Designer: Michal Jagodzinksi
Time: 15-30 minutes
Times played: 4, with a copy I purchased
Game storage space in our house is nearing maximum capacity; it is getting harder and harder to find games we are willing to part with to make room for new stuff, but of course we still want the new stuff. So, when looking at a list of games available at Essen I was immediately attracted to the word “pocket” in the title of Pocket Mars. The box is indeed small, although not quite pocket-sized, and we decided to add it to our pile. It was, in fact, the first game I played at Essen, although technically it was played in the hotel next door.
Your goal in the game is to build an infrastructure that will allow you to send colonists to live on Mars.
Each player gets a spaceship card in their color as well as seven colonists. One colonist starts on the spaceship; the other six are hanging out on Earth waiting for a chance to board the ship and head off to the colonies on Mars. Your spaceship also has an energy track; you gain energy from some cards and you need energy to perform certain actions throughout the game.
There are five building cards that are placed in a row in the middle of the table; these building represent industries on Mars that are helping to develop the colony.
The deck of project cards is shuffled and each player gets four cards or you can use the variant where players draft cards. Each card has a top ability and a bottom ability. The top ability goes into effect when you play the card from your hand and the bottom ability gets triggered when you play the card on Mars. With that in mind you choose two of your cards to form your hand and 2 cards to be placed face-down in front of you as your prep module. You might play cards from your hand to your prep module in future rounds, but once a card is in your prep module it will not come back to your hand. The cards are face down; the color of the cards is still visible to all players, and a player may look at the cards in their prep module at any time.
The game takes place over several rounds. Each player gets one action per turn. You have several choices.
The first choice is to play a project card from your hand. Take the top action printed on the card.
The second choice is to play a card from your prep module. Take the card of your choice and play it face-up underneath the building of the matching color, covering any other card that may already be played there. If the card is a higher value than the previously-played card (which is the building the first time a card is played to a building) you may move a colonist to the designated space on the building. You then may trigger the bottom ability of the card and then may activate the special ability of the building. (Note – one building – the Construction site- does not have a space for colonists but otherwise works the same way).
The third choice is to play a card from another player’s prep module. You choose the card and turn it face up, playing it on the matching building. The player whose prep module the card came from may trigger the bottom ability and the active player may then activate the building’s special ability.
If you don’t want to any of these things you can also take a colonist from Earth onto your spaceship or discard a card from your hand or prep module to gain one energy.
At the end of a turn the active player checks to see if they have exactly 4 cards – 2 in their hand and 2 in their prep module. If they have more than 4 cards, they must discard cards from their hand. If they have fewer than 4 they draw up to 4; if the prep module doesn’t have two cards the player must put cards from their hand into the prep module until there are two. Other players then do the same in clockwise order.
The game ends as soon as a player has placed all seven of their colonists on Mars. Each player then scores
- two or four victory points for each colonist on Mars (depending on the building space they are on)
- two victory points for having at least one colonist on each of the four buildings with space for colonists
- three victory points for having at least four colonists in one building
- one point for having the highest energy level (ties are friendly).
The player with the most points wins; ties are broken in favor of the person with the most colonists on Mars.
There are also rules for a solo version of the game.
My Thoughts on the Game
The first time I played this game I did not enjoy it until towards the end. We had a hard time figuring out the correct rules and couldn’t seem to get a handle on what we were supposed to do. I think the fact that you could play cards from the other players’ prep modules wasn’t entirely clear to us – at least that was what was confusing to me, even though it is spelled out in the rules – and if you don’t at least sometimes play cards from the other players’ modules your choices seem very limited and it is much harder to use the building’s special abilities, which also drags the game out. Once I figured this out I enjoyed it much more. I think dealing out a few cards and demonstrating the difference between playing a card from your prep module and another player’s prep module would be a good idea when teaching this to new players; this seemed to help the group I taught it to a few weeks after my first play quite a bit.
After that first play my rating was much more in the neutral range; it seemed like just another card game. My subsequent plays have bumped it up to liking it. I like deciding where I am distributing the cards based on which powers I want to be able to use, and the mechanic of using another player’s card can help if your card draws do not benefit you. While you might have been planning to use a card another player took from you, your cards get refilled at the end of each player’s turn, so you always have a full complement of choices. Granted, it’s a random choice, but it still gives you options and if you hate them all you can take advantage of a building’s special ability by using another player’s card – and when someone take your card you get a benefit.
I also like this game for his length; playing with a group that already knew how to play got the game time down to 15 minutes, which makes this a good choice when you want a quick game that still requires a bit of strategy.
THOUGHTS OF THE OTHER OPINIONATED GAMERS
Patrick Brennan: This game surprised me on the upside, providing more interesting decisions than I was expecting on just reading the rules, and much of it is to do with the card interplay. You’re racing to move your cubes from Earth to your spaceship, and then from your spaceship to various buildings on Mars so as to gain VPs. This can be done using generic actions, or faster through card effects. Cards have a top effect which can be used from hand, and a bottom effect which can be used when you play it from your tableau against a building (which also provides the main means of getting your colonists onto buildings, other than directly through effects). Much of your game is spent trying to work out the best way to use the cards you draw, and consequently which of the multiple scoring avenues you wish to pursue. In a nice get-out, the game also provides the option of using another player’s card against a building, giving them the card effect, but you get the colonist (maybe) and the building’s effect. The action and effect variety means the game packs a pretty fair punch for its weight, which comes in neatly around the 30 minute mark, and the game does some interesting things in its mechanics and effect interactions, including referencing both the front and the backs of the cards. There seems to be a decent amount of luck involved in how much the cards you draw will help or not, especially as the game is shortish, and its nature will tend to have the VPs relatively clustered. But the luck feels acceptable for its weight, and I enjoyed the constant decision making on what cards to keep in hand and what to place in my tableau for their respective effects. I’ll be happy to pull this out again in future.
I love it!:
I like it.: Tery, Patrick Brennan
Not for Me: