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Mars Needs Mechanics – Or Economists, One or the Other (A Game Preview)

“The reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.” – Joseph E. Stiglitz, Economist, Nobel Prize Winner

Something -D-O-O Economics??

I was a Government major. In high school I got pretty good grades and aspired to be an engineer, but was advised by my counselor that “college math would be too hard.” And so, I decided to listen to him and focus on a liberal arts degree. I got Fs on my first ten writing assignments. Needless to say, freshman year of college was a very humbling experience. However, I did pick up some sound advice from my upperclassmen friends, one bit of which was the professors I should take in upcoming years. You see, in order to receive a liberal arts degree, you have to dabble in a little bit of everything, including taking some “business” courses. Well, if I had to take Economics, I was only going to take it from the guy they called “A-B-Abraham.” Why “A-B”? Everyone who took his class got one or the other of those letters for a grade. Piece of cake.

All I remember from his class are a few catch phrases and vague concepts, one of which is Adam Smith’s metaphor of “The Invisible Hand.” The invisible hand describes the self-regulating nature of any marketplace. The concept is simple; the businessman, motivated solely by profit, is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” according to Smith. You see, in competition between buyers and sellers, profit motive inevitably gets channelled into improved products produced at lower costs. So, everyone benefits: buyer, seller, society, and of course, liberal arts majors.

Odd that there would be a V-2 flying OUT of London…

In case you missed it, GenCon wrapped up about 10 days ago. The Pretty Sneaky, Sis staff met with many smaller publishers to talk about their games. I sat down with designer Benjamin Rosset and Nevermore Games’ Bryan Fischer to play Mars Needs Mechanics, a new Kickstarter offering from Nevermore, which features game-play hugely influenced by economics, market forces and the effects of supply and demand, sprinkled with steampunk flavorings. (Nevermore’s last project, Chicken Caesar, was a huge success). The game kickstarts on August 31, 2012! Ben confided that he was an old school Axis and Allies player until he discovered Euro style hobby games, which captured his imagination, and drives his designs.

Background:

Themed in a steampunk motif geared around becoming a space explorer, the game is set in London, 1873. Players compete to win the favor of the Royal Academy of Space Exploration and become one of the first to embark on a mission to Mars! Up for grabs is the post of Astronautical Engineer on the spaceship H.M.S. Victoria VII. Only the most resourceful and efficient tinkerer who constructs various mechanisms and demonstrates an acumen for spaceship maintenance will nab the coveted slot on the ship’s crew.

Object of the Game:

Starting the game with 30 cogs (the game’s currency), players purchase various component parts on the open market at then going market prices (which will fluctuate as the game progresses), to make sets of three or more. When they compile at least three of any card in their hand, they can sell them at then going market prices with the goal to maximize their financial standings by game’s end, and to be the applicant with the most Cogs, who will win the game and position of Astronautical Engineer!

Game Components:

Some of the cards from the Supply Deck.

Gameplay occurs using the following components:

  • Cards compiled in a “Supply Deck,” made up of the component parts or trade goods (the deck consists of exactly eight cards with the following titles, or suits: Aether Tubes, Boiler, Gears, Lenses, Magnets, Piping, and Wire),
  • Cogs, the game’s currency, in denominations of 1, 5 and 10;
  • Game Board, which serves as a market price tracker for the trade goods;
  • Market Tracking chips;
  • First Player Token;

Each player begins the game with 30 Cogs, and a hand made up of two “Scrap Metal” cards, which act like “wild cards” that can be used to complete a set of any component (but which they do not receive compensation for selling), and three random cards from the supply deck. Then, a total of eight cards from the supply deck are dealt face up to the table and serve as the pool of components available for the players to purchase in that round of play.

Markets will go up or down based on supply and demand.

The game board acts like a “ye olde tyme stock market ticker,” made up of a market price tracker for each component, along with a “sales order line” along the top of the board which is used to determine and vary the going market prices for each component as the game progresses. All of the components begin the game priced at five cogs, but every time a player purchases a component, the chip for that part jumps to the front of the sales order line. These chips are randomly placed along the sales order line to begin the game. At the end of the round, the chips are all adjusted back to fill in the gaps and some of them will have their prices adjusted up or down. (If the demand is high, as reflected by sales, prices may go up. The sales order track will adjust down by one cog the first three components in line, which were likely not purchased that round, and adjust up by one cog the top three, leaving the middle component static. In this way, timing of sales will impact the market and thus drive the best time to buy or sell). Supply? Meet demand. Free market at its finest.

You can see how, with this one simple mechanic, the players will have great strategic control over when to get into the market for a component, and when to sell, but look out, your opponents may have other schemes of their own which will foil your own nefarious plans! Just ask Mark Zuckerberg, market forces can be unpredictable.

Mechanisms:

In addition to the Supply Deck, there are four other cards that are available during the game. In the players’ struggle to compile components and convert them to cogs, they are aided by a number of “Mechanisms;” constructs they can build from odd pieces and parts in their hand, which are always “on the board” and available to players. These four Mechanisms add to the strategy and grant players a special ability. While you can only have one active at a time, and you must commit two cards from your hand to their construction, they may just give you the edge you need.

There will be at least 10 different mechanisms that come with the base game. Four of those are the recommended “starting set” of mechanisms, and were the ones featured at Gen Con. They all are, with their abilities:

  • Rocket Booster, which requires the player to commit the Scrap Metal and Boiler cards from hand, and confers the ability: Receive 1 extra cog for each set you sell.
  • Aether Drive, Magnets and Aether Tube: Announce a type of component. All players must pay 1 additional cog for that component.
  • X-Ray Goggles, Lens and Wire: Before announcing sales, look at the top 3 cards in the draw deck. Optionally, put any of them on the bottom of the deck.
  • Difference Engine, Gears and Piping: You may sell sets of components during the round on your turn.

Gameplay:

Nigel “Incubator” Jones. His best friend is a tree, and in his spare time he is a stock broker.

A first player token is assigned, in our case, to the chap with the best English accent. (Better bust out the Monty Python episodes and bone up). That player has the ability to take up to two actions, one to buy a single component part, and adjust the corresponding chip on the sales order line, or construct/destruct a mechanism, and/or use a special ability on one they have constructed. Play then proceeds clockwise around the table until all players pass consecutively. Passing does not preclude future turns (and can be quite strategic), until all players consecutively pass.

When all players have consecutively passed, the market is adjusted, and players can then sell sets of at least three matching components. The eight cards that make up the available component pool are refilled, the first player token is passed to the player on the left, and another turn begins. Once all the cards in the Supply Deck are depleted, the players play through that turn, which will become the game’s last, make their final sales, and at the conclusion of that turn, the player with the most cogs wins the game.

Thoughts:

Great games do not need a lot of moving parts to make them deeply strategic. Mars Needs Mechanics embraces this concept to its fullest. The interaction of the players, the special mechanisms and the wildly unpredictable nature of the market makes this game highly entertaining, and immersively compelling. While we only had time for one game, it was obvious that, with additional plays, the competitors would only deepen their study of the board at work, and in turn, add to the complexity and strategy of the game-play. One game was not enough to fully appreciate the multiple forces at play, but it did give us a taste of the mechanic, and it was a blast.

The components we saw, while not completed, were top quality. The cards were beautiful, and the card backs alone are worth the price of admission. More images of the game are up on boardgamegeek, and will be premiering soon on Kickstarter, no doubt. Check out the play though video with the game’s designer and publisher.

Prototype game board.

The demo was played on a prototype game-board bolted to a metal frame. Some pieces were actual nuts and bolts, adding to the immersive feel. Likely these components will be replaced by other materials with the final product, but it was a neat idea to customize the “Con-experience.” The game’s complete rules will be available when the Kickstarter campaign begins, either on that site or at boardamegeek.com. Depending on the support it receives, Ben is considering an expansion, perhaps as a stretch goal. I highly recommend checking the game out, supporting Ben and Nevermore, and look forward to getting a copy of this one myself.

By the way, in case you were wondering about that Economics class….I somehow managed to get a C. Go figure.

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9 thoughts on “Mars Needs Mechanics – Or Economists, One or the Other (A Game Preview)

  1. I’ll be the first to admit, I was excited for this story more for what it meant for the site than for the game itself. The name rang a little too close to “Mars Needs Moms” for comfort and made me passively avoid it. Even the correct name doesn’t do much to showcase the game, but arbitrary alliteration? Always awesome (and acknowledged assonance). After reading this, a preview of a convention demo I might add, I’m ready to be first in line on the Kickstarter campaign. Bravo.

    1. Or how about “Mars Needs Guitars?” (back to my Hoodoo Guru’s reference).

      The game was fun, and I wish I could have had another crack at it, because I was soundly beat down by my 10 year old son who was 3 cogs away from winning the game against another full grown man like myself.

    1. Dale:

      The “steampunk” elements here are clearly for the game’s skin. At its heart is a match-making and market speculation mechanic which really drives the gameplay. But, no doubt, it is nice to have a hand full of Aether Tubes and Magnets. Just not right next to each other…

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