MCEI: Good morning Mars 1 how was breakfast?
MCEI: Mars 1 come in? Let us know you’re ok!
HUB: Sorry Earth. We’re here. The microphone broke so we needed to fix it.
MCEI: Good to hear –
HUB: And of cause that break caused a malfunction in the solar panels.
MCEI: Oh de –
HUB: So we had to shut down the games room.
MCEI: That’s a sha –
HUB: And in fixing the microphone Richard cut himself on a sharp piece of plastic and developed an eating disorder.
We are down to our last two potatoes.
HUB: How are you?
First Martians is the new epic big box survival co-op game from the makers of Robinson Crusoe, now transferring the action to mankind’s first attempt to colonise the red planet. It is a re-imagining of that famous game with new systems, new challenges and an app to download and play with. It is also, quite probably, one of the most generous games I’ve bought in terms of pure content.
You start out with 6 stand alone missions to try out. This on its own is a big hearty heap of replay value given the random events and different difficulty levels available to try. But then there is not one, but two, 5 mission, campaigns that are completely unique and utterly brilliant. There are sealed envelopes full of secret stuff and the second campaign even has legacy elements to play around with. That’s 16 games without ever replaying a mission! I almost never get to play that much of… well… any game. It’s incredible.
The components, too, are wonderful if a little overwhelming in volume. Thick cardboard tiles, plastic miniatures for the hab and your vehicles, mountains of cardboard tokens and little plastic cubes. Even if, somehow, there aren’t quite enough green cubes at times. Way to put a dampener on your £70 box, First Martians. It’s not awful, for most missions you are fine, but when constructing new facilities as in, say, the training mission, you’ll end up proxying in other cubes to fill gaps.
This is one small step
In many ways First Martians is a small step sideways from its sister game Robinson Crusoe. The same family traits are there. Anyone familiar with the original knows exactly what they are going to be doing with those action discs and the shiny translucent dice. For those less aware, those discs represent your time and energy. Perhaps you want to spend half a day sciencing in the science lab and half a day playing video games (it decreases stress, you know). That’s a thing you can do here! But that means you’ll be rushing the sciencing and so you have to roll the (blue) dice. You’ll probably succeed, but you are also quite likely to injure yourself (astronauts really are quite surprisingly fragile) or worse, have an adventure!
A science adventure…! I think some terminology might still be a holdover from Robinson. Anyway, an adventure involves a random event occurring, maybe you broke something or noticed a malfunction. Either way it is only rarely good. Now, the alternative, and this is a major decision point in the game, is to commit two action discs at once to a task. Either you spend the whole day on it or someone else helps you out. When you do this, you don’t have to roll at all, which is great! But you don’t have time to do everything that way. The game is in managing risk. Doing as much as possible without being overwhelmed by the negative consequences of rushing.
One giant leap
That will all be familiar to Robinson fans. What won’t be is the gigantic matrix of red and green cubes on the right hand side of the board. This, aside from taking a while to set up, is thoroughly intimidating but it is also exceedingly clever. It is primarily a status display. Green means that system is operational. Red indicates a broken sub-system and the symbols next to it let you know what the negative consequences of that failure is, and what part you need to fix it. Some systems increase the risk of malfunction in other systems, leading to a slippery slope of breakages. Some represent oxygen leaks or power drains, meaning that when you use that location you must use up some of your reserves. They are all fundamentally bad, but some are worse than others.
The production centres, for example, your solar panels, oxygenators and farm, are all very sensitive to malfunction. You want these operating at tip top condition otherwise before you know it you are shutting down various action spaces and desperately scrabbling at the last of the crumbs from the biscuit tin. However, you won’t always have parts available, and that’s where you have to make tough decisions. Each game you have some very useful equipment upgrades you can choose to build, or that you can scrap for spare parts. They won’t be coming back after that.
In an emergency you can gain components by removing them from other systems in the Hab. In effect, you are swapping the red cube to another spot, but maybe that area isn’t as essential right now! It’s about figuring out what you need and what you can sacrifice. It’s about feeling so damn smart because you disassembled the microscope to fix the oxygen filters in the games room so you can still play Cuphead. Not that that would help you de-stress. This swapping components around is one of my favourite parts of the game. It feels desperate but so perfectly embodies those problem solving skills you see in Nasa-based space movies.
Houston, we have a problem here
Unfortunately it is impossible to discuss First Martians without some comment on the rulebook and the hundreds of posts long rules discussion forum on Board Game Geek. Social media and other reviewers have complained vociferously about the rulebook, calling it terrible, calling the game unplayable. It has got to the extent of owners of the pre-ordered copy of the game selling it still in shrink. This is ludicrous and let me state here, loud and clear:
THE RULEBOOK IS NOT THAT BAD
What we have here is a complex system with a ridiculous amount of bits (just look at that board). That necessitates a game with a lot of rules and the 20 page rulebook jammed with text is proof of that. This raises the first issue: the rule book is laid out for learning, not for reference. There are large blocks of text you need to read through, with special considerations (the AOMs say) broken out into separate blocks where you might first want to be made aware of them. While there is an index, looking something up mid game results in a painful slog through several paragraphs to find one line rules that could really have benefitted from a bit more space. Bullet points are seriously under-appreciated in rulebook writing.
The second and arguably larger challenge that the First Martians’ rulebook presents is one of omission. Now, I don’t believe any core rules are missing. But I do feel like this rulebook expects you to put Rule 1 and Rule 2 together to come up with Corollary 3. For example, what happens when your oxygen or power reserves run out? Nothing, according to the rules (that is, nothing is specified). But an actual rule states that when you wish to use a location that has an oxygen leak (denoted by a red cube beside the O2 symbol) you must spend a unit of oxygen from the reserves. Since you must have resources available to place on actions that require them, you have the corollary: you cannot use that action when your O2 reserve is empty.
This is not something we as gamers are necessarily used to doing. We expect everything to be spelled out. This is a fair demand! When you get stuck during play (which you inevitably will), you want to be able to turn to page X and read line Y which clarifies the situation. I can understand why it has happened in some cases, there are a lot of elements which makes for an exponentially growing number of interactions. But this combined with the length of rule sections makes for a frustrating first few games.
You need to take your time learning this game. You need to read and re-read the rulebook. Carefully figure out how things fit together, perhaps over a slow solo game. And even then you might not have everything nailed down. That is not so different from Robinson Crusoe in my experience. There’s just more little bits, and as such, more little interactions to remember.
Update: since originally writing this an Almanac has been released online which is in my opinion what the rulebook should have been in the first place! From what I can tell, it is excellent. Download it and learn the game from that.
Where things get really interesting is with the app. First Martians’ most unique feature is its integrated app. This records your progress through a mission and handles all the events and adventures that, in Robinson Crusoe, were all handled by decks of cards. This could allow for all kinds of clever things. The events can be tailored to the specific mission or difficulty setting, they can be updated remotely for clarity or to add more, there could be far more flavour text or even random sets of scripted events that inter-connect. First Martians does one of those things.
All the events are limited to the simplest lines of text. There is almost no flavour to speak of. Since so much of the game is about managing the status of the hab and the health/stress/morale of your astronauts, many of the events end up feeling fairly similar. I suppose there is a more limited array of source material to draw on in this hard sci-fi setting than in Robinson. While they might be tailored to given scenarios, they feel so generic it is difficult to tell. The odd event can build in intensity over several rounds, if ignored. Some offer you a choice of what action to take. The app does add something to proceedings.
The biggest change it introduces is in hiding the long term consequences of your adventures, or of ignored events. Any adventure or event could have some nasty surprises waiting for you further down the line. In Robinson, being all on cards, you could see what you needed to have to avoid the worst consequences. The shift to unknown events removes responsibility from the player, harming one of the best parts of the original game… but it also reinforces the tone that First Martians seems to be going for.
You are trapped on a lonely planet far from home. Your hab is the best that Earth’s engineers could come up with, and yet! Everything will go wrong. Your systems degrade and fail. You get injured… all the damn time. Your reserves slowly drain. The thought of a major expedition across the Martian wastes fills you with dread, not wonder. It is a game about survival, of scraping by, not of triumph; although you will feel triumphant when you finally overcome a mission. In this context the unknown consequences for your actions are not only more thematic (how would you know the result of these happenings?) but also feed into this sense of dread and hopelessness. Why do I put myself through it? For the rush when you do, against all the odds, make it through alive!
For all the criticism First Martians received, I still absolutely love it! I have not had the problems with rules and events and other details that many others have described. But I’m also somewhat forgiving of unclear rules in a cooperative game. I consider these to be about the story first so will often agree to a logical course of action regarding an unclear rule to keep a game moving forward. We win or lose together, after all. Having now studied the excellent Almanac on BGG, I am happy to say my understanding of the game was in pretty solid agreement with it. It can be done.
And once you do get to that stage? Which is now a much easier process than it was when early reviews came out. You have a fantastic cooperative game with a great setting and tone. The writing could be better, but the gameplay creates the only stories that really matter. This trip to Mars is so worth your time!