Game Review: Mars Colony

Mars Colony, those two words can evoke so much, and have over the years. From frontier exploration, to colonial oppression, to an excuse to shoot things, Mars Colony has served as the canvas for a great many visions of what might be. Tim C. Koppang’s Mars Colony takes yet another approach that’s summed up nicely by its tagline: the role-playing game for two players, about personal failure and government.

This is explicitly a two player game, with one person taking on the role of the protagonist, called the Savior, and the other, called the Governor, embodying all the obstacles the Savior must overcome. The Savior is either a man or a woman, named Kelly Perkins. Much of the game centers on the impact of the games events on him or her. Since Megan played the Savior during our play-through for The Redacted Files Podcast I will refer to Kelly as her through the rest of the review.

Set up is quick and easy, but does involve some thought. The players must sketch out in broad strokes four political parties, what they stand for generally and how much power they have. Characters encountered during the story may belong to one party or another, influencing their interactions with the Savior. Each player also writes three fears he has about the government on cards which are placed face down and shuffled. Two of these are revealed and help characterize the problems besetting the colony and can serve as inspiration for scenes. The Savior selects a Sympathy, a character with whom she has a special connection. Lastly, players decide on three health indicators for the colony, the conditions that the Savior must fix to stabilize the situation.

Play is relatively straightforward. After an opening vignette, the players start taking turns. The Governor can establish either an Opposition Scene, in which he narrates how the problems of the colony are about to impede the Savior’s progress, or a Personal Scene, in which both players engage in free-form role play about the Savior’s reactions to the events of the game. The Savior can also establish Personal Scenes, or can choose to narrate a Progress Scene. In a Progress Scene, she narrates what she is doing to resolve the problem, then rolls two dice to see how well she does. The sum of the dice are points that go to the goal of stabilizing the situation. She can roll as many times as she likes, but each roll comes with the possibility of failure, represented by a 1 on either die, which erases all progress for the scene. The game mechanics force the Savior to take risks to actually achieve her goals. If she fails, she loses progress made in that scene and the colonists admiration shifts to contempt, too much of which will see her removed. To avoid contempt, she can lie, keeping the progress she’s achieved in a scene before the failure. The more she lies though, the greater the chance of being caught. After her first lie, a roll of snake eyes will lead to scandal and the discovery of her lies, a 1 and either 1 or 2 after the second, 1 and 1, 2 or 3 after the third, and so forth. Scandal erases all progress won through lies and a whole lot of contempt. After the Savior narrates the ninth progress scene or is removed by the colonists, the game is over. The Savior narrates her personal aftermath, while the governor narrates the eventual fate of the colony based on the Savior’s actions.

In our play-through, Megan stepped into the role of Kelly Perkins. Mars Colony on her arrival faced rampant corruption, out of control crime and poor nutrition. Her Sympathy was Alex McPherson, a former lover who she’d known when they worked on the initial setup for the colony and left behind to be the public face for the colonization project back on Earth. She first tried to tackle corruption, but had to lie when she failed to get the mayor on-board with her plan, rolling well on the first attempt but getting a 1 when she tried for more points. She stayed on corruption  in subsequent scenes, winning over people with an impassioned speech. She then shifted to crime, trying to build people’s confidence in their government’s ability to protect them. She pushed her luck again though and had to lie to cover up just how badly that went. Corruption and crime intertwined with the last indicator when criminals stole a food shipment. Megan inspired the colonists by setting a good example and actually shamed many of the thieves to give back what they’d taken, and hoarders to share what they’d been keeping back. Along the way, she took solace in Alex’s companionship and shared her growing misgivings with him. Eventually she called in the military to seize suspected criminals identified through covert surveillance (one of the fears on the cards)in a way that kept local government’s hands clean. To clench the deal, she made an arrangement with one of the captive gang leaders to push crime out of the public eye and stabilize that indicator. The great thing about indicators is that once you solve a problem, another comes up to take its place. Megan was then beset by failing atmospheric processors. While trying to finally settle the colony’s nutrition problem though, she had a scandal and much of her success was undone just one round before the endgame. She struck at corruption with her last scene, naming names and calling out the bad apples before leaving with her work undone. The result for the colony was a middling existence, stumbling along as an expression of humanity’s stubbornness that was too big to fail. Kelly Perkins left with Alex to enjoy a quiet retirement and obscurity.

With two players who are comfortable with one another, a game like this flows out with a constant give and take that is difficult to recreate with larger groups. Both players are always on, either speaking or actively listening so they know where they’ll put the next piece of the puzzle. It’s a style of game-play that I’d highly encourage everyone to try, especially if you have a significant other who is also into the hobby or who might be engaged by a more personal experience.

This is a product very much of its time, as evidenced by the two quotes from George W. Bush and Barack Obama that introduce the game. Its elegant yet engaging mechanics can prompt some thought about bigger questions for those apt to engage in such, particularly the difficult choices faced by anyone trying to accomplish anything in the world of modern politics. Regardless though, it’s a great way for two people to spend an hour or two together, creating a powerful story.

Mars Colony was a runner-up for 2010 Indy Game of the Year. You can get the PDF for just $6.00. Find out more from the author’s website:

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