The first settlers of Mars are arriving soon, but the colony is not ready yet! You are the robots that are trying to build the colony before the settlers arrive. The goal in Magic Maze on Mars is to build "domes" where the settlers can live, then to guide them to their domes when they arrive. When times runs out, they are out of oxygen.
Magic Maze burst onto the scene in 2017 to a chorus of cheers and a plethora of awards including a nomination for the Spiel des Jahres, one of the most prestigious board game awards for best family game. It lost narrowly to Kingdomino, but many thought its original game play and unique mechanisms deserved the victory. The game follows a series of adventurers trying to escape a Mall/Shopping centre/day in hell, depending on your persuasion. You can read a full review of Magic Maze here.
Last year, designer Kasper Lapp re-entered the Magic Maze world with Magic Maze on Mars. A phenomenal standalone sequel that has not received as much on a fanfare and I cannot fathom why. Magic Maze on Mars takes all the good parts from Magic Maze, expands upon them and puts the game into a far more believable and immersive theme. It makes for, in my opinion, a better game. But there are some considerations.
Less is more
If you are not familiar already, let me quickly explain how this game works. You are controlling robots on a Mars base, preparing the habitat so it is ready for the crew. This involves mining and moving resources to create the living habits, clearing away trash and avoiding space slugs. Each player has a specific set of moves according to the player count. In a two-player game you will have access to three actions. In a six-player game you will have access to two actions, some of which will be shared by other players. Your actions are essentially access to certain colour paths that you can move the robots on. You move the robots about until you have reached that module's goals to create a certain amount of habits, and victory is yours. Sounds simple enough right?
There are two twists. First, the game is timed, and as such, very tense. Most games come very close, victory or otherwise. Secondly, you cannot talk. This was the huge twist in the first game that captivated people. A co-op game where you cannot talk with your friends.
I love teaching this game to new people and always enjoy holding this final rule back right until the end. People are always sitting there thinking, “ok, I get this. Seems simple. Maybe even too easy.” You then drop the no talking rule and chaos erupts. It’s a lot of fun to see people’s reactions to this rule. Every time it changes everything for them and players start to think how is this even possible! It’s a similar vibe to The Mind in this respect and has touches of Hanabi too.
But in Magic Maze it feels far crazier to not be able to talk. In The Mind and Hanabi all you are doing is laying cards in a sequence, talking would be pretty pointless. That turns the game from fun to organising. In Magic Maze, the lack of communication is far more of a mechanic ingrained in the theme. You are robots. You cannot talk to other robots. You just do what you are programmed to do. In the first game when you played as characters from a mythical land, with access to magic and inter-dimensional travel, it always confused me somewhat why they couldn’t simply get a commslink!
Magic Maze had 17 scenarios in the box. It’s a great way to introduce the rules to new players and learn the game. It also adds a narrative story to the game in a campaign style that really was what intrigued me. Magic Maze has just five modules. This initially disappointed me. But there are plenty of other tiles in the box to create your own maps and mission. So, there is still a lot of replayability and more creativity with that. Creating your own missions is great fun!
If you want a co-op game that is full of tension, laughter and ultimate satisfaction, this ticks all three of those boxes. It’s family friendly. Easy to learn and each game lasts between five and ten minutes. Perfect for a quick burst of fun. Set up and put away is quick, and the learning curve through the module mechanisms is brilliantly smooth.
Like Magic Maze, Magic Maze on Mars has a “Do Something!” pawn. Essentially, this is a way to tell another player that there is something they should do. Pretty much, every game I have played, and I have played both games a lot, one player will slam this pawn down in front of another player, banging it repeatedly on the table. Now, there are multiple issues here! First, it’s very annoying, rude and “don’t scratch my table dude!” Second, the person on the end of the banging won’t know what you want them to do, just that something is required by one other player.
You have multiple actions, remember. Maybe the move the banger wants the other player to do is wrong? There are multiple paths to victory, and perhaps the player smashing the pawn hasn’t spotted another quicker route to success. Maybe the other players are working towards a more effective plan, and this plan requires the banger to do something themselves. Games can sometimes turn into a tennis match of “you do something” smashing, rather than a game.
Real time, timed games can do this to people. Removing the ability to talk adds a lot of frustration for some people. The “Do Something” pawn is a horrible way to let these players release their tension.
Do not despair. There are four ways around this. 1. Remove the piece from the game. 2. Say there is no banging, only gently passing (good luck with that!) 3. Limit the use of the piece to once per player per game. 4. Ask your banger friend to get some drinks and finish the game without them!
I mention all this, as for the people I have played with, this is the only thing they have said they didn’t like. So, if you don’t mind the idea of “Do Something” pawn or think your friends can play with this piece in a nicer manner than mine, then this game could be for you.
With great tension, comes great cheering
The tension created in this game is so high! Sure, this can cause the odd stressful moment, but that’s only because you want to win. There are so many games I don’t really mind winning or losing. Here, I want to win every time, but it is not easy. As such, the victories are very sweet and are often greeted by huge cheers and utter delight. Something you just don’t see in many games.
There are a lot of better games that end in a moment of quiet self-reflection and satisfaction that comes nowhere near the big moments felt in games like Mage Maze on Mars. If you have ever completed The Mind, Tetris level 9-5 or maybe have won big on a TV game show, you will know what I mean. This is a good game that has brilliant moments that make it punch way above its weight. For years, in the UK, we all loved Tim Henman. We knew he was a bit rubbish, but every now and then he would thrill us with something amazing. That made him very popular. I don’t really like tennis, but watched Tim in those moments of Wimbledon brilliance. Sometimes I don’t want to play this game as I want to get into something meatier. But I often turn to it for one quick game. You never know, I might beat Samprass in the semis.
This brings me on to my final point. Why would you get this if you have Magic Maze already? Well, you already know if you liked that or not. If you do, you will love this. No question, although the reduced modules will annoy you! But have fun making your own with the extra tiles. If you didn’t like it, then you will probably prefer this, but I wouldn’t wager enough to make you want it in your collection as well. But then, if this was the case, I would imagine you wouldn’t have got this far into the review!
Time for one more ridiculous analogy
I have played both Magic Maze and Magic Maze on Mars to death and think I will continue to do so for many years to come. I love a campaign style game. It's one of my favourite mechanisms in any game. I also love the tension and satisfaction that comes from completing a tricky level. This doesn’t get old. I love teaching new players this game and introducing them to the ridiculous rules and the fun that comes from these quirks. But most of all, I love seeing the face of other players when the game clicks, and as a group, you all start to work as a group, in one smooth harmonious team. Sliding your robots around the board in silent harmony. It’s a beautiful thing that I imagine is what Olympic Ice skaters can only dream of.