Can you save Mars? A 2 player RPG that is not an investigative game, and that does politics well…
So this morning I found myself with the prospect of a free evening, and in a spirit of optimism I fired off text messages to a number of friends seeing who might be available for the 5th ed Dungeons & Dragons campaign we have talked about starting for a while. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given the lack of notice, only one person got back to me.
Now I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoy running RPG sessions with a GM and 2 or 3 players. A lot of games, from Ars Magica to Call of Cthulhu can really shine with a small number of players, but unfortunately I don’t think Dungeons & Dragons is one. D&D seems to work best with 4 to 5 players and a referee, and 5th edition seems to regard 4 players as the norm. I’m an experienced referee and can modify a scenario quickly, but one player – no it would lose too much…
Still Ben was coming over, and I did not want to cancel. We could play a boardgame – but then I remembered one night back last Summer I ran a little indie game by Tim Koppang ( @tckoppang ) called Mars Colony. On the night in question I had gone over to see my friend Richard, and for various reasons we had not been able to play an rpg in years – he can’t make most sessions. Then I recalled I owned this little game, which can be played, indeed is designed to be played in an evening, and which has interesting themes. Best of all it is designed specifically for one on one play, and Richard and I really enjoyed it – so much so I backed the follow up Mars Colony: 39 Dark on Kickstarter.
So tonight Ben and I played Mars Colony. Can you review a game based on two plays? Actually that is more than I get to give some games nowadays, as I have so many things I want to try that some games fall by the wayside quickly. However some games that were mindblowing the first time I ran them – like Primetime Adventures – later felt flat with less inspired players. I therefore like to play a game an awful lot before I review it, which is why I’m still waiting to review say Pavis for Heroquest (still one scenario left to run!).
So a two player RPG – does it work? Short answer – yes. You need the rules, available on pdf (or print) here, 2 six sided dice, some paper, preferably a few index card but pieces of paper will suffice and a couple of pens. Print out the “character sheet” and the “political organisations sheet” and you are ready to play.
I then just read Ben the first few sections of the rules. In many games this would be extremely tedious, but the page count here (around 54) is deceptive – the pages are fairly short on text in the introductory section, but s have some great photographs of Mars from space probes. Ben was fine with my quickly reading him the summary – Earth has set up a colony on Mars, but the project has gone astray, and the Mars colony is in danger of collapse. I as “Governor” would play various citizens on Mars – anyone he interacted with, and he would play Kelly, the person sent to Mars from Earth as “Saviour” to try and resolve the situation there.
The actual mechanics of the game are very simple. The set up takes a little bit of thought however…
When Kelly arrives on Mars there are four political parties, whose colours are Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. These parties can be dominant, minority or fringe. In both games I have played two dominant parties deadlocked the political process, with one minority and one fringe party. And now the clever bit – the players each think of two real world political parties they have some knowledge of the ideologies of – and these four parties comprise the four parties on Mars.
Now actually it is easier than it may sound to choose four parties. You probably know a bot about politics in your country (assuming it is not a one party state), and in both games we found we could find parties both players grasped some of the ideals of. Not agreed with – that is not necessary – just understood. Now if you don’t know a lot of politics, just look up parties in another country on Wikipedia, or go with caricatures of what you think the parties believe – exact agreement is not necessary. What was noticeable was while in each game we had a mainstream right wing party and a slightly further left part, for the other two parties we chose rather er, extreme, options. And that works really well! In one game a Martian party based on UKIP wanted Mars to sever its tiers with Earth, and end to unlimited immigration, and to cut back the state and increase the private sector; the Martian Greens in another game (a fringe party) favoured the removal of humanity (and all traces of the colony) from Mars, and were slightly sinister – unlike my first game where they were benign and were attempting to protect the ecosystem and help minimise the harm cause by settlement. 🙂 How you view the parties will tend to unfold in game, and if my experience is anything to go by does not reflect your own real world politics 🙂
Also, you write down on index cards (or rough paper) some real world issues and grievances you have against governments (I’m assuming you are playing this in a country where this is safe to do – it is a game after all! If not, choose someone else’s government, like for example the poor US govt. record on race relations historically or the British history of colonialism or the … you get the picture). These can be very vague “I hate it when politicians exploit power for their own game” or specific “I think the selling off of the Post Office was a major scandal as the price was far too low”. A couple of these are drawn as themes to explore in the game.
Finally there are three specific issues that need to be faced. Kelly must find solutions to all of them. In the first game the “others”, “terrorism” and “immigration” were the problems which made for a rather dramatic game. In tonight’s game the themes were “atmosphere”, “communications” and “energy” – more low key, but still made for a tense game at times. My job was defining the problems, well with Ben, and then thwarting his plans to resolve them by endless issues I threw at him as I thought of them.
Finally you roll a couple of dice, to determine one person who Kelly knows on the planet. In the first game it was his missing father who lived out in the Martian outback (and was actually leader of the eco-warriors who threatened the community as it turned out in play); in the second game, it was a former school friend now second in command to the pacifist Head of Security.
Oh yes – the organisation sheet, details 16 NPCs – 4 from the Media, 4 from the Earth Council, 4 from the Mayors Office and 4 from the Colony Council. They are invoked by both the player and GM in play, as relationships are forged and political allegiance determined, and compromises sought.
The actual games plays much like any other RPG: a conversation between the Referee and the player, the “saviour” Kelly. In tonight’s game for example Kelly decided to set up an office staff in his hotel to handle communications, win over the Head of Media, and make a series of public appeals and public information broadcasts explaining why atmospherics were disrupting communications with Earth (solar flares were involved) and what the Government were going to do about it. In this case using a series of lasers communications were sent via a monitoring station in the outer solar system; it’s asteroid defence role was replaced, which led to a close shave when a chunk of rock was detected too late as it whizzed past Earth. 🙂
The Luck of the Dice
The scenes can be a lot of fun to play, but both players have to be really on their toes. It is easy to go blank or despair as the player as the problems seem insurmountable — and the referee needs to be perverse and men spirited to keep thinking up new problems and piling the pressure on. An important part of the game is how Kelly evolves as a person faced with this terrible task – however the mechanics don’t allow much time for introspection. Unlike most RPGs there is a WIN condition here – Kelly’s player needs to amass twenty resolution point in each problem.
Now here is a rather important disconnect. While I never let the players end the scene and roll for a resolution until I felt dramatic cutting left us with some real progress or character development, the mechanic here stands completely independent of how the scene played. You roll 2 six sided dice, sum them, and add that many points to the resolution of that problem. If either dice shows a one, then you need to make difficult choices – but the number of points gained towards resolution have nothing to do with how well you played or planned your actions in the preceding scene. Actually this may be far more true of modern politics than most people realise, but I thought it might frustrate the players. It die not. They understood the dice mechanic here at the end of the scene drives storytelling, and no dice are thrown during the scene – that is pure storytelling.
Really I hesitate to use the word game. IT is, because you can win or lose, and their is an element of skill. However MOST of the enjoyment of the game comes in collaborative storytelling, and seeing what emerges from your (oppositional) control of the narrative. the dice mechanism is important – and there is some skill here – indeed the choices you make determine if you win or lose rather than anything else – but the dice system and the narrative part of the game are really quite separate.
So the dice – if either comes up one, you must move a token from your Admired Circle (everyone loves you when you arrive on Mars, so you have all 9 tokens there) to Contempt – as people start to despise you for your failings – and score no points towards solving the problems. It’s not a good feeling, as you only have 9 turns to gather 20 points in each; and you roll quite a few ones. Still you put your hands up, admit your solution failed, and describe how the situation gets worse and the protests that follow. If you earn 5 points of contempt, that is it – Game Over, you are recalled to Earth in disgrace.
There is another option, that lets you keep those valuable points. You can choose to lie. Now I am sure no politician would ever do such a dastardly thing as lie to the public to cover up their own failures, but yes, in this game such a reprehensible thing can happen. This way you still get the points, and there are no consequences. Well probably not – though you must roll just in case of Scandal, the chance of which gets greater the more you lie. In tonight’s game Ben as Kelly resolved the last of the colony problems on the final turn, and only needed one point being on 19 already – but then rolled a 1. Unfortunately he needed the points (well one of them) to win, so he decided to lie (for only the second time). He rolled the Scandal Test, the dice were against him – two 1’s and that was it, the mother of all scandals engulfed him. 🙂 Ge did better than Richard, who came nowhere near to solving the colony’s problems.
You would still struggle however to solve the three problems, were you not able to keep rolling in the resolution phase. If no 1’s come up on your first throw, you can choose to roll again and sum the total. You might get lucky, but you are more likely to roll a 1 and have to choose between deception or contempt. Still, you have to take risks…
The dice system delivers; the disconnect with the narrative meat of the game is not as jarring as it sounds, in fact you only notice it when you sit back afterwards. Unlike quite a few games, skill is more important than luck I think – you are making meaningful choices about what to do with the dice. The luck element is high, but not as high a some RPG experiences. (I once downed a Minotaur Stormbull with a single critical hit from my Duck adventurer in Runequest 2e, killing the character who had been bullying mine!)
The game follows the indie tradition of doing one job, being a game about one thing – in this case Kelly Perkins attempt to save Mars Colony – but doing it well, with tightly focussed mechanics. The game is suited to 2-3 hours play. if you play light hearted or as a serious drama, it delivers, but we tried to play fairly straight. Both players enjoyed it, and wanted to play again sometime. And really and honestly, it does a better job of politics than most games. The organisation chart to my mind could do with a bit more fleshing out – something more like the Board-game Kremlin perhaps, but I am pretty sure Tim C Koppang left it as he did for good design reasons. This is a carefully thought out, intelligent game, which offers a very interesting and different play experience. As it is almost unique in my experience, I shall give it 8 out of 10, given it slow price and excellent repeat play potential. It won;t be to all tastes – some people really may not enjoy it – but if you have a hankering to explore politics and play a somewhat adversarial GM versus player rpg, then I can recommend Mars Colony.
I ran the game from pdf using my Samsung Galaxy S4 as my Hudl in for repair with no problems. Once you understand the rules you don’t have to refer to the document much. My copy review copy was purchased, though I do welcome games to review, though can make no promises on the time-scale owing to pressure of other commitments. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org