Pocket Mars Review – Managing the Red Planet
At the bottom of one of the rows of stalls at the UKGE 2018 was a stall that I had been really excited to see. The company Board And Dice have been on my “watch” list ever since we managed to get Multiuniversum off them in 2017, a game which has fantastic mechanics and even better art. At the last UKGE (UK Games Expo – it’s the UK’s largest games expo happening every year on the first weekend in June) they had a stall showing off a few of their games. One of those wasInBetween, which I don’t think I’ve written about before, but will be shortly. Once again, it is a game with absolutely stunning artwork.
Then, there was a small game that caught my eye – Pocket Mars. It’ll come as no surprise for those who follow my Instagram feed closely that I am a fan of all things space exploration, and so, enjoying Terraforming Mars and both the film/book versions of The Martian, Pocket Mars piqued my interest.
Turning it over, it had that claim on the box –
Pocket Mars is a fast paced and wildly dynamic card game, but don’t let the short playthrough fool you. It’s a heavy weight filler!
That sounds awesome! “Heavy weight filler” seems like an almost impossible contradiction, and so we instantly parted with our money and bought the game.
So, the big question then – is Pocket Mars a heavy weight filler? Let’s take a look and find out.
PLEASE NOTE: There is a solo mode in Pocket Mars. I haven’t played that yet, so this is a review of the game with multiple players.
The Core Information: What is Pocket Mars?
Pocket Mars is a 1-4 player card game designed by board game designer Michał Jagodziński, and with art by Jarosław Wajs. It takes around 15 to 30 minutes to play.
In Pocket Mars you play the parts of rival organisations looking to set up the perfect infrastructure on Mars. You want to build buildings, send colonists to Mars, and have them prepare the ultimate environment for earthlings to inhabit.
Pocket Mars is an interesting form of hand management game, with aspects of area control and sequential planning.
How To Play Pocket Mars – A Brief Exploration:
In Pocket Mars, you control a corporation with a space ship and seven colonists. Your goal is to get all seven colonists to Mars whilst also improving the infrastructure of the planet.
There are, at the start of the game, five buildings laid out as Mars. These are the Energy Building (Yellow), Water Building (Blue), Science Building (Purple), Construction Building (Black), and Ecosystem Building (Green). Each one has an action and is split into two sections – one star and two star. These are spaces for colonists and worth points at the end.
As a player you are dealt a hand of four cards comprising of the five colours. There are Energy Based cards that are yellow, for instance, and Water Based cards that are blue – each one coinciding with one of the main buildings on Mars. In total there are 7 cards of each colour. Each card, of each colour, is numbered 1-7.
After looking at your hand, you place two cards in your hand and have two cards in their prep module face down. Each card has two actions, one for if it is played from a hand and one if it is played from the prep module.
When you play a card you get to do the action on the card associated with the place you are playing it from. So, if you have Blue 5, you can move a colonist on the water building from one star to two stars and you can put one card from your hand back at the bottom of the deck – if you play Blue 5 from your hand. If you play it from your prep area you can place one colonist from Earth on your Shuttle if you have another Blue card in your hand. You then get to do the water action, which is that you may choose one card from your hand or prep module and place it face down on the bottom of the deck. Why play cards like Blue 5? Well, you may not like the card you have and it lets you cycle through your hand.
Now comes the neat and oddly controversial part. If you beat the number on the last card played on the Water Building, or the Building itself if no other card has been played (3), then you get to place a colonist on that building (from your shuttle/space ship) in the one star section. It can be moved across at a later date and this determines a set amount of points in the end game.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to play a card from your hand or prep module, there are other things you can do. You can, for instance, play a card from your opponent’s hand or prep module. These cards you play face down and they have a value of 0. You can move a colonist from Earth to your shuttle, or discard a card to gain energy. energy is used for some card effects.
The game is scored once someone has got all seven colonists to Mars. At which point the victory points are distributed. There is 1 victory point for each colonist in your shuttle, 2 points for each colonist in a one star section, 4 for each colonist in a two star section, 2 victory points for having a colonist on all four of the major buildings (not the Black building, but the other colours), and 3 victory points for having four colonists on one building.
That’s the basics of the game. There are a few more niche rules, but that’s more or less it.
Our Opinions – What is Pocket Mars Like To Play?
I like space. Space is good and inspirational and complex and heroic and filled with scientific wonder. Any game that is a speculative science fiction game like Terraforming Mars ranks highly in my book purely on the theme. It is such an awesome theme and one I always look forward to cracking open.
So, for the sake of Pocket Mars let’s set aside my love for space aside for the time being. What is it like as a game and does it live up to its claim to be a “heavy weight filler”?
Firstly, let’s take the easy bit. It takes around 20 minutes to 30 minutes to play. Pocket Mars fits into the “filler game” category.
Is it a heavy weight filler though? Well, that depends on what you mean by heavy weight filler.
If you mean, is this game heavy weight, then my answer is that no, it probably isn’t. When you compare it to games like Mage Knight, Twilight Imperium, Terraforming Mars, Terra Mystica, Gloomhaven or even games like Scythe, then Pocket Mars is no where near those in the league of heavy weight. Instead, Pocket Mars is a lightweight alternative.
That being said, in the grand scheme of “filler games” Pocket Mars is on the heavier side. I struggle to think of filler games that are heavy (maybe the Tiny Epic series) which puts Pocket Mars in a league almost of its own. It is not obscenely heavy, but it is heavier than most filler games.
So, what is it like to play? Well, Pocket Mars is one of those games that comes across in a few different ways. Firstly, returning to the theme – the Martian concept comes across during the set up of the game, but it doesn’t hugely continue throughout. The Mars Building cards are all thematic, and you are dealing in colonists, but the cards you play from either your hand or prep zones aren’t hugely theme heavy. A bit more theme on these cards, for instance upgrade names or concepts, would have been welcome.
What this means is that the game can feel like a numbers game at times, rather than a game about Mars. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, in a game like this it could be hard to get the theme solidly embedded throughout the short play time.
This brings us to the numbering mechanic and what it means to play higher numbers. If you play higher numbers you can send one of your colonists to Mars. This plus the types of card means that there is actually a fair mount of luck in the cards you draw. If two sevens come out and go to one player in the first round, they can end up getting quite a good lead on everyone else right out of the gate. Likewise, if you pick up low numbers you have to work around that by playing cards face down, and this can sometimes go very badly wrong if someone then plays on it before you.
That being said, Pocket Mars is a fun game and, despite minor downfalls, is a game I am glad is in our collection. It was fun and the fast pacing means it can easily be played two or three games in a row without getting old. The theme is sometimes dry but, because of the short playtime, it doesn’t really get old in the length of the game. Play it for a full evening and it might, but in the short burst of one or two games it doesn’t.
In a way, I am quite a fan of the luck aspect of the game in regards to the actions on the card. Ultimately, there are only three or four different types of action, but they are in different combinations and you do really need to plan things out to get them to work out in your favour. It becomes an elaborate and red-planet themed game of chess. You need to work out what happens if you play a card.
The numbers seems like a way to get players to interact with one another. It forces a small take-that element; however, as mentioned above, they can sometimes make the luck more painful than pleasant.
TL;DR: The Good, The Bad, and The Potatoes
Like with all games, we can break Pocket Mars down to three different categories – the Good, the Bad, and the Neutral.
- It is a heavy game in the filler game market.
- It plays quickly, and yet requires a lot of thinking due to an interesting and relatively complex hand management mechanic.
- The randomness of the game can mean it becomes a highly complex thought exercise.
- Considering it is a game about space, it isn’t overly engagingly spacey. This isn’t a huge issue, but it would be nice to have a stronger theme on the building cards.
- Randomness can determine the outcome of the game during the very first round.
- There is no real incentive to use energy. It seems like an optional mechanic.
Over the next few months I look forward to playing Pocket Mars more, and although it is not a perfect game, it is enjoyable. It is a heavy weight in the filler world, and for that I welcome it on my shelf.
Pocket Mars has a lot of potential. A bit more refinement and it could be amazing, otherwise it is a good game.
So, what do you think? Is this the kind of game you would like to play, or is it something you’d rather leave in the space dust? Let me know in the comments below.