Mars. The Red Planet. The Angry Planet. Barsoom. Defiant in the night sky. Capturer of endless imaginations. The closest planet to Earth where you wouldn’t need to pack the Coppertone SPF 1,000,000 to visit. And the modern goal of a revised space program in which NASA will likely spend billions and billions of dollars and take decades to reach. If only they knew our Victorian ancestors have already checked the place out? Like in 1888. With steam spaceships!
How to Play
In Mission: Red Planet you head up a mining company exploiting the fourth rock from the sun. Given its colorful nickname, and the year 1888, you’d think the main ore in demand would be iron. Alas, not so! Instead, scientists have discovered two new resources – sylvanite and celerium – and of course these minerals will revolutionize our own world. As if using steam power to reach Mars wasn’t amazing enough! Of course, this is no altruistic endeavor for the good of humanity, but one of venture capitalism for the profit of your investors. And if you’re going to beat your competitors to these valuable resources, you’ll need to move boldly and employ some dastardly cunning.
This steampunk yarn combines area majority and secret role selection with a healthy dose of player interaction. Each round, you compete to board rocket ships destined for particular regions of the titular planetoid. A rocket generally specifies in which region it will land and how many astronauts it carries. As soon as one reaches capacity it blasts off and is replaced by a new ship on the launch pad. After three specified rounds in the game you will score each region by awarding points in the currency of resource tokens (randomly seeded to begin the game) based on area majorities.
Without any elaboration this all sounds like an orderly and controlled affair, worthy of a Euro game label. But that would be like describing Richard Simmons as a calm and quiet man. That’s because of the game’s second mechanic, which is a bit more ill-behaved. Each turn you select a role that gives you an ability for that round. All of these allow you to place one to three astronauts aboard one or two spaceships. However, they all have unique powers that can violently spin gameplay until it has its own gravity pulling players in like deorbiting satellites.
Half of them are routine and strategic. With the Explorer you can move astronauts around Mars. The Scientist allows you to draw game-chaning event cards or peak at one already in play. The Travel Agent lets you pile three astronauts aboard a rocket – as long as one has the available space. Then there is the more mundane, but often just as important, Recruiter where you can pick up all your previously selected roles to play again.
The remaining characters are more contentious and can mess with your opponents’ best laid plans. The Soldier picks off other astronauts. The Pilot can change a rocket’s destination. The Secret Agent forces a ship to launch prematurely. You can go all Kill Bill on someone with the Femme Fatale and switch out an astronaut with one of your own. Even an entire rocket ship isn’t safe with the Saboteur who can simply blow up a rocket on the launch pad, sending all its crew to the Lost in Space Memorial.
Event cards comprise primarily two categories. Missions provide secret goals to complete by the end of the game in order to score bonus points. Each player begins the game with one in addition to maybe acquiring more. Discoveries can be placed simply to turn a region’s end-of-game scoring on its Martian head.Fantasy Flight’s second edition immediately upgrades the components with fantastic astronaut meeples replacing the first edition’s small wooden discs. It also contains a set for a sixth player. As far as new rules, there are now three action cards in the Event deck that give their owners a nifty bonus. Mars’ moon Phobos gets a nod as a playable region, though it’s not considered adjacent to the others. Instead, the Soldier now allows you to move astronauts from the satellite to the planet, if you’d like.
The biggest addition is the two-player variant. Mission: Red Planet thrives on its player interaction and so originally played 3-5. With only two the game adds a couple neutral colors, one each controlled by the players. Role selection for these neutrals is resolved by stacking their character decks according to a certain formula, and shuffled so that characters appear randomly, but with some calculated odds. Game play remains the same. You will likely control your neutral to the advantage of your main color, but be careful not to play too well. If one of the neutral colors wins, then both players lose!
Mission Success or Lost in Space?
Bruno Faidutti’s pre-cursor Citadels was arguably the first game to successfully put role selection on the hobby’s map. Given the shared mechanic and author, it’s hardly surprising then that Mission: Red Planet is often nicknamed “Citadels in Space.” However, they are very different games. Admittedly, role selection in the inspirational Citadels is more interesting and tense. Selection is resolved via card drafting and each character will only appear once per round. There’s also a rock-paper-scissors aspect to how each affects the others. And while you are ostensibly “building” a city with district cards for points, the game is really all about the pure role selection element.
Mission: Red Planet is a better game overall by giving its central mechanic a purpose: in this case, claim and control areas on the board. It may not have been the first game to give the element broader distinction (see: Puerto Rico). However, it incorporates it smoothly in a way that is both accessible and exciting. It’s simple, yet opens the door to innumerable cascading possibilities.
At the beginning of each round, you secretly select a character to play. That’s the crux of the game. And while it may seem so routine, the table’s collective decisions orbiting that straightforward choice weave a dizzying web than often leaves you airsick! Each person has the same set of role cards, so it’s possible you’ll select the same role as another player in any given round. And we’ve experienced rounds in which everyone played an attacking role where the resulting attrition was humorously crazy. But each are resolved in a specific order based on the characters. So your action could profoundly affect players after you. Or a player previous to you could equally undo all your plans before you have an opportunity to implement them. Regardless, the role cards clearly define what actions you may take, how to perform them and where. The mechanics are straightforward, while gameplay itself is cheekily evolutionary.
The two in-game scoring rounds are also a very simple matter. The only bit of confusion comes in scoring at the end of the game, since the Discovery cards can change how points are awarded – often unbeknownst to a region’s occupants. And the Mission cards might prove a little fiddly to ensure you’re complying with a objective’s specified parameters as the chaos unfolds about you.
Gameplay is also fast and action-packed. The entire session consists of exactly ten rounds, with scores tabulated after rounds five, eight and the end of the game. This limit keeps the game consistently at 60 minutes or less. It also adds a good deal of excitement and tension since you never have enough actions to do everything you want. Individual turns are brief. After simultaneous role selection you place your astronaut(s) and perform your character’s special ability. Then it’s the next person’s turn. Downtime is effectively eliminated in Mission: Red Plant because everyone is invested in every move at all times. You might be thrilled that you just maneuvered some astronauts around Mars to shore up a lucrative majority. But keep that smug smile of your face until you find out if another schmuck is about to pick off one of your guys or blow one of your rockets to smithereens. I cannot stress enough how involved all players remain throughout every phase of the design’s dynamic play.
Player interaction is what drives that dynamism. It’s just as central to the design as is the role selection. Indeed, I would concede that it could relegate Mission: Red Planet to the “take it or leave it” category. You’ll either take it in stride with the understanding that it’s a core tenet. Or you’ll leave it because it’ll cause too many fights and heartaches.
But don’t let it scare you off without first experiencing it. The spite is mitigated somewhat through the limitations of its role selection. Once you play a character, you cannot play that role again in future turns until you spend a round with the Recruiter. He allows you to collect all previously used characters so that they are available again in subsequent actions. Therefore, you’re not able to kill off opposing astronauts turn after turn after turn, ad nauseum. Also, the non-spiteful roles provide other abilities that are too beneficial to ignore. You simply cannot spend the entire game going after the other players.
Now while the interaction isn’t necessarily incessant, I don’t mean to minimize its impact. When you are attacked, it can really be rough and derail your plans. Since you have so few turns to implement any strategy, one well-timed attack can really cause irreparable damage. Also, those Discovery cards can secretly change the way certain regions are scored at the end of the game. So even if you have the majority in the region, it may not matter. The Scientist role does let you sneak a peek at a card so you can avoid or prepare for any surprises; but if a lot of them are put into play, the percentages start mounting against you. Between late-game sniping and Discovery cards, I’ve seen many a game lost unexpectedly on the final turn. This will drive many a hardcore gamer mad. I find it hilarious and thrilling…whether or not I’m personally on the receiving end of such misfortune!
Then there are the Mission and Action cards. Some assign you a secret objective to accomplish by the end of the game for extra points. There is some strategy in completing these, as long as another player doesn’t derail them! Others just randomly give you extra points without much effort exerted on your part. The balance here is that these factors affect all players equally. But that may provide little consolation to heavy strategy gamers who like to have most of the control and information at all times.
Also helping to mitigate the sting of interaction is the humorous and decidedly lighter setting. The characters generally work and their abilities make sense. Not that I’m asking for realism in a game about steam power launching rockets to Mars in the Victorian Era. Still, I’m not sure how the Femme Fatale makes sense in the scheme, nor what the ability to switch astronauts has to do with the archetype. She could have been a ninja, robber baron, or voodoo witch doctor, for all that. In any event, despite its abrupt and frenzied strife I heartily recommend this title as a gateway game to introduce kids and casual gamers to spite. The playfully unique and creative theme might help soothe the burns of conflict and might acclimate one for even more contentious affairs.
The new Fantasy Flight edition stays true to its progenitor. Core game play and most every rule remains. The biggest inclusion is the 2-player variant. Alas, it’s not particularly remarkable. One, it’s just more fiddly as you’re manipulating two roles and two colors. Two, the random order of your neutral’s character selection trades in player-driven chaos for luck-driven chaos, which is a profound difference. Finally, Mission: Red Planet thrives on interaction driven by multiple players, not just multiple roles. While it’s definitely true that this variant provides for four characters every round, it’s still split between a couple players scheming towards half as many agendas. In a pinch, and for the game’s hardcore fans, it will certainly do. Still, 3- to 5-players remains the design’s sweet spots.
The other minor elements work well, thankfully. Tossing in a few new ideas, none of them hinder the fluid and accessible game play. The 6-player option ratchets up the chaos, but will generally push the game past the hour-mark. Phobos is the best improvement as it opens up the Soldier role and provides a new route for players to maneuver on the board. The Action cards simply provide some more variety. However, there are only three of them and their distribution will be completely random, if they even show up at all.
Now the second edition’s pièce de résistance are undoubtedly the astronaut meeples. They’re brilliant, cute and well-sculpted. Certainly an improvement over the first edition discs, which would invariably going rolling out of your table’s orbit. And despite the superb flag detail, it gets away with violating the hackneyed steampunk adage, “Just slap some gears on it.” As for the rest, the puzzle boards are inspired and practical. Mars is actually round and fits snugly together. The launchpad is just the length you always need it to be for a particular session’s player count. The gauge-styled turn-tracker looks sharp and works perfectly. The artwork is just as stunning as everything else is utilitarian. All together, the bits and boards are a testament to steampunk’s spirit which stresses both aesthetics and functionality.
I’ll be honest. I’ve always been a huge fan of Mission: Red Planet and my appreciation has only increased over time. It’s easily one of my three favorite games. It ticks many boxes that we really dig: role selection, ease of play, interaction, little to no downtime, just the right length, a bit chaotic and a captivating theme. Thanks to its smooth, brisk and infectiously fun game play, M:RP overcomes any stigma that contentious games might create. Aside from the issue some may have with Discovery cards unhinging end-game scoring scenarios, there’s nothing negative I have to say. FFG’s second edition only strengthens my affection for the design. Already imaginatively themed and delightfully designed, the new components and artwork really shine. And while the 2-player variant is only mediocre, the other minor rule revisions add a few nice twists that don’t overburden the original idea. It’s still interactive, dynamic, accessible and never out-stays its welcome. Furthermore, there’s just nothing else quite like it. A breeze to teach and a blast to play you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more delightful and mischievous way to spend an hour on the tabletop than with this steampunk romp from two of the hobby’s most cunning designers.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Fantasy Flight Games for providing a review copy of Mission: Red Planet.