My first game of Mars Colony

This post appeared originally on Adept Play. This is a slightly edited version for improved readability

Lately, I’ve been reevaluating role-playing games a lot for two players after trying out S\lay W\Me. This time it’s Mars Colony by Tim C. Koppang.

I played two games, once as the Governor and once as the Savior. I’ll report the first one here, which I consider one of the best games I’ve played this year. (I’ve played as Governor and my girlfriend as the Savior). The second one will come later, but I anticipate that it impressed me a little less.

In the first game, I played as the Governor, and Kelly Perkins was a female character.

We started by filling out the fear cards, which help introduce prompts during the game, and we followed the guidelines in the manual. The result was as follows:

  1. The government doesn’t take responsibility for deaths during migrations and lets people die in the sea.
  2. The recent decree on labor liberalization is another example of how my government disappoints people.
  3. Government members hide racism behind the facade of the need to reverse birth rates.
  4. Government members are willing to spread fake news for their own benefit.
  5. This worsens things when they cut taxes at the expense of public finances.
  6. This government is concerned about the well-being and health of children only when they are unborn, after which it disregards education.

We shuffled and drew cards number 1 and 5. These inspired two of the game’s indicators. (Later, we drew 4 for inspiration.)

We chose Funding, “The Others”, and Population as issues for the colony.

We played three parties and chose:

  • Dominant: Blue Party, inspired by the Sweden Democrats.
  • Minority: Yellow Party, inspired by the Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement, an Italian populist movement).
  • Fringe: Red Party, inspired by “Potere al Popolo” (extreme left-wing Marxist Italian party).

In this game, Kelly was an expert sociologist specialising in demography. She moved from the far-left to the centre of the political spectrum, transitioning from the Red to the Yellow party.

The Savior determined that their Sympathy was Spouse, Politically Powerful. They named themselves Jan Walghram and decided that they were on Mars as the Savior because Kelly’s husband recommended using them as a puppet under his command. The excuse was that Kelly, in this game, belonged to a minority party and, therefore, was a good figurehead. Kelly married this man for convenience: she supported him during his doctorate and helped him secure a university position through her political connections. At the beginning of the game, everyone underestimated her for this reason.

I won’t summarize every event, but I’ll focus on three emerging issues:

  • Mars Colony worked when Kelly’s personal dilemmas merged with her political efforts.
  • Mars Colony is extremely educational in showing the complexity of politics—there are no simple solutions to complex problems.
  • I felt Mars Colony working when Kelly sees the impact of her choices on people and takes responsibility for them.

Regarding the first point, the game took off for us when Kelly decided to take a stance. Initially, she tried to reconcile all interests, but then she had to take a more left-wing position. The game forced her to make decisions to achieve something concrete and led to a realisation.

In particular, she initially tried to remain neutral but eventually sided against her husband’s party. Through personal scenes, we explored how Kelly emancipated herself from the man who had given her everything and manipulated her throughout her life. In the final personal scene, Kelly asked for a divorce from Jan Walghram, and in the subsequent progress scene, she made a speech to the Mars nation against rampant racism (the indicator “The Others”). It was gratifying to see how Kelly’s emancipation from Jan went hand in hand with her radical stance.

Regarding the second point, Kelly facing the complexity of politics: the game worked when, in each progress scene, the solution dissatisfied someone from the Colony Organization map. Two examples:

Kelly created a Support and Integration Fund to integrate irregular immigrants on Mars (the indicator ‘The Others’). This angered the Blue Party, who demanded tax cuts in return to avoid blocking the rescue mission.
To resolve the Funding problem, Kelly had to privatise essential services. This angered the Red Party representatives. All these actors made Kelly’s life more difficult by following their own agendas. In this way, we managed to involve a significant part of the Colony Organization in the game.

The third issue is taking responsibility. The crucial moment was Kelly’s most spectacular failure in solving the Population indicator. The overcrowding of the colony and poor sanitary conditions forced the Savior to order the creation of temporary domes outside the colony as a temporary solution. Unfortunately, the roll failed, but the Savior avoided using Deception to advance the indicator through Lies. So, we established that everyone inside the temporary domes died because they weren’t built to withstand Mars’ radiation. (My partner asked me to use the veil to describe how everyone died from radiation without going into detail.) The next personal scene was emotional: we depicted Kelly after the press conference taking official responsibility for what had happened. Her right-hand Council Member Stuart informs her of the suicide of Council Member Hadar from the Red Party, responsible for the district where the tragedy occurred. Hadar couldn’t bear the guilt of using substandard materials to expedite the deployment of temporary domes.

Again, the game satisfied us when Kelly took responsibility for her decisions instead of resorting to lies. Using lies too often (as I did in my Savior game in the subsequent playthrough) prevents these moments from happening.

At the end of the game, Kelly resolved two indicators: Funding and “The Others,” scoring just over 40 points. However, Population (11 points) and the fourth indicator that emerged shortly before the end, Healthcare (0 points), failed to be resolved. The colony didn’t solve all its problems. However, Kelly managed to create a sense of national unity beyond the irregular immigrant/regular citizen dichotomy; thus, creating a single cultural identity. Additionally, she saved the project from financial disaster by reducing public debt through a series of cuts and concessions to banks and corporations. Kelly voluntarily stepped down from her role as a consultant but decided to remain on Mars to witness the future of the colony flourish.

3 Appreciations

Was this the original Mars Colony or Mars Colony: 39 Dark?

Hi, Mars Colony, otherwise I’d have specified “39Dark”. :slightly_smiling_face: It was the original Mars Colony.

1 Appreciation

I originally played Mars Colony at Lucca Comics & Games in 2013 (or was it 2012? 2014?) with @danieledirubbo. I don’t remember much about that game, as that period is a blur for me, but I know that that is more or less the moment that my friendship with Daniele began. I know he’s passionate about the games from Tim C. Koppang, so I hope he contributes some of his views to this site.

These two-player games have a way of putting you in the condition to be intimate and vulnerable, just by the player count alone, in a way that’s very different from 3+ player games. I think this is powerful but also dangerous—not a negative value judgement, just a statement of fact. As you make choices, and you see the choices of the other person, and you have to comment on them through your own contributions, it can lead to discovering more about each other—sometimes, starting a beautiful friendship, or sometimes figuring out you really don’t like them.

What I’m saying is, you were brave to play this with Benedetta :slight_smile: . Brave is good.

2 Appreciations

Claudio, I totally agree with you on the intimacy and vulnerability point. Two-players game are ideal for this since the sytem you buid at the table has no screens nor veils to protect you: you are just you and me.

Indeed this game of Mars Colony has ignited our interest in Twosie play and we’d like to try other 2-player RPGs – and we tried Sweet Agatha afterwards.

I should write about my game as Savior where I was feeling comfortable to bring my own issue in the game since my partner knows me and accepts me as person. Bleed in that context happened for me,. Generally the game resonates with me in a special way – although, I don’t consider it among my favorites. Perhaps I’ll write the follow up here.

Going back to the game, we followed the Daniele’s translation of Tim C. K Coppang’s 12 Principles of Play.

Principles of Play | TCK Roleplaying Blog

Tim from what I know hasn’t published the 12th. I provide from my experience an hypothetical 12th Principle

Political Parties Always Demand a Price

The game was extremely interesting because every time Kelly was going to act upon a problem, her solution dissatisfied one or more parties while the rest demanded a price to not obstruct the process.

So, I formalize my experience of play as “Political Parties Always Demand a Price”:

Take the example from the AP regarding what the Blue Party asked: “OK for your Humanitarian mission to save illegal immigrant on the orbit. But you know, this goes against what our average conservative xenophobic elector think. If you want us to back your decree, we want you to cut the taxes, even if the colony’s actual finacial status is awful”.

This at the table has been extremely powerful. In order to satisfy the Blue Party and save the immigrants, Kelly had to sell public utilities to several Earth’s corporations. This made extremely unhappy the Red Party’s members who obstructed Kelly at the next round. She had to negotiate again with them and find a new compromise, making then the Yellow Party dissatisfied at that point. The Savior must take position and can’t make everyone happy. That’s the point where the choices are meaningful.

This forces the Savior to compromises, creating emergently a continuous change in the situation without any effort.

2 Appreciations

The game seems to make a procedural argument (in the sense of procedural rhetorics of Ian Bogost, if one is familiar with that) about the nature of politics - as far as I understand, not having read or played the game, lying is pretty necessary to succeed, and even then things might go terribly wrong.

Mars Colony is extremely educational in showing the complexity of politics—there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

@LordPersi I wonder what the nature of the education was here. Do you feel you understand real-world politics better now? Or the parties in question in particular? Or the designer’s view on politics? Did your understanding of politics change in some concrete way?

2 Appreciations

Hi Tommi, thanks for the question.

On my part was interesting to see my partner learning from the experience. She’s interested in politics, but she never joined a formal party in real life; so, she never experienced the more “institutional” side of things. Which means get you hands dirty to compromise in a formal settings and discovering that slogans aren’t enough to solve practical problems that your society is facing.

By “educational” when I discuss Mars Colony, I mean understanding that it’s easy to claim things that you could read on social media like:

  • “We should kick out all the immigrants from our country”.
  • “We must grant basic universal income to everyone!”
  • “We should cut taxes!”
  • “Our national heath service sucks! We need more money to fund it.”

but it’s extremely difficult to balance all these stakes in a complex environment where multiple agents and sides have their own needs and interests. There is no magical formulas. At the same time, in certain circumstances, if you do politics, you must take a clear stance that you consider right even if it’s unpopular – because it’s the moral thing to do.

Mars Colony works really well to put both the players in such situations, where you must give up something, compromise, and so forth to reach partially or fully your political agenda.

Me and my partner had some discussions regarding politicians not be enough for the job or the fact that all the political parties sooner or later disappoint you. But the game showed to us that it’s easy to criticise when you lack the full picture and you aren’t in command. When you do real politics and play Mars Colony following Tim C. Koppang’s principles, this dimension emerges really well.

Also, it was interesting to pick up parties from around the world, learning about them, and see how they could act in a sci-fi context. In that particular game, we learnt how Sweden to Taiwan’s political systems work, and we implemented them in our initial preparation starting the game.

1 Appreciation

My understanding is that the things you lie about, that you advance despite being unpopular, that you compromise about, that you give up on, end up informing the other player on how you feel on those topics, with the necessary nuance given by the fictional context.

Was that the case for you and Benedetta, Alessio?

1 Appreciation

I’d say yes for Benedetta!

For example, Benedetta’s Kelly decided to support immigrants and immigration despite being opposed by the Blue Party or most of the population. She has done it even if she had to deal with being unpopular. Or she had to privatise many utilities to save the colony from financial disaster; it was a necessary evil and it created a lot of conflict with the Marxist Red Party.

Sometimes, her choices showed what she thought about certain topics. In other cases, the situation forced her to accept compromises to obtain later what she wanted to solve an issue.

Regarding my political position, no. As Governor, I’ve simply played a party according to their ideological stance rather than mine.

Example: I’m not Marxist, but when acting as members of the Red Party, I’ve opposed or supported Kelly thinking as if I had that political stance.

1 Appreciation

Right, so the game brings forth the complexity in politics, essentially. The proper kind of educational game. Thanks for the response.