Thomas Ting
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First off, I want to be clear - I am not criticizing the game for the fun of it. At the end of the day I think every fan of the hobby wants Portal Games to succeed and continue giving us all great games. But given the (at best) very uneven response to the game I think it's time to delve deeply into the core issues of why so many people find the game to be "off".

This is important because while many people can criticize a game, very few can pinpoint the specifics as to why a game design failed or succeeded for them. And I am posting this in a public forum in large part to help others understand why the game felt "off" for them so they can find ways to minimize its effects; or if they disagree with my analysis then they can at least also more critically examine their own play experience and thus give a more in-depth sharing of their own play issues.

Anyway, in the case of First Martians, there are two main issues which I feel contributes the most to the game's failings.

The first issue - "Math is cruel" - was a piece of advice Vladaa Chvatil gave to Ignacy several years ago after a playtest of Robinson. Ignacy describes it in his blog here:

https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/13248/lesson

With the most important part bring this quote by Vladaa:

Quote:
"You want game to be difficult, you want game to throw at players 3 bad events and you want the game to help them twice. That is your dream configuration. But math is cruel. There will be games like ours today, with 4 bad events and only one good. There will be even games with 0 bad and 5 good events. Players will play it, will have 5 good events, finish the game without smallest effort and then they will write on BGG that game is easy like piece of cake and boring and they don't recommend it."


For those who don't want to read through the whole blog post or don't get the context of the quote, what Vladaa is essentially saying is that a designer - particularly one that wants to tell a specific story - must control the amount of randomness in his game.

If there is too much randomness in the game, then its ease or difficulty can wildly swing depending on these random elements, and thus prevent the designer from telling the story he wants to share.

In the case of First Martians, there seems to be many instances where the design failed to heed Vladaa's "Math is Cruel" warning.

A good example of this is the "probe retrieval" scenario. In this mission, you are running out of food and NASA has crashed three resupply probes into the planet. However, only one of the three probes has the critical food and seeds needed to resolve the primary objective of preventing your starvation.

While this random/hidden element of finding the correct probe adds some additional tension to the scenario, it can also make the scenario ridiculously easy if the players are lucky and find the critical food+seeds on the very first probe they retrieve. Basically, the game can go from being very tight in terms of actions (if you ended up having to retrieve all three probes), or being very easy with an abundance of surplus actions (you found the game-winning supplies on the first probe). This is exactly contrary to the "You must control the game, because math is cruel" warning that Vladaa had given many years ago during RC's design.

Other scenarios also suffer from this, particularly the "Landing" scenario which some claim can start with "unwinnable" configurations.

This would not have been the case had the design been tighter and let go of some of the randomness, and found other ways to add the requisite tension. For instance, in the food resupply mission the scenario could have done away with the non-mission critical probes. Instead, the mission might have been about retrieving two probes (one containing food and another spare parts), and both are required to complete the mission. The tension of "not knowing" is instead replaced by the tension of deciding between getting food and not starving, and getting spare parts and stopping the hub from falling apart.

====

The second issue is a bit more controversial, as theme is often seen as part of the "subjective" realm of game design. However, I feel that the coherence of a theme - both internally within the game and to other source materials that it draws from - can be judged objectively.

And First Martians, quite frankly, seems to be suffering from Thematic Dissonance compared to its stated core theme of hard science fiction (in the vein of The Martian's "I have to science the shit out of this").

To be more specific - I am personally a big fan of "hard science" games and stories. One of my favorite games is Phil Ecklund's High Frontier, which I tolerate despite its many, many gameplay issues not only because it uses actual and proposed rocket designs, but because it actually simulates the core of real space sims - which is mission planning.

Now, mission planning at first may seem to be little more than creating a glorified itinerary IN SPACE. But because of the resource limitations of space - you need to take all of your food, air, and fuel with you or have guaranteed ways of manufacturing them on-site - mission planning in fact involves a combination of very precise calculation and very innovative thinking to make sure that you get to your destination alive, with all of your equipment intact, all the while riding "rockets" that are essentially giant containers filled with explosives.

Take The Martian for instance. While the story is fictional, the mission planning is based on a lot of real-world proposals (no surprise given the author lived in a community full of rocket scientists) and has the many intricately interlocking parts that characterizes a highly complex space mission*. When something fails, things rapidly get desperate because of how little margin for error is left for extra supplies, just like in Apollo 13.

The problem with First Martians is that it simply doesn't have this feel of clockwork precision followed by knife-edge allocation of resources in case of a crisis. Instead, the game feels more strongly of constant improvisation - where little bad things keep happening and you're trying to fix them with the most minimal band-aid possible.

For example, real space missions tend to perform extensive surveys and reconnaissance of any landing site before the actual mission - so that there are few surprises when the astronauts actually get there. In First Martians, by contrast, you often have no idea of what's in your surrounding area at all - the particularly annoying one being impassible or rough terrain that should be visible in space - until your astronauts start driving their rover around to explore. If you encounter a problem, the game expects you to improvise.

By the way - I do understand that some players like the feeling of "exploring the unknown", and the point isn't to criticize their preferences.

But if you're a fan of the genre - and in particular notice the recurring theme that the astronauts are never truly alone in the darkness of space because there are thousands of people back in mission control working 24/7 to support them - then slip ups like losing track of a supply probe or landing near a volcano that could endanger the mission seem particularly jarring. You begin to feel less like an astronaut with the support of a competent mission control, and instead begin to wonder if you're just the sacrificial lamb of incompetent and uncaring sponsors on Earth. Indeed, one might end up looking like the guy from Armageddon banging the control panel and declaring that all components are "Made in Taiwan!".

In short, while the game wants to capture the feel of the Martian, it falls short largely because it still retains RC's core storytelling theme of constant improvisation to overcome adversity. "Hard space science" as a genre by contrast is not characterized by constant improvisation - indeed improvisation is very often seen as the very last resort and an act of desperation - but of the need for clockwork precision and the support and goodwill of the millions back home on Earth in the face of the unforgiving cruelty of space.

I would love to be able to play a game that captures this exact theme, and The Martian proved many others probably would. It's just that First Martians, at its current state, isn't the game that does it.

====

*For a very long and geeky tangent on how complex and knife-edge real missions are: Each Ares mission travels to Mars on the Hermes, which has a highly efficient propulsion system for inter-planetary travel but is too large and incapable of making a landing on Mars.

For the actual landing they probably use some kind of disposable lander vehicle (which can aero-break to save on fuel), which takes them to a site where all of their equipment has already been pre-positioned by other (unmanned and therefore safer) cargo missions. Among this pre-positioned equipment is the MAV - the rocket which Mark eventually uses to get off the planet to be rescued - that is made a lot lighter by the fact that it produces its own fuel by processing the Martian atmosphere over a period of several months.

In short, it's a much more complicated and planning-intensive version of the Apollo mission - which if you read up on Wikipedia had a separate Command, Service, and Lunar module on top of the giant rocket to ensure that astronauts can land on the moon, leave the surface, and get back home safely.

When one Apollo mission had a catastrophic mission failure - the famed Apollo 13 - they basically had to immediately scrub any notion of landing on the moon and to use the Lunar module's resources in place of the damaged Service module
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Ronald
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A long time ago i read an interview with Andy Weir where he said that he did not want arbitrary break things to make life harder for Mark. Every time something goes wrong, there is sound and often lengthy explanation why. I think this is one of the reasons the book is loved by many. It's believable.

In First Martians things blow up without rhyme or reason. If this was hard science fiction, the people responsible for mission planning would have been fired a long time ago. NASA sending 3 probes but only one has supplies? And they don't know the exact landing location? Just like real life, not.
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Corey Mayo
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I must be doing something wrong. I just play it and enjoy it for what it is.
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Adrian Besaw
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I like the reviews and comments on the game that simply say the game is just not fun. Where's the fun? Robinson Crusoe beats me down when I play it but for some reason it is always fun. I cancelled my pre-order based on the thoughts of many. This game for all the hard work and love that went into it just doesn't seem to have the magic. Cheers.
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Ronald
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cmmayo wrote:
I must be doing something wrong. I just play it and enjoy it for what it is.


More power to you . I want more hard sci-fi games. For now i can get my fix with High frontier and Leaving earth. I had high hopes to add FM to the list but as it seems, it's more like an adventure game on Mars (yes, i know it is in the name). Nothing wrong with that but i expected something different.
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Matt Smith
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RitterFips wrote:
A long time ago i read an interview with Andy Weir where he said that he did not want arbitrary break things to make life harder for Mark. Every time something goes wrong, there is sound and often lengthy explanation why. I think this is one of the reasons the book is loved by many. It's believable.

In First Martians things blow up without rhyme or reason. If this was hard science fiction, the people responsible for mission planning would have been fired a long time ago. NASA sending 3 probes but only one has supplies? And they don't know the exact landing location? Just like real life, not.

IIRC, the background for the Guessing Game scenario is that the resupply package broke into three pieces upon entering the Martian atmosphere. The food is located in one of the three pieces. Each piece contains battery-powered beacons that die out after a few rounds.

This is one of my favorite scenarios, but its difficulty can be swingy.
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bryden
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Is this where games like High Frontier succeeds?

There is a lot of science and theory involved (many would say too much). It takes long periods of planning and little bit of luck to get your mission to succeed. For many this makes the game unapproachable and in all practicality beyond their reach (not putting anyone down just my experience).

The first version of Robinson Crusoe can have all of the tension that you desire or next to none. You can adapt the experience based on the initial setup.

Because of the app is this no longer possible? or is it just the construction of the scenarios? RC had a similar issue where some are harder than others.

I like a tough co-op, always have. Many that I have gamed with in the past want an 80+% success rate. This is their definition of consistency but reality is much different. Should games model reality or fun?

Both is a fine line, RC did it right.
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Peter Wiles
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Very thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

For me, the first issue is less important than the second. Having a game with such an evocative theme that doesn't feel believable is a real problem. To be fair, I could see how the Robinson Crusoe idea could be somewhat related to the Martian since Mark is basically stranded in a hostile environment. In this game, is it likewise implied that something has gone wrong and the astronauts have lost contact with mission control? In other words, is there a sense that they are stranded? In that situation, there would have to be some improvisation because they are probably now working outside of mission parameters (and I think you see some of this kind of improvisation in the Martian). That doesn't forgive some of the points you made, such has the need to scout surroundings that should have been thoroughly analyzed before they even launched.

I was wondering if you have played through the campaigns? I am trying to navigate reviews of this game, but almost everyone seems to focus on the problems of the single scenarios. Are there elements of the campaigns, and the narrative they introduce, that make the theme more coherent?
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Peter Wiles
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On another note, one game element that I have read about is that it is possible for the astronauts to get into actual fights with each other and lose health if their stress gets too great. This was one element that I thought was really jarring. I thought that one of the things that astronauts were specifically selected for was their ability to work under pressure and handle stress. I read an interesting review of the Martian that spoke to this specifically, how in Hollywood the astronauts always seem so psychologically fragile, when in real life it would be the opposite. The Martian seemed to do a better job of depicting how professionally trained astronauts would behave.

Also, alluding to my question I asked in my previous post, is it explained in the game why everything is so fragile and breaking all the time? Do the scenarios set a scene that try to explain this? The more I have dug into this game, the more concerned I have gotten. More than the rules problems or anything else that people have raised as concern for this game, it really is that element of "thematic dissonance" that you referred to that has me concerned.
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Frank Calcagno
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wilesps wrote:
Very thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

I was wondering if you have played through the campaigns? I am trying to navigate reviews of this game, but almost everyone seems to focus on the problems of the single scenarios. Are there elements of the campaigns, and the narrative they introduce, that make the theme more coherent?


Peter,
I think, at least in my case, is that people are reluctant to say much about the campaigns because so much is meant to be "secret" and revealed only when you play them.
So...you will see a lot of analysis of the 6 scenarios, but very little written about the campaigns.
I played both campaigns, but to say much at all could ruin the experience for many...

But getting back to the OP analysis. It was extraordinarily well-written. (Some may not agree, but it was exceptionally thought-provoking and professionally competent.)
I had thought of discussing my dislike of not having pre-surveillance data on the landing site...I saw that as an immediate problem...but again, for the sake of excitement in an otherwise "mathy" game, I forgave that slight.

Random breakdowns, fist fights...again, not realistic considering the professionalism and system redundancies; but again: what would we be playing if nothing ever broke, and our players sang in harmony at the end of every sol? I unquestionably agree with all that was presented, but a game had to be made out of it with some artificial tension built in. Perhaps the final question to ask is if the added tensions were too artificial so as to throw the game completely out of the realm of believable and impact our suspension of disbelief.

The randomness of setup & events is largely what bothers me most, followed by a lack of depth in story-telling. (But if I listed all that I liked, we'd be here a long, long time.modest)
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Dustin
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The swingyness is exactly why Robinson fell out of favor with me and now hasn't been played in years. I actually have a very high win percentage in Robinson. But only like 2 of my several plays were close games. Most of the time we crushed it. Or the game said you are losing and there is zero you can do about it. Either way, not really fun.
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S. Mileta
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Great review, thank you.

Slightly off topic (subjective opinionated rant - not the disagreement with the OP): I am not familiar with designer notes or previous comments on the game, so I suppose The Martian has been cited here and there as some sort of inspiration.

But if that's not the case - everybody please please please stop citing it all around as relevant hard SF book (or God forbid the movie) on the subject. There are at least slightly better movies and far greater books about Mars.

Please read K. S. Robinson trilogy to begin with. I simply cannot stand, particularly in the context of mini Mars craze in board games lately, constant mentioning of The Martian when there is Robinson.

I apologize for the rant.

P. S. Leaving Earth is a great mission planning game, significantly less convoluted and more playable than High Frontier. Of course it's not as deep, but maybe you would care to try it.
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Yaron Davidson
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I'm amused by how everyone here seems to have such a high opinion on how well a fictional international agency will operate, and organize and perform. And by how everyone consider it incredibly incredulous that such an agency could make mistakes, screw up, and generally not do its job properly on all account.

Because, seriously, has nobody here ever encountered a government agency, or an international organization, botching stuff up? Really?
wow

Heck, I'd consider it much less realistic if they did do everything properly. Open a newspaper, any random day, any country without a very heavy-handed government propaganda arm, and you're likely to find something about some large important agency screwing up.

I'll admit that some existing space-related organizations, such as the mentioned NASA, did so far mostly take proper care (though with dropping budgets it can't even be certain they will keep up the same level of performance). But casting from those few examples to a general case new imaginary organization of international multi-government cooperation?
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Peter Wiles
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Antares Rangers wrote:

Peter,
I think, at least in my case, is that people are reluctant to say much about the campaigns because so much is meant to be "secret" and revealed only when you play them.
So...you will see a lot of analysis of the 6 scenarios, but very little written about the campaigns.
I played both campaigns, but to say much at all could ruin the experience for many...


Yeah, I get that, but what I am really wanting to know is whether the campaign had a compelling story, and whether that story contributes to the thematic coherence. Right now, the game is looking to me like it comes down to a bunch of random "fires" breaking out that you have to deal with. That is fine, I mean I enjoy pandemic and ghost stories. But I was hoping the campaign provided more, like pandemic legacy did to pandemic. Is the campaign more of the same, or does it take it to a totally new level?

Antares Rangers wrote:

(But if I listed all that I liked, we'd be here a long, long time.modest)


I wish you would consider writing a review. So much of the press on this had been negative. It would be nice to weigh the other point of view. I am teetering on the fence. I suspect I will wait. The hype has been so large, but reaction so tepid that retailers will be overstocked. I am sure it will be more deeply discounted later (a la seafall)
 
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Thomas Ting
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yarondav wrote:
I'm amused by how everyone here seems to have such a high opinion on how well a fictional international agency will operate, and organize and perform.


Nobody is saying that International Space Agencies are perfect. Thats why Apollo 13 happened and in The Martian they realized later on that there was actually a high chance - 1 in 5 - of an astronaut getting left behind and they hadn't prepared for this contingency; which was a big oversight on the agency's part.

But there's a difference between space flight and monday morning quarterbacking of government competence.

If a government agency screws up on Earth, the error is unlikely to be immediately noticed and when it is there will be months of finger-pointing.

If a space agency screws up, the rocket explodes and millions of people will watch astronauts die on live television.

Space, again, is completely unforgiving. It doesn't care how tough you think you are or what clever excuses you can come up with while being interviewed on CNN.

If you think that you can slap-dash a mission together and not die a few weeks in transit to Mars, then it is again NOT hard scence that you are looking for. In real missions a small mistake like crashing a resupply probe would be grounds for scrubbing the whole mission altogether instead of risking the astronaut's lives by telling them to keep working while starving. Shuttle and rocket launches have been scrubbed for less risky issues.

And really, imagine if the ISS today declared they are short on food but will work through starvation anyway because NASA told them to make the greenhouse work so they can eat. There will be huge political and PR backlash that will result when the news keeps running the story of "Starving Astronauts, Told to Grow Food or Die, Who is to Blame?"

First Martians again is actually closer to Armageddon - which looks realistic but is actually very far from it - and the mission just keeps absorbing problem after problem. But somehow Ben Affleck will arrive
in the nick of time with a spare drill, the American president is a lunatic who tries to detonate the nuke on the asteroid's surface where it will do no damage except to the astronauts, while the Russian guy beats components into submission by berating them how they were made in Taiwan.

It can be fun, but its definitely not the same genre as The Martian and anyone expecting that kind of game (as the designer cited it as one of his main references) will suffer from thematic dissonance almost right from the outset of every mission.
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Thomas Ting
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wilesps wrote:
Very thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

For me, the first issue is less important than the second. Having a game with such an evocative theme that doesn't feel believable is a real problem. To be fair, I could see how the Robinson Crusoe idea could be somewhat related to the Martian since Mark is basically stranded in a hostile environment. In this game, is it likewise implied that something has gone wrong and the astronauts have lost contact with mission control? In other words, is there a sense that they are stranded? In that situation, there would have to be some improvisation because they are probably now working outside of mission parameters (and I think you see some of this kind of improvisation in the Martian). That doesn't forgive some of the points you made, such has the need to scout surroundings that should have been thoroughly analyzed before they even launched.

I was wondering if you have played through the campaigns? I am trying to navigate reviews of this game, but almost everyone seems to focus on the problems of the single scenarios. Are there elements of the campaigns, and the narrative they introduce, that make the theme more coherent?


In the starting missions you have contact with Mission Control and you are not stranded like in The Martian. Indeed we had a rather funny (but alarmingly incompetent) event in the food retrieval mission where NASA, after failing to land the critical food probe properly, suddenly gifts us with a package of drones instead. The playgroup's immediate reaction was to ask why they didn't pack some food with or in place of the drones instead.

I have not played through the campaigns, because frankly the playgroups I have tried the game with were not very inspired to play a second mission; much less be wiling to commit to a campaign.
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Thomas Ting
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NoDicePlease wrote:
Is this where games like High Frontier succeeds?

There is a lot of science and theory involved (many would say too much). It takes long periods of planning and little bit of luck to get your mission to succeed. For many this makes the game unapproachable and in all practicality beyond their reach (not putting anyone down just my experience).

The first version of Robinson Crusoe can have all of the tension that you desire or next to none. You can adapt the experience based on the initial setup.

Because of the app is this no longer possible? or is it just the construction of the scenarios? RC had a similar issue where some are harder than others.

I like a tough co-op, always have. Many that I have gamed with in the past want an 80+% success rate. This is their definition of consistency but reality is much different. Should games model reality or fun?

Both is a fine line, RC did it right.


First off - I have to reiterate that HF has many, many issues and inaccessability is one of them. But doing the math and to "science" your way to victory was one of the stated play experiences that Ignacy wanted in the game. There honestly isn't very much of that and when you have multiple people working together any math becomes relatively trivial. By contrast another recent co-op release - Unicornus Knights - requires more math planning than FM because it requires supplies for all movement.

My sense with the app is that it is very much a missed opportunity. I cannot say for certain because it is a black box and its contents are opaque to us, but based on the event flops it seems that it was not utilzed to its full extent to resolve the "Math is cruel" issues Vladaa raised with RC. Indeed, instead of guaranteeing certain flops (eg two guaranteed good events and five bad ones) we're back to just drawing from a deck that has both good events and bad; with the prime innovation being that some cards are included or excluded based on the mission and the profiles of the astronauts (so the single young astronaut won't have an event where their wife gets in a car accident at home).

That again is likely why the game's experience is so "off" for some playgroups. As Vladaa explained, if you ignore cruel math then you lose control of the game. I think the app at best didn't help out in this regard, and the cruel math issue is more ingrained with all elements of the game as a whole.
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Zachary Homrighaus
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This is an interesting point of view... but I don't know if it has much to do with the general discontent that some are sharing. Your critique is that of someone who played the game and enjoyed it, but had some challenges getting into the theme. And/or they played and won too easily one game and got crushed in another and just couldn't reconcile the random difficulty and back luck swings that are inherent in the system.

I think the reason a lot of people are turned off is because the game feels poorly executed. I'm not talking about production values, but rather the fact that the rulebook is pretty difficult to learn the game from and the app integration is beta at best and leaves much to be desired. People don't want to play the game twice and it feels like your criticism explains why someone who has played the game 10 times doesn't want to recommend it to their friends.

I was very quickly out on this game and did not get past the first scenario before selling it... but the SU&SD video helped me clarify one of my chief issues with the game that led me to dislike it. The big issue is that the HAB falling apart and failing due to random things I can't control PLUS all the fiddliness associated with swapping cubes PLUS all of the maintenance and actions the "game" takes is not nearly counteracted by the relatively small number of decisions and agency you have as a player. It's really that simple... you as a player have very little to actually do on your turn... and before you can take another one, you have a comparatively long list of stuff that the game needs you to do and none of it is good.

Compare to RC, at least the stuff you are doing on your turn feels like it's helping you. The events can be mitigated because you know they're coming (e.g. I can build an improved shelter knowing I have to roll an extra weather die this round). Because you are building up in defense against bad things coming it has a certain momentum.

In FM, you are just trying to hold the HAB together long enough for the clock to run out. Done well, that can be a lot of fun. I'll point to Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker as examples where bad things are happening and things are breaking down, but its silly and funny. Because FM has a serious tone and you're looking at LEDs the whole game, it just isn't nearly as interesting. Building a fire so you can signal a rescue ship is decidedly more interesting and satisfying that swapping a computer part from one system to another so the LED flips back to green.

So in this last point, the hard scientific aspirations of the game get in the way... but those hard science cognitive dissonance moments never really show up if you can't get past the game just being kind of a let down in the first place.

Edit: Typos
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zjhomrighaus wrote:
Your critique is that of someone who played the game and enjoyed it, but had some challenges getting into the theme. And/or they played and won too easily one game and got crushed in another and just couldn't reconcile the random difficulty and back luck swings that are inherent in the system.


Actually, to be clear - I did not really "enjoy" the game. I had very uneven experiences with it, which is directly attributable to how it's very "swingy" due to the "cruel math" not being as tight as it should be.

Quote:
I think the reason a lot of people are turned off is because the game feels poorly executed. I'm not talking about production values, but rather the fact that the rulebook is pretty difficult to learn the game from and the app integration is beta at best and leaves much to be desired. People don't want to play the game twice and it feels like your criticism explains why someone who has played the game 10 times doesn't want to recommend it to their friends.


I wasn't the one who had to wade through the rulebook in my initial playgroup, so I did not comment on this frequently cited criticism .

Quote:
I was very quickly out on this game and did not get past the first scenario before selling it... but the SU&SD video helped me clarify one of my chief issues with the game that led me to dislike it. The big issue is that the HUB falling apart and failing due to random things I can't control PLUS all the fiddliness associated with swapping cubes PLUS all of the maintenance and actions the "game" takes is not nearly counteracted by the relatively small number of decisions and agency you have as a player. It's really that simple... you as a player have very little to actually do on your turn... and before you can take another one, you have a comparatively long list of stuff that the game needs you to do and none of it is good.

Compare to RC, at least the stuff you are doing on your turn feels like it's helping you. The events can be mitigated because you know their coming (e.g. I can build an improved shelter knowing I have to roll an extra weather die this round). Because you are building up in defense against bad things coming it has a certain momentum.

In FM, you are just trying to hold the HUB together long enough for the clock to run out. Done well, that can be a lot of fun. I'll point to Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker as examples where bad things are happening and things are breaking down, but its silly and funny. Because FM has a serious tone and you're looking at LEDs the whole game, it just isn't nearly as interesting. Building a fire so you can signal a rescue ship is decidedly more interesting and satisfying that swapping a computer part from one system to another so the LED flips back to green.

So in this last point, the hard scientific aspirations of the game get in the way... but those hard science cognitive dissonance moments never really show up if you can't get past the game just being kind of a let down in the first place.


Hence my commentary on the game's tone being closer to that of Armageddon and banging the control panel screaming that all components are "Made in Taiwan". Though perhaps I should add the caveat that you don't get Michael Bay-style slow motion explosions .

That said, a couple of points:

1) RC having only bad events was precisely the issue that Vladaa was highlighting with his "cruel math" commentary. Having only bad events lent it an air of consistency, which I feel was the main element missing in FM. You know that the island is trying to kill you and your energies are directed towards preventing this. That you develop tools and capabilities to start mitigating these bad events easily lends itself to a sense of achievement when you actually succeed.

FM is much less tight than RC, which can potentially make the game not only swingy but also mechanically dissonant. Because you could be preparing for a tough next turn, only for NASA to suddenly shower you with probes and extra actions. Not only will you be left with the feeling that the game is too easy; you may also feel like your victory was never really your own and it was just luck that saw you through.

That said, I cannot comment on this aspect with full certainty, because much of the events are hidden behind the game's black box app.

2) The question of whether maintaining a system rather than building one is equally compelling is a highly subjective question. As you noted some games depict managing a failing system very well - of which I'd also add Red November to the list.

That said, my sense is that the system was clearly supposed to have supported both "build-up" and "maintenance" scenarios, as evidenced by the scenario where you build the Hab from scratch.

Personally - and this may already been diverging from the designer's original intent - I feel that the game would have been much better served if all the scenarios involved some kind of base-building from the ground-up, as it would have given players a more tangible goal to reach for each mission rather than "let's keep most of the panel lights green".

More specifically, I would note that the game in fact has a difficult time tying the different standalone scenarios together - and the context of the missions themselves are very sparse - precisely because keeping said panel lights green doesn't lead us to seeing the larger context.

By contrast, imagine if the rulebook began with a mission briefing of the overall "Ares" project, which would send a series of manned missions to Mars similar to the Apollo program.

Each mission (the standalone scenarios) would progressively attempt to build larger and more complicated facilities on the Red Planet. For instance the first mission could just collect some rock samples and setup an automated observatory, while a later one would build a greenhouse and attempt to grow crops. A mission or two might end up in critical distress (an "Ares 13" mission), or revisit a pre-built facility from an earlier mission that is to be refurbished and expanded.

The campaign then depicts the successor to the Ares program, which now seeks to establish a permanent, manned colony on Mars. Hence, the standalone scenarios not only provide compelling and self-contained stories on their own, but also prepare the group for the bigger challenge of settling Mars permanently.

Again, I think the core issue of the theme really is that it lacks coherence. It is unsure of the story it wants to tell, or at the very least it's still trying to be an adventure which has a distinctly different emotional journey compared to a hard science story.
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Alex Martinez
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I thoroughly enjoy Robinson Crusoe, and yet find myself completely turned away from my plays of First Martian. I think the reasons are complex, but the one you really nailed down for me might actually be that thematic dissonance.

Robinson Crusoe is ALL about an unforseen event that leads to desperate circumstances. You aren't on the island by choice, and all the problems of improvised survival fit thematically.

But a manned space colonization mission that is so shoddily run that everything immediately starts breaking down is pretty antithetical to the theme.

I'd also argue that Crusoe has more interesting choices, but that's probably more subjective.
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Bart Rachemoss
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Great review! Thanks!

Zinegata wrote:
1) RC having only bad events was precisely the issue that Vlaada was highlighting with his "cruel math" commentary. Having only bad events lent it an air of consistency, which I feel was the main element missing in FM. You know that the island is trying to kill you and your energies are directed towards preventing this. That you develop tools and capabilities to start mitigating these bad events easily lends itself to a sense of achievement when you actually succeed.

I remember hearing about Vlaada's comment and I never agreed with it. For example, Rahdo and Jen's main reason for not liking RC was that the tension was unrelenting. Same with Ghost Stories. They prefer more of a roller-coaster with ups and downs. Pandemic does this well. In both Eldritch Horror and Arkham horror, there a a few good Mtyhos cards, many bad Mythos cards and some horrible Mythos cards. Some people will stack the deck by removing the easier ones (or removing the harder ones) but this is to adjust the difficulty, not to make a more monotonous experience which Vlaada seems to be advocating.

We can look to Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror to see how FM failed. The key to EH and AH is how the theme is melded with the mechanics. To get maximum enjoyment you need to savor both. What's great about them is the story elements match the mechanics really well so it is very easy to enjoy both. Call this the Sister Mary riding around Arkham on a motorcycle with a shotgun effect. It can be very compelling.

What I gather from your review and the SU&SD review is that this tight connection between the story elements and the mechanics is mostly missing in FM. Instead of developing an interesting story as events happen, it seem more like just a bunch of random stuff happens. Worse, by following Vlaada's advice, the random stuff is monotonously bad. It's possible that Vlada's advice works for deck-builders like Mage Knight but doesn't carry over well to other games such as FM or RC, or even Ghost Stories.

RC may be half-way between AH & EH and FM. It has the monotonous badness that many people dislike but at least the mechanics tie into the theme well enough that you do get a very interesting story. It sounds like FM has monotonous random bad stuff combined with no strong tie between the mechanics and the story elements.
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Zinegata wrote:
With the most important part bring this quote by Vladaa:

Quote:
"You want game to be difficult, you want game to throw at players 3 bad events and you want the game to help them twice. That is your dream configuration. But math is cruel. There will be games like ours today, with 4 bad events and only one good. There will be even games with 0 bad and 5 good events. Players will play it, will have 5 good events, finish the game without smallest effort and then they will write on BGG that game is easy like piece of cake and boring and they don't recommend it."


For those who don't want to read through the whole blog post or don't get the context of the quote, what Vladaa is essentially saying is that a designer - particularly one that wants to tell a specific story - must control the amount of randomness in his game.

If there is too much randomness in the game, then its ease or difficulty can wildly swing depending on these random elements, and thus prevent the designer from telling the story he wants to share.


Thanks, you have just perfectly described my reaction to Race for the Galaxy!
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Zinegata wrote:
When one Apollo mission had a catastrophic mission failure - the famed Apollo 13 - they basically had to immediately scrub any notion of landing on the moon and to use the Lunar module's resources in place of the damaged Service module


Ah, but Apollo 11 had to change landing zones to the Sea of Tranquility on a thimble full of fuel because the original site was unusable (the survey was not good enough given the then-current technology).

Stuff does happen...

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cmmayo wrote:
I must be doing something wrong. I just play it and enjoy it for what it is.

I'm even worse. I love it just the way it is
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Zinegata wrote:
Nobody is saying that International Space Agencies are perfect. Thats why Apollo 13 happened

Nobody is saying they're perfect, but everyone (well, the small amount of people actually writing in this short thread so far) seems to consider in extremely non-thematic that one of them will show signs of careless and incompetence. Which is, again, what I find baffling.

I agree that NASA so far had a mostly very good track record, though again even there not sure it will continue with budget cuts and less political care.
But beyond that? It's not really a reasonable general assumption. The MCEI of 2029 is not in any way NASA of 2016.

It's an international organization, so has to deal with even more political pressure, from many directions with different priorities and goals.
It's an international organization, so will likely have even bigger funding problems than a national one, due to the need for politicians in most countries (making the unsubstantiated assumption that the involved countries in the game's 2029 are democracies) to explain to their votes why they invest money in a body that doesn't focus on benefiting them directly.
Larger budgetary constraints means less redundancy, less inspections, less training, both due to the cost of these and due to the lower manpower since salaries to competent people also cost money.
And similarly some of the involved people are more likely to be there due to political pressure from some countries than a uniform recruitment standard.
It also probably doesn't have its own fabrication facilities so has to work with external suppliers. Ones which are quite possibly dictated from outside based on politics to manufacturers that have the biggest/best lobbies in some of the member countries. And it really won't be the first, or second (or one thousandth...) time that a contractor decided to cut cost and provide a sub-par piece of equipment that doesn't meet the specifications.


Zinegata wrote:
and in The Martian they realized later on that there was actually a high chance - 1 in 5 - of an astronaut getting left behind and they hadn't prepared for this contingency; which was a big oversight on the agency's part.

I'm pretty sure that you do realize that The Martian is a fictional movie. So I'm not seeing why a boardgame, even if it takes place around the same entire planet, would need to match all the details. Yes, it was *one of several* sources of inspiration. That doesn't mean everything have to be the same, including the level of competency from the entirely different space agency involved.

Zinegata wrote:
If a government agency screws up on Earth, the error is unlikely to be immediately noticed and when it is there will be months of finger-pointing.

If a space agency screws up, the rocket explodes and millions of people will watch astronauts die on live television.

But the agency screwed up months before even in the space case. The screwups happened in advance, and the catastrophic events that caused it to be noticed happen later. This doesn't change between space and on-earth. Even on a space mission the error is unlikely to be immediately noticed, and surely in any case when it is noticed there would be months of finger-pointing because the game still involves humans.

Space is usually much less forgiving, so the chance of things going wrong is usually higher, but that also isn't really a good point since even in high risk of catastrophic failure on Earth there are still government agencies screwing up until you see in the news stuff like, say, many many building that shouldn't have gotten pemits for their areas being torn and flooded in hurricanes, and toxic-waste storage facilities in a hurricane prone location being flooded with possible lack of proper containment measures. Just as one recent example that people may see on TV and the news otherwise.

And the fallout from the screwup, probably due to the lacks of funding and related sufficient professional manpower or equipment/materials, can be much easier to handle for an international agency. Depending on the relevant voters each individual country can use this either to show their voters why they don't need to spend so much money on an international agency where other people from other countries can screw up, or to show why there is a need to invest more in proper international cooperation since half measures aren't good enough.

And of course those self-same months of finger pointing, at other countries, at engineers (who were limited by timetables and funding but have much less of a voice), at manufacturers, at other agencies responsible for checking manufacturers, at one of people responsible for recruitment/training who by this point may have retired already anyway...


Zinegata wrote:
Space, again, is completely unforgiving. It doesn't care how tough you think you are or what clever excuses you can come up with while being interviewed on CNN.

Again, neither do hurricans, floods, toxins, fires that engulf apartment buildings, crappy constructions materials on buildings and bridges, etc...

Zinegata wrote:
If you think that you can slap-dash a mission together and not die a few weeks in transit to Mars, then it is again NOT hard scence that you are looking for. In real missions a small mistake like crashing a resupply probe would be grounds for scrubbing the whole mission altogether instead of risking the astronaut's lives by telling them to keep working while starving. Shuttle and rocket launches have been scrubbed for less risky issues.

By NASA, sure. By the MCEI?? Judging by all the information we do have on them it seems pretty obvious they're underfunded and love to improvise and hope for the best.

Zinegata wrote:
the American president is a lunatic who tries to detonate the nuke on the asteroid's surface where it will do no damage except to the astronauts, while the Russian guy beats components into submission by berating them how they were made in Taiwan.

So pretty darn realistic, then? whistle

Zinegata wrote:
It can be fun, but its definitely not the same genre as The Martian and anyone expecting that kind of game (as the designer cited it as one of his main references) will suffer from thematic dissonance almost right from the outset of every mission.

Everyone expecting the MCEI to operate like NASA in The Martian (or in 2016) will indeed be in some thematic dissonance. No argument there.

My point is that this is a problem with people expecting the game to involve The Martian's NASA, not a problem with the game in general.

The Martian also involved three different teams, of one stranded astronaut, one group of astronaut trying a rescue mission, and a lot of people on earth. I'm pretty sure nobody would claim a thematic problem with First Martians having you play just one team of cooperating astronauts, even though it's extremely different from how it's done in The Martian. Right? Why is the difference of the complete narrative structure and type of missions and challenges doesn't bother you, but the competency of the entirely different space agency does?


Also:
Zinegata wrote:
In the starting missions you have contact with Mission Control and you are not stranded like in The Martian. Indeed we had a rather funny (but alarmingly incompetent) event in the food retrieval mission where NASAMCEI, after failing to land the critical food probe properly,

Zinegata wrote:
Because you could be preparing for a tough next turn, only for NASAMCEI to suddenly shower you with probes and extra actions.

RitterFips wrote:
NASAMCEI sending 3 probes but only one has supplies? And they don't know the exact landing location? Just like real life, not.

FTFW.
And I do feel pretty comfortable assuming that this confusion may be a large source of that thematic dissonance. Which, again, has a really easy solution: The game doesn't involve NASA. MCEI in 2029 is not NASA in 2016 and they have no relation beside both also being involved with space work.





On a somewhat different sub-topic, I completely agree with the sentiments that the scenarios are... not great. The campaign (at least the non-legacy one, I didn't personally try the legacy one) is much better, both in terms of narrative, and in terms of not having those "everything is falling apart and all the astronauts would probably die horribly next turn, but we achieved the objective so yay, we won, all is good" moments.
That said, the game unfortunately does require some play with the scenarios to "get" enough to play the campaign, it would be a really bad idea to start the campaign cold.
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