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Last Frontier Review

by Evan M Corcoran

(Originally posted to UseNet)

Last Frontier: The Vesuvius Incident is a solo science fiction microgame from a small game company called Fat Messiah Games. The premise of the game is basically similar to that of the movie ALIENS, with a healthy dose of AWFUL GREEN THINGS FROM OUTER SPACE: a small team of heavily armed space marines creep about a starship in a decaying orbit and get butchered by nasty buglike alien creatures.

The components are high quality -- generations ahead of Metagaming micro standards. There are 168 full color double-sided counters printed on thick cardstock which depict aliens, crewmembers, marines and their weapons, other equipment and encounters, and various status markers. A degree of concentration while cutting is called for in order to avoid snipping the feet off of characters, but the effort is worth it. The map, although grayscale, is handsome, and includes the deckplan of the USS Feynman, an orbital decay timer (whee!), and status boxes for each individual marine. A handy double sided charts sheet is bound into the center of the rulebook and must be removed before play. The whole smear cost me a sawbuck through mailorder. I don't know if this is equivalent to the old micro prices, ajusted for inflation, but it seemed reasonable for the professional appearance of the components and the playability of the game itself.

The game system is fairly straightforward and, in the tradition of microgames, offers some novel concepts. Marines move freely through friendly-occupied rooms during exploration turns, then deploy into unexplored rooms and, if hostiles are encountered, enter combat turns -- essentially a slowing-down of the clock to portray swift close quarters combat. Each time an unoccupied space is entered or reentered, the marines face the possibility of ambush. The player must decide between spreading his forces out to cover ground more rapidly, or bunching up to preserve as many lives as possible. Combat is quick. Ranged weapons have to-hit rolls and damage tables, and hand-to-hand weapons go straight to their damage tables without a hit roll. There's not a lot of plotting tactics and fire angles, just plenty of high powered weapons going off in small areas.

One difficulty with solo games is that the player sometimes winds up playing against the system itself and not the cardboard enemy. AMBUSH!, for example, became unplayable after two or three replays as the player learned which hexes triggered beneficial events and which hexes ignited combat. LF:TVI avoids this pitfall by making the system too 'stupid' to outwit. Since the game needs only to model the behavior of bloodthirsty aliens in a confined area and not Wehrmacht soldiers in the field, a very simple ambush or discovery die roll governs enemy activation. A small hostile behavior chart determines whether the creatures attack or flee. By drawing encounters at random from a cup, your troops can run across not only aliens but also surviving or deceased crew, robots, items, and random events that all lend character to each individual play session. Moreover, the starship is slowly falling towards the planet, and if the marines take too long -- a different, neatly randomized amount of time each game -- they will burn up in the atmosphere. The extreme randomness of the system may be a turn off for some gamers, giving the impression that little the gamer can do in the way of planning can prevent the mangling or abduction of his team. But this is the precise effect the game seeks to impart. The system helps to create the mood of the game as much as does the rulebook artwork. Aliens appear and deal out damage swiftly and mercilessly. The task of the player is to react to the inevitable disaster and salvage what he can.

The game is bloody. If you end the game with only a third of your marines dead or incapacitated, you have done very well. More likely there will be an unholy slaughter and your frantic men will make a mad dash for the escape shuttles to avoid being dismembered, machinegunning aliens as they run. But with luck, the game is winnable! If your team is able to account for the entire crew of the luckless Feynman, they can board their shuttle and escape.

There does seem to have been a problem with errata. In addition to the 23 corrections on the sheet included with the game, I also received an FMG newsletter that contained a further 19 clarifications. More stringent proofreading and playtesting would not have been amiss. None of the errata are game-wrecking, but could lead to some confusion. Another possible flaw is another nemesis of all solo games -- exhaustion of combinations. Eventually the player will have seen all of the events several times and the thrill of seeing marines die gruesomely will wear off. But I think LF:TVI is intended more to be a diversion or amusement between playings of larger games and not as a full dress obsession like Squad Leader. Played occasionally in this way, it should retain its freshness for quite some time. There are even mentions in the newsletter of future scenarios in the same universe, which should increase the value of the game.

One more, extremely minor, quibble is with the name of the game: the Vesuvius is the name of the marines' mother ship which doesn't actually appear in the game. But I suppose it makes for a more exciting title than 'The Feynman Incident'!

On the whole, I'd say LF:TVI succeeds at what it has attempted to do: be a fairly simple, quick playing solo action SF game. I'm no game historian but I can't think of any other solo SF infantry games. LF:TVI is in fact somewhat reminiscent of the computer game BREACH in its simulation of man-to-man (or -alien) combat. It wouldn't make a bad shareware game, come to think of it. If you cut your gamer teeth on the Metagaming line like I did, you'll probably enjoy this offering's high quality for a low price. It's worth checking out.

This article is © 1994 by Evan M Corcoran. Permission is granted to reproduce all or part of this review in any medium provided that credit is given to the author, namely ME.

I am in no way affiliated with Fat Messiah Games.

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