App Review: Mars Needs Mechanics

Mars Needs Mechanics is a boardgame by Ben Rosset that came out from Nevermore Games (by way of Kickstarter) last year. I’ve not played the physical version, but there’s now an iPhone version that its developer, Josh Edwards, was kind enough to give me a promo code for. I’ve played it several times now and can report back on it.

First, the game itself. The game describes itself thusly: “Starting the game with only 30 cogs (currency), players will utilize unique game mechanisms that emphasize timing to collect sets of components and build steampunk mechanisms aimed at earning even more cogs.” That said, it’s not exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a sort of stock market game, where you’re trying to buy components at a low cost and sell them at a high cost. There are seven such components, and the way the market works is pretty innovative. They start out each costing 5 cogs, and randomly arranged in a row. Each time a component is bought by a player, the token for that component moves to the front of the row, pushing everyone else back. When all the players pass, the three components at the front will go up in value by 1 cog, and the three in back go down by 1 cog (the middle one keeps its price). So merely investing will help to raise the price, but if you invest too soon it may get pushed out of the front three and not go up after all. On the other hand, if you pass to try to postpone your buy, the round could end before you get a chance to make the purchase. So this gaming of the market is the heart of the game, and everything else is pretty much fluff.

In fact, the “steampunk mechanisms” you can build seem to be completely unnecessary. One of them can get you somewhat big bucks if it’s built, but most offer small benefits that don’t seem to be worth the cost to make them. I’ll talk more about them in a moment.

Mars Needs Mechanics is a game that is okay, not terrible or great. Its market mechanism is kind of neat, but there’s not much hanging on it, and since there’s no difference in the components, I can’t imagine playing this over and over. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for an iOS game, though, as the ability to play a game anywhere against an AI or other folks can give more life to a game that might not see as much if you had to physically carry it around and set it up (I’m looking at you, Ascension.)

So how does the iPhone app handle the game? First off, it looks great, even at 2x size on my iPad. The card art is the same as that in the physical game and it looks nice. Information is presented clearly (for the most part) and intuitively. There’s a tutorial that teaches you how to play, and it does an okay job, but I still wasn’t sure about a couple of things and wanted to read the actual rules, which are not included (I ended up downloading them from here.)

As in the board game, the mechanisms seem kind of tacked on and it’s easy in the iPhone game to forget they’re even there. I never even looked at them after the first couple of plays and was surprised when an AI used one. (In fact, there’s an option to remove them from the game altogether.)

Speaking of AI, there is only one level of AI and it’s not very good. Not only have I not lost a game since my second one, it’s been a blowout nearly every time. One time the AI bought itself down to one cog and never sold anything for the rest of the game. Asynchronous multiplayer would be a little tedious for this game, but real-time multiplayer would be a big bonus (there is same-device multiplayer) since the AI is pretty easy to beat.

Another big help would be an “Undo” or at least confirmation before you do something dumb. A couple times I selected cards to sell but hit “Done” instead of “Sell”, ending my sell turn and not getting cogs for them. At the very least the app should ask if you’re sure you don’t want to sell if you have salable items and aren’t selling any and especially if you’ve selected salable items but didn’t sell them.

As an app the game is a nice enough time-waster, and if you have an opponent at hand it’s not a bad game. At the very least it’s an inexpensive chance to try out a game that you, like I, might not have known about.

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