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Mars Colony

Mars Colony is a game about politics and change agents, the sci-fi elements of the setting are very cool and stylish window dressing. It is a two-player collaborative game where the goal is the creation of a narrative that is satisfying to both players.

One player takes the role of consultant Kelly Perkins, dispatched to the desperate Mars Colony but the Earth government. The other player takes on the role of the forces that oppose her attempt to resolve the colony’s problems.

The game is made up of a fixed set of scenes, essentially consisting of: colour, framing an expression of the colony’s problems or attempting to progress a solution to the problems. The game lasts for nine of these latter Progress scenes so it is a quick, hectic and slightly pressured game.


The problems of the colony are called Markers and three of these are selected collaboratively by both players. Markers include things like atmosphere, social unrest and funding. Kelly needs to generate 20 points against each marker to stabilise it (i.e. avert an immediate crisis) and 40 points to resolve it to the satisfaction of the colony inhabitants.

Doing so consists of Kelly’s player rolling two d6 in rounds until either a one comes up on the dice or the player decides to take the current total accrued so far as a success. Narrative interpretation of the result of each round’s rolling seems to be encouraged.

If a single one is rolled then Kelly’s player has the option of creating a Deception to cover up the problems with her plan or its execution.

If Kelly’s player decides not to enter into a Deception then the progress scene ends in failure. Whatever initiative Kelly was trying to address the marker with fails and the manner of failure is narrated. A token is then moved from Kelly’s Admiration pool to the Contempt pool, when five tokens are in the Contempt pool the pool of Mars petition for Kelly’s removal and her career on Mars is effectively over.

If double-ones are thrown then a Deception is not possible and the defeat is a personal Humiliation for Kelly. The narrated result must show how the failure is born personally by Kelly.

Deceptions and Scandal

If a Deception is carried out then an Admiration token is moved to the Deception pool. Kelly’s player then totals up her successes but the points are added to the Lying element of the Marker. Lies and genuine successes both count towards a successful resolution of a Marker, perception can be as good as reality in Mars Colony.

However once a Deception has been carried out it always runs the risk of being uncovered later. If a player subsequently rolls a one on one dice and the value of the current Deception or less on the other dice then Kelly’s lies are found out, a Scandal erupts.

In addition to being a normal failure all of the Deception tokens go to the Contempt pool and all the Lying points achieved on Markers are exposed for the sham they are. The narration should describe how Kelly is exposed as a fraud and how any cover ups to date are exposed and undone.

It feels like the only good reasons for entering into Deceptions is to avoid a fifth Contempt token or to avoid a big total being scrapped. In our game I twice had a one in the initial roll and simply took the Contempt since the cost of Scandal was far greater.

Playing the game

When we played the game we had Kelly be the last remaining member of the original Mars colonisation project sent by Earth to deal with corruption and the failure to terraform Mars into a more habitable planet. Kelly had a dying daughter on Mars, another reason to take the mission. She played the legendary grandmother card to the hilt but backed it up with a crack media team and Maoist centralising statist views.

She did manage to shame people into ending the blatant nepotism that was ruining the colony and her engineering background meant she was able to get the terraforming process restarted and back on track. However ultimately her views that collective sacrifice was necessary for the good of the colony lead to the polar regions splitting from the central belt which would benefit most from the terraforming. Hard-bitten ice miners and libertarians combined to split the planet into three new political territories.

I enjoyed the narrative of our game and its relatively hard sci-fi theme is refreshing. I think if I were unexpectedly down to two players again I would be eager to pull out before say a boardgame or scrubbing the session entirely. That said it is, in its current state a filler game rather than one you would seek out to play.

Why does this matter?

My biggest issue with Mars Colony is that there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t really affect the game. Fear cards, political parties and to a lesser extent Perkins’s Sympathy require a lot of creation effort but subsequently do not provide any mechanical benefit and are unlikely to matter in the game or the narrative in any meaningful way.

Fear cards are contemporary fears that the players have about politics and government. These should really be used to force the framing of scenes or be dropped. The political parties need to have some mechanical effect based on Perkins’s affiliation and the NPC’s party. For example Scandal might be more likely if the conflict is against someone who is more eager to dig for dirt and harm Perkins.

Perkins Sympathy should probably require two mandatory scenes in a game, one after Kelly arrives on Mars and one at the mid-point of the game when views of her might be changing. I would again like to see a mechanical effect with the Sympathy potentially either cancelling a potential failure or perhaps restoring Admiration for Kelly. It is good to have a personal side to Kelly rather than purely focussing on the political elements but there should be a reward beyond story telling value. I don’t have to play a roleplaying game to make up stories that entertain me.

Questions outstanding

We had a few questions after our game, firstly some of the markers suggested can only be resolved by years or months of activity. It wasn’t clear from the rules whether the conflicts were meant to be played out over some defined timeframe or whether you could jump backwards and forwards in time. My feeling was that the crux of the game was meant to be about the crisis engulfing the colony and therefore you should focus on the short term, perhaps narration should flash-forward if a marker gets resolved but essentially it doesn’t matter whether Kelly’s proposals will work or not, just whether she manages to achieve them or not.

The other aspect was whether conflict scenes should always be between individuals and Kelly. The game seems to suggest it, particularly with the definition of the fixed political structure. However given some of the abstract nature of the Markers it sometimes felt that the framing scene should be some kind of event occurring. Sticking strictly to the personal conflict would be more in keeping with the political interest of the game but sometimes makes you feel like you are using a character to attack Kelly over the fact that the rain is falling and why hasn’t she addressed it before now? You can do it but it can feel petty.

On a second play...

We recently gave Mars Colony another go and this time I was playing as the Governor. We tried to change some of the things that we thought did not work from our first play. This time we said that we had to incorporate a fear into each Progress or Opposition scene alternating between each player's list. I also threw in a few Personal scenes to see how they went, both of them represented political allies leaning on Kelly to try and sway the direction he was going in.

The major thing I learnt is that the Governor is actually responsible for controlling the pace of the game. Choosing an Opposition scene every time creates a feeling of pressure and tension as the Colony's problems mount up like an avalanche. When you choose a Personal scene it creates a break in the action where you can explore the setting a little, it also gives the Saviour player a chance to also choose a Personal scene which gives a bit more depth to Kelly as a person rather than a political animal facing off a succession of challenges.

Our experiments with Fears didn't go so well, it did mean we brought in topical political themes but it was hard to link them to the markers that are the crux of the resolution to the scene. Instead we felt it would be better to have a phase when starting the game where you explicitly discuss the state of Mars Colony and what kind of world has Mars become. You can then mix the fears into the culture and environment of the colony so that the themes are already in play before Kelly arrives.

We again struggled to use the political map and the party groupings effectively. The map doesn't seem to add much value, unless you hate coming up with names, but having fixed political blocs seems a good idea. I thought it would be a good idea to assign each NPC to a party when they first arrive so that rivalries and alliances can be used in the build up to the conflict and also possibly to narrate the outcome.

Overall though it was a welcome return to Mars and where you find yourself unexpectedly down to two people it's a good choice to pull off the shelves.