A to Z Gaming: Mars Horizon: Blast Off!

Mars Horizon

We ran space agencies in an effort to be the first to land a crewed Mars mission in Mars Horizon: Blast Off, the next game in our A-Z game shelf play-through.

Basic Info: Mars Horizon: Blast Off!
Players: 1-4
Time: 60-90 Minutes
Designers: Steve Martin, Tomas Rawlings
Artists: Stuart Griffin
Publisher: Auroch Digital

In Mars Horizon: Blast Off! players take on the role of competing space agencies developing rockets and launching missions in an effort to be the first to successfully send a crewed mission to Mars. Players build up their agency with facilities, develop blueprints for rockets, and attempt to launch increasingly difficult missions that include orbiting the planet, landing astronauts on the moon and ultimately sending humans to Mars. The first to successfully launch a crewed Mars mission wins this space race.

The game is set up by placing the Era I milestones in the center of the play area. The agency cards are sorted with the Era II cards set aside; the remaining agency cards are shuffled and a market of eight cards laid out. The various tokens — money, science, and blueprints — and the dice are placed within reach of all players. The launch deck is also shuffled and placed near the play area. Each player takes a headquarters card, a helper card, tokens of their color, four coins and three science.

On a player’s turn they can either claim a card, attempt a launch, or pass. To claim a card from the market, the player pays the science or coins required. If the card is a building, they place it next to their HQ card. The buildings generally grant the player some kind of bonus — a discount on future cards, additional reliability for different rockets or missions, or bonus money for successful launches, etc. If the card is a diplomacy or operations card card, it is resolved and discarded. Rocket cards are placed next to their HQ with a blueprint on it — the rocket is just a design until it has successfully launched.

To attempt a launch, the player chooses a mission from the market, one of the milestones that has been previously completed, or the next milestone that has not been completed by any player. Then they choose a launch vehicle that has the right capacity for the chosen mission or milestone. This can be one of their own rockets — previously launched or not — or one of the other players’ previously-launched vehicle. (As soon as a rocket is launched, the blueprint token comes off, and it is fair game for other players to use.) They pay the launch cost, plus a coin to the rocket’s owner if it isn’t their own. They can also play some prestige (which they get from successful launches and some diplomacy cards) to boost the launch reliability.

Next, they shuffle the launch deck and reveal three cards, resolving each one in turn. These can add complications to the launch, add reliability, or provide a reward for a successful launch. It is possible that the launch will fail at this point if the card-draw is unlucky. Assuming the launch moves forward, the player then rolls the two dice and takes the sum of the dice plus any reliability bonuses and compares the total to that required for the mission or milestone. If successful, the player takes the listed bonus (usually prestige, science and/or coins). If unsuccessful the player takes a science — since learning still takes place even when a launch is unsuccessful.

After taking their card or attempting a launch, the player takes income — 2 coins or 2 science. If the player passed they still collect income, but it is doubled (so 4 coins or 4 science, instead).

Once all of the Era I milestones have been completed, the agency cards are collected from the market, deck, and players’ hands and all of the Era I agency cards are pulled out. The Era II cards are shuffled together with 10 non-Era cards and a new market is laid out. In addition, the Era II milestones are added below the Era I milestones. (Players can still attempt repeat missions for the Era I milestones for rewards.)

The second era is played the same as the first, and the first player to complete the final Era II mission (a crewed mission to Mars) wins the game.

I kickstarted this game because…well, because I work at a NASA center and was drawn to the theme of running a space agency. Plus the game was developed in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA), and I wanted to see how it came out. I have a number of educational games that were developed by a variety of NASA teams, and…they’re not great. Of course, for this game, ESA actually partnered with a game-development company, and it shows.

We went in expecting this to be terrible, but it was good family-weight game. We felt like it overstayed its welcome a little bit, but overall it wasn’t bad. It was a good tableau-builder where you were trying to make sure that you had the right cards and bonuses so that your launches would succeed for most dice-rolls.

How is it as a 2-player game? It was fine as a 2-player game. We’ve only played with 2 players, so I can’t compare to how it would play with more. I fear that it would make the game longer, which isn’t great, since it already overstayed its welcome a bit. However, with more players, there will likely be more rockets on the table, so maybe it won’t slow things down too much.

How about the art and component quality? The cards were a little cheap feeling, but the art and iconography was fairly clear. The rulebook, though, needed some definite tightening up.

Will this stay in my collection? For now it’ll stay; though I’m not sure it will be a permanent resident.

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