Mars, the red planet. A hostile, unforgiving environment, dust everywhere and an unbreathable atmosphere, sounds like the perfect location for an adventure right? Well MCEI (Mars Colonisation and Expansion Initiative) seem to think so. The year is 2029 and MCEI have sent you, the first human to walk on the red planet, to lay the groundwork for the next stage of colonisation of the red planet.
First Martians is a 1-4 player co-operative story driven adventure. Players are given a mission with a number of objectives to complete over a set number of rounds. The game is driven by an app which takes you through the turn order and throws some unpredictable events which the players have to deal with. The game offers three standalone missions and a campaign mode. One of the campaign modes also offers a legacy aspect to the game. The game comes with four different playable astronauts all of which have different skills that can be activated.
First Martians Gameplay
Set-up for the game is fairly involved, the hub needs to be prepared with the required rooms and the current status (working or malfunctioning) depending on the mission being undertaken. The astronauts are selected and all the cards and other tokens are laid out ready for the game.
The game takes up a fair amount of table space with all the components and a smart phone or tablet is also required to play the game. The rule book is also fairly large and in depth. This review only highlights the main parts to give you a feel of how the game plays and is not intended to cover everything.
Each round in First Martians consists of six phases; Events, Morale, Production, Actions, Malfunction and Clean-up.
The app will display an event which must be actioned. There is typically a malfunction somewhere in one of the three "blocks" on the game board. The malfunction track is advanced one space on the detailed track. A mission event can also occur. These enhance the gameplay and add more depth to the story. These mission events can be dealt with in a set number of round or further consequences and follow-up events can occur.
This is a reflection of the overall mood of the astronauts, however only the first player resolves its effect. The track ranges from -2 to +3. The first player receives or discards morale tokens equal to the position on the track. If a player has no morale tokens to discard and is required to do so, they suffer one wound per token they are short.
If at any time during the game an astronaut suffers a certain number of wounds they receive a "condition". These conditions negatively affect how your astronaut performs i.e. A migraine means that an astronaut cannot use his special skills.
The hub contains oxygenators, which provide oxygen solar panels, which provide energy and farms, which provide food. A quantity of oxygen, energy and food is produced each round depending on how effectively these units are working. Each of the rooms in the hubs require oxygen and energy, whilst food is used to feed the astronauts. At the start of the game the required number of these resources is typically the sum total of the oxygenators, solar panels and farms working at peak efficiency. Any excess resources produced are halved and added to your general supply.
If not enough of oxygen or energy is produced (because one of them is malfunctioning) then one of the facilities shuts down. A shut down token is placed on the a facility decided by the player. A shut down facility adds an additional two stress to the stress track every turn (more on stress later). To use the facility again a pawn must be used in the action phase and the shut down tile resolved.
- Stress - The stress level is increased by one every round for each astronaut and any other additional in game effects. Once the stress level reaches 18 there is a fight. Each astronaut suffers one wound and the group morale is decreased by one.
- Working Block - If there are any red cubes in the active penalties block (represented by a cog) then these effects are resolved now.
This is the main part of the game. Players discuss what actions are required and place their player's disc on the relevant space. The event received at the beginning of the turn can be actioned in this phase. Some spaces can be actioned with one pawn, some with two pawns for guaranteed success or with one pawn and a dice roll.
Once all pawns have been placed the actions are then performed. The actions spaces may also contain various modifiers which must be taken in to account when performing the actions. In addition to the standard action spaces on the board there can also be mission specific actions.
When performing actions, AOMs (Automated Operating Machines) can also be used to give players additional help (in the form of another playing piece) or perform actions on their own depending on the AOM employed. Players also have two rovers (Froggy and Scorpio) that can be used for actions outside of the facility. Froggy counts as two additional pawns when exploring. Scorpio provides one additional pawn for exploring, gathering, researching or building. Each of the rovers must be used in conjunction with another players pawn.
As mentioned above, if sufficient pawns are not placed for a guaranteed action a dice roll is required. The three dice representing the block the action is being performed in are rolled. Results can be a success and the action is performed, no success but gain two morale, suffer one wound, resolve an adventure or a blank with nothing happening. All adventures are actioned through the app.
There are a wide number of action spaces that can be selected including:
- The Event space to action the event on the app.
- A Quiet Place to gain a morale.
- Crew Quarters to lower stress.
- Med Lab to heal a wound or condition.
- Control Centre to reduce one space on the malfunction track.
- Garage Hall to explore regions of interest on the map outside the hub.
- Probe Bay to gather samples from regions of interest.
- Lab to perform research on samples and to plant seeds in the farms.
- Working bay to install upgrades, repair broken equipment using spare parts and create mission specific items.
In this phase the malfunction dice are rolled depending on mission specific requirements and the malfunction box located on the main board. Any other malfunctioning rooms (red cubes in the cog space) are added to the pips rolled. The malfunction track for each block (working, living, system) is increased by the total level of malfunction acquired. If the malfunction track reaches five a malfunction card is drawn for the relevant block and the effects resolved. The malfunction track is reset to 0.
The final phase in the round. Any modifier tokens on the exclamation space are discarded and tokens on the double arrow space are moved to the exclamation space and take effect the next round.
Anything in the pending cargo bay area is moved to the available cargo bay area ready to be used next turn. The turn round marker is moved up one space and pass the first player token.
Game continues in this way until all objectives have been completed, which can be tracked and marked on the app and win the mission. The mission can be failed if one of the astronauts dies, players run out of time and if you don't meet the objectives.
Is Hard Work Worth It?
First Martians is a fantastic game but it is also an unforgiving game, similar to what I imagine Mars would be like. It really feels like you are on Mars, trying to survive and complete your mission sent from HQ. The few missions that I have played have a real sense of escalation.
You and your fellow astronauts start off pretty well. A working facility with plenty of oxygen, energy and food and minimal malfunctions. Life on Mars is good. However, this soon changes and the sense of escalation from "We are doing OK, we can do this" to "Ohh my...everything is falling apart, I have anaemia, the rovers are damaged and morale is at a all time low," is high.
Careful planning and action selection is paramount in First Martians as things can go from bad to worse in a matter of minutes. The app driven events are nice touch and add a sense of story to the gameplay. The special abilities of each player help when things are going wrong and the conditions that your astronauts can receive are an added mechanism to manage. There is enough variation in the missions and campaign to keep players going for a while. There is scope for new missions to be released in the future to further extend the gameplay and longevity of the game.
First Martians is often regarded as the Robinson Crusoe set on Mars. After playing First Martians I can see why people make the connection but it does offer some new features and additional gameplay and kind of turns it on its head. In Robinson Crusoe you start off with barely anything, not even a shovel or a piece of tarpaulin to keep you dry. You craft everything you need with the minimal of resources and tools. In First Martians, you start off with tools and tech in abundance. You have two vehicles that you can use (Rover and Scorpio), you have AOMs, you have food, energy, oxygen. But then it all starts to fall apart and break down, machines break, rooms shut down. It all feels similar yet different. If you like Robinson Crusoe and the gameplay then you are sure to like First Martians.
If you are looking for a good, yet hard, solo or co-op adventure game then take a look at First Martians. But be prepared for the investment to learn the rules and to lose a few games in the process. Whether you win or lose you will have fun doing it and a great story will be told. I can't wait to see what the campaign might hold and future expansions for this game.