Martians: A Story of Civilization Review

Martians: A Story of Civilization Review

Mars seems to be the hot ticket right now. Whether people are terraforming it, journeying to it, colonising it or battering it and deep frying it, the Red Planet has got more attention than Sean Spicer talking about what he believes to be an accurate account of German history. There are currently rovers on Mars roaming around giving us more information than ever before and they’re all more reliable than the cars of the same name. Rover Metros were less reliable than a London Midland commuter train on a bad day and the Mars Rover took less time to get to its destination.

So being the space-nut that I am, sometime in 2016 I jumped on the backing bandwagon, boarded the mission to Mars and backed Martians: A Story of Civilization. And I note the awful Americanisation of our beloved mother tongue with that filthy “z” instead of the Queen’s “s”, but, like an excited hound with the keys to a JCB, I dive down yet another rabbit hole.

Martians A Story of Civilization worker placement

You could say that Martians: A Story of Civilization has had a bumpy ride thus far. The Kickstarter campaign proudly displayed that it was funded within 2 hours and it appears being one of the lucky few, I received my copy bang on schedule. This is where the fairy tale ends however as, like the Witch in Handsel and Gretel, it got roasted alive once folk actually got their games. I won’t dwell on the community aspects here, but there is one overriding factor that directly affects the enjoyment of the game: the rulebook.

Oh the rulebook.

You’d think that it would be paramount to any publisher to make the rulebook accessible, readable, structured and clear. You’d think that, but it seems that these qualities were deemed secondary in the Red Imp offices as the actual rulebook makes about as much sense as Donald Trump’s attitude to the environment (and isn’t this review turning into a jab at the U.S. Govt.?). Without wishing to flog a dead horse until it’s fit for nothing more than Tesco value minced beef, the manual is nothing short of dreadful to the point of the publishers shipping the game with an Addendum and FAQ document which still didn’t address some of the issues.

After my 6th playthrough it still wasn’t clear so I took it upon myself to do Red Imp’s job for them and rewrite it. You can find it here at BoardGameGeek.

But enough of the shameless self-promotion.

Martians A Story of Civilization worker placement game review

The thing is, once you get past the shoddy rulebook Martians is actually quite good. It takes a determined mind to get that far, but trust me it’s worth it. Lesser men may and, indeed, have failed to get past the 1st draft of Harry Potter and the Mission to Mars but with the frankly excellent unofficial rulebook Martians becomes a quite tough game of Co-Operation, Semi Co-Operation or Competitiveness depending on individual desires. Martians has 4 play modes which makes it very accessible and flexible indeed.

Rewinding a little, Martians is focussed on the building and maintenance of a new colony on Earth’s little red neighbour which can be approached as a team, as a begrudging team or as a bunch of cut-throat Corporations vying for supremacy in the big black of the Solar System. The game is very pretty. I won’t lie, it’s extremely striking and if you’re like me and have a crippling loathing of your own money and a weakness for bling, you’ll have bought the structure models which adds further sexiness to a game that already looks better than a top end Calvin Klein model. So Martians has definitely got “value for money” nailed. Once you understand how the game works, the iconography is very straightforward, if a little abstract and it can almost fall into the slot of “language agnostic” which is an ironic statement given the rulebook.

Martians A Story of Civilization worker placement board game

At its core, Martians is a worker placement game with a slight twist. Worker goes into spot and action is performed as standard, but in Martians you can perform as many actions as the location permits (many have more than one) as long as you have time and resource to do them. You have three “workers” but may not be able to use all of them in a turn as different actions take different amounts of time and you only have 3 time units to play with. It allows for different approaches to the game and in the Co-Op mode a real chance for teamwork choosing who does which action to get the best out of the game.

The notion that the colony still needs to be built at the start of the game is very in-keeping with the theme as we pick up the action soon after the colony has been started. The areas of the board all have unique functions from mining for resource (Regolith, some red…stuff not dissimilar to something like Unobtanium), a lab, hospital, water treatment and so on. Each facility is either essential or very desirable so there’s nothing that goes to waste in terms of board real estate and each building should feature in your strategy at some point.

Martians A Story of Civilization cooperative board game review

Probably the most important thing you will need is Energy as it’s a critical resource so you’ll need to build power plants and pronto. One thing connected to this is the limit of resources put in place by the physical number of plastic tokens. This is less of an issue in the Co-Op games, but in the Competitive game there is a very aggressive limit on the energy crystals. Part of this may be deliberate to encourage a real sense of being horrible to your opponents by hoarding resource, but when you generate energy, it’s done in turn plant by plant so you may even end up losing out yourself which seems a little silly. To date I’ve not run out, but it’s been close so there is a real possibility.

Keeping the colony functioning is tough enough, but there are scenarios to add a bit of spice to the game. In the various flavours of co-op, the player(s) can choose whether to attempt one of the pre-baked scenario missions or simply try to grab Reputation points (far less interesting). The scenarios are a little hit and miss for me – I like the idea of them and they’re quite thematic, but many of them don’t scale according to the number of players. There’s a few that are much more difficult for 2 than 4 players which may be deliberate, but it feels a little too harsh. Thankfully, Red Imp have now published a DIY Scenario kit (also on Board Game Geek) so players can make their own missions. Coupled with the events cards (think crises from Dead of Winter or Battlestar Galactica in terms of their impact) and the Martian weather, the game can seem very aggressive. But that’s partially why I like it.

Martians A Story of Civilization mars rover

The Competitive mode is a little less rounded – perfectly functional, but it’s a VP grab game and there’s nothing really here that hasn’t been seen before. That said, it does highlight the major deficiency in the other modes: the Reputation (Victory) point track. Essential in Competitive and Semi Co-Op mode, but utterly pointless (pun intended) in the full Co-Op modes. There’s the niggling feeling that perhaps Martians is trying to do too much, but I feel the availability of options of play far outweighs the usefulness of one or two features.

All in all, Martians: A Story of Civilization is worth playing. Get past the rulebook and you’ve got a well-made, high quality game with lots of options and stuff going on. You may find your first turns are very similar given the starting conditions, but it won’t be the same due to the random nature of some of the features. It’s pitted against you just enough to make you press on, but not crushingly so that you simply give up.

So when building a colony on Mars, your chances of anything coming to bear are a million to one. But still, you try.
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