Colony-planning games cleave to a set of immutable principles. They begin with a spaceship landing on a strange new world. A couple of building units tumble onto the surface, seeking out natural resources with which to craft machines and constructions that provide sustenance.
Surviving Mars is one such strategy game. Made by the developers of the Tropico series, it presents itself as another SimCity-in-space. But familiar beginnings belie something more exotic and alien.
We’ll get to that in a while. First, let’s gaze across the grim acres of shale and scoria, and take our first steps.
Oxygen, water, shelter and food are the first priorities. In Surviving Mars, water is held underground, in rare pockets of ice. We mine these using one of many machines, which are built from metal and concrete (which are also mined). These devices are supported by networks of power stations, cables, pipes and air filters, which act as the infrastructure for the fun stuff: biodomes.
These house our humans, who are set to work (you guessed it) mining more stuff, which they need to build houses, farms, schools, hospitals, diners and drinking dens. Factories take the raw materials and craft them into new resources, which are used to build ever more useful structures.
While all this is going on, we search the planet for its secrets, including scientific discoveries that supercharge a vast, baroque tech tree.
The planet is also home to valuable metals that we tear from the ground, and sell back to our cousins on Earth. Without this high-end income, the colony will not survive. But it takes a while to get to a place where Mars is a going concern. In the meantime, we’re able to send back to Earth for shuttles that bring new settlers, machines and even (at vast expense) core resources we’ve failed to accumulate natively.
All this makes for a compelling, if familiar, one-more-turn achievement loop. As soon as one task is pleasingly resolved, another shows up to take its place. Buildings are in constant need of repair, especially if they are hit by a meteor or are inundated in a dust storm, both of which are common hazards.
The units and buildings are pretty creations, with animations that demand close inspection and delightful, humorous little touches.
Unlike many Earthbound metropolitan-planning games, Surviving Mars does not concern itself much with neighborhood zoning, aesthetics or even urban sprawl. Cities tend to look like building sites, a confusing tangle of cables, waste and storage dumps.
Each settlement is dependent on limited and finite resources, which are a long distance from the next set of resources.
Planning requires an understanding of distance and time. Because it takes a long while, and a lot of work, to start up new settlements. And this is where Surviving Mars gets interesting.
I’ve found in many such games that the early joy of crafting a personal world can often give way to a chorelike mid-adventure churn of upgrades and expansion, leading to late-game abundance, drudgery and abandonment.
But this careful calibration of Mars as a flinty place of hard knocks makes the later game pleasingly challenging. Narrative difficulties, such as alien artifacts and tough political decisions, add to the drama. But the real stars here are the spaces between settlements, and the difficulties therein.
In Surviving Mars, a well-oiled settlement is usually a sign of impending disaster. Even a hint of abundance is an urgent call to move on, to find the next big strike.
Founding a second or third outpost carries all the planning, forethought and second-guessing of a major military campaign. But nothing can be built without assiduous attention to the stuff that’s already working. In essence, this is a plate-spinning game, in which you lose everything when you take your eye off the one resource you thought was doing just fine.
In many games, this collapse-by-design setup can feel artificial and maddening. Designers of big, complicated strategy games are sometimes unable to pull their players clear of the gravity of built-in fail states. Once things start to go wrong, the misery can feel almost irreversible. Surviving Mars is smart enough to put us in lots of bad positions, but there’s usually a way out.
Micromanagement is one way to stay clear of apocalypse. Much of the grunt work is done by drones, which zip around doing mostly what they are supposed to do. When they’re well-stocked with resources, they hum with symphonic efficiency.
The humans, by contrast, are less obliging. Not only do they require water, food and shelter, they also demand entertainment, education and luxuries. Sometimes, building them a pub will do the trick, but it’s also worth checking in on them individually, just to make sure they’re in the right profession, or they’re not contemplating suicide.
Procreation is difficult, requiring massive investment in hospitals, schools and universities. So settlers who become old and frail, or who die, must be replaced with expensive Earthlings. But it all adds up to a vast building and management spree that feels less like a game, and more like a creative project.
All of Surviving Mars’ interlocking systems make for an arresting time sink that merges logic, forethought, psychology and experimentation. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys losing yourself in high stakes strategy, building and planning, Surviving Mars is worth a look.