky and hard to track. I've played multiple "3 player" games solo and it is still quite fun, but I found that I needed to use different colored dice for each station so as to not lose my place in the event of a distraction.
A note on “chrome”: Frontier Stations' rulebook, cards and components are all good quality although, as with every Victory Point release, you will need to spend the time to wipe the edges of the laser cut components or you will get soot on your fingers as you play. The sheer number of tokens included in the game mean that this can take quite a while.
The bottom line:
Frontier Stations is a dice heavy, difficult, and fun cooperative game. The placement of the Threat cards on the table mean that each player will have to work together with their neighbors and discourages a single alpha gamer from running the entire game. Frontier Stations is quick to set up and has easily adjustable difficulty settings, allowing players to ease into the game without feeling overwhelmed or discouraged by the difficulty. Successful luck mitigation is vital and, when accomplished, places the fate of the players upon the choices that they make rather than simply the roll of the die.
Get this game if:
You enjoy difficult cooperative games
You love to roll dice
You like games that allow you to, via your choices, mitigate the luck of the die and turn it to your advantage
Avoid this game if:
You dislike cooperative games
You hate the sci-fi theme
The copy of Frontier Stations used for this review was provided by Victory Point Games.
Frontier Stations is a great cooperative game. Working together to turn the randomness of dice rolls to your favor is challenging and fun.