Setting off to a new world; the first human colonists of another planet. That’s you!
The excitement! The tension! The technical prowess required to succeed! Mars is a harsh and unforgiving place, and if you’re going to make it you’re going to need to bring your A-game. Stress is rising, your stuff is breaking, and you’re running out of time. These are the stories of the First Martians.
How It Plays
First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is the second “Adventures on…” game from Portal Games, building off the original Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. While there are mechanical carryovers, First Martians sets off on its own frontier. I’m not going to dig into the nitty-gritty because that would take a few pages, but I’ll drop a brief overview of how the game works.
First Martians is a cooperative worker placement game, meaning you’ll place your worker tokens on various locations to resolve an action. Your goal is scenario dependent; you may need to collect supplies, repair facilities, study specimens, or get your base set up for the first time.
Each player has two tokens which represent the focus of their activities. You can put both tokens in one spot to guarantee success, or split the tokens between two actions but with the possibility of failure and other consequences. Some actions require additional tokens, meaning you’ll have to utilize one of the available robots or have multiple players work together.
As this is a story-driven game, some consequences come in the form of Events, which have an immediate effect as well as potential long-term problems. For example, there might be an alert in your farm which causes an immediate loss of some food. If you don’t deal with the issue, could result in an explosion that shuts down the entire farm a few turns later.
The actions are attached to the Facilities on the board. Some Facilities are passive – Solar panels, Oxygen Tanks, and Farms automatically provide Energy, Oxygen, and Food every round – while others like the Science Lab, Garage, or Repair bay require specific activations. You’ll need to juggle exploring the terrain around your base, collecting items and resources, researching, and making sure to spend time reducing stress.
Naturally, many things can and do go wrong. Every facility has the potential to malfunction, limiting its use or causing other problems. You can get injured, and gear can break. Fortunately, players can use facilities to repair, heal, and even sort out malfunctions before they cause bigger issues.
All this is just maintenance; your chosen scenario provides you goals you must accomplish in addition to keeping your base from falling apart. In short, you’ll be stretched thin, barely keeping it together as your oxygen supply dwindles, your crew breaks out into fights, and you still haven’t reached the 3rd ring of Martian land to retrieve that crashed satellite you need to win.
Aside from the thematic differences, the most significant change from Robinson Crusoe is the integration of a digital app. This app provides guidance on setup, helps track the phases of each round and the steps required of each phase, provides random events, and allows you to check off scenario goals as you complete them. In addition, the game includes two campaigns, guided by included booklets and the app, which allows you to “save” the state of the board at the end of each game in the campaign.
All Systems Go, or Abort Mission?
This game was hyped beyond belief before it came out, and not without good reason. Robinson Crusoe, while known for being punishing in its gameplay, was a very popular game. First Martians promised a brand new theme and a digital app to streamline the gameplay, and it hit right around the time when The Martian came out, a popular hard-science-fiction movie starring Matt Damon. We wanted to explore Mars, dangit! We wanted to face the dangers with only our wits and our realistic human technology, to overcome the odds and build the first colony on another world!
What we got was a huge, bloated mess that failed to deliver on its promises, with clunky app integration and bad writing.
I want to give some credit here, though. At least the designer aimed for something big and exciting. This isn’t flat, uninspired dren that works but has no heart. It’s got a huge heart, an eye to the stars… but it’s crushed beneath its own weight.
And, truly, the underlying core of the game isn’t actually bad. It’s built on a solid foundation – after all, we all know Robinson Crusoe worked – with some interesting strategy, tough challenges, and lots of planning and teamwork required. Events keep you on your toes, and there’s a balance of long-term goals with short-term problems that makes it, for the most part, possible to win if you play well. Sure, a run of bad luck can sabotage your efforts through no fault of your own, but that’s true of pretty much any cooperative game. It’s the nature of the beast.
The problem is that this game cake is layered with baaad icing. Usually games have the opposite problem – fancy art and intricate game components temporarily disguise a bland interior. Here you’ve got the good cake underneath, but what’s on top makes it unpalatable.
A good digital app can do a lot of things for a board game – track information so players don’t have to, shuffle decks, hide information the players don’t need to know yet, and guide players through the process. You don’t want the app to replace the whole physical aspect of the game; it is still fun, after all, to roll dice and move miniatures around.
First Martians is a game that begs to be streamlined with an app. There are so many bits and pieces to keep track of, upkeep activities to be handled, and random numbers be generated that in theory an app could assist in a smooth, simpler game experience. Unfortunately, in practice, the app is mostly a glorified reference card.
Yes, it steps you through the phases – but only by laying out a general list of steps you should take, not tracking specific details like malfunctioning parts. Instead of reporting the amount oxygen loss or gain, it gives you a list of things to check on the board. The exact same thing could be accomplished by a reference card.
You’d hope the app could at least select events that make sense within a given scenario. The whole idea is that you’re building a narrative around this tough crew of astronauts doing their best to survive Mars. Unfortunately, outside of campaigns, events seem entirely random and often out of place. Many of them rely on the astronauts acting more like petty high schoolers than highly-trained astronauts. Would professional astronauts really get into a dumb argument about who’s really in charge of the mission on the 2nd day on Mars? Would they really decide to use potatoes to make alcohol when the food supply is running dangerously low? Logical incongruences like these kill your engagement with the story.
Sometimes the disconnect is even further. In one game, I had an explosion in a farm, causing significant harm to my food supplies – only, in that scenario the whole goal was to set up the different facilities, and the farm hadn’t been built yet. It made no sense, even if it was mechanically possible to resolve. I hadn’t yet checked off the “build farm” goal, so it should have been possible to track that information.
I made a joke to my wife that these characters were actually participants in a reality TV show, not trained scientists or astronauts. When these events are put on by producers looking for drama and the players are regular untrained human beings, the goofiness makes much more sense.
Unfortunately that doesn’t create enough engagement to overcome the mechanical overhead. The rulebook was thick with text and less so with clear answers. So many mechanisms had nit-picky details to figure out, and so many icons on the board that applied at different times. The board is arranged neatly in rows, but not necessarily organized in a way that makes it easy to understand when to apply the effect of a red-cube-marked icon. Plus, there’s a huge missed opportunity here with the app, which could have had a learning campaign that gradually introduced concepts. There is a learning game, but it still took a ton of frantic rulebook searching after several games to get things right.
Setup is a beast, with a million bits to organize, facilities to fill with tiny cubes, a bunch of card decks to shuffle. It really fills up your table, and makes you wonder why half the stuff couldn’t be handled within the app.
The campaign mode has slightly improved immersion – the events seemed to relate to the scenario we were on, with fewer completely-out-of-left field problems cropping up. However, the bad writing still lent for some questionable moments of dialogue, and I don’t know if this is a translation issue or the need for a professional writer or two. Much worse, though, the ability to “Save” the state of your game from one campaign scenario to the next was pretty weak. The app doesn’t track most of the information that it could, so at the end of the scenario you literally have to mark a digital version of the board with digital copies of the components, one by one.
Weak writing aside, it’s a game I wanted to explore, experience, and get good at… but the tedium of everything made the whole experience a drag. I forced myself to play more games than I would have if I wasn’t going to review it, dreading the extended setup and put-away time, the frantic checking of rulebooks, the wishing that the app could do more, knowing I would run into questions I couldn’t find the answer to or screw up a mechanism and not realize it til later. Games, even tough ones, should be challenging and interesting in way that is fun, not in a dreadful way.
On the one hand, I appreciate the heart behind this game. It was an attempt to do something epic, something different. It’s certainly not a generic mechanically-functional game without spirit. It’s big and exciting – it just tripped over its own feet. The designer took a risk, but inherent in risk is the possibility of failure. So I’m still looking for a great game about surviving the dangers of space with limited technology and dwindling supplies. Maybe the next “Adventures on…” game will get it right.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Portal Games for providing a review copy of First Martians.