Reviewed by James Davis
ON MARS (Eagle-Gryphon Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60-120 minutes; $119.99)
Wasn’t the launch of the SpaceX crewed Falcon 9 rocket on May 30th spectacular? I was glued to the screen and cheered when they lifted off the Earth. Since I was a kid during the Apollo missions, (yes, I’m old) I’ve had a love of space science and exploration.
With the success of the Falcon 9, I read that SpaceX is gearing up the tests for the Starship spacecraft. It’s a huge, heavy reusable rocket with the ability to carry 100 metric tons to Earth orbit. It is going to be a game-changer when it becomes routine to carry building materials into orbit and beyond. It will pave the way for permanent settlements on the Moon. And, eventually, Mars.
In the game On Mars, that is the goal: to create a permanent and self-sustaining settlement on Mars. According to the game’s introduction, the first settlers arrive in the year 2037. Realistically, that’s probably a bit too early, but I would love to be proven wrong. In the game, the Department of Operations and Mars Exploration (DOME), a small starting structure, is already established on the surface of Mars. The players are chief astronauts from private companies who will build on these first efforts by expanding the colony until it becomes self-sufficient.
I’ll skip the setup of the game as it will not make much sense at the moment. Just know that each player has a Player marker that determines player order and location, a Shelter Tech tile, five Personal ships, five Shelter building tiles (one of which is placed on the main board), four Bots (one on the main board), eight advanced Building markers, twelve Colonists (you start with three available), one Rover, five Progress cubes and three Private Goal cards. I could tell it was going to be a good game when I read this at the end of the setup rules: “The player who has seen the film ‘The Martian’ the most times is the first player.” Love it.
With all of Vital Lacerda’s games, the game play is rather involved and intricate. There is a lot going on, and many ways that the elements of the game interact with each other. But like all of Ian O’Toole’s artwork designs, a great deal of thought has gone into helping the players navigate the complexity. Once you have a turn or two under your belt, the game’s connections become clear through intuitive iconography, color and layout.
First, an overview. It is played in rounds that have two phases: Colonization and Shuttle. The Colonization phase allows you to take actions such as building structures, moving bots and rovers or gaining new technology and blueprints. The Shuttle phase enables players to travel to and from the Mars colony and the space station in orbit. The actions that you are able to take during the Colonization phase depends on if you are in orbit or in the colony. Each player takes a turn during the Colonization phase in order of the player’s markers on the turn order track. Once everyone has had a turn, there is the Shuttle phase, and then the next round begins.
To continue, I’ll need to describe the game board. It is divided into two sections. On the left is the Orbit Side, and the right contains the Colony Side. In the top center of the board is the turn order track. And in the center, the majority of the board contains a hexagon map of the Mars settlement where players will place buildings and move Rovers and Bots. The turn order track is critical to understand to know how the game works. There are two tracks. One is for the Player markers. It has eight spaces, four on the left and four to the right. The other is for the shuttle marker and it has six spaces with three on each side. The shuttle marker track facilitates when the players are able to switch their player markers from orbit to Mars or visa-versa. And the player marker track shows player order and which side of the board you are able to activate. If you are on spaces one through four, then you can do the Orbit actions, and five through eight allow you to do the Colony actions.There is a player board that has six sections:
- The storage area is on the bottom and is where you place your resources in the game: Minerals, Batteries, Water, Plants and Oxygen. You can only store up to the number of your Shelter tiles on the main board plus one. Since you start the game with a Shelter, your limit for each resource is two at the start of the game.
- In the center is the Laboratory. This is where you place and develop technologies. You start with the Shelter Tech tile. Others you gain as an Orbit action.
- Your Living Quarters is in the lower right. You place your Colonists here. There are only four spaces at the beginning, but you can open more by building additional Shelters. You start the game with three Colonists.
- The Working Area is simply a space to send your Colonists when you use them. It should be called the Lounge since they are done working at that point. But for some strange reason I wasn’t asked for my opinion.
- The Depot contains eight spaces for storing Crystals, but only three are open at the start of the game. You open more by moving your Private Ships into …
- The Hangar. A place to store your Private Ships after you’ve used the Welcome a Ship Colony action.
During the Colonization phase, each player will take a turn in order of their markers on the turn order track. They players must perform one Main action and an optional Executive action. As mentioned above, only half of the total actions will be available to you depending on which side of the turn order track your marker is on. You will be using your Colonist markers to show you have used an action by either putting the colonist on the main board’s action space if required or by placing your Colonist in your Lounge, er, I mean your Working Area.
The Orbital Station main actions are:
- Landing Pod: This allows you to move your player marker to the Colony side of the turn order track in order to take those actions next round. It is generally something you don’t want to do. But at the right time, it can be an invaluable option.
- Obtain Blueprint: Players can obtain a Blueprint card from the display. Like other games, these cards increase in abilities as the first ones are taken and later replaced. Blueprint cards allow you to upgrade a building. More on that later.
- Learn New Technology: You gain a Tech tile from a grid of tiles. The cost varies from free to multiple Resources, depending on its location. The Tech tile is placed on the left-most spot on your player board’s Laboratory which then gives you the Tech’s benefit. New Tech tiles are not added when one is taken. They are only refreshed when the Colony level is raised by constructing buildings. You can use one of your opponent’s Tech tiles if you give them an Oxygen Resource.
- Research and Development (R&D): This allows you to move your Tech tiles on your Laboratory to the right, making their benefit better. The Tech tiles allow a number of benefits such as creating a larger Building complex, or moving your Rovers faster.
- Resupply: You gain either a Resource or a Crystal from the Warehouse here. These are also not replaced until the Colony level is raised, and so can very easily run out.
The Colony main actions are:
- Control Center: This allows you to move your Bots and Rovers on the Mars settlement hex grid map on the main board. You’ll need to use this action to collect resources with your Rovers and to construct a Building with your Bot.
- Constructing a Building: You can only place a building tile within the Building zone of one of your Bots. That is the space the Bot is on and all six adjacent spaces. This is how you build your personal Shelters. You can also build: Mines, Generators, Water extractors, Greenhouses and Oxygen Condensers. Notice that the Resources are Minerals, Batteries, Water, Plants and Oxygen.
- Upgrade a Building: You can use an already obtained Blueprint card to upgrade an already built building. When upgraded, the building now produces Resources when you travel to Orbit and you also have an Executive action you can perform after your turn is over. As with constructing a building, the upgraded building needs to be within the Building zone of one of your Bots.
- Welcome a Ship: You start with five Private Ships in the Depot on your player board. When you choose this action, you take one of your Private Ships from your Depot and move it to your Hangar. This opens up another space in your Depot to store Crystals as well as giving you a choice of gaining one additional Colonist and one Bot, or gaining two Colonists. Ships in your Hangar are worth victory points at the end of the game and so that is another incentive.
- Hire a Scientist or Take an Earth Contract: To the side of the main board, at the beginning of the game are six Scientist cards and a Scientist token for each. There is one Scientist for each of the Building/Resource types. You take both when you choose this action. The Scientist card is then replaced with an Earth Contract that can be subsequently taken. The Earth Contracts are game end victory points where you either attempt to collect certain Resources, or build certain upgraded buildings.
You probably are thinking, “Wait, he didn’t say what the Scientist tokens do.” Very astute. That’s because they come into play in the optional Executive action you can take after your Main action. You gain the ability to use Executive actions by upgrading a building with a Blueprint card. These actions will cost you Resources. However, if you control a Scientist token, you can place it on any upgraded Blueprint card (including your opponent’s cards) to eliminate that cost. If your Scientist is on an opponent’s card, your opponent also can do that Executive action for free. Scientist tokens can only be placed on a card matching their type.
After everyone has had a Main and possible Executive action, we move to the Shuttle phase. As mentioned above, the turn order track on the main board also has a track for the Shuttle. Three spaces on the left and three on the right. Two spaces on each side are not used at the beginning of the game, but will be added as the game progresses. Which will make the Shuttle’s trips to Mars and back to Orbit more infrequent later in the game.
The Shuttle is moved down the track at this time. If it starts the Shuttle phase on the end of one track, it moves to the other one, meaning that it moves from Orbit to the Colony or visa-versa. If your player marker is on the side the Shuttle just moved from, you can travel with it for free. If not, you can still travel but you will need to eliminate a Private Ship from your Hangar out of the game (and lose those victory points). When your player marker does move, you can do things such as gain Resources or retrieve your Colonists back to your Living Quarters. The options are different depending on which way you travel. You then choose any unused spot on the other side of the turn order track, determining the turn order for the next turn.
Now, there are a great number of things I’ve needed to gloss over because this is an overview. But I should mention some details to fill in the picture.
All action spaces on the main board for both the Orbit and Colony have icons near them. You will see a Red Colonist, a Teal Colonist and/or a Crystal. If you see a Teal Colonist icon, it means you can move additional Colonists to your Working Area to boost that action. A Crystal icon means you can boost that action by spending Crystals. And the Red Colonist icon means that, instead of moving your Colonist from your Living Quarters to your Working Area, you place it on that action space on the main board. And the cost of using that action is increased for every player’s Colonist there at the beginning of your action.
I pointed out that, except for the Shelters, there is a matching building for each Resource. The reason is that the game is built on a “Mars Construction Cycle”. This is from the rule book: “Building Shelters for Colonists to live in requires Oxygen, generating Oxygen requires Plants, growing Plants requires Water, extracting Water requires Power, generating Power requires mining Minerals, and mining Minerals requires Colonists.” That cycle is seen through most of the game mechanics. You pay for something using the Resource from the previous step in the cycle.
In addition, when you construct a building you can either place the new tile by itself or add it onto an existing group of identical building tiles called a Complex. There is a Tech tile for each type of building and that tile’s progress determines how large your Complex can be for that type. You move a Progress cube from your player mat to the Progress area the first time in the game you create or increase the size of each building. Your cubes on the Progress track will give you victory points.
The last important thing about constructing buildings is how it affects the Life Support System (LSS) track. The LSS shows the current Colony level. Each time a Generator, Water extractor, Greenhouse or Oxygen Condenser is built, a token on the LSS track is moved up and that player gains victory points. Once all four types are moved, the Colony level is moved up to the next row. Then new Blueprint cards are added, the Tech Grid is refilled with Tech tiles, and the Orbital Warehouse is refilled with Resources and Crystals.
There are a few other things to mention to help you understand game end scoring. The game starts with three Mission cards, placed on the main board, that depict an objective for every player. Some examples are taking Blueprints or building Bots. Players gain Crystals by achieving these objectives. A Mission is completed after players have done these objectives a certain number of times depending on how many players are in the game. When three Missions have been completed, the end game is triggered.
The players also start the game with three Private goal cards that will give an award if the goal is reached. You can only complete one of the three goals during the game. You can discard these cards at any time and use it as if it were a Crystal.
As mentioned, the game end will be triggered if three Missions are completed. Progressing the Colony level on the LSS track to three or higher will reduce by one the number of Missions that need to be completed. When triggered, you play until the end of the current round and then one more round. Then each player scores for the list below. The most Crystals is the tie-breaker, then most Advanced buildings, then most Progress cubes.
- The number of Progress cubes in the Progress area, placed there when you construct the first building of a type.
- Three victory points for each Private ship in your Hangar, placed there using the Welcome a Ship Colony action.
- The number of Colonists you have, limited by how many spaces for them you have opened by constructing Shelters.
- The level of all of your Tech tiles, generated by the Learn new Technology and R&D Orbit actions.
- The number of Advanced Buildings you’ve built with the Upgrade a Building Colony action. If you have Blueprint cards that have not been used to upgrade, then you lose points for them.
- Three victory points for each Advanced Building constructed by all players that matches a Scientist token you have.
- And then score the Earth Contracts you have gained. If you completed the card’s requirements, gain the points on the card, if not then you will lose points.
As you can see, there is a great deal going on, but I’m amazed at how well it all fits together and flows along in an ordered way. For me, On Mars is not like a number of other games where the complexity is not mitigated but is instead a feature. The elements of On Mars and how they interrelate make intuitive sense to me. A huge reason for that is Ian O’Toole’s graphic design expertise of course, but Vital Lacerda’s games have all, to one degree or another, had instinctive mechanics layered over a complex, interrelated game.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are solo rules, something unfortunately needed during the pandemic. You play against a single opponent: Lacerda. The solo rules are pretty solid and make a good foil to work against. But I found them to be not quite as good as other solo rules I’ve come across. For obvious reasons, I’ve tried a few recently.
There is a deck that “chooses” what Lacerda will do. There are only three actions he can take, instead of five, for the Orbit and Colony sides of the board. Since it is random, he tends not to always make the optimal action. It’s not completely arbitrary, there are rules that Lacerda uses to build on the current game state. But there is a lack of consistency from turn to turn. However, that is a small complaint. As I said, the solo rules are pretty solid and well worth trying, especially to teach yourself the game.
Since we are, as I write this, still social distancing, I thought it important to let you know that On Mars can be found on the online gaming site, Tabletopia. https://tabletopia.com Unlike Board Game Arena, and similar sites that program the rules of a game into the interface, Tabletopia only provides a virtual board and game pieces for you to use. But if you don’t mind that, using Tabletopia to learn On Mars and play with your otherwise distant friends on a game night is a great way to stay connected.
All in all, Lacerda (the real one) and O’Toole have knocked another one out of the park. At this point, when those two publish a game I might as well just throw money at them, sight unseen. And, as typical, the theme of On Mars meshes quite well with the mechanics instead of being tacked on as an afterthought. The fact that I’m a space nut and I love the theme is a nice bonus. – – – – – – – James Davis
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