Friday, February 19, 2016

Mars Colony combines politics and Can't Stop to make a role playing game

Mars Colony is a two-player role playing game that explores politics, in particular the power and the price of deception. How much power should one person really be having and does the cult of personality equal good decision-making?

This is not the first two player game that I have come across. While it is a pretty unusual form for a role playing game, a number of them have been developed over the years. For someone who started out as an old-school, Dungeons & Dragons player, I still find it fascinating use of the medium.

Normally, I would say that using a fantastic or science-fiction setting to discuss real issues gives us a sense of distance from the issues, so it's safer and easier to talk about them. In the case of Mars Colony, though, I'd say that it gives you a chance to explore politics anyway you'd like.

At some point in the possibly near future, a multi-nation coalition created the Mars Colony. It's purpose was to create a utopia. Yeah, that dream crashed and burned. Civil unrest, ecological problems, a poorly designed infrastructure that's falling apart, whatever you want to be terribly wrong with the place, it's happening.

Earth is sending an expert by the gender-free name of Kelly Perkins to salvage and hopefully save the colony. This is the story of what Kelly Perkins does to save Mars. It's the story of how much they are willing to risk and how much they're willing to lie least appear to be saving Mars.

One player plays the part of Kelly Perkins, the savior of Mars. The other player is the Governor, a role that more closely resembles being the stage manager from Our Town as opposed to a conventional game master.

Mechanically, Mars Colony is definitely an indie game. The way the actual story develops is pure narrative, with nothing more than the guidelines that the players agreed to. However, the crunch of the mechanics, determining how well Kelly Perkins plans are going, is a push your luck game with a resource management element. Seriously, I'm pretty sure you could cut the mechanics of the game and turn them into a boardgame with just a retheming.

Honestly, it's one of the more unique systems I think I've ever seen. And if there are more games like this out there, I'd like to take a look at them.

There are four political parties that are vying for control on Mars. And what are those for political parties? They are what ever the players decide on. More than that, in a particularly brilliant and visceral suggestion, the rule suggest that you use real political parties from around the world.

The reason why I like that idea so much is that it really speeds up the set up time while adding depth at the same time. You're not creating something from cloth, you're using something that already exists. You're also using something that is probably emotionally loaded. After all, religion and politics are two of the best ways to get a fight going.

Another brilliant and disturbing part of the set up is that each player creates three fear cards, based on things that they actually fear about their own government. These cards will serve as inspiration throughout the game for conflicts and issues that will come up.

An important concept that I discovered when I started exploring in the games is bleed. Bleed is when the emotions created in the game to start actually affecting people. I've usually seen it when it comes to personal issues but Mars Colony is set up to really apply it to politics.

You also create other elements like three driving issues of the colony that Kelly Perkins has to focus on, as well as a person on Mars that will serve as a personal connection for Kelly Perkins who comes complete with some kind of significant problem.

OK, let's talk about the mechanical side of Mars Colony. Kelly Perkins has nine status tokens that can be assigned to one of three places. There's admiration, which represents how much Kelly Perkins is loved. At the start of the game, all the tokens are in admiration. There's contempt, which is a measure of how much the people of Mars hate and don't trust Kelly Perkins. If there are ever five or more tokens in contempt, that triggers end game with Kelly Perkins leaving Mars in disgrace. 

Oh, and then there is deception. That measures the lies that Kelly Perkins tells to make the people of Mars think that they are doing a good job.

Remember those three issues that you determined at the start of the game? Those are tracks that Kelly Perkins has to progress on in order to either solve the critical problems of Mars people that they're getting solved.

Kelly Perkins gets nine progress scenes to try to make things better during the course of the game. During a progress scene, the player playing Kelly Perkins grabs a couple of dice and starts rolling. Like so many push-your-luck games, you can keep on rolling as long as you want, adding up the dice as you go. If an issue reaches twenty, it's stabilized. If it reaches forty, it's solved and you add an new issue to the list to keep the pressure on.

BUT, if you ever roll a one, you wipe out. You lose all the progress you made in that scene and you move a status token from admiration to contempt. (It is push-your-luck, after all)

BUT (yes, another one!), there's a way out of the despair and disgrace. You can resort to lies. By moving an admiration token over to deception, you can keep the progress you made up to that point. 

BUT (they keep coming!), when you are building your house of cards on lies, it can catch up to you. If you roll a one and the other die is less than or equal to the number of deception tokens, scandal hits and everything falls apart. You lose all the points you kept due to lying and all the deception tokens move to contempt. Heck, might end the game right then and there. 

Really, it's like someone took Can't Stop and used it for the engine to run a game. Not the weirdest mechanic I've ever seen. Heck, Dread's mechanics are built around Jenga and actually works pretty well. And it should go without saying that you don't just roll the dice. Narration continues and the dice just help direct it.

I find it downright fascinating that the game isn't about saving Mars but the public perception of Kelly Perkins. The crux of the game isn't about the Can't Stop style dice rolling. It's about the decisions that Kelly Perkins makes when the dice stop rolling.

And speaking as someone who has played Can't Stop a lot, I can tell you that just Kelly Perkins either has to be incredibly lucky or use deception to keep their head above the water. With just nine turns to roll the dice, the odds are against them solving stuff without resorting to deception.

Mars Colony is a really neat little game. It's designed to be played in one sitting and I really can't see how you could ever try and make a campaign out of it. There is a definite and point built into the system. It has quirky mechanics but they make sense. I could see how you might make a fluffy or silly game out of it if you really felt like it but I think it is really set up well for a solid discussion on politics.

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