Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.
For millennia, humans have been captivated by Mars. To the ancient Romans, the “red planet” represented the god of war, presiding over conquest and glory. To the 19th-century astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, it was a world connected by vast canals, evidence of an advanced civilization. Today, our cosmic neighbor is a place to be explored, analyzed, and understood; the prospect of setting foot on Martian soil seems tantalizingly close.
But if the board game First Martians is anything to go by, we shouldn’t bother. Mars doesn’t want us.
A cooperative game with an integrated smartphone app, First Martians casts players as a team of astronauts—an elite group of engineers, medics, and scientists. The team is brave, smart, and capable, and it took me about 40 minutes to doom them all. Critical systems failed. Morale plummeted. Team members suffered debilitating injuries. Fist-fights broke out in the habitation hub. Eventually the carnage ended when our exhausted mechanic got sloppy on the job and accidentally electrocuted himself.
And so, with the tutorial mission out of the way, it was time for things to get really tough.
A world of hurt
First Martians is a long-awaited game based on its designer’s earlier release, Robinson Crusoe. That’s appropriate; as anyone who read the 2011 novel The Martian knows, themes of isolation and hardship apply just as well to distant worlds as they do to tropical islands.
Aside from the shift in theme, there’s another big difference between the two titles. Where Robinson Crusoe was a traditional analog game, relying on cards and dice to craft its story of tropical survival, First Martians is one of a growing number of games that integrate smartphones and tablets. As you play, you’ll interact with an app which throws a stream of new challenges in your path: malfunctioning equipment, dangerous seismological events, disturbing news from back home on Earth. The app tracks your responses. Failing to take care of issues as they arise means they’ll come back to bite you on later turns, developing from minor irritations into full-blown catastrophes.
What makes things complicated is that while you’re dealing with the app’s relentless parade of calamity, you’ll also have to take care of day-to-day mission business. The game comes with a collection of scenarios that see you building new structures, exploring the Martian surface, and conducting scientific research; the balance between meeting your objectives and “not dying” is tricky to find.
Like most cooperative games, First Martians presents you with more problems than you can handle at any given time and challenges you to identify those that most need your attention. Each of your astronauts takes two actions per turn. Spend them both on a single activity, like repairing damaged machinery or conducting lab research, and you’ll automatically succeed. Spend just one and you’ll have to roll dice to see whether you pull it off.
You can try to spread yourself thin, dealing with a multitude of little crises, but that means doing a half-assed job, leaving your team reliant on oxygen scrubbers held together by duct tape and misplaced hope.
We have a problem
This all makes for a punishing game, which is great for the gaming masochists among us. Unfortunately, First Martians also suffers from some glaring (and totally avoidable) weaknesses.
The biggest is the rulebook. It’s confusing and disjointed, burying bits of vital information in sidebars and omitting other bits completely. To play the game, I had to read the instructions, watch a one-hour tutorial video, trawl through forum posts from confused players, and then consult the publisher’s 66-page PDF full of corrections and clarifications. It’s a huge amount of effort just to get the basic information needed to play.
Then there’s the app itself, which is full of text that looks like it’s never been proofread. Given the effort and attention that’s clearly gone into the game’s aesthetic presentation, it’s jarring and disappointing to run into half-formed sentences and clunky, unnatural dialog.
More fundamentally, though, First Martians doesn’t seem sure how best to use its digital component.
The game comes with lots of fiddly stats to keep track of, requiring players to shove plastic cubes around its board constantly as part of some not-very-interesting bookkeeping. Some stats that the app does display, like the number of days elapsed during a mission, also come with physical trackers that only serve to add needless clutter and administrative hassle. There’s even a deck of cards whose sole purpose is to generate random numbers—just one of the responsibilities that could have been more elegantly handled by a nifty bit of software.
What makes this doubly disappointing was my hope that First Martians could draw a new audience into board games. Its sci-fi theme and flashy app integration seem like perfect bait to lure my videogame-obsessed friends over to the cardboard dark side. “Look!” I could say, “this is cool! It’s not all about pushing plastic cubes and poring over incomprehensible rules!” But that’s exactly the trap that the game falls into.
It’s a pity, because the overwhelming impression I get from First Martians is that there’s a good game inside, desperately trying to break out. The game relentlessly hammers players with tough decisions with no obvious best course of action. It engineers a delicate system where one failing element can quickly affect others, and it feels like trying to stop a row of dominoes collapsing after the first few have already fallen.
But as promising as some aspects are, they can’t overcome the game’s fatal flaws in execution. After sinking hours into learning First Martians and working my way through scenarios, constantly Googling uncertain points as I found them, I’m done.
If a second edition ever fundamentally rethinks the roles of the app and the human players, I’ll definitely be interested. But until that happens, I’m staying on Earth.