You Should Be Playing…
Worker riots in Sector Five have continued for three days straight, and they show no sign of tapering off naturally. The Red World Workers Union has whipped the atmo-gen workers into frenzy over dwindling coverage of industrial accidents, and all it would take is the latest study linking the lithium isotypes utilized in scrubbing the CO2 into O2 to the degenerative syndrome eating at their bone marrow to push it into full scale sabotage. Ali Feng, the strike boss on the ground, is willing to talk wage increases, however, and that might be enough to get them back on the generators before the CO2 in some of the domes starts impacting colony-wide health. The corps will not like it, but they will have to deal with it. Besides, getting a few extra dimes an hour for six hundred people is only fair, considering the hazards they have to deal with.
Still, there is that report, sitting in front of you. Legally, you have to hand it over. Ethically, lives will be ruined if you do not. For a moment, a twinge of conscience chews at you as you feed the report into the recycler, its molecules being reallocated to more important uses. Was it the right thing? Probably not. But it was the necessary thing. And that will have to do.
Mars Colony is a roleplaying game for two players produced by TCK Publishing. Written by Tom Koppang, it is available through the TCK Publishing website in PDF for $6 and paperback for $12. Meant to be played in a single sitting, the game takes a little more than three to four hours to set up and play through.
While player aids provided by the book can make setup significantly easier, all one needs to play Mars Colony is a small stack of index cards, nine tokens, and two six-sided dice. The game itself is very narrative heavy, with the burden of storytelling falling evenly on both players at the table. As one can imagine with a game geared for two players, gameplay will vary greatly on the knowledge and comfort levels of the players involved.
Are Martians Ever Happy?
At its core, Mars Colony is a game about power and failure, and it works hard to examine and deconstruct the cult of personality that is a perennial force in politics. Mars Colony is a truly remarkable RPG in that it embraces science fiction’s ability to examine political issues. The titular Mars Colony started as a luxury resort, but has rapidly become much more than that. It has become a focus of attention for the alliance of Earth powers which created it, and the situation in the colony has become untenable. Into this dangerous, unstable environment enters the savior Kelly Perkins, played by the player undertaking the more PC role. The other player acts as The Governor, who serves as the Game Master, portraying all the other characters and narrating the situations that Kelly interacts with and must overcome.
Mars Colony is a firmly future-facing game in both language and subject matter. Rather than come with a set of political parties for Kelly to come from and deal with, both players are instructed to choose existing political parties from any nation – or create whole new ones – and put them in the game on a scale from moderate to extreme.
Players are also instructed to each write down three real fears regarding politics and human nature, and then use these fears to construct the challenges that Kelly must face. Several NPCs are given brief introductions in Mars Colony for the players to choose from and associate to the existing political parties they have selected. Even the role of ‘Kelly’ themselves is firmly gender neutral, their name intentionally ambiguous and the text switching frequently from female to male pronouns and back. The Savior (the player controlling Kelly) is free to decide any traits to give their character, so long as their backstory explains why Kelly would be chosen to save the colony. The game even provides a brief system to give Kelly a personal tie to the colony with a simple die roll, ranging from a dying child to a revolutionary former lover.
Gameplay in Mars Colony progresses at a rate set by the players rather than by the game. After an introduction narrated by The Savior, play passes to The Governor. The Governor is allowed to make their scene either one of Kelly’s personal life, or one concerning the escalating situation of the colony. Once that scene is concluded, The Savior sets the next scene. The Savior’s choices are either a personal scene, or a scene which addresses the problems facing the colony and Kelly’s attempts to solve them.
At any given time, three Issues are in play on the Colony Health Marker for Kelly to solve, such “Crime”, “Population”, or “Corruption”. The exact details of each are for the players to decide. While resolving scenes set by The Savior to handle the Issues of the colony, The Savior rolls the two six-sided dice. Provided neither rolls a 1, they total their dice together and may roll again. If they choose not to, the results are added to the Health of the Issue they were attempting to resolve.
Otherwise, so long as they do not roll a 1, they may continue rolling until they decide to stop. At 20, the Issue becomes manageable. At 40, the Issue is solved, and a new one is created to take its place based on the fears created earlier. The Savior is only given, at most, nine resolution scenes, and thus only nine attempts to solve the colony’s problems.
Should The Savior roll a 1 on either die, they must decide to either abandon their current effort towards resolving the Issue or to cover up their failure. If they abandon their current effort, The Savior moves a token from their Admiration pool to their Contempt pool, representing the hatred and resentment of the Martian people towards Kelly. Their Admiration pool starts at nine, and should their Contempt pool reach 5, the game ends.
Alternatively, the Savior may choose to cover up their failure by moving a token from their Admiration pool to their Deception pool, deceiving the Martian people into believing the situation is solved. They add their current progress on the current Issue, not counting the roll with the 1, and mark it down as Lies, instead of Health. Once the Issue reaches 40, it is still considered successfully resolved. However, Deception has a chance to backfire on Kelly in the form of a Scandal. The next time they roll a 1, should the other die equal the amount on their Deception pool, the result becomes a Scandal. The Scandal exposes Kelly’s actions to the Martian people, moving all the tokens on the Deception pool to the Resentment pool and removing all the progress under Lies of all Issues.
Once Kelly is either ousted for having too much Contempt or has resolved nine scenes which effect the colony’s Health, the game is over. The Governor decides if Kelly has done enough to save the colony from itself based on their Colony Health scores, and The Savior decides the reputation and legacy that Kelly leaves behind as indicated by the tokens in their Admiration and Contempt pools.
There is no easy or guaranteed path to victory for The Savior in Mars Colony, and simply escaping with Kelly’s reputation intact alone is a Herculean task. If The Savior is able to successfully resolve three Issues, then Kelly has succeeded at saving the colony, while zero indicates Kelly has failed. Anywhere in between provides an ambiguous ending for Kelly’s story, and leaves a questionable fate for the colony. Unrevealed Deceptions may come back to haunt Kelly or the colony in the future but are otherwise beyond the narrative of the game.
Ultimately, Mars Colony is a game about compromise and failure, where clinging to your ideals will likely leave you a beloved failure but pushing your corruption too far will leave you universally reviled even if it saves the day. As a game where the political parties are generated by the players and the problems facing the colony are the creation of genuine fears about politics, Mars Colony is a game worthy of science fiction’s legacy of political commentary. Its systems of pushing your luck and narrative resolution provides a robust experience where the weight of the world rests on The Savior’s shoulders with the odds stacked literally against them. No two games of Mars Colony will play out exactly the same, and no two players will create exactly the same situation for the colony to face. It plays fast, cuts close to the bone, and guides players through the challenges and empowered disenfranchisement of being the person in charge. Mars Colony is a game that never loses sight of the idealism of science fiction, even from the crushing depths of compromise and failure that abounds in politics.
And that is why you should be playing Mars Colony.
David Gordon is a regular contributor to the site. A storyteller by trade and avowed tabletop veteran, he is always on the lookout for creative tabletop games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo Credits: Mars Colony cover by TCK Publishing.