18 September 2015 | Mission: Red Planet

Preparation for Launch

Game Developer Steve Kimball on Mission: Red Planet


Designed by Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti, Mission: Red Planet pits players against each other in a fierce and fast-paced race to harvest the incredible natural resources of Mars. Our new edition doesn’t just refresh the game’s steampunk aesthetic with new art and graphic design, it also streamlined the mechanics. Our Board Game Manager, Steve Kimball, worked with the game’s original designers to fine-tune every aspect of the game. In today’s preview, he discusses some of the changes made through that collaboration. In addition, you can now download the game's rules from the support section of the Mission: Red Planet minisite.

Here’s Steve:

When I heard that we picked up Mission: Red Planet, and that I would have the chance to personally work with Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti (aka Bruno2), I was obviously stoked. Mission: Red Planet had been on my radar for years, but as yet I had not been able to try it for myself because the game was so difficult to find and selling for such high prices on the secondary market. Generally, before playing a game that we intend to publish for the first time, I prefer to take stock of the components. From this, I create instinctual expectations going into the game, which are often quite insightful when compared to my post-game observations. With Mission: Red Planet, it was no different.

Initial Ideas

Upon unboxing the game, I immediately noticed a few things I wanted to update in our new version. First, I wanted the player pieces to be sculpted and representative instead of abstract, although back then I wasn’t sure what form the sculpt should take—should it represent a drilling/mining machine, an astronaut, or something else? In the end, I was especially pleased with the astronaut figure included in the final game.

Second, I wanted to expand the game’s player count. Including a two-player variant was obvious, what with Bruno Cathala’s proven two-player-variant track record. Going up to six players required a little more effort, but I felt it was extremely important. A signature design element of Bruno Faidutti is to include a framework for subtle, dynamic player interaction (bluffing, misdirection, outguessing, politicking, etc.). His games can really reach a new level when players realize they are not only playing the game itself, but also “playing the other players.” Mission: Red Planet is no exception—the more, the merrier, and the richer the player interaction. Additionally, the number of games that scale up to five players is vast, but that number considerably drops off for six players. Expanding the player count really was a no-brainer.

I quite enjoyed my first playthrough of the original game (no, I didn’t win, but I came in second!). The notes I took back to my desk were few: some event cards had too much variance or did not scale well with player counts, the Soldier seemed underutilized, and the arrangement of zones on the board appeared rather symmetrical and plain. Sure enough, when I first spoke with the Brunos about the project, our observations were well aligned.

A Whole New Board

The first prototype I received from the Brunos addressed the rather static rectangular board layout of the original. Beyond introducing more organic shapes and modified adjacencies, which made the board much more dynamic than the previous version, they yanked the Utopia zone from the planet, renamed it Phobos, and kicked it into orbit. In fact, this first prototype board they showed me is essentially the board that made it into the final game.

Playing a game with the prototype board and original launchpad in Amiens, France, in March, 2014.

Another key change is the board’s round shape. If you search for early marketing photos of the Asmodee game, you’ll find that the Brunos originally intended the game to have a round board. I mean, why wouldn’t they? Thematically, it actually looks like a planet; mechanically, it would be clearer to see which discovery cards were assigned to which zone. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult (and costly) to manufacture a board with no right angles. Then it struck me—we could go with a puzzle-cut board that is laid out on the punchboard in four separate quadrants. From there, all we needed was two more separate pieces for Phobos and the Lost in Space Memorial, and the board was complete.

The other part of “the board” I haven’t mentioned yet was the launchpad. In the previous version, the launchpad had its own board that showed transparent silhouettes of docked ships and launched ships. To maximize punchboard efficiency and not monopolize table space, I asked graphic designer Sam Shimota to design the docks to be puzzle-cut. This way, during setup, players only need to fit together as many docks as the player count calls for, keeping the rules simple: refill all empty docks.

As we listened to feedback from players of the original game, including many whom we used as playtesters, they agreed that the original cardboard ships were not easy to shuffle, and many had started to show wear. We believed that the ships were best executed as cards, so Sam’s job was to craft the ship cards and launchpad in such a way as to clearly convey docked vs launched. To be honest, Sam absolutely nailed it. The ship cards slide under the punch when docked, so that the punch covers the engine exhaust and shows an open hatch with a staircase leading up to it (for astronauts to board). When slid away from the dock, the uncovered card shows a closed hatch and the ship in flight, with engine exhaust pumping out the aft, clearly indicating that the ship has launched.

It’s the Little Things, Really

The prototype that Bruno2 delivered was virtually a finished game. As such, I was able to devote a good amount of attention and playtester focus to the small details. For example, several early playtest groups forgot about the ice majority bonus during final scoring. The ice majority bonus is more or less a mission that all players can achieve (if multiple players have the most, then they split the points), so we tweaked the mission card template, called it the “Ice Monopoly" global mission, and voila! Now this very important rule for final scoring sits out in the play area and stares at you throughout the game.

Another issue that arose was the order and timing of game effects after round 10. The original launchpad board showed a red numeral for which rounds generated point tokens (rounds 5, 8, and 10). The trouble was that, due to when discoveries are revealed, the round 10 scoring isn’t intended to function quite like the other two. I opted to go with a more robust “round tracker” of sorts to put this information at the players’ fingertips. You can see the final results—we gave discoveries their own phase instead of tying them to the rounds themselves, and the dots of each production phase visually indicate how many point tokens are generated. Icons on the discovery and action cards matching those on the round tracker make it crystal clear when exactly they take effect.

Everything in Its Right Place

After playing the game for the first time, one of my co-workers asked me what I thought. I distinctly remember my response: “It’s like Citadels on steroids.” I still feel that way. It has good pacing and very little downtime. The event cards reward clever planning as well as ensure some endgame uncertainty, and the scoring gradually ramps up to make sure the game’s climax arrives in round 10—at the end. I hope that all of you enjoy playing Mission: Red Planet as much as Bruno Cathala, Bruno Faidutti, and I enjoyed bringing it back to life!

Thank you, Steve! 

The only way to discover what riches Mars truly holds is to send an expedition there yourself. It’s time to start training your astronauts, shaping your directives, and preparing to launch.

Download the rules from the Mission: Red Planet minisite and pre-order the game from your local retailer today! 

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