ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Return to the Angry Red Planet

Tim C Koppang has a sequel to Mars Colony in Kickstarter right now: Mars Colony 39 Dark.

Nope, it’s not just a new improved Mars Colony. It’s Mars Colony from the point-of-view of the rebels.

What’s different is that 39 Dark is a look at the colony from the people up instead of from the government down. Some number of years have passed since Kelly Perkins attempted to fix the colony’s problems. Things have not gone well. Now a protest movement, 39 Dark, has gained a lot of traction. No one can ignore them any longer. You’ll be playing as Lane Novak, the leader of 39 Dark, as he or she tries to take matters into her own hands.

Mars Colony has been a favorite ever since we picked up an early version at GenCon years back. I’ve loved it because it’s one of the few games I’ve seen that tackled real world issues of governance and civics. It’s also ultra-rare in that it’s a hard-hitting RPG designed for exactly two people.

Here’s a walk down memory lane of some of the amazing Mars Colony games we’ve played:

I can’t wait to take it for a spin.

The Temple Stands Empty

Playing A Thousand Years Under the Sun @ Story Games Seattle:

The humble Temple of the Winds becomes of place serenity and wisdom, where the Gods speak to men.

A thriving market grows around it, catering to the pilgrims and seekers who come from distant lands to visit it.

In time, hawkers and charlatans in the market sell false prophesies from their stalls, taking gold to tell the pilgrims whatever they want to hear.

The Temple stands empty.

Flight of the Hornet

We sit down to play Battlestations, a space combat RPG, last night. I’ve had it for a while but this is the first time we’ve tried it out. We plan to spend the evening blasting ships and taking names.

I tell the players they’re fresh-faced cadets, straight out of the Union academy. They’re eager to take their new scout-patrolship, the plucky UNV Hornet, out for a spin and prove themselves.

Happily they won’t have long to wait. Scuttlebutt is that there’s been a rash of attacks by Cluster forces in the neutral zone. The zone is a buffer established between the Union and the Cluster to keep the peace. The treaty forbids installations, development or settlements of any kind in the zone, even though both sides want the resource-rich systems for themselves. It’s always been an uneasy truce.

The Hornet gets orders to move out. Their fledgling mission is to escort a science ship into the zone so it can plant listening posts to monitor Cluster activity.

“So basically what we’re doing is totally in violation of the treaty.”

These kids learn fast.

Polaris: Freedom of the Press

We’ve done a whole slew of Polaris setting hacks recently. Aztecs, Fall of the Roman Republic, 1920s Empire City cops and Battlestar Galactica (twice).

The key ingredients of a satisfying Polaris analog are pretty simple: 1) a grand society on the verge of collapse because of some doom it has brought upon itself (a Mistake-analog), and 2) some lucky order of individuals tasked with defending the sinking ship (a Knights-analog).

It’s critical the Mistaken (the antagonists that represent the seeds of destruction that will bring the whole thing down) can be anyone. Your brother, the king, your girlfriend from high school: they could be part of the problem. In stock Polaris, the Mistaken include demons that can possess or tempt (easy), and in BSG anyone can be a Cylon, but in other settings it’s been easier than we expected to single out issues or beliefs that work wonderfully. In the Roman Republic, the Mistake was a yearning for tyranny, betraying democracy. Anyone could start to feel that way. You’re in the middle of a chat with your girlfriend and she idly mentions how incompetent the Senate is and how one firm leader running things would be such an improvement… Doh!

“Good Night, and Good Luck”

For our latest Polaris setting hack, we decided to try out 1950′s America. The Mistake isn’t Communism (too easy), it’s self-righteous patriots trampling civil liberties to find The Enemy Within. McCarthyism, Un-American Activities witch-hunts, and all that post-911 stuff you hate so much.

Sweet. Anyone can succumb to The Fear and start thinking it’s their duty to rat out their neighbors, that freedom can only be protected by taking away freedom.

So who does that make our Knight analogs? Diligent FBI guys? Nope, that would only work if Communism really was the threat. Instead, our protagonists are that final line of defense against oppression:

Journalists.

It’s Polaris: Freedom of the Press.

Mars Colony Triple-header

“I start a campaign… a totally _fascist_ campaign.”
–brand new gamer, solving the problems of Mars

I love Mars Colony. It’s hands-down the best game I picked up at GenCon 2009. That’s not even considering that it’s technically only an ash can release, not the final version, which is coming out at GenCon this year.

The trick is that it’s not a game you would normally whip out and get your group to try, because it is for exactly two players, an entirely interesting and largely unexplored gaming niche (ask Ping). But I was determined to get more people to give it a try, and some of my fellow gamers were a) curious and b) tired of hearing me rant what a great game it was, so we bit the bullet and got a bunch of folks together — six as it turns out, but any even number works. I explained the rules and then we split into pairs and played.

Three simultaneous Mars Colony games, all in the same room at the same time.

“So… you haven’t really done anything since the Council blew up.”*

The rules of Mars Colony, as written, are tremendously clear. Crystal clear. But this was me walking everyone through it verbally, explaining the concept and all the rules from scratch. The system isn’t complicated, but there are concrete mechanics that push the drama and must be understood for the game to work. Was I nervous? Was I braced for confusion and big disappointment? Oh yeah.

Keep in mind, one of our players had never gamed at all. One had played traditional games but no story games. Everyone else had a mix of game experience.

When you’re introducing people to a new game, you are usually in the game, so you can gauge how things are going, provide helpful hints if things are going off the rails, etc. In this case, not so much. I’m playing in my own game, but I’ve got one ear cocked to hear if the other players sound miserable, confused, or just plain bored.

“Let’s see if they all start chanting and calling my name…”

So given all that, what was the verdict? The red planet is made of win, and the gamers in that room rocked. When you overhear brand new players launching fascist regimes an hour into their first roleplaying game ever… well that’s a success in my book.

After everyone hit their last progress scenes and were ready for the endgame, Susan (our fabulous hostess) had the bright idea of doing the epilogue sequences one group at a time, so the whole room could hear how Kelly Perkins had fared in her efforts to save the colony. We did quick summaries of what the different Kelly’s were like, what the issues confronting the colony were, and the roller coaster ride that ensued. There were some glorious victories and some bitter defeats. Some games had both.

Right when we were first setting up, one of the new players asked something along the lines of “could you really play this game more than once,” meaning, once you’d played out saving (or failing to save) the colony, would it be interesting to do it again? Just going by how different every game I’ve played has been so far, and by how extremely different the three games we had in that room were, I’d say the answer is an unreserved yes.

In addition to just being, y’know, super-fun, it was also a great test run of my plan to have a big group of people play parallel games of Mars Colony at Go Play NW. Lessons learned, refinements brewing.

* yeah, literally blew up, like with bombs. Nice one, Caroline.

We have forks

Great moments in Mouse Guard. The patrol is welcomed to Darkwater after an arduous journey. Tired mice are tired, and hungry mice are hungry.

Hearty meals are arranged by the happy hosts.

player: mimes picking up food with his paws and nibbling on it
city-mouse: “We have forks.”
player: “I have a high Nature.”

This has been a great moment in Mouse Guard.