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Review: First Martians Is Brutal, Stressful and Fun

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is a co-operative board game published by Portal Games that revolves around a team of astronauts trying to survive on Mars. (This is a spoiler-free review.)

Designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, First Martians is built on the rules system of another of Trzewiczek’s games, Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. I love Robinson Crusoe, so I was pretty excited when First Martians was announced. While there are some major similarities, First Martians definitely has its own unique mechanics and flavor.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planets offers a whole lot of game in one box. You have the option to play one of 6 standalone missions, a campaign, and a legacy campaign. So far I have played 2 of the standalone missions and the campaign, which totals to 7 games. And honestly, I’m ready to go sit down at the table and play some more right now.

Unlike Robinson Crusoe, First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet requires a free app to play. The app helps you set up the game for each mission. It also randomizes different parts of the game and keeps all of your mission goals handy in one place.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet

In each mission, you’ll have mandatory major goals that you need to accomplish, such as exploring a certain area and then building something out on Mars. You may also have some optional goals, like collecting some samples from the terrain around your base or building a new greenhouse.

Each scenario will have a set number of rounds to accomplish these goals. First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet calls these “sols,” a.k.a. days. The app helps you keep track of what round you’re on. It also takes you through the maintenance steps that happen at the beginning and the end of each round, such as energy, food and oxygen production and malfunctions. I’ll talk about those parts of the game a little later.

The basic game play revolves around each player having two action pawns. Players can then assign these pawns to actions on the board. Often though, actions will require more than one pawn to accomplish. And for things like exploring or gathering, you can make the choice to do it as a safe or as a risky action.

A safe action requires an additional pawn, while a risky action doesn’t. If you play it safe, the action simply happens. Just like in Robinson Crusoe, if you decide to chance it as a risky action, you’ll have to roll the dice. There are three dice, the success die, the wound die, and the adventure die. So if you’re taking a risky action, it’s possible that you may not succeed. You could also take a wound and/or have to go on an adventure.

The app handles adventures, and these are more often than not negative. Even if they’re not so bad in the beginning, that adventure could come back to haunt you later.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet

You will all have to work together to decide what the most important actions are and how you’ll allocate your pawns. Do you explore a new area of Mars to further your main mission goal or do you go to the Med Bay to heal? Or maybe you build an upgrade to make your life a bit easier… Or should you plant a seed that will eventually grow into food? And do you have enough time to do everything safely, or will you need to take some risky actions?

There are a ton of different actions you can take, but it almost always feels like there’s never enough time to do everything. Making matters tougher is the fact that something is almost always going horribly wrong.

At the beginning and end of each turn malfunctions can happen. Each room in your base has different parts that allow it to continue to function. When everything is working, you’ll have green cubes next to those parts. Many of these rooms are also how you can take an action. For instance the Med Lab is where you need to go to take the heal action. If something is broken in your Med Lab and you go there anyway, you might have to spend precious resources to use that space.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet

As you can imagine, malfunctions suck. They can completely derail your carefully laid out plan and force you to waste precious actions on fixing the base. There’s a lot more that goes into how malfunctions happen, which includes dice rolling, malfunction tracks and malfunction cards. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of the rules here, but just know that the effects from these cards run the gamut of simply a little sucky to potentially devastating.

Besides going through the events phase, at the beginning of each round you’ll also have to go through a production phase. This is where you have to feed your astronauts. If you’re not producing enough food, you have to start eating into your food reserves. If you don’t have any food reserves, whoever isn’t able to eat has to take a wound.

The production phase is also when you assess if you have enough power and oxygen to support the different structures in your base. If you aren’t producing enough power or oxygen to run everything, you have to choose a room to put into shutdown mode. Having a room in shutdown means you can’t use it, and it also means you will add more stress to your morale tracker.

You will also increase the stress track during the production phase. Stress is increased one notch per astronaut and then you also add any additional stress thanks to random events or rooms in shutdown. When your stress level hits 18, you have a choice: push your morale tracker down or have every astronaut take a wound. If your moral tracker is already at the bottom ( -2 ), then each astronaut has to take a wound.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet

The First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet app takes care of reminding you the order in which all of these production and stress phases happen. It also remind you of when you have to go through the malfunctions phase. The app is incredibly helpful. It keeps everything organized and smoothly helps run the game for you.

I immensely enjoyed First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet. The game exudes theme. I truly felt like I was an astronaut attempting to survive on a hostile planet with a difficult environment.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is addicting. I played two of the one-off scenarios and the whole campaign, and I just want to play more. The campaign was wonderful. It has a great story with twists and turns that I did not anticipate. There were multiple moments where we felt like we had a solid plan and were doing well, but then the game threw us a curve ball. I won’t spoil anything, but suffice it to say you can’t really count on everything going the way you think it will.

The campaign is pretty fabulous, but I’m glad that I played a few of the one-off games to get familiar with the rules before I dove into the campaign. First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet has a lot of rules that you’ll need to learn. The app does help facilitate the game, but you need to learn all of your different options before you start playing.

Portal Games highly recommends you play a couple of the one-off scenarios before you start the campaign, and I second that recommendation. There are just a lot of small, sometimes fiddly, rules that you will need to know to fully play the game and play it correctly.

Another tip I have for you is go ahead and read the FAQ’s on the app before you start playing. Once you’re embroiled in a mission, you can’t pull up the FAQ’s.

Another thing you need to keep in mind as you peruse the rule book is that there are several actions like building a greenhouse and planting a seed that are mentioned in the rules, but not fully explained. Those things will instead be covered and explained in the app and potentially during the campaign missions. So don’t freak out about that.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is an excellent game. I’ve had it for less than a week and I’ve already played it more than I’ve played most of the games in my library. And I’m so excited to play it more.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet absolutely captures the setting and the feel of being the first party of astronauts on Mars. There’s constant stress and problem-solving that has to happen as more and more things break down. And there’s a real feeling of accomplishment when we succeed on a mission.

I love how much content this game has. Each mission is its own story. There’s flavor throughout the whole game. If you take a risky action and have to go on an adventure, each of those adventures is a tiny story. Sometimes you’ll have a choice to make which affects the outcome of that adventure. It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into this game.

The campaign is well-written and immersive. It made narrative sense and pulled you right into the game. As the story progressed, I physically got more and more tense. I was completely invested in the story, and I desperately wanted to succeed. It was great.

There’s never one best option either. There are so many different actions, all of which can help you succeed. So you all have to work together as a team to problem solve and make a plan.

You and your team are constantly having to deal with curve balls. The game can be absolutely brutal at times, but that’s what makes this game amazingly fun. First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet makes you stretch your mind to try to figure out how to keep your base working, while also racing against the clock to complete your mission objectives.

If you’re not one for extremely difficult games, First Martians has a solution for you. The app actually lets you pick from three different difficulty levels, easy, medium and hard, for your games. We played on medium, and it was still super hard. I honestly can’t imagine what playing on hard would be like.

For me though, the high challenge level of the game really made it feel real for me. It made ever decision seem vital. I loved just how brutal the game can be.

What’s more, the replay value of this game is pretty huge. Like I said, I’ve already played 7 times, and I haven’t even touched 4 of the stand-alone missions or the legacy campaign yet.

The only major downside for me for First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is the amount of rules you need to learn. Like I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of rules to learn to be able to play this game. But it’s so worth it.

Sure it’s going to take a bit of time to learn everything, but once you do, the game really shines. The first mission is really designed to help you get all the kinks out and learn the rules, so take advantage of that. There should also be a Watch it Played video (which is a video that teaches you the rules of a game) up in the near future, which will absolutely help with learning the game.

If you loved playing Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, you will love First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet. Even if you haven’t played Robinson Crusoe, but you enjoy challenging co-op games that absolutely ooze theme and story, First Martians is the game for you.

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is for 1-4 players, takes about 60-90 minutes per mission, and costs $70. It’s currently not available to order, but it should be hitting stores soon.

Review Score: 9.5/10

Caylie is a writer and all around nerd. Board games have slowly become a passion and have taken over most of her shelves at this point. Some of her favorite games are Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Battlestar Galactica, and Mansions of Madness 2nd edition.

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