Mars. Everyone’s obsessed with getting there. Be it to settle, steal alien technology or to show that they can, Mars is the target of focus for everyone with money, and it’s not a question of if we get there… but when we get there. Until then, we’ll have to focus our attention on other Martian based activities, like Ruins of Mars by Atheris Games. It’s a 1-4 player action queue, resource management game that takes around an hour and a half to play.
In Ruins of Mars, players are competing to restore ancient, Martian technology and to learn lost languages. Players take turns to move the Rover to specific locations and trigger the actions available there, either gathering resources or progressing on language tracks based on where they are. They can then restore lost technologies by spending resources and earning instant or ongoing bonuses based on whats restored.
This game is a sort of action queueing game. I say sort of because it doesn’t fit the bill exactly. When players trigger actions on a location, they shuffle the action tokens there, place one back on the chosen location and distribute the rest to the right one at a time. This means the tokens are constantly moving and no location can have the same actions on it for too long a period.
Set Up and Taking a Turn
To kick-off, all players receive resource tracking and a technology board. The communal ruins are set up by distributing the action tokens as evenly as possible and the languages track by placing players’ cubes to track their progress. The oxygen track and technology cards are placed in lines so that technology Levels 1-3 are in columns, lining up with 0-4 oxygen costs. Finally, the rover token is given to the first player and unique characters are given to all.
On a player’s turn in Ruins of Mars, they choose where the rover will visit on Mars. There are five locations, two that advance the language track, two that give resources and one that gives time tokens. Time tokens enable players to use some unique location abilities and their player ability too. However, the more powerful the location the more radiation a player will receive for going there… and radiation reduces a player’s final score and counts for double if the most irradiated!
Scoring Points and Winning
Players aim to collect sets of technology and learn languages to score points at the end of the game. The final scoring occurs when four languages are mastered (have a score marker at the top of them) or when a player has nine technologies. Once either of these happens, players get one more turn and then the game ends.
The language tracks earn more points as they are learned, but only one player can master each. Points at the tops of the tracks are monumentally greater than the lower portions, but being able to move up the tracks requires players to have certain amounts of Levels 1 and 2 technologies.
With this need for balance, technologies are also built incrementally. You must have two Level 1 technologies to build a Level 2, and at least one Level 2 to build a Level 3. Technologies tier in usefulness across the board and also in cost. It’ll take big investments for the heavier Level 3 technologies, but they’re worth it. Scoring with technologies is done in terms of types in rows. Players earn maximum bonuses for matching lettered tech in a row, middle bonuses for no matches, and a low bonus for having a full row. Planning where technology goes is important to score well with these, but technology can also give end game points too.
How It Handles
Ruins of Mars is a game that makes you think, plan and consider the future… a lot. Not just regarding the likelihood that Mars’ ancient technology will knock our socks off in the real world, but also in how what you do will benefit others. It’s undoubtedly a game for those who can plan ahead and weigh up the risk/reward of short term choices for long term outcomes. You can always see the situation of the game, but how it’ll sit when it’s you again is something you’ll have to learn to account for.
See The Sights, Use The Facilities!
The redistribution system in this game is one I’ve not experienced before. You’re not reallocating actions, but potential resources. It means that you’ll cash in based on what you need as opposed to what you’ll want to do. And it works! By keeping players on their toes, it ensures greed is not a suitable tactic. Sure, you can have unlimited resources, but they only allow you to gain technology. And, as mentioned, the technology requires placement patterns to score well.
Each location has an added bonus associated with it that makes it extra useful. For example, the first location lets you use the tool icon to heal radiation. Perfect for if you’ve been abusing your body in the irradiated Martian wastelands! There’s also the potential to gain bonus timer tokens, learn languages of choice, gain any resources or roll for even more time tokens! The catch? You need those tool icons to be at the right place at the right time… it makes the bonuses literally that. A bonus.
Ruins of Mars ensures you’re choosing where to go by considering all the factors presented to you. You can’t base a turn entirely on the bonus unless you’re in a really bad position or severely lacking the necessary key to a plan. By implementing this, the game makes it relatively balanced in how players will approach choosing a location to go to. Languages and resources aside, the bonus may tip favour to a less stacked location! (Particularly if, like me, you end up being very, very irradiated!)
Learn the Lingo!
Most of the points in Ruins of Mars come from the language track and one’s mastery of it. Rich from someone who barely speaks English, I know, but it’s true. Any amount of mastery can result in some points, and the triggering of particular locations will enhance your knowledge in that area regardless. However! The risk of a runaway winner with this is prominent and comes as a double-edged sword. It keeps it competitive, and it’s down to the convenience of what tokens end up in which locations on your turn.
I feel there needs to be a lot of emphasis on this in particular. The language track is not the scoring track but will push your score the hardest. With 10+ points available at the top end of each flavour of track, there’s no end of potential to cash in here! And why wouldn’t you? Convenience is the reason to take up a Martian Duolingo course in the early game. A big stack of language points is a no brainer… but late game, you’ll go to it to make sure you win it. You’ll get points regardless to your positioning on it, but visually seeing where everyone is and the points they’re getting makes it really competitive.
The risk is a runaway winner. It’s possible to get outplayed by poor placement of tiles in any location, but with the language track, it’s much more obvious. No amount of skill can stop someone conveniently always getting three reds on it every turn! Luckily, there is somewhat of a solution… or more, a controlling element for players. By spending two oxygen or two-time tokens, they move a tile from an adjacent location to there’s. Thus enhancing the benefits accrued from the location and reducing the lottery effect of random distribution.
We Can Rebuild It
Ruins of Mars’ main theme and plot centre on restoring ancient technologies to help save Earth. So surely these are the corner stone of focus and points… right? Wrong. No. Stop it. Points here are earned only when placement is appropriate and matches patterns. Now normally players can easily utilise this as an easy scoring opportunity: I mean, how hard is it get a pattern going on a row? Well… it’s a little more complicated than that
Each technology has two functions. Firstly, it helps score points. All tech falls into categories A, B, C or D depending on the type. Combining in with that is the tiering of levels 1 through 3. The right combination of matching tech will score the most points and isn’t that tricky to get down. However! Getting these down may not always be short term benefits. Technology’s other function is its bonus. All tech provides an ongoing or instant boon to whomever owns it, meaning it can give you a real edge as things get more tense.
Choosing the right technology to build for the right purpose is important for both short term benefits and long term goals. It may seem trivial, but gaining a free resource every turn or moving a track for free adds up quickly! There’s no dressing it up that the points help, but are those guaranteed points going to outweigh the continual benefits? It makes for a real thinker of a game and one that allows players to be dynamic in their setups and play styles, which is great!
Alone In Space…
For all its merits, Ruins of Mars can feel like a very lonely game. Player interaction is pretty limited and direct conflict is nonexistent. Don’t get me wrong, for some players that’s bliss! But even the solo mode feels like you’re all alone despite the AI’s activities. What’s more is that, as much as you’re considering how your choice will affect other locations and the benefits provided, in a four-player game it can feel like a randomly drawn set-up due to how much will have changed. Again, some will enjoy the “deal with what you get” feel of this, but it doesn’t encourage tactical planning as much as it could. At two or three, it’s perfect. More and you’re going to have a very unpredictable game where you’re planning on the fly. A very different feel at different player counts.
I genuinely enjoyed Ruins of Mars for its stylings, theme and “action queue” mechanic. Working towards a few goals simultaneously to score points meant I could analyse my options and choose what was beneficial without feeling I’d wasted time. It looks quite pretty too and is pretty easy to pick up and play. At larger player counts the chaos of a resource shuffle can make the game feel unpredictable to the point that long term tactics are impossible. However, it still works turn to turn by playing to what’s available and weighing the options against what’s needed. If you’re one for a non-conflict feel, something a bit unique and a game with some unpredictability, I’d recommend giving Ruins of Mars a go!