Mission: Red Planet Review – Steampunk Mars

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Designed by: Bruno Cathala, Bruno Faidutti
Published by: Fantasy Flight Games
Art by: Andrew Bosley, Samuel Shimota, Alyn Spiller
Players: 2-6
Playtime: 45-90 minutes

Review copy provided free of charge by Asmodee UK.

Who knows what wonders the planets hold? I mean, obviously ours has Coke, cakes and video games, so it’s clearly the best, but those other planets out there might hold resources key to improving those things! Better video games, more types of cake, NEW FLAVORS OF COKE! The possibilities are truly endless.

The idea is you’re sending astronauts to the Red Planet (which is never actually directly referred to as Mars) in order to mine the valuable resources that can be found there. But the game is set in the year 1888, so instead of using modern technology to escape the clutches of our beloved planet’s atmosphere, you need to use the mighty powers of steam, top hats and monocles. Yup, Mission: Red Planet has a steampunk theme that ultimately looks rather pretty but isn’t integral to anything.

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So, here’s how it all goes down; Everybody gets the same set of nine numbered character cards, and at the start of each round everybody will select one of them and place it face-down. With that done, the cards are simultaneously revealed and resolved in order of their number from highest to lowest, which naturally should be done by somebody loudly counting down from 10 to 1.

Getting your little astronauts to surface of Totally-Not-Mars or its orbiting chum Phobos is pretty important, which is why most of the cards you play let you stick one or more of your little plastic astronauts into the three docked rocket cards, each of which has a location written on it matching a spot on the board. Whenever the rocket reaches its listed capacity it takes off, as represented by moving the card up and away from the little cardboard docking pieces. Toward the end of the round you shift all the astronauts on launched ships to their destinations and then replace launched ships with new ones.

Some of the cards you play even let you place a new destination on a rocket, an awesome way of hijacking a lift or even to send an opponent to the wrong side of Mars, while other rockets simply have a question mark meaning the first player to stick an astronaut inside gets to pick where it’s heading. I can only imagine it’s the equivalent of realizing that you need THIS TURN on the highway at the last second and veering like a lunatic to get there.

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Aside from just letting you send your little plastic astronauts to the Red Planet the nine character cards come with a bunch of extra abilities. The Saboteur for example, let’s you blow up a docked spaceshuttle, sending all the occupants to the Lost in Space zone that essentially acts as a giant floating graveyard for all the poor astronauts who got a bit unlucky in the battle for resources. Then you have the Travel Agent who lets you pack three astronauts into a single ship, but if there isn’t enough room for all three then you don’t get to send any at all, and since her number is quite low playing her can be risky if you don’t choose the right time. Meanwhile, the Femme Fatale lets you put an astronaut on a ship, and then replace an opponent’s astronaut on the planet with one of your own. Or you could play the Soldier who not only lets you put two astronauts into ships but also lets you kill one astronaut on Mars or Phobos. One of my personal favorites was a card that lets you use Phobos as a staging area by taking all of your astronauts there and shifting them to any zone you want.

It’s a fantastic system that’s simple to use, creates endless tension and leads to interesting decisions that must be made. Maybe you play the Saboteur, but since he’s a number 5 you have to watch in horror as two of the three docked ships are filled and begin to fly away, leaving the only one to destroy being the one you have several astronauts on. Maybe you spot someone looking to gain dominance in the Phobos zone so you use the Femme Fatale to seduce one of their astronauts, or you use the Secret Spy so the ship launches early. You could even use the Tour Guide to move your own astronauts around on Mars, suddenly shifting the game’s dynamic and leaving everyone else scowling at you like you just stole the last slice of pizza.

Ultimately you’re doing all of this to control territory on the surface of planet because there are key moments during the game where each zone on the Red Planet will produce resources based upon the random tile that was put there during setup. Each of the three resource types is worth points, and each production phase will spew out more tokens than the last. If there’s a tie for control then the tiles are split evenly, and any that cannot be split are simply left for a later round, just waiting to be claimed. The resource tiles themselves are revealed as soon as an astronaut is placed in the same zone as them, so you find out early where the biggest points are going to be appearing, and after that it’s just a fight to see who gets them all.

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It’s all very tactical rather than strategic. You can’t have a grand plan going into Mission: Red Planet because it will get tossed out the window on the very first round as the fast-paced action unfolds. No, you need to deal with each and every round as it comes instead, focusing on what’s happening now and what you think other people might do. Every played character is put face up in front of the person who played it until they pop down the Recruiter card which lets them pick up all the discarded characters again, and thus you always know what other players have used and what they have left. You can make educated guesses, but until the cards are flipped over you can rarely ever be sure about what’s going to happen, and so much of the game’s fun stems from watching how a round plays out.

Spicing things up are the various mission cards that give you bonus points for achieving certain goals such as having at least one astronaut in the indicated zones or even having the most dead astronauts floating around in the Memorial, a fun mission that leads to players blowing up ships full of their own guys. You can draw new mission cards using a certain character, but the deck also contains a few other card types of card such as discoveries which get placed face-down along the outer edge of the board.  Toward the end of the game these cards get revealed and heavily effect things in their zone, which can in turn radically alter how points get scored, making for some last-minute see-saw changes.

Y’know, it’s really easy to see why Mission: Red Planet has been given a second edition and why it’s highly regarded among the gaming community. The ruleset is not overly tricky to grasp but from it rockets brilliance, a clever mix of tactical thinking and chaos that creates lots and lots and lots and lots of fun. And some yelling, too, because flipping over character cards can be a lot like watching your plans being hung from the rafters and then beaten like a pinata, except instead of delicious candy pouring out it’s just angry wasps.

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There are a few problems that hold it back from being a truly brilliant game, though. While the fairly heft dose of luck can work in the game’s favor by injecting a load of chaos into the mixture it can also be annoying to have plans ruined through no real fault of your own. And most important after a few games with my friends, that I thoroughly enjoyed, we all suddenly found ourselves burned out on the action. It’s not a particularly deep game so it for us it didn’t support multiple playthroughs without a good break between them. Still, that’s not really a massive complaint; not all games need to be absurdly deep and thinky, and there’s really nothing wrong with something that just wants to be fun. It just so happens that in the case of Mission: Red Planet I have a lot of fun, and then didn’t want to play it again for quite a long time.

It has to be said that this new edition is rather lovely to look at. FFG usually put out good quality products and they’ve kept that reputation up for Mission: Red Planet. The little plastic astronauts look nice and colorful as they are progressively scattered across the Red Planet and Phobos, the artwork is beautiful and I really appreciated the dial for keeping track of the rounds. If I was to criticise anything in the production department, other than FFG’s horrible box inserts, it would be that the steampunk art is fairly generic.

All in all, I really like Mission: Red Planet. It’s one of those games that I could use to introduce my friends to slightly more complex things without overwhelming them, the general concept of how to win being easy to grasp. In fact, my little niece of 9-years was able to understand most of it. There’s still enough going on for the more experienced gamer, too. And while the elements of “take that!” where your ship full of astronauts gets blown up or something can be annoying they never overpower the game. It’s just good, wholesome fun. That also involves killing random astronauts. Good family fun, then.

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