Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mars Needs Steam Update

Moving into my new place has messed up my schedule, so I'm way past due for the promised update on Mars Needs Steam. Ah well, better late than never, etc. The picture is not the Mars Needs Steam cover, but is by Talon Dunning who is the artists doing the actual cover art for the game, so it will give you a nice idea of the general feel.

I ran Mars Needs Steam at CelestiCon in San Francisco and it was a big hit -- a little to my surprise, as we had to improvise terrain and troops pretty much at the last minute, and had very minimalist forces for each side. That we were able to do so was due to the generosity for a number of players and game masters in the area. More importantly, it provided a nice test of just the core game system itself, and that's what the players responded so enthusiastically to.

What I set out to do was have an adventure game on the table. "Adventure game" has broad as well as narrow meanings, so to be clear I wanted a miniatures game with strong role-playing elements and an element of surprise and discovery which went beyond a standard war game. That said, I also wanted its structure to be familiar as a wargame and playable as such and, most importantly, I wanted it playable without a referee, In other words, the game should not require a referee to invent an elaborate scenario with a lot of referee-generated surprises. Ideally, two players should be able to sit down, set up a gaming table, put their troops on it, and play -- say in a game store or in one of their gaming rooms -- on short notice and with a minimum of preparation.

The core "adventure" mechanism I used was borrowed from my pals Glenn Kidd and Frank "Don Franko" Sciuli; they developed it for use in their pulp game White Pearl, Black Heart, which they have been running for over a year at the Historical Miniature Gaming Society conventions on the US east coast. It involves a deck of event (I call them Wonder Cards) cards and pre-located event locations. As part of setting up the game, players take turns putting down event locations, marked with an exotic plant, small pice of ruined monument, pile of shining crystals -- whatever handy but interesting-looking marker the players have. During the game, each time a player's figure reached one of these event locations, they turn an event card and it takes effect immediately.

The wonder cards include attacks by wild animals (one of the reasons I'm glad Highlander Studios is doing animals), encounters with local Martians, exotic plants (which may p[rove dangerous as well), artifacts of the vanished Martian civilization, genuine treasure, a lost explorer or Martian princess, etc. All of them have a point value. In addition, the dangerous ones will attack and players have to overcome them to gain the points.

Where the role-playing bit comes in is with the characters available to a player/party. Usually a group will have two or three special characters which affect the types of military units the party can have, but they also may have skills useful in dealing with wonders/encounters. Characters with Animal Lore have a better chance of surprising wild animals, as opposed to the wild animals attacking the party first from ambush. Characters with Botany skill have better luck with exotic plants, and they also receive more victory points for finding those sorts of cards. Archaeologists receive more points for artifacts, a native guide can turn a hostile Martian native encounter into a potential additional friendly unit, etc.

Of course, it is also a competitive war game, so in addition to the encounters, players have to deal with their opponents, and you gain points for beating enemy units as well.

The scenario I ran had a party of British against a party of Italians (the Victorian era troops available were twenty Indian Army infantry and about twenty-five Italian Bersaglieri). The Italians had two army officers, a naturalist, and an archaeologist. The British had an army officer, a hunter, a spy, and a naturalist (as I recall). The spy is an interesting character. At on point during the game one soldier (not a character) of the enemy changes sides, usually with exciting effect.

That was about all there was to the game I ran, and everyone had a great time -- the cries of anguish and hoots of excitement drew a small crowd of onlookers as well. What that game did not have, which the game itself will, was exotic Steampunk vehicles and weapons. That's coming next.

The game uses point-based military units, so both armies are balanced on points. The characters chosen allow you access to different types of units, but no more points, so you still have tp pick and choose. A Mechanic gets access to ground vehicles, an Aerial Mechanic to flyers, and an inventor lets you design your own exotic vehicle or weapon. The vehicle and weapon design rules are simple and provide the game point costs of the various characteristics of vehicles and weapons -- sort of like a shopping lost with prices attached. It's a little more involved than that, but not much.

The game is obviously set in the Space: 1889 universe, but there is no reason you cannot expand it beyond that. The vehicle and weapon design systems are open-ended, and if you can describe the game effects of a weapon, you can determine its point value. By the same token, the game's Wonder Cards are created with a Martian background, but I'm sure I'll be doing expansions (cards and army lists) for Venus, Luna, and Earth -- different parts of Earth probably.


  1. Sounds like mars Needs Steam is shaping up nicely, Frank. Can't wait to play.

  2. Rod, can't wait to see more soldiers and adventurers. (Hint, hint)

  3. I've been in the mold making queue for three weeks now. I'll have 5 product codes ready when they are done.

    I'm working on Hill Martians now for early October. I hope to have these for the Fall In game. Otherwise it may become a 28mm game instead of 15mm.

  4. Hey! I just discovered this blog. I was in your event, on the British side. I was playing the unit headed up by the Hunter.

    Been wanting to have a chance to give some feedback. It was an excellent game, lots of fun and very tactically interesting. I am a big fan of skirmish-level miniatures games with a level of story or campaign running through it; things like Necromunda or Infinity.

    Some constructive criticisms: The Wonder Cards deck seemed a bit to arbitrary. The fact that the type of "point of interest" you encountered had no influence on what popped out was a bit of a let-down. You were just as likely to have a tribe of Martian natives pop out of a treasure chest as you were to encounter an exotic artifact while walking through a Ruin. The net effect of this is that the characters' skills were effectively useless. There was no point sending an Archaeologist to investigate ruins, as the odds of his skills being relevant to that were exactly the same as if he was to check out a pile of shining crystals. Likewise, most of the WonderCard effects were instant-action, BOOM and then resolved, so there was no point dispatching a character with relevant skills to that part of the battlefield.

    I would suggest replacing the WonderCard deck with a table of possible outcomes for each site that the players would roll on. Therefore you're more likely to encounter outcomes that are relevant to the type of point of interest, and therefore it would make more sense to send the Archaeologist to the ruins, the Geologist to the weird outcrop of crystals, and the Hunter deep into the jungle. Of course, there should be some chance, however small, that something truly bizzarre will occur. But allowing the players the opportunity to deploy their characters more effectively will add a strategic element that makes gameplay more satisfying, in my opinion.

  5. Michael,

    Glad you enjoyed the game and thanks for the feedback. We're still fine-tuning the cards and how to use tham, and may make some more changes. I'll tyell you, though, that I'm constitutionally against looking things like this up on a table, for a bunch of reasons. I'm not sure which convention you played at -- we've run it a bunch of times and every time the cards and their use have changed a bit. As things stand now there is at least some association of some wonder (treasure) cards with some classes of hazards, and we may do more of that.