Multi-Player Mars Colony

I received an exciting email from Mars Colony fan, Anthony Pendleton. He’s devised a way to play the game with more than two. Here’s an excerpt from his email:

I ran it as three savior players (them) and one governor (me). The concept was that the govt back home was hedging their bets, hiring a consultant from each major political party, and the players didn’t find that out until they arrived.

We started with three Colony issues out the gate — Materials Shortage, Social Unrest and Terrorism — that all saviors could attempt to address. If one player managed to “resolve” an issue, I ruled that other players could still attempt to resolve them “from another angle” and not be locked out if progress had already been made. This made for a very interesting narrative to develop, as players would highlight a single problem in multiple lights, providing greater depth to the Colony’s issues.

If an issue was resolved, a new one would appear (as per the normal rules), but if an already resolved issue was then resolved again by another player, a new issue would not trigger. This didn’t happen in our game though, as players tended to focus on different issues.

As “win” conditions for the end, I decided that the player with the most fully resolved issues would “win,” with ties going to partial resolves and then by health points. At the end, one of the players suggested that the “winning” player be allowed to narrate their ending last, which was an awesome idea. The third place player narrated first, then the second, then the “winner,” and finally me as the governor to narrate the Colony’s outcome. No one was really a winner in the end as the Colony had slid extremely far into squalor and sickness, although the “winning” player did manage to pin it all on another player.

During play, we removed the Personal Scene option, sticking with Issue Scenes only (would stretch the game out too far otherwise) which flowed very well. I’d throw out a complication scene (don’t have the book in front of me right now, pry messing up the terms, sorry) as the governor, then each savior player would take turns to address an issue and roll/push their luck.

Players quickly began not only using the Colony npc’s, but also each other to “cross the aisle and work together” — no actual change to game play, just color. As things went well (or terribly wrong), players would weave details from others’ narration into their own, building out the setting and story much more than is normally done in a two player game.

One of the things that fascinates me about two-player roleplaying is the different dynamic generated during play. If you are used to multi-player games only, it’s easy to forget just how much content and theme is generated as a result of the interaction between the different players at the table. When you reduce the player count to just two, there is a lot more pressure on each person to contribute meaningfully and consistently. It can be easy for a game to fall flat if one or both players run into a creative wall.

In many two-player games that I’ve played, this problem is often solved by providing more of two things: structure and raw creative material. The structure provides the players with a framework that they can use to push the game along even when their creativity is lower than it perhaps should be. The idea is that the framework can serve as an inspiration when no other ideas are striking. Similarly, by providing raw creative material like setting material in S/Lay w/Me, clues in Sweet Agatha, or political positioning in Mars Colony, the players will again have something to build off of. The extra structure and material in these games can help make up for what would otherwise be provided by the other players at the table in a multi-player game.

On this note, when Anthony told me he had lopped off the Personal Scenes from Mars Colony, I freaked. However, his follow-up explanation made sense:

One thing I didn’t expect, however, was that the personal character exposition that normally comes out during Personal Scenes came out very naturally as players interacted with each other not only during their actions but also when launching off of others’ actions as well (whether successes or failures). Surprised me and flowed very well — something that was possible with multiple savior players but not with just one on their own.

Given that there were more people to generate ideas at the table, and that players were able to cross their characters into the same scene (or even react to what had happened in a previous scene), Anthony’s explanation makes sense. It also reinforces my suspicions that the two-player vs. multi-player roleplaying experience is very different and takes a different design attitude.

In any case, I thought you might enjoy know that multi-player Mars Colony is possible. If anyone else has tried the game with more than two, I’d love to hear about it!