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.


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 ( 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.

Mars Colony in the Classroom

I continue to be amazed (in a good way) by the number of people who try to adapt Mars Colony for a multi-player setting. If you’ve browsed some of my previous entries here, you’ll know that I have already posted one suggestion from a fan. However, previous attempts were still assuming a relatively low player count. When I received a message from Remko about wanting to scale the game up, way up, to a classroom setting, I was intrigued. He had already come up with a few ideas of his own. We discussed a few potential hiccups that I had run into with previous games, and he eventually settled on the following:

  1. I’m going to assign two Saviors and the rest are Martians. I myself will play the role of the Earth council to keep the pressure on.
  2. Each player will belong to one of the political parties. Furthermore, each one of the Saviors has a Personal relationship with one of the players.
  3. Each player has an appeal, which he or she can use to re-roll one die after it has been cast. However, that person should be able to explain that narratively.

You can read his full account on his website, but suffice to say it was an interesting experience for him and for his students. Because so many of them were new to roleplaying, there were a few interesting oddities that popped up that I would not have anticipated. This is my experience showing, and a reminder of what it’s like to put yourself in the shoes of a new player. As Remko put it:

In the beginning, players needed to get accustomed to the whole system. On one hand, there was some confusion about whether they were telling facts or fiction, since the students were feeling quite in character in that sense. Questions like “Am I allowed to talk about that in my role?” and “That what I am saying, is that the truth or is it a lie?” were confusing in the beginning, but as the game continued and I explained that it should be clear from the context whether it was fact or fiction, the game went quite smoothly.

And also this:

One thing I did like about this version was the seemingly frustrating effect for some players that their ideas weren’t valid anymore due to the story elements introduced by the other players. Part of creating a story together is the fact that not all of your ideas will be part of the story.

Thanks to Remko for his report and for his willingness to hack the basic Mars Colony system to fit such a different setting!

The Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Auction — 2014

I have tried to donate every year to the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Auction. So far I’ve only missed one. This year, in addition to a few other games, I’m donating a print copy of Mars Colony: 39 Dark. The high bidder gets a copy shipped to him or her. If you’re in the U.S., shipping is free. Otherwise, I pay the first $5. Please bid generously as all of the proceeds go to the Memorial Fund.

In case you’re wondering what the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund is, here’s a description from the board:

The Jack Vasel Memorial Fund was started in April, 2011, in memory of Jack Vasel, son of Tom Vasel. Tom is an influential voice in the board gaming hobby, and the community rallied around him in his time of need. Amazed by this generosity and kindness, Tom was determined to help others who might undergo similar tragedies. The purpose for which the Fund is formed is to collect and provide financial assistance to members of the public who are part of the gaming community and who have suffered personal hardship. It is our hope and prayer that the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund will provide Jack with a legacy to help out the entire gaming community. The Fund is recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity.

I also recommend reading a few of the stories posted by people who have received help from the Fund. I assure you, they will tug at your heartstrings.

Fringe Cards

I was surprised at just how difficult it was to come up with 32 different fringe groups for the 39 Dark Kickstarter reward. It wasn’t that there was a lack of groups. Rather it was difficult to choose 32 groups that, as a whole, represented a sufficiently multi-national swath. I also wanted to amass a collection of groups that represented both the right and left, extremist and peaceful side of protest. I’m sure I’ve failed on at least one front, but I’m nonetheless happy with the collection. What I realized was that it’s impossible to capture the spirit of protest around the world in a simple deck of cards. But I also realized that I can make some pretty darn interesting combinations from the deck I did create. Available now for purchase.

Fringe Group Cards