Explore the Colony, Not the Planet. You should absolutely consider taking the action outside the colony domes. Mars is significantly smaller than Earth, but it’s still an entire planet. There are ice caps, mountains, and canyons. The list of Colony Health Markers provides at least one option, “Others,” that allows for the possibility of alien lifeforms. If you were so inclined, there is an entire game’s worth of material outside the domes. And if your genre preferences tend towards exploration and the tropes of the John Carter series, Mars provides. But — you really shouldn’t overdo it on this type of action.
Mars Colony, for all its trappings and technology is not a sci-fi survival game, and it’s not an action-adventure game. The title is purposeful, and it guides you towards the happenings inside the dome even if the lives of those living outside the dome affect those within. Most people on Mars, by far, live under the colony domes. Keep the action focused on those people, and keep the larger planet as a symbol of Mars’s potential. It is an expanse of barren, ochre rocks, but it’s the only home known to many of the inhabitants in the colony. Celebrate the planet’s beauty, but do so through the perspective of politics and struggle.
Nonetheless, when you do venture outside the colony dome (if you do), there are a few ways to make your excursions punchy and memorable. First, you might bring the outsiders in. There are plenty of tiny outposts and loners doing work for the colony out there in the cold. If the political policies of the colony interfere with their way of life, they are likely to venture inside and make their voices heard. Second, you might treat some of the outposts as extensions of the colony to be toured by Kelly in the same way she might visit any other part of the colony. The difference, of course, is that her safety is at great risk when away from the protocols and relative security of the dome. If you want a dose of action in your game, feel free — but reserve it as a moment of intensity that stands out over the course of the entire story. Finally, you can always bring the environment of Mars inside the colony. A breach in the dome is potentially catastrophic. Maybe the colony needs to get in touch with its pioneering, rough and tumble origins to finally come together. There are many options, but my overarching advice is to find a way to keep the confict centered on human interaction even when the Martian desert asserts its dominance.
Remember Optimism. It’s okay for Kelly, her colleagues, or the players to be optimistic and believe in something. When you are playing a game about failure firmly planted in the mire of contemporary fear, it’s natural to allow the game to descend into a similarly dark place. Exploring cynicism is a fine way to play Mars Colony, but try to stay connected with a sense of humanity and hope. Failure isn’t really failure without loss — especially if that loss is accompanied by the erosion of hope. Hope, though, isn’t something that needs to die. A fundamental conceit of the game is that Kelly really wants to save the colony. She may be an idealist, or she may be an opportunist. Good or bad, what doesn’t change is an underlying desire to see the colony succeed. If you lose track of that fact, the game will transform into a fatalist exercise in passing the time. Don’t allow that to happen.
As Governor, one of the most powerful things you can do is introduce a character who reminds Kelly of what she’s fighting for. It may be a counterintuitive realization, but, if Kelly seems to be stuck in a cycle of negativity, the best Opposition Scene may be one where Kelly is forced to encounter unlikely optimism amidst the struggle to survive. This may come in the form of her Sympathy character. It may be more powerful, on the other hand, to show Kelly the citizens of the colony most affected by the over-stressed infrastructure, poor safety conditions, draconian restrictions on speech, or the like. But don’t stop there. Show Kelly one or two specific characters with likable personalities who refuse to give up, who are still fighting for some of the things that Kelly gave up on. In other words, in extreme situations, the best opposition may be unwelcome inspiration to do better.
Let Fear Inspire Your Play. Fear Cards ensure you are thinking about how the real world interfaces with your fictional Martian setting. Once created, however, they don’t intrude, and they don’t get pushy. There is no mechanic that forces anyone to pull a new card. They are simply waiting for you when you need them. Don’t be afraid to use them, but likewise don’t feel obligated to make use of every aspect of every card. Even the act of writing the cards is enough to set most players’ creative potential in motion. The cards are as much for establishing tone as they are for in-the-moment inspiration. In a two-player game especially, you can’t rely on a table full of creative minds. So instead let the little details created during the preparation phase fill that void.
When you do use a card, use it immediately to color whatever is happening in the current scene. Fear Cards often hint at large systematic problems. But the cards are not obligations. Resist the urge to describe the entirety of an insurmountable problem. Don’t put that sort of pressure on yourself. Instead, start small and leave it at that. Let the problem, like all problems in the colony, spool out naturally and gradually. Your real-world fear becomes the seed within your fiction that transforms into something much more frightening as it develops and combines with other Fear Cards. Allow each idea to mutate into something new and horrifying.
Think about that for a second, and what you might create using someone like Trump as just the seed of something bigger. On second thought, maybe don’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.