We Will Never Reach Mars
It’s been a good couple of years for Mars. Between a pair of high-profile board games, Matt Damon getting rescued at long last, and people finally deciding that maybe life on a barren wasteland dirtball even farther from the sun would be preferable to remaining on Earth, everything’s coming up rosy for Mars. And yes, that was a Red Planet pun.
But instead of focusing on what things will be like when we get there, how about a board game that’s all about getting there in the first place? No, no, not the flight, silly. Not being an astronaut. Not space-walks and solar sails and solving unforeseen problems and telling Houston to stuff it, you’re going to save your favorite crewman no matter what they say. But rather, being the administrative cog tasked with oiling the production of space modules, getting vendors on the phone, and hiring other cogs to also oil the wheels of progress. How’s that sound?
If your answer lay somewhere between “A little boring” and “More boring than staring into an eclipse until my retinas burn like a planet pulled into the event horizon of a dying star and then spending the rest of my life staring into the cold blackness of my newfound blindness,” you were correct! Project Mars is approximately that boring.
Here’s the ram-scoop. Each player adopts the role of a space contractor vying to be the first to (α) launch a bunch of modules into low-Earth orbit — the fuel and habitats and entry vehicles any successful mission from here to there will require — and (ß) be the only kid on the block to set a launch date.
So far there’s nothing inherently wrong with this setup. Plenty of games are about the middlemen of history, the lesser-knowns and their thankless tasks. Roughly nine-tenths of all Eurogames boil down to producing the junk that some Renaissance noble needs in order to live a life that’s ten thousand times superior to your own. So the mere fact that you aren’t an astronaut, pioneer, or engineer of any kind isn’t the reason to stay away from Project Mars.
The reason to stay away from Project Mars is that being an administrator at a major company in the space industry apparently means sitting on the phone with vendors. Each round, a bunch of cards are revealed, and most of your job revolves around picking one to add to your company, maybe two. There are techs to develop, vendors who will give you money if you’re popular enough, offices to host your growing team, and, of course, employees to hire, ranging from scientists to office managers. Some increase your tech rating while others convince you that sharpening pencils and reminding the janitorial staff to clean up that mess in the break room requires an annual salary and a retirement plan, though I’ll leave you to work out which is which.
There’s more to it, of course, not that any of it delivers the jolt of life. There’s the auction system that demands you spend materials in order to secure your position as that round’s first player, even though materials are so insanely precious that this resembles casting votes for your high school class president using moon rocks for ballots. There’s the option to skip your turn for the underside of a couch cushion’s value in cash, another to launch a costly test flight to make the actual launch marginally easier. A test flight to bring back more unobtainium materials, there is not.
Look, this isn’t anything special, that much is clear. While it does usually result in somebody managing to launch a successful mission to Mars, and while there’s some mild educational value to be had in the modular nature of setting up a grand mission, the journey fails to be worthy of the destination, especially since by its completion it has begun to compete with the 260-day jaunt to Mars itself. Unless it’s intentionally delivering a dark-matter lesson in just how much we should appreciate the tireless middlemen of the space industry, whose jobs are apparently soul-crushing and tedious and probably result in failure half the time, Project Mars just isn’t worth it.