Mission to Mars: Tabletop Board Games Make the Case for Exploration

Written by Russ Dobler

Sure, sending a manned space mission to Mars SOUNDS like a good idea. Maybe the fist-pump factor alone would reinvigorate people’s love for science and exploration. But what if the mission goes wrong, and the public instead decides all this learning crap isn’t worth the risk? Should we take that chance, especially when robots continue to do a splendid job on their own?

Fortunately, board game designers don’t have to worry about such ethical dilemmas. They just have to make it FUN. A planet-sized cornucopia of new and upcoming games let you live the dream of voyaging to and colonizing Mars without all that claustrophobia and cosmic radiation.

For some games, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. This year’s “Project Mars,” from publisher Point ‘n Click design, puts you at the helm of an aeronautics company looking to make bank on making history. Outbid your opponents on components and skilled workers, but remember it’s not as easy as just firing a rocket at the sky. You’ll have to place fuel depots and spacecraft modules in low Earth orbit over multiple trips before you can set sail, but time it correctly, because just like with real life alignments, you can only make the attempt once every two years!

Project Mars, pointnclickdesign.com

Of course, we didn’t always realize such a trip would be so difficult. “Mars Needs Mechanics,” designed by Ben Rosset for Nevermore games, imagines Victorian-era tinkerers striving for a Mars-shot. Simply accrue enough cogs to collect the needed materials and you’re on your way. “Mission: Red Planet,” from the mighty Fantasy Flight Games, is a literal blast from the past, as the steampunk-themed romp that spans from space flight to Martian mining was recently reissued after its first appearance a decade ago.

“Mission:  Red Planet,” posted to BoardGameGeek by W. Eric Martin

Other games focus solely on the mining motif. Brain Games’ “Dig Mars” is a bit more abstract, as players blindly choose stacks of tiles to drill down into for victory points. The popular and soon-to-be rereleased “Super Motherload,” loosely based on a video game of the same name, sets all the valuable minerals in front of you – or, rather, underneath you. Drill or bomb your way through the subsurface, collecting gemstones and hiring pilots, but be careful where you work, because other opportunistic excavators can utilize your tunnels.

“Super Motherload,” roxley.com

But the real nitty gritty is living on Mars, and making it livable. “First Martians:  Adventures on the Red Planet” is an immersive, cooperative experience that re-implements the award-winning engine of “Robinson Crusoe:  Adventures on the Cursed Island.” Aided by a smartphone app, players struggle to survive in single games or across campaigns. Or just hang out and explore the vast unknown in the less-directed open world mode.

Progress becomes a little more cutthroat when the highly-anticipated Terraforming Mars arrives from FryxGames. Compete with other corporations to colonize cities, construct oceans and cultivate forests en route to making the desert-world a more hospitable place. Take advantage when the harsh environment impedes your competitors and publicize your own accomplishments for points.

Terraforming Mars, fryxgames.se

So whatever your interest in Mars is – just getting people there or the actual work upon arrival – modern or post-industrial – there’s likely a board game that suits your style. Whether reality will ever match tabletop fantasy remains to be seen.

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