How will we finally excavate Mars? By hurtling drills down shafts via the power of controlled explosions. Obviously. Try to keep up.

Are mining games the train games of 2015? No? Well, something to think about, anyway.

In the meantime, there’s Super Motherload [sic], a board game based on the video game Super Motherload [sic], which itself traces its lineage all the way back to Dig Dug. Minerals, prepare to get drilled right in the minerals.

If a single one of you follows that up, I swear I'm gonna...

Dig dig dig.

Like its digital predecessor, Super Motherload [sic] is all about mining. Not real mining, which is dirty and smelly and dangerous, but fantastic future mining on Mars using rapid drilling machines to efficiently unearth the best possible ores and gems before your opposition does. Then you’ll use those ores and gems to purchase better drilling machines. See, there’s this Cold War thing going on, as well as talking animals apparently (easier to lug a gas-detecting canary down into the mine when the thing is a drilling machine expert) and yadda yadda yadda other reasons to mine Mars. Oh, and it’s a deck-building game.

At first glance there are plenty of reasons to write off Super Motherload [sic]. In addition to looking like a Kickstarter game (which it isn’t), that deck-building concept is a tough sell these days, what with there being approximately five hundred new deck-builders releasing each year.

Good thing then that Super Motherload [sic] has a few tricks up its sleeve.

I am not the one who is mined. I am the miner. A mineral looks up and gets mined and you think that of me? No. I am the one who mines.

The ones who dig.

At its most basic, your task is to spend matching drills from your hand to create tunnels. The more drills you match, the farther you can tunnel in a single turn, scooping minerals, power-ups, and handy single-use artifacts out of the ground. There’s something pleasant about watching your network of mining shafts creep downwards through the Martian soil, and by cleverly matching the right types of drill cards to color-coded clumps of soil, it’s possible to loot otherwise inaccessible caches of gems. Then there are bombs, harshly limited items that can blast through heavier rock.

Most of the game revolves around careful use of these two resources, the colorful cards in your hand and the bombs that blast stone into open caverns. The trouble is that once a tunnel is dug it becomes available to everyone, so while digging closer to a pair of rubies might be tempting, it could very well put one of your competitors within reach of the spoils before you can get there. Then again, it’s possible they’ll pull off a whiz-bang turn and dig two tunnels in a row, claiming the gems anyway.

And you’ll need those minerals to upgrade your cards. Loot itself isn’t worth anything at the end of the game. Purchased cards are. However, the decision of which of your cards to stack gems on is a tricky one, forcing you to carefully gauge where you dig and which gems are placed on which cards.

Meanwhile, your drill cards and bombs are just the flashy resources; more subtly, you’re limited to a mere two actions per turn. While it’s most profitable to spend these actions drilling and blasting, the fact that you don’t replenish your hand each turn means it’s hardly uncommon to spend both of them drawing cards. A carefully timed move, usually following a round or two of making minor excavations and drawing cards, can see you digging, bombing, and combining your cards’ special actions to phenomenal effect — say, by getting free card draws, earning extra bombs, or even duplicating some of the gems you’ve already collected. And all that in addition to the gems you’ve just dug out of the ground.

The system works surprisingly well, creating a fluid merger of deck-building and action on the main board — which scrolls as you dig deeper, by the way. Just thought I’d mention that. Because it’s cool.

IN A MINE! ... ha, I'm not even mad. What a classic.

Dig dig dig dig.

There isn’t all that much to Super Motherload [sic], though what’s there has more depth to it than I expected at first glance. Yes, that was a mining pun. Glad you noticed.

However, there are a couple things that keep me from awarding it a full-hearted recommendation. For one thing, I wish it packed more variety. Each of its four boards is double-sided, but after a handful of games I’ve already seen the complete geography of the Martian underground. For another, this game seems to occupy an odd limbo between its kid-appeal artwork and setting and its tendency towards spatial positioning problems where you don’t want to dig for fear of handing an opponent the best loot. Neither of these are necessarily bad things, but in some ways it feels like the final product could have been more complete.

Really, that’s the crux of my concern with Super Motherload [sic]. While I really dig it (yes, another mining pun, good eye!), if only because it’s such an unusual and fresh take on the deck-building formula, my time with it never felt compelling enough that I have that desire to play it over and over again. In a way, it reminds me of another title whose heritage wends back to video game roots, The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade. As with that game, my time with Super Motherload [sic] was a joyous experience — until it dried up and left me wanting more. More boards, more options, more deck-building.

Sort of like my real-life stint with mining, then. But that’s a story for another day.

Posted on April 9, 2015, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I love how this review feels like one long tirade against the game’s willful misspelling of “mother lode,” without once bringing it up directly.

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