Lights were flashing everywhere. Once mostly green, the red LEDs were popping up with alarming frequency all through the master control panel. It meant that the base was breaking apart, piece by piece. We had lost oxygen production in our greenhouses, causing the seedlings to suffocate. The rover was several days into a journey across the red desert, still searching for vital machine parts from an old drop-point. We knew that some of the team would have to go hungry for another day or two. That is, if we were going to last that long.
This was the drama that unfolded over the very first mission we played in First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet, and it was only the beginning of our troubles. This cooperative adventure game thrived on our grief. And we loved every moment of it.
About the game
Designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, First Martians is a reskin of his earlier game Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. But it is also so much more. Rather than Crusoe’s tropical island, First Martians follows the first colonizers of Mars. While this may seem familiar, this game is very different to the other Mars epic everyone is playing. To start with the sci-fi tech is kept to a realistic standard of the not-too-distant year of 2029. The game also features a techy upgrade in the form of a companion app that helps drive the story and create more immersion.
How it works (in a nutshell)
First Martians is played with 1-4 players. A la Pandemic, each player portrays a scientist with their own profession and variable player abilities. Each player has two action tokens, with extra tokens given to the three robotic systems in the base. Players choose which rooms to operate in, or venture outside to search for objectives. The actions of all players resolve at the same time, in the order of the base layout. This helps players feel more like a team, as they aren’t sitting waiting entire rounds to be able to take actions. Action tokens can also stack together to improve the chances of success in any given room. Teamwork! Yay! Between rounds incidents occur that often result in malfunctions that risk the mission and crew.
There are many other systems in play, but at the core blends elements of Pandemic and Spirit Island with some extra worker placement.
First Martians also features a campaign mode, where actions from previous rounds will affect your progress in later scenarios. This means that difficult decisions won’t only affect you in a single playthrough, and the module you let fail in one game may come back to haunt you when you continue in your next game
The fun of steering a sinking ship
The joy I had playing this game came from an emotion that I usually wouldn’t associate with fun; a feeling of pure stress. For those of you who have played Pandemic this would be a familiar feeling. In Pandemic there is a constant worry that leads to a situation where all players are finding the most efficient ways to put out fires. With First Martians, this stress rises to new levels. Trapped on a planet far from backup, the pressure is high to keep all vital systems of the base under control. When you aren’t trying to keep your scientists alive you are also required to complete expeditions and other scientific research. With a limited number of actions per character, discussing the most efficient way to spend a turn is a must.
Consequences are a major component all through the game. The app uses a series of events and branching narratives, recording the actions you take during a turn to determine what may happen in future turns. Some of these events have obvious consequences. For example, failing to come to the aid of an injured scientist during a random event will lead to reduced abilities for that character. Other instances, such as fixing the ‘games console’ for an irate scientist in the rec room, may increase some morale, but is also inconsequential should you choose to ignore it. Generally there are more than enough reasons to pick and choose your side-quests, and generally it’s because something has set on fire or malfunctioned elsewhere in the base. Priorities need to be set, it seems.
Be prepared to lose…a lot
If there was a fault to point out for First Martians, it would have to be the learning curve required. This is not an easy game to learn, for no other reason than the sheer number of elements to consider during the game. With each new mission comes new objectives, many of which re-implement elements of the game that you may have only just familiarised yourself with, only to have them behave completely different. As a group game this can be a little tricky to teach, and if you want to try out later scenarios it can be quite difficult to do with inexperienced players. The companion app also suffers from the occasional vague ruling. But these have mostly been patched since release, and the designer is happy to clarify any confusions through the Board Game Geek forum.
First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is a game that I am always happy to bring out to the table among heavy gamers. The mechanics are deep and well-crafted. The scenarios are interesting, and no two are alike. Although it may feel like spinning plates, the challenging gameplay leads to some tense and rewarding victories.