Lately it seems that games built around the theme of colonizing Mars are the new hotness within the tabletop scene. Terraforming Mars arrived in 2016 with high praise, while Ignacy Trzewiczek’s First Martians has the board game community frothing at the mouth for this spiritual successor of Robinson Crusoe to hit the shelves sometime this year. Both of the mentioned titles lean toward the heavier side of gaming mechanics, however if you fancy yourself playing something a little more whimsical and lighthearted, may I present to you Mission: Red Planet, brought to you by the dynamic duo of game designers: Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti.
Mission: Red Planet is a game that brings both simultaneous action selection and area control mechanics together into one enjoyable gaming experience. Each player possesses the same hand of cards, numbered 1 through 9, which represent a different character. Turn order is based on the card selected, beginning with anyone who picked the number 9 card and counting down to 1 (get it? It’s a launch countdown) until everyone has revealed their cards.
Every character card will allow you to first place one or several astronauts onto docked rocket ships headed to Mars, but it’s what you get to do afterwards that things start becoming interesting, as the characters have their own unique abilities that will aid your course to victory and also steer your opponent to a miserable defeat. One of my favourite characters in the game is the Saboteur, as he simply lets you destroy any docked ship, which can really throw a wrench in your opponent’s plans. A fair warning to any players who do not enjoy “take that” mechanics, Mission: Red Planet sprinkles plenty of player interaction (or should I say interference?) into the game.
When a docked ship has reached its maximum capacity of passengers, it lifts off, setting a course to Mars; this is where the area control portion of the game comes into effect. Players will then place their astronauts on the area of the circular board that matches the ship’s destination and discover one of the three resources that they will be vying for control over. At certain intervals during the game, discovered areas will produce their respective resources, and the player with the most astronauts in the area will receive that resource, which amounts to points for end of game scoring. Some characters also grant unique methods of scoring points by drawing from a deck of Discovery Cards. At the end of the game, all of the resources and Discovery Cards are scored and the player with the highest total amount of points is declared the winner!
One thing to note in this game is that careful hand management is extremely important, because once a character card is played, it remains discarded unless a player reveals the Recruiter, which returns all discarded cards to that person’s hand. But since Mission: Red Planet lasts for only 10 rounds, you’ll want to save the Recruiter for a time when you have exhausted as many of the other characters before taking them back. A significant part of where the fun is had in this game is getting into your opponent’s head and guessing what they might play next in order to know which of your characters will ensure your plans are best executed for you to stay ahead!
While I’ve never played the first edition of Mission: Red Planet, my understanding is that the production quality of the second printing is light years better than the original. I love how each player’s pieces are cute miniature astronauts and the artwork in this game is spectacular. The characters are beautifully illustrated in a steampunk sci-fi setting, which is also carried forward to other elements in the game such as the round tracker and rocket ship cards. I also find that the quirky art direction in Mission: Red Planet helps to lighten the nature of the game’s “take that” style, making the overall experience of playing this game quite pleasant.
More experienced board gamers might draw comparisons between Mission: Red Planet and another game that was released several years before this called Citadels. Citadels has the near identical mechanic of simultaneous action selection in the form of character cards and variable player order as Mission: Red Planet; it also happens to be designed by Bruno Faidutti. I myself quite enjoy playing both these games, but for some people the act of counting down for all ten rounds of Mission: Red Planet and waiting for people to complete their actions can feel repetitive and drawn out. This is particularly evident when playing the game at its maximum player count of 6 people, which in that case there would certainly be a lengthier downtime in between turns and the game then suffers from overstaying its welcome.
Mission: Red Planet is also not an easy teach for newer gamers because it introduces two different kinds of gameplay, making explaining the rules rather tricky. All that aside, if you are looking to enjoy a casual science fiction game and have a smaller group present, then Mission: Red Planet remains a solid recommendation for you to at least try before you buy.