Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 7

Sympathy Complicates Everything. During the preparation phase, the Savior generates a single Sympathy character — someone close to Kelly that could prove a thorn in her side, a weakness to be exploited, or a source of humanizing strength. Kelly’s reaction to the Sympathy character often says a lot about where she is as a person because the Sympathy’s life is messy. When someone close comes to Kelly for help, will she take time out of her schedule to assist a single person or turn him away as an unnecessary distraction? Or perhaps the Sympathy will seek to undermine Kelly’s efforts for selfish gains. If so, is Kelly’s compassion a character flaw given her larger mission? All of these are questions worth considering, especially as the Sympathy evolves with each additional scene.

As Governor, Kelly’s Sympathy is always a character worth developing. He can be used as a tool to generate action. He can be deployed as a means to humanize Kelly. And he can be used as an exemplar of the colony populace. However, even if you use Kelly’s Sympathy character as a plot device, never do so without humanizing him first. Otherwise, your plot device will ring hollow and lead to nothing worthwhile. Set the character up first, even with a single scene, so that Kelly’s potential sympathy for the person rings true no matter if she betrays or embraces it.

Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 6

Failure is Always an Option. The tagline for Mars Colony says the game is about “personal failure and government.” That’s true, but more generally, Mars Colony is a game about reacting to failure when the stakes are high. In an ideal world, government leaders would be as competent as they advertise and as graceful as we hope. In reality, no one is competent in all situations, and politicians often choose optics over grace when they fall short. Martian politics are no different.

When Kelly arrives, she is preeminently qualified, but the situation is impossible. Try to save the colony, but also accept that you are perched precariously on the verge of failure. The game’s dice mechanic forces you to take risks, often when you’d rather not. Embrace the dice mechanic and what it represents thematically. Embrace risk. Embrace bold plans, and try to ignore the potential consequences of failure — until you actually fail. The real decision point in the game is what you do when failure finds you. It is then that Kelly will have to make compromises because pragmatic success is often linked with bad deeds, and graceful failure is often linked with a doomed colony. That’s not cynicism, but rather a purposeful choice designed to elicit disgust and empathy for a politician in an impossible situation.

Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 5

Problems are Like Viruses: They Keep Spreading. The Colony Health Markers define three to five potentially catastrophic problems standing in the way of the colony’s longterm survival. They are existential threats, and you should treat them as such. That means the problems are really, really bad. However, it also means they are anything but isolated. The rules encourage both players to discuss the nature of a Colony Health Marker after choosing it from the list of possibilities. You should think of that discussion as an initial briefing, not the whole story. It’s something to get the creative process started. It is not a set of limitations. Problems have a way of spreading, of overspilling their boundaries, and of infecting other aspects of colony life that were not at first apparent. As Governor, you should complicate each Marker, using the dice results and Kelly’s plans (both successes and failures) as inspiration.

For example, if you choose “water” as your health marker, and further define it as a problem with contamination in the drilling and heating equipment, you might start out with a sober scene in the Martian Council Hall where Kelly fights for increased funding for the engineering teams. Maybe you transition to a scene where Kelly tours one of the water reclamation facilities and “gets to know” the people behind her infrastructure. But unless Kelly fixes the problem straight away (very unlikely), you might find that the simple contamination is actually sabotage carried out by disgruntled workers. Or maybe Kelly’s request for increased funding uncovers an embezzlement scheme by Earth Coalition representatives. Whatever you do, allow the problem to spool out such that one problem hints at another and another. In this way, the political and environmental realities will feel all the more real, and all the more daunting.

Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 4

Kelly is a Person, Not an Office. Personal Scenes are the secret weapon behind quality Mars Colony games. It’s easy to seesaw between the two main scene types reserved for the Governor and the Savior: Opposition Scenes and Progress Scenes. These are the main focus of play, and they keep the game moving forward. Introducing problems for Kelly to deal with, and then resolving (or attempting to resolve) those problems, creates a natural rhythm that suits the two-player format. However, you must learn to break that rhythm and introduce some Personal Scenes. It’s only when you are able to divorce yourself from Kelly’s political troubles and gain a glimpse into her personal life that you will truly feel her pain when she has to make difficult decisions that affect all Martians.

Whether she turns out to be an angel or a monster, Personal Scenes reveal Kelly’s motivations as a human being. They don’t have to be long or elaborate. They may be quiet and contemplative. They may depict a moment in Kelly’s life with no conflict whatsoever. Of course you might also use Personal Scenes to develop Kelly’s relationships with her Sympathies, and to deepen her sense of compassion or create troubling conflicts of interest. Whatever your choice, it is within these personal moments that you’ll find an imperfect politician capable of good and bad — but always for complex reasons.

Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 3

Don’t Get Caught in a Loop of Speech Making. When people think politics, the most obvious scene that comes to mind is a campaign speech, or a State of the Union address, or even an Independence Day style feel good call to action. When Kelly takes office, she will give speeches, no doubt. But if that’s all she does, it’s a surefire way to tell a repetitive tale of macro-level politics disconnected from real people and real events. Instead, find a way to frame scenes about events that portray day-to-day life. Get Kelly out into the Colony — into the factories and mining camps, into the science labs and schools, and into the commissaries and food dispensaries. Have her take inspection tours and participate in public meet-and-greets. Get her sitting down with real people in district meetings. You can even make a scene about Kelly’s commute to work, interrupted by events emblematic of the colony’s troubles.

Whatever you do, remember the Colony is a fully-functioning society. Its problems permeate every niche, with associated politics from top to bottom. In a small society, politics is even more personal; so make it personal for Kelly by getting her off the stump and into the real world.

Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 2

Momentum. Keep the story moving, and don’t stop to have a discussion about politics every scene. You should definitely talk about the game when you take a break or when you finish the session, but keep the pace up during play. The system is designed to quickly transition the players from one scene to the next — that’s what the rigid scene categories are for, so that you don’t have to think too much about what comes next — and you should lean on that system. When you keep playing, when you press forward with a new plan and a new ideal to follow, that’s when you’ll find yourself in the most compelling political situations and well outside your comfort zone. That’s when you’ll stop for a bathroom break and find yourself staring in the mirror asking: “What did I just do!?”

If you’re worried that sounds too artificial, take a moment and think about politics today. How long-term do you think those politicians are planning? I mean, really planning? Yeah, I thought so too. Let the system transport you into that same mindset for an evening.

Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 1

People first. Don’t start out trying to make political commentary. Just make a story about people. Of course they happen to live in a political moment and a political atmosphere, but if you don’t play them as people first, then all you’ll create is an abstract story about policies in an echo chamber. No one wants that, and it won’t be interesting anyway.

When you start with a game that focuses on telling a personal story about Kelly and those close to her, or maybe against her, then the politics that arise out of the system will feel real and they’ll have stakes. And most importantly, those politics will surprise you, and that’s where the game’s power exists.

Last Thanksgiving

A few months back I made available a small game titled Last Thanksgiving. It was a personal project, and proof of concept, but it also stuck with me. I’ve been sort of stalled on my latest design project. Nothing was coming together in the way I wanted it to. What I’ve come to realize is that, in designing a bare-bones game, Last Thanksgiving, what I was actually doing was subconsciously working past my designer’s block. You see, I’m a theme first type of guy. Hero’s Banner didn’t come into focus until I had a theme. Same with Mars Colony and 39 Dark. Every single time I come up with an interesting mechanic or provocative setting first, I start designing — but end up designing myself into a corner because the game has no soul. It’s not until I get a strong handle on what I want to say with a game that I can really make progress. For my latest project, that theme is becoming clear, and that theme is memory.

Specifically, something that has been on my mind of late is the notion of memory loss. (And now we’re getting personal, watch out!) My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease before passing away. I watched my two grandmothers suffer from memory loss in their old age as well. At the same time, as I age, the notion of reliving past events through memory is becoming more relevant while at the same time more fraught. Not all the memories are good ones, and, good or bad, I wonder if I can really trust those memories as “accurate.” This is tied up with my study of memoirs (see especially Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), and the way an author fixes a memory in time by writing it down in a particular way as a story. Hell, I’m sure even Roy Batty’s last words in Bladerunner are serving as inspiration.

memoryloss

My point is that all these thoughts about the value and peril of memory are rattling around in my brain, and I’m looking for a way to say something about it all. Enter my latest project. Both Last Thanksgiving (now revised) and the brand new extension, Lost Thanksgiving, tackle the theme of memory in a hyper-focused, two-player format. The players are presented with a limited situation that seems simple at first, but hopefully expands into something larger. This isn’t a “big” game, but it is a personal game (both for me and for anyone who plays it). The main character could be an elderly grandparent in a contemporary drama or a young protagonist in a sci-fi/horror story. The choice is yours, but the theme remains: how does memory betray us, and what power does memory have over us?

The first and base game, Last Thanksgiving, is simple in its presentation, but leaves room to take the story in whatever direction you please. The extension, by comparison, is optional, but highly recommended. It ups the ante and the elements of horror such that memories become corrupted and even malevolent.

I hope you enjoy them, and I’d love to hear your feedback. Neither is a “finished” game in the sense that I’m ready to put out a commercial production, but they are complete and fun to play. I have ideas for at least two additional extensions, and if they work out, this whole thing could see a professional production in a year or two, complete with artwork, examples, etc.

Download Last Thanksgiving (the base game).

Download Lost Thanksgiving (the first extension).

Mars Colony Actual Play

The wonderful Party of One podcast recently recorded an actual play episode of Mars Colony! If you’ve been wondering what the game sounds like in practice, give the episode a listen. The guys run through setup before jumping into the action.

Favorite line in the first five minutes or so? — “This is Donald Trump in space?” Nice!

If you’re looking for other great actual play episodes, check out the rest of Party of One.

Black Friday Anti-Sale (aka Free Game!)

TCK Roleplaying Black Friday Anti-Sale

Without getting preachy, I’ll just say that I’m not a fan of Black Friday here in America. It’s all just too much.

So I’m making a simple offer. If you email me (tim@tckroleplaying.com) on Saturday, November 28, 2015, and pledge that you did not shop on Black Friday, then I will send you any one of my games for free (PDF only). That includes Hero’s Banner: The Fury of Free Will, Mars Colony, and Mars Colony: 39 Dark.

And that’s it! Free game. All you have to do is not shop for one day.


Small print for the rules lawyers: Yes, this is on the honor system. Keep the spirit of the challenge in mind. If you need to, for example, take a taxi to get home, that’s fine. But try to plan ahead and purchase what you need beforehand. You can do it!

This is an individual challenge, which means a few things. First, if your spouse buys something, that doesn’t affect your ability to get a free game. Likewise, if you have two other family members, and neither of them buy anything, everyone can get a free game. However, if you tell your spouse to shop on your behalf, then you’re cheating — no game for you.