Matt: Would you like to play with my Pocket Mars?
Marc: Not really… I don’t much like chocolate.
Matt: It was all over the hotness during the UKGE…
Marc: Urgh! So it will have melted as well!? What is wrong with you.
Matt: The card game. Not the chocolate bar!
Marc: Oh. Well why didn’t you say that?
Matt: In a year of big releases about Mars, Pocket Mars is a little game that hopes to punch well above its weight. It’s not the miserable, collapsing colony of First Martians, it’s not the multi-generational epic of Terraforming Mars, it’s got simpler aims that suit it’s smaller package. A race to cram as many colonists on to Mars as possible! That’ll be easy right?
Life on Mars
Happily much of the hard work has been done for you. You have a fully functional ship to transport folks, cheekily named after a scif-fi favourite. I do not want to fly the Nostrom-0. Mars is already dotted with 5 functional buildings that can comfortably hold all the people you wish to shoe-horn in, although the posh two star accommodation is reserved for one or two lucky cubes/people. It’s the spacesuits. They went for a very boxy design.
Getting folks to Mars will be worth points at game end. Two points for the basic digs, 4 points for the exclusive VIP area. There’s a bonus for having 4 astronauts in a single building, and another for having an astronaut in each of the 4 buildings that can house them. Typically you’ll only aim for one of these, hoping to grab the other if you’re the player who drops their final, 7th astronaut on to the red planet to end the game. At which point you’ll already be in a strong position to win anyway.
To get there you’ll have a hand of cards to make careful use of, just like they do in NASA. Each of these cards has a top action and a bottom action, is associated with one of the 5 buildings, and even has a numerical value. Actually like NASA, they’ve crammed a lot of usefulness out of a single object.
The top action is used when you play a card straight from your hand. Quickly using up the card for a quick benefit. The other elements all come into play when you put more effort into them. 2 of your cards sit out face down in front of you to represent your Prep Module. Cards are played from here and placed in front of the building of the corresponding colour. Doing this lets you use the typically more powerful bottom action (no, no jokes please) and the bonus power of the building. In addition, if your card value is higher than whatever card is there on top (or the building if there isn’t any) you get to place an astronaut in that building from your spaceship, for free! Obviously this is awesome, but you’re paying a small cost in terms of set up.
You are also taking a risk. Because any Tom, Dick or Harry can use the cards in your prep module to activate a building! There are no door locks on Mars. In this case, it only allows that player to use the building’s power, which is generally weaker than a card power, so won’t happen too often. You, as owner of that card, immediately get to use the bottom action which could be great for you. A free action! Or it could be hugely disruptive, as many of the best bottom actions require careful set up (I’m really struggling to write this with a straight face). Maybe you need a certain colour of card in your hand, or enough energy on your ship to spend, or enough astronauts on either Earth or your ship to make full use of it. Or maybe you just wanted to get an astronaut into that building and now you can’t, damnit!
This action is the main way players can interact and on the surface it sounded great but I’ve not seen it used very often. Typically you don’t know what other players have in their prep modules, you only know the colour of the card. Likewise the building powers aren’t that amazing, you’re better off playing your own cards. It’s a necessary release mechanism, what if you never draw a green card say? But it hasn’t delivered the exciting player interaction I hoped it would.
In general though, that’s ok. This is a very slick game once you’ve played it once and gotten familiar with the cards. Most of the powers are useful too, and are even thematically tied to the buildings they are associated with most of the time. The blue cards are associated with the water recycling plants, and so they let you recycle your cards. The purple communications array (decorated by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen) is great at getting people from Earth, and the greenhouse turns astronauts into VIPs; we know how much VIPs like their kale superfood smoothies, after all.
Since these are drawn from a shuffled deck this isn’t the kind of game where you plan a strategy to pursue. It’s a game of making the most of what you get, and that mostly works. Generally powers are useful, or can be made to be useful with a little effort. But you can end up in situations where you keep getting options to gain astronauts from Earth, when they are all already crammed like sardines into your spaceship. Or the powers that let you look at what cards are in a player’s prep module… Which given the discussion we’ve already had regarding other players prep modules, has always felt like a wasted effort to me. But maybe I just haven’t figured how to use that to full effect yet?
Pocket Mars is a fine and clever game, but it’s missing that spark that would really make it exceptional. The scoring and gameplay feels fairly arbitrary and seems to turn out kind of the same way each game: typically the player who ends things will win unless someone else has got a lot of VIPs. There’s plenty to think about and yet there isn’t enough weight to those decisions. I’m missing those moments of elation from a carefully constructed plan or risky manoeuvre coming together, the frustration of missing out on some desired outcome. Everything is fine on this Mars, and that’s not quite exciting enough for me.
Rating: Comfortable Colonisation
But wait! We aren’t finished yet! Pocket Mars comes with a solo mode too! Could we have a shock turn around on our hands here!?
Just as you settle in to a nice solo flight to Mars you discover the malevolent androids have decided they’d do a better job of this colonisation effort anyway and are racing you there. The solo mode of Pocket Mars is honestly great! You play mostly as normal, but instead of drawing cards from the deck, you refresh your hand from the prep module of your automated opponent. They then play the remaining card, always getting to add one of their androids to the corresponding building and getting a special android power associated with that building.
This is great and does what the multiplayer game fails to do: makes you really care about what is in your opponents’ prep module. It also means you have to choose the type of card you gain, rather than getting whatever is on top of the deck, and that choice is interesting. You care about what your cardboard opponent will play, and you know what you want to be doing given what you have left in your area. It’s a neat puzzle made extremely tight by a rapidly ticking clock (the deck ditches two cards by itself each round and when it’s empty the game is over) that mean it’s a real challenge to get all your astronauts down on Mars.
Pocket Mars solo mode is a great addition to the game that, bizarrely, is probably better than the main game it was added to! It’s a real challenge that demands you think and plan multiple turns ahead, yet still has you adapting to the randomness of the draw deck. You know, Pocket Mars is a pretty cheap game (around £10 last I checked) and while I don’t normally like to make sweeping judgements on price, that’s cheap enough to be worth getting just for the solo mode! Then the full multiplayer game, which is perfectly reasonable, is basically a freebie! Quite the turn around.
Solo Rating: Lift Off
Final comment: I have no idea why that astronaut has drawn a smiley face on his visor but it’s creeping me the hell out…
My copy of Pocket Mars was provided for review by the publisher, Board & Dice.