If you’re looking for a game about mining through the desolate crust of Mars in search of glittering jewels and alien relics, you’ve just hit the motherload, the Super Motherload! This is a deck-building, tile-laying game with a unique ‘scrolling’ board and a deeply satisfying fast pace. From the design team of Gavan Brown and Matt Tolman whose names you may recognise from another Roxley games masterpiece. Yes, these guys collaborated with Martin Wallace on his acclaimed Brass sequel, Brass Birmingham. So what can you expect from Super Motherload? Let’s take a look.
As I mentioned SML is a deckbuilding game set on Mars. The Solarus Corporation is intent on reaching the precious gems encrusted in the planet's crust. Each player leads an elite crew of Pod Pilots and has been instructed to reinvest the profit from this initial project back into their crew, training better and more efficient Pod Pilots! Will yours be the greatest crew in Solarus history?!
Your crew is embodied by your deck of 23 cards. 7 basic cards make up your starting deck while the other 16 are available to buy with the gems you mine. The deck is split between 3 coloured suits and a wild suit. Each type has its own… interesting character and its own specialty use on the board.
The main action of the game is drilling. You can drill down from the surface or off of an existing bore hole in any direction you choose. The length of your drilling will depend on how many cards of the same colour or wild you discard from your hand. To mark your proud drilling’s you place the appropriate length of tile on the board, gaining any items that it covers. Relics give you one-time bonuses.
Gems are immediately placed on one of your 4 pilot stacks, when the value of gems on a pilot matches that card's value it’s added to your deck. Bombs are another useful item that can be used in conjunction with your red suit cards. Every red pilot has a polyomino shape on it, if you discard a red card and a bomb token instead of drilling… boom! You can place tiles in the shape on the card onto the board providing one side still touches an open tunnel or the surface. Again any items covered are yours.
So far so standard right? Here’s the stuff that makes Super Motherload a real Martian gem. When the last alien relic symbol has been covered on the board the next depth level is added. A new board, richer in resources is added below the last, if there are already 2 boards on the table the topmost is discarded from play. As well as providing gentle time pressure to strip upper boards of useful items, this also gives a fun scrolling feel to the board.
It lends the game a retro video game aura while simultaneously stopping it hogging too much of the table. Pretty nifty. Another fantastic facet of gameplay is the bonuses that different cards afford. These little gifts come at two different times, either when you buy the card or when you use the card. They seem like little things these bonuses but honestly, they take very standard tile-laying gameplay and give it just enough combotastic asymmetry to raise the satisfaction several levels.
The third mechanic is very common, common objective or achievement cards. These are claimed by the first person to achieve their requisite, something like ‘drill a 4 length tunnel’ or ‘have 3 relic tokens in your supply’. Claimed achievements will award their taker with endgame points. Usually, these objectives are quite limited and take most of the game to achieve. What’s cool about the achievements in Super Motherload is that they’re are fairly quick to meet. When they’re claimed they’re immediately replaced. This sets a fast and frenetic pace to these extracurricular goals that really lights a fire under players and it’s genuinely exciting fighting for these ever-changing objectives.
The Nuts And Bolts
The aforementioned are the most enjoyable parts of SML. There are of course less enjoyable qualities. The graphic design is great, fits the design and retro video game feel nicely. The art though gets seriously weird on some of these cards. I mean one Pod crew is made up of a battered budgie, drooling space dog, a feathered red person and what I can only describe as a cosmic Frankenstein! It’s… interesting. It’s not a deal breaker but I must admit to avoiding that deck if possible!
Another possible downside is the lack of variability in the game. Although the depth boards are double sided they must go in the same vertical order each game. The cards players can buy are set in the same order every game too, starting with the cheapest of each suit. You can only buy the $15 card once you’ve purchased the $10 card. Although no doubt this provides essential balance to the game it also sets players on a similar track each game. There are of course several strategies to test out and mining and combos vary every game. But there’s a point where replay ability would suffer if played enough.
All in all, Super Motherload is fast and fun. Which for a game of this weight is golden! It’s not the prettiest to look at, but the easy to pick up and intensely satisfying gameplay draws you in all the same. I loved the way the cards you buy not only power your actions but provide the meat of your endgame points too, it’s super elegant. There’s also a strong emphasis on efficiency when placing gems as any value over the current pilots cost is lost. It’s a compelling puzzle that demands to be solved.
If played enough, say every week maybe, I think the lack of variation would begin to wear off some of its lustre. But as an occasional filler, family or gateway offering, SML has plenty to offer. It’s pleasurable puzzley fun that strikes a nice balance between competitive, thinky and rewarding. I can imagine pulling this off the shelf to go in my holiday luggage, it’s that kind of game you know? A really nice weight for a chilled evening. Competitive enough to be interesting but simple enough to be relaxed.