Tag Archives: Mars Colony

Mars Colony 12 Principles of Play — No. 8

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.

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 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!

Mars Colony Available in the New Bundle of Holding

As of yesterday, Mars Colony, along with some other great games, is available as part of the latest Bundle of Holding. Here’s the deal. You set your own price (min. $3), and you get the following games as DRM-free PDFs:

  • Mars Colony
  • Annalise
  • Dust Devils

If you pay more than the average going rate (currently a mere $12), you get three additional games:

  • Dog Eat Dog
  • Our Last Best Hope
  • The new annotated edition of Sorcerer

And if there aren’t some super secret additions coming soon to the bundle, then you can call me crazy. Personally, I think you’d be crazy not to at least check out the bundle. Even if you already own a few of the games, this is a great chance to pick up the rest for cheap.

What’s more, 10% of your payment goes to charity: Heifer International and War Child International.

The bundle ends seven days from today, September 3, 2013.

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!

Mars Colony Reprint

Mars Colony has been out of print since December. Due to my busy schedule, I wasn’t able to organize a reprint until just last week. One reason for the delay is that I wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to comb the text for any lingering typos (finally, the glaring error on the back cover will be fixed!). The other is that I was debating whether I wanted to keep the glossy cover or switch to a matte finish (I went with matte).

Well, the good news is that the reprint is on the way. I anticipate receiving the books within a week or so. When I do, I will ship some of the books off to IPR, and keep the rest for direct order sales. Thanks everyone for making the first print run a success.

Indie RPG Awards

The Indie RPG Awards were announced at Gen Con this weekend. First of all, congratualations to Vincent Baker for his commanding first place finish. Apocalypse World won both Game of the Year and Most Innovative Game of the Year.

I am also happy (and flattered) to see Mars Colony listed as a runner up in the same categories, with some kind words no less.

Runner Up for Game of the Year:

[Mars Colony is an] insightful game that embraces difficult real world political issues under its sci-fi trappings.

A tight and thoughtful two-player RPG, that doesn’t pull its punches. It leaves room to let the story breathe but dares you to push your luck.

Mars Colony brilliantly delivers a two-player experience, something we will see more of in the future. But those future games will always reference this one, because it is elegant, fun, and first.

Tight, focused, and remarkably re-playable.

Runner Up for Most Innovative Game of the Year:

Distilled down to its absolute core, Mars Colony is a welcome antidote to the bloated, sprawling mess of systems past. Sweet, short and to the point.

Games with social/political rulesets should also not still be innovative 35 years into the art form, but they still are.

If you are looking for a list of great games from 2010, check out this year’s awards.