I always describe Mars Needs Mechanics as an Economics and Engineering game. Its easy to learn (it takes me about 9 minutes to explain the game), its playable in 40-45 minutes, and it moves quickly, with minimal downtime. Its a commodity speculation, hand management, and set collection game with a unique twist.
The Sales Order Line
The beating heart of Mars Needs Mechanics is the Sales Order Line. Mechanically, there isn’t much to it, but manipulating it to your advantage requires astute timing as well as a sound reading of your opponent’s intentions.
How it works
At the beginning of the game, you place tokens representing the 7 types of components used in the game at the top of the board, in a random order. This is the sales order line.
In the photo below, which represents game setup, Aether Tubes (white) are at the “front” of the sales order line, and Wire (red) is at the “back”.
Each round of the game, a new mix of 8 components will be made available to the players to purchase. Whenever a player purchases a component, the player takes the token for that type of component and moves it to the front of line. Doing this represents that the component type you purchased is currently “in demand” or “in need”. However, prices of components are not adjusted during the round as the components are being purchased. They are only adjusted at the end of the round, once all purchases have been made. At the end of the round, the three components at the front of the sales order line (the most recent 3 types that were purchased), will go up 1 cog (1 dollar) in price. The three components at the back of the line will go down 1 cog in price, and the price of the component type in the middle of the line stays the same.
If at the end of a round of play, the board looked like this, then Boilers, Piping, and Lenses would go up 1 cog in price. Gears, Wire, and Magnets would go down 1 cog in price. Aether Tubes would stay the same.
Only then, after prices change, do players have the opportunity to sell sets of components (a set is defined as 3 or more of the same type of component). Therefore, earning cogs, and ultimately winning the game, is based on your successful manipulation of the sales order line---getting the component types that you want to rise in price to the front of the line, and pushing the types you want to go down in price toward the back of the line. Simple, right? Well, in theory. Because of course, your opponents are trying to do the same thing at the same time. This makes the successful manipulation of the line very strategic, and highly dependent on your timing (when, and in what order your make your purchases), as well as your read on what you expect your opponents to do in the future, given their prior actions.
The interesting decisions that the sales order line creates
Your decisions about what to purchase--or what not to purchase, more on that later--are driven by how it will affect the sales order line. But there’s a lot that goes into each decision. How much money your opponents have to spend (public information), how many different types of components remain available for purchase in the market this round, how many components of one particular type you’ve seen throughout the game (and therefore how many remain in the draw deck), how much scrap metal you have left (scrap acts like a wild card but there is a limited supply of scrap), and what you perceive your opponents’ strategies to be are all taken into consideration when you make a purchase. And on top of all of that, you are also using your components to build devices (steampunk mechanisms) that give you added advantages during play. So you must be mindful of your opponent’s current mechanism strategy as well, and how that may influence their decisions.
Here is one interesting scenario you may encounter. Lets say you’ve got 2 boilers in your hand, and a new round is now beginning. Its close to the end of the game, and you know there aren’t many boilers left in the deck---you’ve been paying attention, and estimate that there might be 1 or 2 boilers remaining. Eight new component cards are revealed and placed into the market. Lets say that of those 8 cards, 5 different types of components are available, as seen in this photo.
There is 1 boiler card among the 8. To make your set of 3 boilers, you need to purchase that boiler. But, if you purchase it early in the round, when there are still 4 other types of components available, then boilers as a component type are likely to get jumped in the sales order line later in the round, and all of your boilers are bound to go down in price at the end of the round. But, if you don’t buy the boiler right away, preferring to wait until later in the round to snag it so that the price of your boilers will increase, one of your competitors might buy it first, denying you your chance to make your set. This inherent tension, created by the sales order line, is what makes Mars Needs Mechanics fascinating to play. And of course, all those other factors I described earlier go into informing your decision about what to do. Is someone else also collecting boilers? How badly do they need a boiler? Do they have enough money to purchase the boiler? What other component types are they likely to purchase this round? What mechanism do they currently have built and what is their strategy with that? The sales order line is truly the type of thing that’s a “minute to learn, lifetime to master.”
If all that sounds interesting to you, you’ll love this added wrinkle. On your turn, you are allowed to pass, and not buy anything. When you do so, you aren’t passing for the entire round, but only for that specific turn. When it becomes your turn again, you can resume making purchases. This can be highly strategic! Lets say you are playing a 4 player game, and you are the starting player for this round. Well, with 8 components in the market, and 4 players, then if players purchased a component every turn of the round, you (as the starting player) would get the 1st and 5th actions of the round. But the sales order line rewards later-round actions. Now, what if you strategically pass to begin the round? Now you are effectively making yourself 4th in the order of taking actions instead of first. Now you receive the 4th and 8th purchases of the round---much better, assuming of course, that the components you want, the components you need, are still available that late in the round. And of course, if other players also pass, it can throw a wrench into your plans. And be mindful of this: If all players consecutively pass, the round will end early, even if components are still available in the market. So go ahead and strategically pass, but make sure you check the sales order line before you do. If everyone else also passes after you, then the round will end and you won’t get another turn before prices change. Are you comfortable with what will happen to prices at the end of the round, based on the current sales order line? If not, its a risk to pass, so tread carefully.
Purchasing components that you don’t want
Sounds strange, right? Why would you ever purchase something you don’t want? Again, because of the way the sales order line works, this can be highly strategic. Lets say its mid-round, and there are 5 types of components still available in the market: There is one component card each of Lenses, Wire, Piping, Gears, and Magnets, as seen in this photo.
Lets say you are holding in your hand: 2 lenses, 2 piping, and 3 magnets. Those are the components you want to go up in price at the end of the round. You certainly don’t want them to go down. Its your turn. And so, you decide to buy....a wire? Why would you do that? You aren’t holding any wire, you don’t need any wire. What gives? The play I’ve just described might just have been genius. By purchasing the 1 wire, and taking it off the board, there are now only 4 different component types remaining, and you have now guaranteed that the component types you are holding--lenses, piping, and magnets--will all, at worst, stay the same in price at the end of the round. In fact, you have guaranteed that at least 2 of the 3 will rise in price (assuming they are bought), and its certainly possible all three of the types you are holding will rise. By purchasing the wire, even though you didn’t need it and even though the wire is going to fall in price at the end of the round, you’ve set yourself up for a big gain on your lenses, piping, and magnets at the end of the round. And if one of your opponents is holding onto some wire, that’s an even bigger coup you just pulled off, because your opponent’s wire is going to fall in price at the end of the round, too. Like in all other situations in Mars Needs Mechanics, however, there’s something else to consider. At the end of the game, individual components that remain in your hand that you can not complete a set with are worthless. So now that you’ve got that wire, you’ll be on the lookout to pick up more of it, to complete a set by the end of the game.
I’m confident you’ll find the sales order line fun to play and challenging to master. After a few short plays of Mars Needs Mechanics, you’ll be picking up on even more intricate strategies for manipulating it that I didn’t mention in this article. After all, I can’t give you all the secrets!
Ben Rosset, designer