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System On A Downer – First Martians: Adventures On The Red Planet Review

Think of an epic journey into a forbidding and alien environment where nothing is as you expected it to be, traps and pitfalls and potential disasters at every turn.  Alone and without the resources you need you feel helpless and adrift as you try to navigate your way through a confusing and obstructive interface so that you can achieve even the very simplest of tasks.  Yes, folks, this is what it is like to take the brave plunge and be one of the very first humans to try a new heavy game by Ignacy Trzewiczek.

Do you want to be the first?  It’s an uphill struggle!

First Martians: Adventures On The Red Planet is not like Ignacy’s more accessible games like Imperial Settlers, with its streamlined play and economical rules booklet.  No, First Martians is much more like Prêt-à-Porter or Stronghold, and if you have played either of those then you might well be coming out in a cold sweat already.  Impenetrable rule books!  Mismatched components!  Multiple FAQs!  Yes, folks, if you have missed any of those since Ignacy went vaguely mainstream, then be prepared to jump for joy, because that head-cracking, mind-bending difficulty is back!

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Oh yes you do!

The outside of the box proclaims boldly that a new player has no need of the manual if they simply watch Rodney Smith’s excellent Watch It Played video, but this is not quite true.  They will need the video, which is excellent by the way, the manual, the app, and a fair dose of common sense to make any kind of headway in this game.  Example?  Ok, four games in I began to wonder what on Earth the astronaut characteristic cards were doing in the box, as they appeared to have no use at all.  Only after a while did I realise that the box in the app under an astronaut’s photo that says “ID” is not for their made up name, but is presumably where you enter the code on their chosen card and then their personality springs to life.  No mention of this anywhere else that I could see.

Welcome to Mars?  It’s a bumpy landing!

There were many other moments like this, some of them my fault (only the Medic can operate the Medical Centre unless the facility has been upgraded), some of them due to the rules (what does that stuff about the AOM actually mean?) and some due to the app and the rules together (do I win the game immediately as implied in the rules or only at the end of the round when the app tells me?).  You will get used to asking questions, lots of questions about this game, and occasionally getting a reply from Ignacy himself back on Earth, but usually from some poor person who has been there before you, the husk of their gaming selves all that remains in this desolate landscape.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Set up can be a confusing tokenfest.

Cursed Island or Red Planet?  It feels familiar!

First Martians is the retheme of the very successful but also very complicated Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island, taking many of the elements of that game, adding in the app, and transporting its players to another planet entirely.  Many of the ideas and mechanisms of First Martians will feel familiar to those who have played Robinson Crusoe, however, especially that notion of things gradually and inexorably going wrong in a slow motion game of whack-a-mole where you have one hand tied behind behind your back and the other hand is armed only with a toothbrush.

As with this designer’s previous heavy games, First Martians comes stuffed to the gills with bits and pieces, including three plastic minis, representing the hub and two rovers.  They are surplus to requirements, but a nice touch, and the quality of the rest of the components is pretty good as well.  My box arrived with incorrect dice, although Portal Games replied to my email in about the time it takes for a transmission to get to Mars and back, and I should also note that the printing on the board is different from that in the rule book, an ominously familiar feeling.  Everything else appeared to be in order though.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Spaces with different names? This is not the best of omens.

Malfunctions?  Stay out of the red!

A preliminary read through the rules gives the impression of a game that should run relatively smoothly, but getting into the core of it is an uphill struggle.  Depending on your scenario the board will be set up with various facilities, their lights beningly blinking green at this stage, trackers, bits of landscape, and piles of (gulp!) Malfunction Cards.  These will ruin your life, alongside the app, for something is going to go wrong with your facility on pretty much every turn, making those lovely green cubes turn red until you are left with a malevolent set of Christmas lights that makes your plants wilt and forces you to shut down areas that, really, you would much rather keep running.

Players can fight against this by getting their First Martians to perform actions, such as taking rests to reduce stress, visiting the Medical Centre to take something for that nagging migraine, or, if time allows, actually doing some meaningful research work.  In between all this, parts will have to be changed and substituted to make up for all that Martian dust getting into the systems and causing them to power down unexpectedly.  Oh, and your astronauts will get into fights as well.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Trackers for stress and morale. My personal stress was off the scale by this point.

This should be fun…but it’s not a happy appy experience!

First Martians begins hard and gets harder, and I would find it difficult to say that the app helps a player though these faltering early steps.  Take the first mission, for example, welcomingly entitled Make Yourselves At Home, although You Will Die Here Many, Many Times might be more appropriate.  On the surface it is about repairing broken elements and learning how to manage oxygen, energy and food resources.  However, the scenario sheet brings special actions that are very difficult to understand for a first time through player, the app has no real instructions, and, worse still, those two elements appear to be at variance with each other.  Roll a yellow malfunction die from Round 3, says the sheet, but the app says nothing other than to gather the appropriate dice.  Rely solely on the app, therefore, and you will play incorrectly, which is irksome, and it soon becomes clear that genuine knowledge of how to play this game comes from a multi-platform approach.

First Martians is full of these contradicitons, a familiar feeling to those like me who have waded through the likes of Stronghold, but at least I know from my previous experiences that there will be an interesting if tangled experience underneath.  Any first time gamers who have had Terraforming Mars introduced to them by another player, say, and pick this up on a whim are going to need to visit the Medical Centre many times afterwards for their migraines.

As in Robinson Crusoe, events will happen in First Martians, triggered by the app, and you can either spend a precious action dealing with them within a time limit or have them come back and cause havoc later on.  There will rarely, if ever, be enough time to get everything done, so First Martians becomes a game of dancing with possibilities, of placing sticking plaster on potential disasters and keeping fingers crossed.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

If you can’t spend enough time on an action you’ll need to roll the bones. My copy had two orange but no yellow dice.

It is realistic!  But is it too realistic to be fun?

When First Martians is at its most frustrating it is like life on Earth – computers will overheat, parts will shut down, plants will wilt, people will get tetchy with each other and develop medical problems – so the question at this point becomes a balance of whether your idea of a good gaming time is escapsim from that daily drudgery, or instead dealing with all the same old rubbish, but on Mars.  If you lean towards the latter part of that equation then First Martians might just be for you, because surely only a fool imagines that the real first Martians are not going to spend most of their time fixing things.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Froggy heads out onto the surface.

That grinding, frustrating, depressing realism is probably one of the game’s strongest points, and it is surely as thematic we can imagine those lives to be, even down to the point of dealing with a computer system (the app) that was probably originally written in a language foreign to your own, has not been updated with the latest information, and which never gives you the help you want when you need it.  Thumbs up for that dose of realism, I say, also the sly dig the app takes at the oft-heard “I’ll wait for the second edition once you first edition players have ironed out the problems” remark aimed at Portal’s bigger games.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Malfunctions will hurt you. A lot.

Making yourself at home on Mars will take days!

I have not talked much about First Martians’ gameplay, partially because the scenarios are so different from each other (a good thing) but also because it is at its root a glorified action selection game with added layers just to frustrate you.  There is a streamlined heart running underneath everything, but you do need to stick at this and really want to get there in order to find it.

The things is, once you make it to the top of that hill made of rules and exceptions and edge cases without explanation, First Martians is a beguilingly engrossing game, if your idea of a good time is solving problems and thinking around corners.  It is much more like Leaving Earth, which is all about payloads and calculations and trade offs, and much less like Terraforming Mars which makes building a habitable planet positively fun.  However, to get to that part where you start enjoying the game you will have to get through several immensely frustrating plays where you may or may not have won because you may or may not have cheated without knowing it.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Blinking hell…

Like this game?  You should start a campaign!

If you get that far, though, this could be the kind of game that becomes a regular visitor to your table, but it will mainly be as a solo game, because good luck to you getting other people through that learning experience.  As it comes in the box First Martians is a huge and sprawling disappointment, unintuitive and a tangled mess to learn, but if (if) you are prepared to invest time and effort into it it begins to unfurl its glories like the petals in a solar panel array, at which point you may well feel confident enough to take on the two Campaigns in the box, again glitchy, again rewarding.

So are you up to the challenge of being one of the First Martians?  In a braver, newer world of board gaming there would be less competition and this game would come to the top more readily, so the odds are stacked against it, but,  just as with his previous heavy hitters, you cannot fault Trzewiczek’s ambition and scope.  The included scenarios surely offer value enough, but the Campaigns extend the life of its components considerably, to the extent that it offers great value for money to that narrow target of gamers whose tastes and abilities it manages to hit.

First Martians Adventures On The Red Planet Board Game

Systems seem to be in order so far.

Frustrating but engrossing!  It made its marks!

As a mark I have veered wildly between two extremes for this game, so I am going to cheat a little, give it two marks and then sit comfortably on the fence in the middle.  As an out-of-the-box experience for an average gamer, or on a bad day, when the app is messing up my phone and I have to go trawling onto the internet again to find the information I need, this is a 5 at best, a hellish mess of convolutions and abstractions that reminds me that I should be playing games for fun to escape exactly this kind of stuff.  However, when all those cubes briefly go green and the game begins to click and whirr as it should, this is an outstanding and gripping 9, and for the life of me I cannot decide which of those two games First Martians really is.

I truly admire Ignacy for his boldness in design in an increasingly homogenised gaming world, his bravery in putting things out there that might not be perfect, but which attempt to push boundaries and, in his words, tell stories, and you will certainly have stories to tell about his First Martians. Fundamentally, as with Prêt-à-Porter and Stronghold, so it is with this.  There is a superb game in here, but it will put off many people before they ever get to see those qualities, and, as in real life, only the toughest and most resilient should apply to be among the First Martians.  5 on a bad day and 9 on a good?  A confused and confusing 7 out of 10 it is, even if my views on this game and my love/hate relationship with it change every time I look at the box.

2 (40%) 2 votes
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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.