The Problem with Space - First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet Review
For those who aren’t aware of the game, First Martians is basically a retheme of the Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island game. Both games feature exploration, resource management, story events, scenarios, campaigns, and co-operative play. The main difference, of course, is the location and theme of the games; Robinson Crusoe takes place on various islands, whereas First Martians consists of various scenarios on Mars.
This is all fine and dandy, but brings us to the first point of contention (of many) concerning this game. There are a few that have accused First Martians of being “less thematic” than its predecessor, and it’s easy to understand why - most of the events that happen to you in this game take the unique perspective of a communication log entry. Instead of simply saying “the oxygen supply is busted” you’ll instead get some sort of quip from the engineer saying someone tripped over an extension cord.
While I do agree with the sentiment that the ‘lightheartedness’ of most of the dialog in this game doesn’t seem to match up with the hard sci-fi theme of doing your best to survive on a distant planet, I was curious how this related to Robinson Crusoe’s events. To be honest, Robinson Crusoe wasn’t much better - the events don’t have much more than a one liner of “It was a freezing night” or “Out of food sources”. So where’s the disconnect?
For many, I think the hole between the two games is in the underlying theme. On a cursed island, anything can happen - bad weather, predators, cannibals, you name it. If it shows up on a card, it’s realistic. Contrast that to the thought of a manned mission to Mars; there is a lot less room for imagination for something that should be a precision operation. Others have described the space agency you fly under in First Martians as “the McDonalds of space travel”, and with the antics described in some of the random events generated by the app it’s not hard to see why.
Speaking of the application, it feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity. The app mostly serves two purposes; guiding you through each phase of a round (of which there are many), and keeping track of the event & adventure decks. The event deck appears to function the same as Robinson Crusoe, where on top of the pre-randomized scenario events you may also add more events through adventures you see throughout your game. For example, you may roll the rover and injure your leg in the process; later on that leg injury may force your player to miss an action in a future round.
This system works well, and was already proven by Robinson Crusoe using the card system in that game. The app attempts to make that phase of the game “easier” by digitizing the event deck on players’ behalf. I have experienced two problems with this:
Because the event deck isn’t a physical thing, players don’t have an connection with it. The neat thing in Robinson Crusoe is seeing that green-backed card and wondering which of your previous misadventures was about to come bite you in the ass - with the deck now nonexistent, players lose that connection to the events and it becomes one of the many random things that go wrong on your piecemeal planetary habitat. I no longer worry about or care about what event is next.
There are still tonnes of cards and dice in First Martians. Even though they managed to automate the event deck and adventure decks, they managed to introduce a bunch of other decks for damage, research, technology, 12 dice, and various other things so you end up with even more piles of cards than Robinson Crusoe! If you’re going to automate the randomness out of the game, automate all of them!
I’m sure, if you’ve heard anything about this game, you’ve heard about the mess the rules were. I’m not going to harp on it too much as many others have talked about it at length, but I’ll make two points. The first being that they’ve since re-released the rules as “The Almanac”, which I highly recommend reading for anyone attempting to play this game. It was released as an ‘optional supplement’ but it’s anything but - it’s a 60+ page document that has all the rules you actually need to know to play the game.
My second point is the fact that this isn’t their first rodeo, and in fact they faced this exact same problem with Robinson Crusoe, to the degree where they hired an external resource to re-design their rulebook when they printed the 2nd edition of the game. One would think they had learned from their mistakes, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
All these transgressions aside, the worst offender in my opinion is the graphic design of the game and its components. They’ve fixed the rulebook, they’ve modified some of the events in the application (which is a nice benefit of having an application for your board game), but without a total reprint of the game itself they won’t be able to fix the confusing design decisions they’ve made on the cards, components, and game board. Let’s list them off, shall we?
The scenario sheets each have their own design. While I can appreciate the variety they tried to introduce to the game, for a game that’s already confusing not having any consistency between the missions just adds an extra layer of interpretation that isn’t needed. Robinson Crusoe also had this, but still had a level of consistency that made sense.
Another problem is the extra information on the cards. In this case these are the skill cards that each player receives for their character. Despite their visual appearance, there is no dependence between the three skills - you can use and/or acquire any of the three cards without needing the others. Why they felt the need to have the name of your other two skills is beyond me, and only serves to confuse - I spent time looking up why that information was printed, and of course couldn’t find anything one way or the other in the original instruction book.
Here’s some damage cards, that have a very similar graphic layout. The problem here is they’re actually relevant to the card, sometimes. The actual effect of the card is the dark shaded part, where it says “The first player suffers…” or “This part is now broken”. But what part are they referring to? Two points if you guessed “Working Bay”. So you only have to pay attention to the snippet of information that’s half way up the card that it pertains sometimes.
A facility and an upgrade card that function the exact same way. Here’s the problem - they’re designed completely different. The tile has greenhouses 1 to 5, numbered appropriately (and with a percentage graphic for some reason?). Each greenhouse on that tile needs to be built (the left hole), and can hold one plant (the middle hole). Growing seeds into plants is the track on the right hand side of the tile. The card, however, has greenhouses 6 to 10, which only have to be built once to hold 4 seeds, in spots 1 to 4. Confusing? Add the fact that this is one of the first additional buildings you build in the tutorial mission, and you’re in for a rough first play.
Here’s another tile facility. Can you guess what happens when a part breaks in the Garage Hall? From top to bottom; you can’t use the rover as part of your action, you lose an oxygen from the main supply track at the start of a round, your vehicle breaks if you use it as part of your action, and you have to reroll successes on adventure rolls. If you take a look, there actually kind of is an iconography to this (circles pertain to current actions, squares pertain to dice), but again it’s something that can’t be found in the rulebook or is immediately apparent, adding to the confusion.
Another complaint is the reuse of the oxygen and power symbols - oxygen and power are both parts that can be broken, items that you can have in inventory, and a quantity you keep track of along the top of the board. In the case of the tile above, you would need to consume an oxygen ‘part’ from your part supply to make sure that you don’t lose oxygen from the bank every round - the only differentiation is that weird circle around the symbol.
… I actually like First Martians, and have sold my copy of Robinson Crusoe with the Voyages of the Beagle expansion. Most of what’s outlined above just adds to a massive learning curve to play the game, but once you get over that hump (which took about 3 games for me) there’s a great hard sci-fi adventure game here. It’s just a real shame that it’s such an uphill battle to get there. If you’re already a big fan of what Robinson Crusoe does and the sci-fi theme doesn’t grab you, I don’t think there’s a real reason to jump ship. But if you’d rather fix an oxygen line to your habitat than make sure there’s a roof on your tent, and you’re willing to wade your way through the crappy rules and graphic design, there’s a solid game here with 16 scenarios that are fun to play.