Complexity and complication are weird concepts. One insinuates lots of moving parts and a strong level of depth and direction, the other insinuates the same without the depth. The number of moving parts in a board game can be the mechanics, choices or other such elements where players effectively "drive forward" to a goal. Where the complexity becomes complication is when there's no direction for this. It becomes a shock to find that the Y and the Z must be completed before the X, but it wasn't ever clarified. Y and Z always seemed trivial! No prompt and no examples. No purpose.
We've no doubt all played a game where we've thought elements added to unnecessary complication, and it ruins that complexity. Initially, you may say that On Mars, by Eagle Gryphon Games is a game that, is complicated. Lots of choice, many mechanics, components galore... But then you look closer, and the complication fades away. It's complexity is only complimented by its clear direction throughout. The clear direction gives player clarity. It's a game that shocked us with how well it can be picked up once the rules are read, particularly when considering how many moving parts there are... We'd go as far as to say it's a stunning spectacle of board game engineering!
To explain how On Mars is played to a point where you could read a review and understand it is to reduce it so much that it becomes abstract. It's rules are thorough, robust, clear and detailed. However, we can give you an overview of the purpose and directions taken by players...
You all play as private companies who have been granted contracts to help colonise Mars further. People have colonised Mars, but not to the scale the Earth government want. You need to work as a collective to meet the needs of the life support systems (LSS) to advance the colony a level. To do this effectively, you'll need to utilise the actions available on Mars, and on the space station above Mars.
Travelling to and from Mars isn't a click of your finger action though, as the shuttle travelling there and back does so over rounds. If you're on Mars with the shuttle, at the end of the round you can choose to travel to the station. If you're on Mars but the shuttle isn't, you're stuck there for another round! There are other means of travel, but these can be detrimental to your own progress in opportunities points/OP (victory points).
To set up, all players take all associated tokens of their colours. They also take three private goals to focus on. You only complete one, but choice is always good as the benefits vary. They also gain one of every resource. These go on the player's own boards, along with their unique technology to develop. The board is set up with three random missions, all starting buildings, and a habitat building for each player. Then, draw random rewards and place them above the LSS track to associate as rewards for developing the colony.
On Mars runs the game on a shared economy of five major resources: minerals, batteries, water, plants, and air. These associate directly to five of the seven resources you have access to. The other resources are your number of colonists and crystals. Only you use your colonists and they hold value to you to spend on actions (or to boost actions further). The tricky thing is that they're reclaimable upon your return to wherever you leave them. So you drop a bloke off in the space station and get him back when you've been to Mars and come back. This can sometimes be a multitude of rounds between, and gaining more colonists requires a bit of preparation.
The other five resources run as a cycle with the colonists. Colonists mine minerals, minerals make batteries, batteries power water filters, water filters produce greenhouses, green houses help make air filters, and air filters allow you to house more colonists. These are not the limited actions, and many have a multitude of other applications, too! Another resource, though not one that comes as an exchangeable commodity, is the private shuttles.
Players bring these in as an action to add more colonists to their numbers, and they also increase the executive actions available to players. The colonists would of course need places to sleep, meaning you've got to have things in place ready. No beds? No use. The other function of the shuttles is their flight capability. Should you be unable to get to the space station, you're going to need a means of transport. These are one time use, and not using them means more OP at the end of the game.
On Mars runs in rounds over three phases. The Colonisation Phase, the Executive Phase, and the Shuttle Phase. The colony phase focuses on the actions of the players, with satellite based players taking their actions first, in turn. These are based more around the logistic elements of the game, and are required for some of the other actions, too. While off colony in orbit, you can take blueprints which give resources and allow you to upgrade buildings on colony. You can also develop and upgrade technologies, which enable you to advance parts of the colony. Also, you can access the warehouse to gain resources when you're low. The final action off colony allows you to go to the colony - a last resort when you absolutely need to get back to Mars.
Whilst on Mars, there's much more to do centres around the colony's development. From building structures to advance the colony to upgrading buildings, the map will change a lot whilst on Mars. Upgrading buildings opens up new executive actions, specific to you. These upgrades come in two levels, level one and level three.
Level one upgrades need only a single building, whereas level three buildings need a complex (more than one of the same building connected). You can also gain scientists, people who can utilise other people's unique executive actions for free! (With that player also using it for free, too.) You can also bring in more private ships to gain more colonists. Eventually you'll be able to take on Earth Contracts, but these can be risky if incomplete! Finally, you can move your robots and rovers. Robots allow you to build and upgrade, and the rover can collect things of interest that are on Mars's surface.
The Executive Phase is where players take executive actions. Players, for the most part, unlock these as they bring ships in. As a standard, players spend crystals to activate executive actions. These are vast and varied, but powerful as they aren't dependent on whether you're in orbit or on the colony. More can be accessed through upgrading buildings, too, but these become unique to players unless someone has a matching scientist (as mentioned earlier). The benefit for this is that it doesn't cost the crystals to activate, but it also allows the owner to use it for free. The Shuttle Phase is where the shuttle moves along the track, often travelling to or from Mars. The amount of time taken to travel to and fro is dependent on the current LSS level. Eventually, it doesn't move at all, meaning players must make do and plan methodically!
Most the points in On Mars appear at the very end of the game, but players can gain them throughout. The fastest gain for OP is through focusing on what the colony needs and upgrading the LSS at the right time. Timing is everything. If the colony needs more greenhouses and you build one, you move the marker up and gain points according to the random benefits drawn in game setup. If the colony didn't need greenhouses, you get nothing.
As the LSS develops, players will inevitably create complexes. These advances will enable players to place Progress Cubes under the associated building's LSS tracks to show they have made leaps in the progress. The LSS advancing causes point gains for placed Progress Cubes, refills the warehouse, but it also advances the missions track. This also allows them to score points as the LSS levels up.
Players score for the number of ships in their hangar, points for the highest number of colonists available, and points for upgraded buildings. They also score for the level of the technology they have developed, and for the buildings associated to the scientists they own and and Earth Contracts they complete. Although, players also lose points for incomplete blueprints and Earth Contracts. The game ends when the LSS hits level 5, or upon the completion of all three missions. Whoever scores the most OP is the winner of On Mars!
How It Handles
On Mars is complex. Not complicated. Oh my days did we think it was complicated when initially reading the rules... lots of moving parts, not simultaneously, but more than we were usually used to seeing. Luckily, it isn't difficult to grasp in reality! It runs in a line. To upgrade buildings, you need blueprints and a base building, and to get those you need minerals and space to build. Positioning, timing, and choosing the order to do something is key.
There are many direct line to something, but it's dependent on the order you do things. You have a path to follow, you just follow it as you need to. This game tested the tacticians amongst our group, and really put them on the wire. You can easily make a big plan, but executing it requires hitting the goal of it. With so many options mid path, distraction and hindrance are very likely without clear focus..
You can access resources easily and frequently... if you manage them well! You've got to spend money to make money, but you can't guarantee it'll be a quick thing. So, to get cash you can take blueprints.. but risk not building them. You can move from Mars to orbit and trigger development, but if you don't have any advanced buildings or mines you'll get nothing. Alternatively you gain resources by visiting the warehouse, but if it’s empty you're stuck too. It's a balancing act! As most the decent actions, the ones that make big waves in progress, cost.
You'll never be questioning how to get a specific resource, there's many routes to it, but it might mean spending specific resources. I spent a few turns in orbit claiming blueprints just to get enough resources to last a few rounds on Mars. It worked, and I felt blessed for it, but I foolishly risked those incomplete blueprints.
Picking Blueprints and Scouring Scientists
The blueprints are tremendously coveted by all players due to their ease of access. In terms of gaining executive actions, these are the go to. You'll get a plethora of things you can do which will enhance you play outside of the colonisation phase. And that's a big thing!
As the colonisation phase can sometimes feel limited if your actions didn't produce and only spent. The issue? Ensuring the blueprints are going to benefit you in the long run. As I said, I picked up blueprints on the fly just for resources and this meant I wasn't actually using the buildings. Sure, I got points easily and it helped, but it was more responsibility on my turn - and that was a killer! To counter that, I made it so I nabbed the scientists associated to those blueprints. It made it an incentive to gain them and also enhanced my end game points too!
Some of the level three blueprints are fantastic though when compared to the level ones. The level ones were perfect for early game - in example of the "build a greenhouse" executive action. You still needed to adhere to the standard building rules, but it made a cracking difference! Those fast points and extra freedoms became luxury though as the game progressed, and I didn't find I was using them as often - if at all! This showed the need to progress accordingly with the LSS development. Arguably, the best blueprint was the one that allows you to travel from Mars to orbit. A simple, yet insanely powerful option to take! It was an executive action, so it was out of colonisation, and it meant that when the shuttle stopped you didn't have to spend ships.
The other element with blueprints is the association to the scientists. These fellows undeniably drove the game's blueprint choices, and vice-versa. If I could have the associated scientist to my best blueprint, it meant I was a constant step ahead. If not, I may have had to share! Also, it meant that their scientist would score for your advanced building existing. Not a game changer, but an annoyance nonetheless. Remember, you all colonise Mars, but you have to colonise it the best.
On Mars's technology development mechanic is awesome. It really emphasises the fact you're "working together" in a sense. So, if you develop a tech to level four, everyone gets that benefit. This means that you can hinder opponents by not enhancing a tech they need. If someone does utilise your tech, you do gain an air resource... but it means they'll have made progress. Progress you could have made! It's tricky, but mastering which tech to advance and which to abandon is very contextual to how your game is played.
When you gain a tech you pay its cost, dependent on where you drew it from. After that, how you advance it is up to you! On the colony map, there are several starting tokens that allow you to advance tech for free. I can't stress enough how important these are. Seriously. In a pinch, a deficit of resources, or our of spite, they're worth nabbing! Advancing technologies up the track increases the OP you receive at the end of the game, but also how far the players develop the colony.
Now, there's undeniably that thought of "spiteful play will ruin my day!", and you're right - if someone refuses to upgrade a tech you need use of, your stuck. Or maybe not. Particularly in sense of building complexes. If some greedy soul is holding the greenhouse tech at level one, and you need it to be level two, you can boost its level by sending workers to your work area. It spends more workers, but guarantees that you aren’t stuck waiting on them to make haste! It also adds pressure to those spiteful so-and-sos to do the work themselves. Again, you're supposed to work together!
Taking Actions and Boosting Them
You take actions in one of two ways. You either say you're doing it, and pay the cost. Simple, straight forward and doesn't require colonist assistance. Or you place a colonist on the board, pay a crystal/colonist for every other player's colonist there, then pay the standard cost. Being first to the party here is a big help! Paying colonists means moving them to your work area - like they're picking up the slack as needed. You keep them, and can get them back, but it can hinder your next actions! On the flip-side here, choosing to do a colonist costing action you don't need right away can hinder you co-colonisers. It'll slow down the competition at a cost to them. Sneaky, devious, but all part of the competition!
Boosting actions is a unique element of On Mars in that you can choose to pay to do an action twice. Actions that can be boosted always show this through the use of a blue colonist/crystal, with a red indicating it costs colonists to be placed following the mentioned costs. There's no cap on the number of boosts, and the cost of a boost is sometimes crystals for an extra one. So moving a rover twice is your usual free of charge action, and then one more move per crystal. However, using the colonists is where it becomes a double edged sword.
You'll get the benefits of using an action twice, following the usual rules, but you'll spend a colonist. A colonist who may have been an integral gear in your grand scheme... And remembering they only rock up back home when you return to wherever they were working, it may be a long time before they're back to pick up the pieces.
The beauty of On Mars is unparalleled. We've played a fair few space themed games in our time. Space is a theme that allows for that undeniable level of gorgeousness that some other themes miss... But the level of detail for On Mars is well above expected. The back of the board depicts a stunning image of the colony and orbit sides of the board, the cards look incredible, and there's something about the symbolism too. It all fits. You could find a component from this that you may have foolishly left out and it would scream "On Mars" at you. But what captivated us is the asymmetry across the game.
The scientists do what the same thing across different resources, so nothing too different. But their imagery makes them look like they're of the profession scripted on their cards. And the advanced buildings, these could have been just cubes. Nope! They could have been stock buildings. No again! Every players' set of buildings look different. Fitting really, remembering you're a different private company. It's a delicate touch to the detail that doesn't overbear the game. We thought it was incredibly charming and showed just how much attention had been laid to the game's overall production.
The final thing to mention here is the player boards themselves. These host a plethora of things for their size: executive actions, all resources, tech development tracks, private ships... It should be a mess. It isn't. It's visually sensible and easy to follow. The board is indented for spaces for things, is illustrated with clear hints for what's what, and the symbolism of the game flows beautifully onto it.
In A Nutshell
On Mars is a game that we thoroughly enjoyed and picked up, easily guided by the rules and reference book. It presents as heavy and unwelcoming. And the people we've spoken to have said they were put off because of its number of moving elements. What we found interesting though is that, when it's discussed and concepts are explained, it incentivises people to dip their toes onto Mars. The game is aesthetically excellent, clarified wonderfully within the rules, and is an phenomenal amount of fun! This is definitely one to get you thinking, and it will no doubt be one you may never master. As much as you're working together to colonise Mars, you won't necessarily directly interact with others. Hindrances aren't direct but they hit hard. But remember, you're supposed to be working together!