Mission: Red Planet feels like the sort of game that would have been an absolute classic ten years ago — which is fitting, considering it first released in 2005 and only recently got a fresh splash of red paint from Fantasy Flight Games. The question, then, is how well does it hold up today?
If nothing else, Mission: Red Planet is possibly one the purest expressions of strawman libertarian economics ever put to cardboard, portraying the colonization of the inner solar system as a hands-on experiment in laissez faire in which a pack of steampunk hooligans are given free reign to swarm aboard transport ships with impunity, plunder resources by majority rule, and maybe explode some shuttles or start a war for funsies.
And to be clear lest you think I’m getting all political on you, this is awesome stuff. It’s frontier living as perched atop the unstable ledge that overlooks the ravine of utter chaos. Mars gleams in the sky, inviting with its boundless wealth and endless tracts of unclaimed land, and it’s up to you to get as many people there as possible, and damn the consequences right to Hellas. Bearing in mind that your newfound competitors might make it their mission to undermine you every step of the way, of course.
The rules aren’t particularly demanding, though at first glance they can seem a little tricky thanks to three interlocking systems that must all be expertly controlled in order to dominate the red planet. The first and most visible of these systems is the destination itself, Mars and its moon Phobos. Controlling the most astronauts in a region will give you access to its resources during each of the game’s three scoring rounds, ranging from low-interest space ice to valuable space crystals and space metal. Problematically, these are hidden at the outset of the game, so early colonists are necessarily also explorers, uncovering which regions will be hotly contested in future rounds. Once the good stuff has been discovered, certain regions descend into madness as every shuttle bound for those spots fills up almost immediately.
Which brings us to the shuttles themselves. Naturally, these are how you actually transport your people to Mars, but this isn’t as easy as it might sound. For one thing, each shuttle has a pre-arranged destination, so it won’t always be possible to get your colonists quite where you’d like them. And for another, each shuttle is shared between players and launches the instant its seats are claimed. The result is a bit like corralling a herd of cats to the vet across town, except each van is headed to a different destination and each will only hold two to four cats and also they plan to depart the precise moment they’ve taken in their fill of cats, thank you very much.
Thirdly, there’s the system for getting your astronauts aboard those shuttles in the first place. Everyone starts out with nine (identical) cards, each showing a different agent or specialist of some kind. These are similar in the sense that they all add colonists to one of the awaiting shuttles; other than that, they’re totally different.
Take, for instance, the Explorer. Not only does she load an astronaut onto a shuttle, but she also makes it possible to make a few moves on the surface of Mars — critical for uncovering early resource sites or amassing a majority in an important region. Then there’s the Secret Agent, a jerk who loads two astronauts onto two different ships, then commandeers a shuttle into launching immediately, even if it hasn’t filled all its seats. The Femme Fatale might not seem all that great at first, until her ability to convert an astronaut to your color brings an entire region over to your side. And the Soldier is great for anyone who’s sent a few too many troops to Phobos, since he lets them drop from the moon onto the planet itself.
What makes Mission: Red Planet hum like a well-fed Epstein Drive is that each of these characters alters the game in their own profound way, but the more dramatic ones might not get a chance to use their ability at all. See, each character is paired with a number that lets you know the order in which it will trigger. Once everyone has picked their character, the table starts chanting a launch countdown, with characters using their abilities when their number comes up.
TEN. NINE. EIGHT. SEVEN.
“Seven!” someone shouts, holding up their card. They’ve chosen the Scientist, so they load a couple astronauts — filling and therefore launching a shuttle to Tritonus Sinus in the process — and then pick up an event card. He mulls over it for a while, then tucks it under one of the outer regions of Mars. So the card was a discovery, which might have an impact on that region’s score later on.
Another player reveals the Saboteur, blowing up one of the docked ships. The trick here is that if all the shuttles had already launched, the Saboteur would have been completely useless. In this case, however, he just blew up a shuttle bound for Syrtis Major. And the shuttle had been crammed with four brave astronauts. There are now a pair of very pissed off players at the table.
It’s the Travel Agent this time. Her ability is to load three astronauts onto a single ship. That might sound fantastic, but if there isn’t a ship with enough open spots then she can’t load any at all. Thankfully, there’s a shuttle bound for Vastitas Borealis that can accommodate the passengers.
There aren’t enough docked shuttles for the Pilot to place all his astronauts, but that wasn’t his goal anyway. Rather, he redirects the shuttle that the Scientist player launched earlier, sending it to the worthless icefields of Hellas rather than Tritonus Sinus — which the Pilot player currently maintains a majority over.
Each of the launched shuttles delivers its cargo to Mars, the result of a tense standoff of wits, timing, and plain old luck. The table lights up with grumbles and cheers, and everyone evaluates the board anew, picking new character cards and plotting how to get back at the git who just blew up their shuttle.
The thing is, every single round is like this, brimming with tension as you decide whether to play it safe — maybe with the dull Recruiter to pick up all your spent characters cards? — or take a risk that could alter the game’s momentum entirely. The downside is that some people simply aren’t built for programmed movement like this, and losing an entire round because all the shuttles were already in the air by the time your character decided to amble over to the launchpad can be table-slapping frustrating.
For my part, Mission: Red Planet might feel like a classic from a bygone era, but it doesn’t show its age in the slightest. Equal parts simple and maddening, it’s the sort of game that careens between making you feel brilliant and chuckling while you waste a turn — and it will appeal best to the folks who can see the frustration of the latter as the just price for one risk too many. It’s about haphazardly racing to colonize an inhospitable wasteland planet, after all; only appropriate that it should make you see red from time to time.