Mars—and the colonisation of Mars—has been the theme du jour for board games of late, with Terraforming Mars from Stronghold Games being premier treatment of said theme. It is a big game and has a playing time of two or more hours, so bringing it to the table can be a challenge in itself, let alone learning and teaching to play it. So for some groups, a shorter, simpler treatment of the theme might be more accessible. Pocket Mars is such a treatment, a ‘heavy weight filler’ from Polish publisher, Board & Dice, designed for two to four players, aged ten plus, and to be played in fifteen to thirty minutes. The card game combines area control, area influence, and hand management mechanics with pleasing components and constant player choice.
The aim in Project Mars is to get as many of your colonists from Earth to Mars via your Spaceship and occupy as many of the Buildings there. This is done by playing Project cards—either as snap or prepared actions—to move your colonists and manipulate your level of energy. The game ends on the round in which a player has managed to get all seven of his colonists to Mars at which point, the player with the most Victory Points is the winner.
Pocket Mars consists of forty-nine cards, twenty-eight colonist markers, four energy markers, and a rulebook. The latter is well written, does a good job of explaining the game and includes a number of play examples. The energy markers are used to track each player’s energy on their spaceship and the colonists are divided in four, giving each player seven colonists. The cards are divided into five Building cards, four amusingly named Spaceships and four Reference cards, and thirty-five Project cards. Four of the Building cards—Water (blue), Ecosystem (green), Science (maroon), and Energy (orange). Each has a starting Value, equal to three, and two spaces for colonists. One space can hold unlimited numbers of colonists, whilst the other can only hold limited numbers. Each colonist in the first space is worth two Victory Points at the end of the game, whilst each colonist in the second is worth four Victory Points. The fifth Building, Construction (black), has no spaces for colonists. All five Buildings have special actions. For example, the special action for Ecosystem (green) allows a colonist to be moved from space to another on any Building card. The colonist can belong to any player, so it can be used to benefit a player or hinder an opponent. These special actions are triggered when a Project card with a greater value than the Building value is played on it under certain circumstances.
The Project cards are divided in five suits of seven cards each, their colours corresponding to the Building cards. All of the cards have a value. This is zero for the Construction suit, but the numbers for each suit run from one through seven. Each Project card has two actions—the upper one for when it is played from a player’s hand and the lower one for when it is played from his Prep Module. For example, the six Project card for Ecosystem (green) enables a player to move a colonist between spaces in the Building of his choice and grants him four Energy. If played from the Prep Module, a player can move one colonist from his Ship to a Building of his choice.
At the start of the game, each player has one colonist on his Ship and one Energy. He receives four Project cards. Two of these are kept in his hand, but two are placed face down in his Prep Module. Each player always has four Project cards—two in his hand and two in his Prep Module.
On his turn, a player can take one action from a choice of five. He can play a Project card from his hand, play a Project card from his Prep Module, play a Project card from another player’s Prep Module, take one colonist from Earth and put it aboard his Spaceship, or discard a Project card—from either his hand or Prep Module to gain one Energy. When playing a Project card from his hand, the card is discarded. When playing a Project card from his Prep Module, it is placed underneath the corresponding Building and can trigger both the Project card’s lower action and the Building’s special action. If the value of the Project card is higher than the value of the Building or the current Project card on it, the player can also place a colonist on the Building card. When playing a Project card from a rival player’s Prep Module—this is drawn blind, although a player will know which suit the Project card comes from—it is placed underneath the corresponding Building as normal. This activates the lower action for the player whose Prep Module the Project card is taken from, but allows the player who played the card to trigger the Building’s special action.
Play continues until a round ends with one player having transported all seven of his colonists to Mars. Then each player totals his Victory Points. These are earned for each colonist he has aboard his Spaceship, each colonist he has in a Building—each space has differing Victory Points, for having colonists in all four Buildings, and for having four colonists in a single Building. Another Victory Point is earned for having the most Energy at game end. Colonists on Earth are worth no points.
Physically, Pocket Mars is nicely designed. A lot of thought has been put into making both the rulebook and the cards clear and easy to understand. The artwork is good, but perhaps a bit bland on the Project cards, showing just blueprints. It does not help that these are unnamed, so it never feels as if you are building an actual thing rather just an anonymous upgrade. This means that the game feels rather abstract in play. Nor does it help that none of the Building cards are named—at least on the cards, as they are named in the rulebook.
There is an element of card counting in the game’s play. Because the Project cards for all Buildings bar those for the Construction Building, are numbered from one to seven, players can track them as they enter play, so that as they are put down on Building cards, the range of numbers available decreases and a player can attempt to work out where each Project card is.
Surprisingly for a filler, Pocket Mars presents a player with a lot of choices. Most obviously, does he choose to use the upper action of a Project card by playing it from his hand, or does he use the lower action by playing from his Prep Module? Then again, where does he place his Project cards? Which ones does he keep in his hand and which ones does he place in his Prep Module to take advantage of their more advantageous lower actions, knowing that an opponent might steal and use those Project cards? It might even be worth seeding your Prep Module with weaker Project cards perhaps to lure rival players into using them…
On the downside, all of this decision making can lead to analysis paralysis, which is compounded by the fact that a player can find one of his Project cards in his Prep Module being used by a rival player and thus suddenly find himself having to decide which Project card to replace the just used one. This is in addition to the somewhat abstract nature of the design—the Building and the Project cards, in particular—and perhaps a lack of variety in the play to support multiple replays.
The number of choices Pocket Mars presents the players with certainly mark it out as a ‘heavy weight filler’. Surprisingly, the depth and range of choices is not quite managed by the theme, which feels somewhat light. Overall, Pocket Mars is a tightly designed game which offers choice, but not quite enough variety. The number of choices means it is slightly heavy for casual players and the lack of variety means that it does not offer enough replay value for more dedicated players.