That's because while space is rich, getting to those riches is hard. After trying to build a spacecraft in High Frontier, I see why the term "rocket scientist" connotes intelligence. High Frontier's game board looks like a cross between a diagram of the solar system and one of those dizzying 1960s psychedelic posters that my hippie neighbors plastered on their walls in my youth. The board is overlaid with arcs representing flight paths between Earth and various destinations out to the region of Saturn, with each arc dotted with "burn points" that require spacecraft to use thrust -- and expend precious fuel -- every time they enter them. Players move small plastic rockets on the board as they thrust from burn point to burn point. They launch one expedition at a time, and it can take quite a few turns for a rocket to reach the asteroid belt or outer solar system, so once a player is committed to a certain spacecraft design tailored to reaching a certain planet or asteroid, the player really is committed.
Players construct spacecraft from a menu of components that includes thrusters, reactors, and cooling systems. Spacecraft can also carry "robonauts" -- automated planetary explorers controlled by the human crew -- and automated factories that can be built where the robonauts discover minerals. These components are launched into low-Earth orbit, assembled into complete spacecraft, and then sent on their way.
The catch is that the bigger the spacecraft, the more payload it can carry, yet the more fuel it uses. Newbie rocket scientists will quickly find themselves caught in a trap in which carrying more payload also demands bigger engines, which require more fuel, which require bigger fuel tanks, which demand even bigger engines.… You can choose to build a Hummer of space -- a giant spacecraft propelled by fast but fuel-guzzling Apollo-style rockets. Or, you can go the Chevy Volt approach, with solar sails that use the sun's radiation as fuel. But solar propulsion is slow, and even worse, solar energy is too weak to offer much of a boost beyond the orbit of Mars. And whoever is the first to build extraterrestrial factories, where advanced technology such as more fuel-efficient rockets or faster solar sails can be built, will have an edge in exploiting even more distant resources in the solar system.
But this only scratches the surface of a very deep game. For example, a moon base would seem to be an obvious choice. But the moon's gravity is strong enough that a spacecraft needs a fairly powerful engine (and the necessary fuel) to descend and ascend. The asteroid belt is farther away, which means more fuel-guzzling engine burns, but the asteroids' weak gravity allows for smaller engines for landing and takeoff. Or, instead of lugging big engines to fight Martian gravity, a lander can use the atmosphere for a parachute-assisted aerobrake landing -- but only if it passes a survival dice roll. In space, everyone can hear you scream when your lander adds another crater to the Martian surface.
High Frontier is as much science lesson as game. It features a deluge of background material, with a plethora of esoteric technologies depicted in diagrams and brief descriptions. Even after reading it, I can't begin to tell you what a "metastable helium thruster" or a "photon tether rectenna generator" is, other than that they aren't animal or vegetable. But they make my spaceships go faster, and that's all I need to know.
Eklund's High Frontier isn't a prediction of the future so much as a plausible scenario for how and why humans might conquer space. Like with most postulates of space travel, either you accept the underlying assumptions or you don't. I don't know whether asteroid mining or Martian factories are a practical idea, but I do know that I enjoy a reasonable simulation that lets us explore the proposition.
But where High Frontier really shines is how it tempers the science fiction with practical realities. For all the romanticism of the starship Enterprise effortlessly whizzing around the galaxy, space is a cold, hard place governed by cold, hard physical rules. (Or as the old bumper sticker said, "186,000 miles per second. It's not just a good idea. It's the law.") High Frontier illustrates the practical considerations that will govern the future of human spaceflight. Writers and dreamers may enthuse us, but ultimately it's the engineers who will allow us to boldly go where no man has gone before.