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Review: Mars Needs Mechanics

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The box for Mars Needs Mechanics

Quick! Queen Victoria has her eyes fixed on the skies, and she has called in the master tinkers of the realm for a great Contest. The most resourceful tinker (that is, the one who in another life might be a commodities trader) will win a spot on the next rocket to Mars. The rest will receive a lovely participation ribbon.

But you have no desire or need for ribbons.

So exercise those brain muscles and put on your thinking caps–it’s time to play Mars Needs Mechanics!

How It Works

Mars Needs Mechanics is an economic set-collection game for two to four players set in the world of steampunk. The player with the most cogs (money) at the end of the game is the winner.

Each player receives two scrap cards, three material cards, and 40 cogs at the start of the game. The value of all seven materials starts at 5 cogs; the material markers start randomly on the sales-order line. Eight random cards are dealt face-up beneath the board, and one player receives the start player token. Four mechanism cards are set at the top of the board.

Mars Needs Mechanics set up and ready to play.
Mars Needs Mechanics set up and ready to play.

Mars Needs Mechanics is played in rounds. Each turn within a round a player has a mandatory action and two optional actions. The player must either purchase a material card for its current value in cogs or pass. (Players may jump back in on their next turn–passing does not put players out of the round.) If the player purchases a material, that material’s marker moves to the front of the sales-order line.

In addition to the mandatory action, a player may also break down and/or build a mechanism. Mechanism cards alter the rules of the game in some way (for example, allowing a player to change the value of certain materials or look at what’s coming in future rounds). To build a mechanism, players place the materials needed to build it in front of them and mark the mechanism card with their player token. Players may also break down a mechanism to take the materials back into their hands. Players can both build and break down a mechanism on their turns, but not the same mechanism.

These are the mechanism cards for Mars Needs Mechanics
These mechanism cards change from game to game and impact the special abilities available to players during the game.

Once either all players have passed in succession or there are no more materials available for purchase, the round ends. The three materials farthest back on the sales-order line decrease in value by one cog, and the three materials farthest forward on the sales-order line increase in value by one cog. Players now have the option to sell sets of at least three materials for their current value. (Scrap cards act as wilds to fill in for incomplete sets, but they are worth nothing.)

The game ends when either the market cannot be completely refilled or when two rounds pass with no one purchasing anything. The players cash in their sets of materials, and the player with the most cogs wins.

The component cards for Mars Needs Mechanics
These are the materials that players will buy and sell during the game, all steampunk flavored.

Valuable Materials, or Scrap Metal?

Mars Needs Mechanics, despite its steampunk trappings, is an economic game. The materials could be stocks or commodities, the cogs could be dollars or yen, and the idea would be about the same. For this reason I’m not sure this game will win over any steampunk fans, but it should please those who like interesting economic games that play quickly.

A picture of the sales-order line in Mars Needs Mechanics
The sales-order line. Looks like lenses, gears, and magnets are about to get more expensive!

At the heart of Mars Needs Mechanics is the sales-order line, a clever mechanism to mimic supply and demand. Each material has only eight cards in the deck, and whenever one is purchased, that material’s marker jumps to the front of the sales-order line, most likely increasing its value at the end of the round. But as materials are bought, it is less likely that more materials of that kind remain in the deck (you just bought one), so in future rounds, it’s possible for the value to plummet, as materials only move to the front of the line if they’re purchased.  Adding another wrinkle is that there are always eight materials available to buy at the start of the round, yet there are only seven different kinds in the deck. This means that there will always be at least one duplicate material, which affects players’ purchasing and passing decisions. The game is mostly about forecasting when is the right time to buy and sell and manipulating the sales-order line to make the materials you invested in more valuable whenever it is you decide to sell them. Of course, you are playing the game against human opponents who are also trying to maximize the value of their own materials, and the order in which materials are purchased matters, so the game is not just about exploiting a mechanism but finding ways to exploit it better than (and with the help of) your opponents.

One of the ways this is done is through passing. Players may pass a turn and jump right back in to the buying and selling on their next turn (similar to Saint Petersburg). This is a nice trick to use if you need someone else to buy something before you, or, as in Poker, you just want to check what the other players are doing. However, there is always an element of push your luck here: if all the other players pass, the round ends, changing the value of materials according to their current position on the sales-order line. And if this happens two rounds in a row without anyone buying anything, the game ends. Passing is a valuable tool, but players must pay attention and be sure the passing will not hamstring their strategy if the other players also pass.

Bolts track the value of materials in Mars Needs Mechanics
These chunky bolt pieces show the current value of the materials.

Economic Euros often get a bad rap for being multiplayer solitaire–brain burning affairs where opponents are necessary but interchangeable. I don’t think most economic Euros are often solitary affairs, and the same applies to Mars Needs Mechanics. Some people will write this game off as being too solitary, but it really isn’t. You have to watch your opponents very closely. Because gains are so small and incremental, every cog counts. What cards are your opponents holding? What mechanism do they have built, or are they likely to build? What in the current market is of interest to them? Sure, you can play without these considerations, but you’re not likely to win if you do.

A much stronger criticism against the game is what I mentioned in the last paragraph: Mars Needs Mechanics is a game of small and incremental gains. The game is won and lost over a cog here and a cog there. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Some of us love these mundane calculations. Chances are good that if you like to comparison shop at the grocery store, you will like this aspect of Mars Needs Mechanics. (I did, for example.) But it’s not for everyone–not even for every person who enjoys economic Euros. One of the friends I introduced this game to refused to play again based on this fact, despite liking other games of this sort. Others of us found it interesting because it opens up different strategies for efficiency. Do you aim for several short sales, getting small gains often? Or do you plan for the long haul, purchasing material after material waiting for it to reach peak value (but risking losing cogs)? Again, I found this intriguing; others have found it excruciating.

A blue rocket, the first-player marker for Mars Needs Mechanics
This blue rocket is the first player marker for Mars Needs Mechanics. A nice touch!

I also like the fixed number of materials in the game, combined with set collection. There are only eight of each card in the deck, and cards must be sold in sets of at least three. That means that if players collect only the minimum number of cards for a set, only two sets will be completed. Enter the ever-valuable scrap cards! Scrap cards can be used as wilds to complete sets, but they have no value. But each player receives only two scrap cards for the whole game, so players have to be careful about which materials they buy and whether they’ll be able to complete their sets. This does involve some card counting to do well, but it’s not that taxing (and the game can still be enjoyed if you don’t count cards).

The Mars Needs Mechanics rulebook and competition guide.
The competition manual, also known as the rulebook. The rules are written in the style of a competition manual, which is kind of cool.

I think what keeps Mars Needs Mechanics from falling too much into the bookkeeping and spreadsheet category is the different mechanisms available. The rules recommend four mechanisms (of ten) being present in each game, and each mechanism alters the rules of the game based on who builds it. One mechanism, for example, changes the purchasing value of one material (a handy way to tell your opponents to stay away from what you want to buy, or to evaporate the gains they might have gotten from a material they’re wanting to buy). Another gives one extra cog when selling. The Automaton is worth 40 cogs–but it can’t be broken down, and it takes one of each kind of material to assemble. (Build with caution!) These are a welcome addition to the game because they keep it from being a purely closed-system exercise. They also put old-maid materials to good use and may encourage players to buy materials they’re not collecting to sell. Which mechanisms are in the game can be a huge swing factor in the strategies players employ (giving the game some amount of replayability, at least if you like the base system).

A rocket across the flag of England--the space Jack of Mars Needs Mechanics
The Space Jack artwork on the back of the cards is phenomenal. I love it.

The mechanisms also succeed to offer the game’s splash of theme. The steampunk theme in Mars Needs Mechanics, while not unwelcome, is as I mentioned before almost completely window dressing. The game, aside from the art, in no way feels like “tinkers in the age of steam”–it feels like commodities traders trying to increase the value of what they’re buying. The mechanism cards are the most thematic part of the game. The art on them is great, and they provide benefits that match what you might think they could do (the X-ray Goggles, for example, let you peek at what’s coming next  in the deck). That’s not to say that the game doesn’t look good. It looks great. (My personal favorite is the Space Jack logo on the back of the cards.) It’s just that if you’re looking for a thematic steampunk game, this isn’t it. However, if you’re looking for a good economic game and happen to like steampunk, this will be a welcome addition to your collection.

The components in Mars Needs Mechanics are sparse, but the game itself is sparse. Everything that’s necessary comes in the box, but there isn’t much that’s necessary: a deck of cards, a board, a few markers and chits, and a pile of cogs. All of these components, though, are of very good quality, and as I mentioned, the art and design is top notch. The rulebook is clear, with good examples, so the game should be easy to learn (if you’re used to learning games from rulebooks).

The inside of the Mars Needs Mechanics box, with room to spare.
These are all the components you need to play Mars Needs Mechanics. Sparse, but the game is fun.

Mars Needs Mechanics packs a satisfying economic game into forty-five minutes. In some ways, it feels like the market system of Power Grid distilled (that is, without all those pesky auctions and network building). The game is simple to teach and learn, with easy to parse but difficult to execute decisions, and the sales-order line is both elegant and novel. I don’t fault those who don’t like this game–it is a little dry and does take a special kind of person to enjoy, what with all the small efficiency calculations–but I do.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Sales-order line is a novel and clever mechanism for market simulation
  • The game is simple to learn and teach
  • The game plays quickly and looks very nice on the table
  • The mechanism cards add variable powers and replayability to the game

Cons:

  • The game's theme is not integral
  • The game is won and lost on small, incremental gains and thus can be a bit dry
8.0 Very Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion1 Comment

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