Designers: Bruno Cathala & Bruno Faidutti   |   Players: 2-6   |   Playtime: 45 minutes

I’ve never understood the allure of Mars. As planets go, it doesn’t sport the beautiful colors or defining characteristics of some of the super cool bodies in our solar system. And as space deserts go… well, it’s no Arrakis. But this celestial wanderer has been the setting for some of the most imaginative mythology and fiction our planet could romanticise despite the planet’s desolate landscape. Add a little steampunk to the mix and we might stumble onto a fetching scene, indeed.

MECHANISMS

Mission: Red Planet is an area control game of Martian exploration. The Mars game board with its moon, Phobos, in tow begin empty of all but hidden resources. Players spend the game sending astronauts onto the planet’s surface to discover and secure the resources each territory provides. It’s a simple game of majority rules when determining who gets the reward from each area, apparently that’s the Martian way.

The game is broken into 10 playable rounds with two scoring rounds mixed in and one at the end. Points earned from the three scoring rounds are totalled at the end to determine the winner. Since these points are only accrued during the special scoring rounds, it’s important your pieces are in position for those rounds. Timing is key in this game.

Every player begins with the same 9 character cards and each round players secretly choose one of their unplayed cards. Once everyone has chosen, a countdown begins (9… 8… 7… etc…) and players reveal their card and take the action of that character when the number is called out. These actions are the primary way of getting onto a ship bound for Mars as well as some other possible actions such as destination changes, astronaut movement, and eliminating opponent pieces. As players successfully make it to the Martian surface, they begin to reveal the resources each territory provides and the struggle for Mars ramps up as homo sapiens start laying claims to the various regions like an Oklahoma land rush.

To mix it up a bit, players are also afforded the option – via one of the character cards – to make discoveries or pursue additional missions. Ultimately, these little discoveries and missions offer some kind of variation to how points are scored for the end game.

  • Missions act as end-game bonuses for a player if satisfied.
  • Discoveries are linked to an outer territory and placed face down around the perimeter the board. Only the player that has spent an action to place the card (or look at a card currently in play) will know how it may change the scoring for that territory.

THEME / ART / COMPONENTS

This is a game with beautiful and interactive components (for which I am a sucker). The whole steampunk theme is played up, complete with a gear-shaped round tracker that doubles as a first player marker. Every step of the game is tracked with this dial and while it’s just cardboard and paper, it really is a nice touch to the overall feel of the steampunk vibe.

The docking bay and the planet board are made of interlocking pieces which I prefer over a small, foldable component. The benefit to a puzzle-style board is that it will lay flat with little work or encouragement. In the case of the docking bay, this also serves to scale the game for a specific number of players. It’s very well designed.

Speaking of the docking bay, when your ship cards are docked, the ships tuck in right under the matching artwork. And it never fails that when a ship launches, people can’t resist making sound effects (or maybe I just can’t resist). I have never had more fun dragging a card a few inches across a table. Launching ships is almost as gratifying as scoring points as the added “launch” effect provides a nice celebratory moment for the players whose astronauts are onboard.

If you have the game, download Brian Casey’s foam core plans. You’ll feel all the more steampunky with one of his most intricate designs for ease of setup and storage. (That could have been a commercial)

“I have never had more fun dragging a card a few inches across a table.”

RATING:

Try this game if you like:

  • Survive!
  • Eight-Minute Empire
  • Cave Troll
  • El Grande
  • Royals

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m rating Red Planet higher than I thought I would have prior to playing the game. While this wasn’t one of the “must haves” of last year, every game I’ve played has been fantastic. The obligatory 2-player learning game with my wife ended with both of us pleasantly surprised. Next few plays were with the Pub guys and we all left feeling pretty happy. Finally, I got to teach it to some new/non-gamers and everyone caught on quickly and enjoyed it over some of the other games that evening.

Teaching the game is very simple and the round tracker is a great focal point for planning ahead and keeping up with what is going on. There is a high degree of language dependency, especially for the level of simplicity the game offers, and much of the downtime can be attributed to card reading. But since most decisions are made simultaneously, there is only a little variation in game length between the fewer-player games and the fuller ones.

Gameplay itself sees a lot of interaction between players and a good bit of take-that. Being in position when the scoring rounds hit ultimately provides the sense of urgency that guides your decisions. But there’s also a nice tension between setting your pieces up for the grab and anticipating your opponents’ actions around the table. The game’s replayability is found mostly in the discovery and mission cards which add the modular variety to the landscape and even give a subtle story behind the Martian migration. If not for the medio-heavy text dependency, I might throw this in the “gateway game” category.

So I guess I ended up liking Mars after all.

THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB

SEAN

I’ve had the chance to play Mission Red Planet several times now and have enjoyed every game thus far. The game isn’t hard to learn, per se, but there is a little bit of a learning curve for new players. Since most of the game hinges on the nine action cards, the beginning of the game can be a bit slow as everyone reads and rereads their cards. Normally I don’t like games that create this kind of analysis paralysis but because everyone is doing it at the same time it’s not as big of an issue here. The problem I have is that because each card is basically used once, maybe twice, decisions can be crucial. Understanding the cards properly and how they interact with others or affect your board position is fairly important. Also, the game’s just long enough that it doesn’t usually see a second play in the same game night which unfortunately doesn’t help.

That said, this is the only downside to the game and even so the cards aren’t extremely difficult to learn. My 11-year-old daughter was still able to play with us and managed it well enough. The card play is so much fun too. If you’ve followed us for a while you’ll know that I’m a sucker for take-that! games. Combine that with some push-your-luck style choices that still have strategic value and I’m all in. I think take-that! and push-your-luck really compliment each other well here too. When the luck isn’t on your side you can just ruin someone else’s day and that’s just so satisfying to me.

The ten rounds vs. nine cards also work out pretty well together. You have just few enough cards that you will have to play the nine card to get them all back at some point, but when? That’s the kicker. The cards themselves all seem pretty balanced and I want to use them all. I really like how the stronger cards are last in the rotation while also offsetting the push-your-luck element of going last by competing for first player at the same time. Dual purpose cards are almost always a good design decision.

The Bruno’s really hit it out the park with this one. It’s my go to Area Control game because it’s just a lot of fun and is easily played with all levels of gamers. There’s a reason it was reprinted and that’s because it’s a great game. Next time someone asks you to play Risk just tell them no and introduce them to the awesomeness that is Mission Red Planet.

BRIAN

Mission Red Planet originally interested me simply based on its similarity to El Grande – a game that I love. But it was hard to find so I let it lie. Then came the reprint and I had to grab a copy. I needed to see how it handled the bidding for turn order and area control and the Mars theme intrigued me. The best way for me to review this game shortly is to compare it to El Grande.

Mission Red Planet has a lot of great things going for it. It is a pretty short game to play without feeling too short or light. I like how MRP combines the bidding and power into one step but I like the bidding/action system of El Grande better. MRP also simplifies the scoring by only allowing the player with the most astronauts to score. While this is good it also removes some of the nuance of El Grande’s scoring method. I really enjoy the rocket mechanism.

In short, Mission Red Planet cannot replace El Grande for me but that is ok. It doesn’t need to to stay in my collection. If you are looking for a shorter, simplified area control game then you have it in Mission Red Planet. While it may not have the meat of El Grande it is still a great game. It’s short play time may make it see the table more often than its older sibling.