Mars is in vogue right now.
I’m pretty sure it’s a combination of the space fever caused by digital access to more detail about space exploration missions, and an uncharacteristic bit of game industry self awareness.
Games have been obsessed with colonialism for a while, and its pretty distasteful. I think it’s useful for game designers to follow the mythical version of it, with ‘unspoiled’ isolated chunks of land for people to carve into their own. It gives you a good reason for all the things you need to make a good engine game. Narrow resource streams, room for development and an immediately graspable narrative.
Of course, it’s pretty shitty, and generally washes out all of the cruelty and violence in the abstraction.
There’s rightfully been a lot of stick given to publishers for distasteful choices. I think this is part of the reason for the sudden jump to Mars.
You don’t have to think about the horrors of colonialism if you’re in space.
It’s still a recognisable story though. There’s been enough sci-fi, science and Matt Damon for us to imagine it. We’ve got something to visualise.
Terraforming Mars is designed by a science teacher, and it shows (in the good ways). It wears its passion for the Red Mars trilogy on its sleeve, the manual includes an example game between Kim, Stanley and Robinson.
The flavour text is interested in fleshing out why a certain technology might produce a certain effect. The game wants to tell stories that make sense, could be real, could help you understand how much work would go into it. How incredible technology can be. How incredible technology is. How world changing. Literally.
But that’s not the story I end up telling in the game. I love the science, but it’s not the imagery that comes to mind.
I think about someone tending their own little allotment on this strange landscape, and make it quiet and real in a different way. Each player ends up building their own little patch of land, and filling it with plants and trees and tardigrades and space mirrors and zeppelins.
But because it stays at the level of the individual playing, it still feels small. It’s one of the lovely things about games, that because they’re still at the table, they’re always filled with people. You can simultaneously be yourself, and an interplanetary corporation.
I’ll demonstrate, in the best way I can.
By crashing asteroids into your garden.
One of the main ways to increase the temperature on Mars is to chuck giant space rocks at it. There’s quite a lot of cards that let you do this, ranging in size and scale. Almost all of them end up destroying other players plants.
Now in mechanical terms, this means you choose someone, and they have to throw away some of the resources in their ‘plant’ space.
But I can’t help but visualise two neighbours, jealously peeking over their fences, and finding ways to scuff each other’s lawns.
One time, someone dropped a comet in my backyard.
On my next turn, I reminded them of this, and slammed the damn moon into theirs.
It’s two different, irresistible stories at once. Quiet neighbourly passive aggression, slowly escalating beyond belief, and the vast, destructive creation of scientific progress, which can move from throwing rocks to hurling satellites.
Deimos is only small, relatively speaking, but there’s nothing quite as evocative as slamming the moon into the planet. You just can’t argue with moon-made climate change.
I love the parallel stories games create. The stories within stories that weave in and out of each other. The stories the mechanics tell, the stories the theme tell, and, breathing life into it all, the stories we tell, as we sit at a table, and imagine together.
Often it’s to paper cracks: mechanics that don’t quite line up with the ‘real’ story. But that doesn’t matter, because it allows us to make the story our own.
These shared stories are why gaming can be so glorious. So intimate. So damn fun.
Because I can still see the moon sticking out of your garden.