03rd Jan2018

‘First Martians’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

first-martians-box

I feel remarkably lucky to have received First Martians at Christmas time, when more or less the whole country downs tools and gorges themselves on turkey and chocolate for several days before looking for something else to do. That something, for me, is almost always board games, but at this time of year I’m also able to draw upon the collective consciousness of an even wider group of friends and family than usual, and I love nothing more than roping them in to an exciting new game.

First Martians has proven to be a very interesting choice for that purpose, because it has enabled me to test the game with players of all skill levels, ages and at all counts. I’ve played the game solo several times and I’ve also played it with the full quota of four players including my mum, but mostly, I’ve played it with a single, trusted partner. You see, if you’ve previously read about some of the challenges that First Martians presents to players, then I can say that I suffered from almost all of them, plus probably a few more. I got the feeling very early on that First Martians wasn’t meant for casual gamer’s at all. It is a pro-level game that requires everyone involved to have a good appreciation of the rules and systems in place here, as well as a broad understanding of how other complex games work so that rules hiccoughs and misinterpretations can be resolved sensibly through discussion.

Firstly, I should say that from the moment you open the box until the closing turns of the second campaign (yes, there are two of them) First Martians offers a lot of content for those with the stomach for it. There is a literal ton of high quality cardboard pieces including the board itself as well as a number of overlays and tokens. In addition, there are a bucketload of cards, dice, colorful cubes and a handful of player activation tokens that resemble boiled sweets. The game even contains a few miniatures which are largely cosmetic, but nice to have all the same. Finally, there is a large, detailed instruction manual, three double-sided mission sheets and four sealed envelopes, as well as the two campaign brochures. Oh, and then there is a companion application for PC, Android and iOS which you will also need to download.

Once you’ve popped and prepped everything, the manual (and even the side of the box) recommend that you check out Rodney Smith’s excellent Watch it Played! video, which I did. I then watched it again… And again, probably four or five times in total over the course of the last few weeks.  Despite this excellent hand up, First Martians remains one of the hardest to learn games that I’ve ever experienced. It is incredibly detailed and absolutely packed with the kind of features and systems that you’d usually see in videogames, which of course take care of a lot of the hard work. Indeed, that is one of the functions that the app provides in some cases, but unlike other app driven board games, the one provided for First Martians isn’t “aware” of the board state and therefore does not offer clear reminders for every possible circumstance.

The turn structure in First Martians is challenging to describe in a relatively brief review, when you consider the fact that the manual itself is over 40 pages long and the tutorial video I referred to earlier almost an hour in length, though thankfully the app does help with turn structure fairly intuitively. Broadly speaking, once you’ve setup the scenario based on a combination of info in the manual, on the data sheet associated with the mission or campaign booklet and the application, play then occurs over a number of phases that take just a little bit of practice to get used to before becoming second nature. First Martians is a game of balancing complex and often uncertain decisions and the bulk of the actual game is based around managing those decisions and introducing certainty wherever possible.

As an example, each mission will begin with a representation of the human colony on Mars. You’ll have solar panels, farms and oxygen systems to manage as well as labs, rest areas and several other buildings to maintain, all of which can malfunction in several different ways. Malfunctions can include oxygen leaks, power failures or mechanical failures and each of those will result in a negative effect on the astronauts if left unchecked. Multiple failures rapidly become unmanageable, so one of the things you’ll want to do on most turns is attempt to resolve any faults. Doing so involves placing the fruit pastel shaped tokens that represent astronauts onto the relevant space, occasionally with another item like a spare part taken from the Cargo Bay. Aside from repairing malfunctions, you’ll also need to consider the mission objective (which might be to explore Mars and locate an errant probe, for example) or resolve the current event as described by the app.

Each astronaut has only two tokens per round, so choosing where to spend them is important, which is especially true when you consider that any single token will lead to an uncertain outcome, whilst placing two will often result in a definite success. To further complicate matters, different kinds of action can be modified for better or worse to make the outcome less or more certain based on the basic logic. As an example of that, when exploring Mars surface, using the Froggy vehicle will add the equivalent of two tokens to an exploring astronaut’s check, but performing actions on Mars surface will often come with a negative modifier of minus one. In summary, whilst you’ll want to maximise the chance of succeeding at any action you take, it won’t always be possible to have a certain outcome on every action that you need to do, which can result in what the game calls adventures.

Unfortunately, adventures in First Martians are almost always bad. They are generated by the app based on the roll of a coloured die, which is determined by the location the astronaut was in when they encountered the adventure. Some will result in further damage to the habitat which will need repair on future turns, whilst others might result in a wound on the attending astronaut, or a negative impact on stress level or morale. On that note, as astronauts become increasingly stressed, the chances of a fight break out, whilst low morale has a similar effect resulting in wounds as well. Wounds themselves can result in death and failure, but there are also some wounds that result in conditions (like blood poisoning) that carry further negative benefits.

Whilst I feel like I’ve covered some serious ground here, I really haven’t even scratched the surface of what First Martians has to offer. There are still points of interest, upgrades, astronaut skills and a raft of mission specific actions, events, effects and features that I could discuss, not to mention the fact that each of the two campaigns takes place using a consistent setup, which means that many aspects of the game setup carry from one game to the next. There’s also a second vehicle to play with and up to four autonomous helpers that can support astronauts (usually at less than four players) with additional tokens for use on specific tasks.

In summary, First Martians is maddeningly complex to begin with and in fact, it remains so for probably five or even ten hours of playtime. It is incredibly difficult to teach other people unless they are incredibly patient and/or have that existing gaming experience and knowledge that I mentioned earlier. Even with everything in place, and acting as a solo player (controlling two astronauts and with four autonomous helpers and noone to question your actions) or in a pair with a competent partner, you’ll struggle to win at First Martians in any of the standalone missions for quite some time, even with the app set to it’s easiest setting. This is the kind of game where I would suggest any individual failure to make the correct decision can jeopardise the whole mission. Worse still, missions can just as easily be lost on the basis that your decision making was correct (considering the deck is stacked against you) and a couple of bad die rolls finish you off anyway.

I’ve read a lot of negative and mixed press about First Martians, but I don’t feel like I’m overwhelmingly negative about my experience with it. I did enjoy playing it solo over the course of entire evenings – just pondering about my next move whilst I made a cup of tea or listened to a new album. Similarly, it was equally engaging with a friend who I could bounce ideas off and work through problems with to shared cheers of joy or sighs of resignation. The exact opposite was true when trying to bring other players into the fold – First Martians was just too much for them to learn and too much for me to teach. It just wasn’t fun for anyone who wasn’t already a veteran gamer.

I consider the decision to build in so many interesting and detailed systems to be both brave and exciting. I love the idea of systems as complex as collecting spare parts of different kinds to install on failing systems and in fact, I love how those systems are presented as rooms that have slots to show their operational status. I like that there are decks filled with malfunctions that can be drawn in association with each specific kind of block (Living, System and Working) to make them feel specific and I really like the way that stacking tokens can increase certainty of outcome. Whilst I dislike the frequent harshness associated with failing to complete an action in First Martians (you do sometimes gain morale tokens) I do like how heavily customised dice drive different outcomes.

In summary, I find First Martians to be a real mixed bag of an experience, but it is one that I’ll continue to explore for quite some time such is the scale and complexity of what is on offer. Yes, it’s too complicated and badly explained, but equally true is the statement that some of these systems and mechanics are very cool – if you think it should be possible to do something in a continuously breaking Mars habitat, then First Martians probably includes a system for doing it. On the flip side, it is the feeling that the habitat is constantly breaking that holds players back from enjoying the game. The subtitle “Adventures on the Red Planet” feels a little misleading, because existence in this game is mostly just a struggle to survive, rather than something that results in the advancement of the human race.

Players looking for (and used to) a very heavy experience should consider First Martians an interesting option, because it is deeply thematic and includes a huge amount of content. You’ll want to do your research carefully and take the time to read the instructions, watch the videos and pick up any FAQ and errata data from the internet. The creator of First Martians is active on BoardGameGeek and Twitter and will often reply directly to queries, so you’ll have the support you need if you do decide to explore the Red Planet. For novice or even intermediate gamers, First Martians is a more challenging proposition and I would suggest you build yourself up to it with some simpler titles to begin with.

***½  3.5/5
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You can buy First Martians online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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