Surviving Mars

I have a soft spot for city sims, in particular when the settings are a large step away from typical urban settings. I have an even softer sport for incremental builders (Dyson Sphere Project is superb). There’s just something about logistical planning that I enjoy… fancy that. Surviving Mars is a mix of both genres, and in order to merge them, both are diluted.

The setting is simple enough, you’re sponsored and given a rocket ship with some bits that can be used to establish a martian colony. In true red planet fashion, the world is inhospitable and you need to balance restocking from Earth and discovering elements to become self-sufficient. The first “larger step” is building a dome for colonists, which is where the city sim portion comes about.

Colonists have specializations that improve performance in certain tasks, and diminish them when doing something else. There are social factors to ensure they stay happy and don’t go bonkers. They can have kids, go to school, and have perks/flaws that impact their behavior. They also die. See, children in space can only work at a given scale. They take a lot of resources and take a very long time to mature to be “useful” when in a survival mode.

And this is the logistics piece. Mars has a ton of resources to be discovered. Collecting them is very painful. Surface elements are sparse, and most of the elements require you to have a specialized building. Buildings that can only be staffed by people. People who can only live in domes. Domes which are expensive to build and maintain, and have a very limited range. It makes it so that the cost to harvest is often well superior of what you can collect.

Now, there are some solutions to this problem, but nearly all of them are locked behind research, which appears to have some amount of RNG in availability, as well as a significant time investment. Breatkthroughs are a type of research that are unlocked through random events and is completely gamebreaking as it removes the need for people. In the “logic” part of the game, you can also create bionic folks, who eat/sleep, but can’t die of old age. If I can create that, how in the world can I not automate mining?

The logistical challenge of the mid-game is often a frustrating point in many games, as it should be a struggle to balance things while working to add automation. Frostpunk is probably the best example of this mindset, where you’re always on the edge of failure, but the hope of automating one small step has a huge payoff. DSP’s mid-game has undergone a lot of tweaks in early access, and is in a really good spot now – the challenge is moving from a planetary scale to a solar system scale.

Surviving Mars (the base game, I have yet to try the DLC) has a rather large gap in the middle portion where automation should be the goal, yet the carrots to achieve this is hidden behind RNG. I enjoy the balancing of resources, both harvesting and refining. The game just puts a massive hurdle in scaling that system where the goal of colonizing Mars is stalled due to the inability to optimize. Contextually, I understand why research is hidden and breakthroughs are so powerful… that’s the whole point of exploration. Mechanically, the game portion suffers from the RNG in scientific progress and direction. Never to a point of critical failure, but in a frustrating lens.

Domes offer a nuanced tweak, where you can prefer specialists and then build accordingly. Space is limited in domes, meaning you need to build another one. The initial and upkeep costs make that a serious investment. Then the people need food, which is a practical challenge. You reach a power wall, where a single building may require 50 and your best tool only provides 5. The thought process here is to build a housing dome, then attach other specialist domes for specific production in the others. A hub and spoke model is theoretically the best path (and what, you know, NASA wants). The practical implications are that you will need multiples of these as mining requires a hub well away from the main cluster, which needs power/water/food/housing. The net effect is that you are better building core infrastructure and then routing it all over the map – with redundant components so that if they are damaged everyone doesn’t die in a half-turn.

And don’t get me started on both the need and pace of research. Argh!!

Boiled down, the game is about 10 hours longer than it needs to be. I ended up setting the speed to maximum (triple time?) and just stepping away for a while. Give me a problem and the tools to solve it.

This comes off as negative, but it’s more an articulation of frustration from the logistics portion. I like the art, I like the challenge of exploring a different planet, the idea that you could be on the edge of something new. There are some neat ideas here, and it would be interesting what would happen if the mechanical components of the genre could better fit the story. And I am very willing to accept that I have simply not cracked the nut of this puzzle.

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