[Mars Colony] The Man Out of Time

Started by Eero Tuovinen, February 02, 2012, 12:57:00 PM

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Eero Tuovinen

Maracon is a great gaming convention for me, being as how it's small enough to ensure that I don't work all through it. This time around it was small enough, in fact, that we ended up playing a game of Mars Colony with my friend Sami Koponen.

Mars Colony has a great subject matter: in the not too distant future, a struggling colony has been started in Mars by a conclave of Earth nations. The colony is, however, beset by several problems that threaten its viability. To save the colony, the Earth Coalition has sent up a super consultant, a somewhat apolitical expert by the name of Kelly Perkins. Kelly has nine turns to turn the colony's problems around. The topic is near and dear to my heart, as science fiction has long been one of my great fancies.

It didn't take much for us to swap Kelly for Pekka Haavisto, a Finnish politician currently running for President here in Finland. Both Sami and myself are Haavisto supporters (although in my case it's mostly a matter of settling for the least evil), but mostly the idea resonated because Haavisto is a pretty progressive figure, and it would be interesting to see how he'd resolve the problems of the colony.

I won the roll for who got to play the Savior, so I got to characterize our Man Out of Time. I established a succint backstory for our man, involving an extensive career in African development politics and cryogenic freezing. 150 years later Haavisto is a bit out at sea regarding the issues of the day, and he has yet to realize that the Blue Party he nominally belongs to has drifted quite far from the Green League he began with in the 20th century.

Regarding our political set-up, the Blue Party is dominant in Haavisto's bleak future: it's based primarily on the National Coalition Party of Finland, which basically makes it the big money party of Mars politics. The Blue Party is strong on Earth as well, but the other parties like the Yellow Party (Christian Democrats), Red Party (Pirate Party) and the Green Party (Green League) are influential as well, while they're strictly fringe concerns up in the colony. (The reason for why Haavisto has ended up as a Blue Party politician despite his green background involves a sell-out by the original Green League in between the present and the future - Haavisto was rejuvenated on the Blue Party's docket, basically, so he's expected to be their man.)

Our initial governmental concerns (which are selected by the players from among their real-world political concerns) were "rulership of fools" and "treatment of indigenous peoples". The former showed up in a thematic way, in how ineffectual and short-sighted all the bureaucrats of the colony tended to be. The latter inspired a major plot point: our Mars Colony was set up in two stages, with initial exploration and colonization by fringe libertarian fanatics who homesteaded all over the Hellas plains. The later colony proper, with a biodome, was built largely due to social impetus about a generation later, supposedly to relieve the poor Martian homesteaders from their deprivations. In practice the colony has since developed into an ill-maintained exotic resort for Earth plutocrats, with the main dome nearing breaking point and smaller private domes sprouting up as demand for extra-jurisdictional elite resort locations increases.

In Mars Colony the players select three initial challenges the colony is facing, challenges that the Savior is supposed to overcome and fix so the colony may thrive. We chose "Dust" simply for the atmosphere, "The Native Population" to represent the ongoing conflict of interests between the first-wave homesteaders and the later colonists, and thirdly, "Education", understood in the context of the emerging feudalism spiralling out of control on a Mars increasingly ruled by the plutocratic elite.

Now, this isn't obvious from reading the game, but after playing I'd have to say that the point of Mars Colony is largely in the choice of issues and how the issues then interconnect and relate to each other and the players' understanding of the state of the colony. The process of the game does not actually care about whether given issues are resolved or not - the important thing in the process is in the conclusions the players make about the significance of the issues. I'll demonstrate by describing how the above issues clicked for us in playing the game:

Dust came up first, as it was presented by the Mayor's office as the primary problem of the colony to Pekka Haavisto. The way Sami spun it, the issue with Martian microparticle storms was that the dust continuously got into any and all equipment and clogged everything, causing inordinate maintenance burden on the colony and forcing the administration to choose between air quality and staying within budgetary limits. Haavisto reacted to this severely after seeing the shape the main dome was in, advicing the dismantling of the entire main colony dome in favour of personal breathing apparati and pressurized homes - Haavisto had just come to the colony and didn't realize at the time (and neither did we) that his cynical "spend less" solution exactly mirrored the homesteading lifestyle of the first wave colonists. Needless to say, Haavisto's solution was promptly refused and ridiculed savagely by everybody from news media down - the biodome New Athens (the name of the dome) was the very heart of the colony, the very symbol of it all.

Natives, or first wave colonists anyway, were from the start an issue that interested Haavisto much more than mundane clogging filters. His first attempts at getting into a grassroots routine and learning to know the locals and their lifestyle failed spectacularly as he was kidnapped by rogue 'steaders, which forced the colony administration to get him out in a rather embarrassing manner. However, Haavisto was not dismayed by this: from early on he realized that the socio-economic balance of the colony pivots on the mining, refinery and small industry of the homesteaders, while the colony itself was dangerously dependent on its resort service industry (read: poverty-level exploitation of naïve and powerless dome-dwellers participating in a factory town economy). As Haavisto settled on his consultancy and spoke consistently for homesteader interests in colony council and media, the trust in his intentions improved among the 'steaders as well. However, insofar as Haavisto was concerned, the true solution to the issue would have to come from inside the biodome.

Education was an interesting problem in that the only person in the colony who perceived it as a problem was Pekka Haavisto himself: Haavisto was appalled by the disintegrating civic society within the Athens dome. The Mars Colony had from the beginning been a devilish bargain between charity interests towards the independent 'steaders and big money tax haven operations; the nature of the colony had ended up encouraging immigration on a least-ability basis, as most colonists came to Mars on ostensible 5 or 10-year contracts to work unskilled jobs in the local service industry, waiting hand a foot on the rich elite making their seasonal jaunts to a resort quickly developing into the most lawless and decadent spot in the entire solar system. Martians were in increasing numbers becoming uneducated, helpless serfs who were not in control of their personal finances, not to speak of the matters of colony governance.

The way things went down in practice was that Haavisto outright failed his first four attempts (out of nine, as mandated by the game) at solving anything at all - he was derided and laughed at for his radical ideas by a colony entirely too comfortable with the way things were shaping out. Attempts at dismantling the unsustainable biodome, getting into dialogue with 'steader spokesmen, breaking up the news network monopolies - they all failed spectacularly, starkly underlining how out of touch Haavisto was in this new century. Mars Colony allows the Savior to cover up his failures to make seeming progress on important issues, but I didn't want to stoop to that in the first half of the game, especially as I never could collect more than 5-8 resolution points before going bust.

Around the middle of the game Pekka Haavisto was pretty despaired and out of sorts with his career, convinced that an old man like him could not resolve anything at all in a modern political atmosphere. On the other hand, we'd gotten some basic discussion of the issue under our belts, and I'd developed Haavisto's stance on the outlying issues: he was convinced to abandon the entire issue of life-support logistics (what he was originally brought in to solve) as he realized that his remaining term in office would never allow him to address that in any real way. Instead, Haavisto took the stance that all of the colony's problems derived from the lack of social cohesion within the colony - it would take a people's uprising, essentially, to redo the dysfunctional socio-economical foundation of the colony into something that would be able to address the 'steader issues in a non-oppressive manner and stop the re-emergence of feudalism that Haavisto was dreading in a way only a 20th century man could.

Considering that I had four points in the contempt pool at this point, and Haavisto would be ousted from office early if it ever hit five points, I had him go all in on the two key issues as he saw them: Haavisto published a frank video diary to the entire colony using non-authorized media outlets, discussing his anger and frustration with the corrupt Blue Party government of the colony and the dreaded consequences should the one-sided policies on 'steader issues and plutocratic practices in colony management continue to be perpetuated. This was, obviously, a suicidal political move, but I figured that at least Haavisto would get to say his piece before losing his Party Licence and political mandate. However, this time the dice were with me, and I managed to take in 22 points, which we split in half between the Education and Native issues (not strictly by the book there, but we didn't see the harm, and it made the most sense). Haavisto was clearly on the upswing now, as his political masters coughed with embarrassment at how well Haavisto painted the situation for the masses.

The next few turns saw a rather complete reversal of Haavisto's early term: I actually succeeded in solving the political awareness problems of the colony, waking people up and dragging the Education issue over the 40 point threshold required for permanent recovery. The score-counting you do for the issues in this game doesn't actually mean much, which emphasizes the importance of the 20 and 40 point thresholds quite a bit: we took it as incontrovertible rule that fiction must conform to those points when they're reached, which is not so obvious when you remember that most of the rules in this game are more like suggestions. The corporatist news monopoly got broken, and Haavisto's 20th century mix of nationalist and socialist ideas was well received by the populace, who had clearly gotten fed up by the increasingly tenuous legal basis of the contract slavery they were subjected to in the colony. Haavisto did try to gently steer for an outright national awakening and a declaration of independence, but the most he could get in the end was an unilateral socialization of the resort domes, to be reorganized on a co-operative basis, sort of like a service industry kibbutz, with full financial and managerial rights shared by the owner-workers. (No doubt a less than ideal solution commercially - less market for a decent resort than the sort of phantasmagoric cyberpunk flesh pit that was developed under the old management.)

The last few turns of the game had hinted at a homesteader uprising, and on the last turn we did actually get one. Pekka Haavisto rose to the occasion, ending the immediate bloodshed and negotiating a truce between the colony government in the middle of its own upheaval and the disparate 'steader terrorists. In the process he also handily took the Native issue over 40 points, ending up with a lasting harmony between the different lifestyles of the 'dome and the 'steads.

The epilogue is the pay-off in this game, as it becomes clear that the score-counting is not the important thing: after playing through the process we understand at least a bit about what each of the colony's problems means, and therefore we understand the in-fiction consequences of failure or success on each point. I found this interesting, as numerically Pekka Haavisto's success was mixed (two issues solved, one ignored entirely), but in narrative terms it was a pretty clear triumph, largely due to the way Haavisto himself framed the political discourse: he argued that the lfe-threatening (in objective engineering terms) logistical problems of the colony, caused by the Martian planar dust, were ultimately meaningless symptoms of socio-economic repression: fix the failing democracy and the exploitative commercial relationship with the 'steaders, and the economic interest in maintaining the colony's living habitat would follow. The Governor evidently agreed - Sami described how the newly elected populist-socialist colony council opted to commemorate the end of Haavisto's term by adopting his first solution that was so promptly dismissed then: they would dismantle the Athens biodome, leave the maintenance of the resort domes to the kibbutzes and adopt 'steader-style personal atmosphere solutions for the populace until such a time as the dome might be reinstated on a solid engineering basis. It was always Haavisto's intention to have the issue undergo continuous consideration as the industrial and technological base of the colony develops to enable previously untenable solutions.

I'm about as far from a fan of free-form roleplaying as I can imagine, so games like Mars Colony are considerably confusing for me: the game consists of a process of set-up and a schedule of scenes to be played through, as well as a simply cruel dicing mechanic that gets engaged now and then. There's structure there, but not detail. I can't deny that we got a successful exploration of the shared imagined space going in here, and it was fun as well when the story started to gel together. Still, I felt a bit frustrated by the game, perhaps because it's so lightweight and short: I might be too much of a fan of the genre, so that it'd be more satisfying for me to play over similar material with a deeper, more detailed game that leaves more scope for the players to develop and explore the setting, and control the focus by controlling the pacing. It was especially striking for me at first how I went into the game with serious exploratory intent (I was totally going to create serious scifi here, pushing all sorts of tech and stuff in there over Sami's more humanist background), but soon found that it's one of those games where you don't actually care about whether the Savior's plans make any sense or not: the dice decide how good your ideas are. Of course this means that you shouldn't actually preplay the details of any given action before the dice are rolled, not at all: you need to be able to explain the unexpected failure or success of the political actions after you see the dice. Not a problem, obviously, but I felt occasionally that it'd be nice if I could have some more influence over which actions succeed and which fail.

(Yes, I know that I design in this style myself, too. As I said, this whole "structured freeform" thing is supremely confusing to me, and it's getting more so as time goes by. Somebody should do some serious dissection and explain to me what the functional role of dice-rolling and organic pacing is in a traditional game vs. the omission of these techniques in a staged game like Mars Colony or Zombie Cinema.)
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Tim C Koppang


Thanks for playing the game, and for your feedback, both positive and critical. I'm digesting your comments. The one one thing that really jumped out at me that I wanted to ask you about right away was this:

Quotewe took it as incontrovertible rule that fiction must conform to those [20 & 40 point progress] points when they're reached, which is not so obvious when you remember that most of the rules in this game are more like suggestions.

You are correct in your reading. I wanted to add that the rules in Mars Colony are open ended in terms of narration, but with some definite hard restrictions. As you point out, when a player reaches 40 points, the problem is solved. There is no room, narratively, to change that fact. The idea was to provide the players with fictional "checkpoints" around which they are free to narrate. But when the rules says "X happens," that's that. Another example, as you point out, is the harsh dice mechanics. When you fail, everything breaks down. There is no room, per the rules, to fudge that one unavoidable fact. I hope that was clear in the rules, as I don't believe the game works otherwise. Would you agree?

Tim C Koppang

The more I think about it, the more I'm also left wondering how Pekka fared in all of the political failure and then turnaround. Would you say that his personal story was de-emphasized in your game, or well explored? You are obviously a fan of science fiction, as am I. It was difficult for me to blend the larger political and scientific issues against the more personal issues of the main character -- which I ultimately tried to highlight through things like Personal Scenes and Sympathies. Were those mechanics useful in your game?

Eero Tuovinen

We had a satisfactory personal arc for Haavisto, yes. I personally most liked the way he (or I, perhaps) kept reflecting his failures on the world around him. As a 21st century liberal he was in many ways surprised by the new 22th century world around him, which we saw as a major reason for his initial string of failures. Pekka himself was ready and willing to just give up on the society around him - he reflected myself and my impatience with political processes in how he was ready to get his way or burn in the process. His personal stakes involved basically his own livelyhood and well-being in a world with definite cyberpunk-overtones; we never found out what the details of the "party insurance" were like, but I assume that Haavisto's rejuvenated lifestyle was largely dependent on the continuing support of the bloated Blue Party machine.

Around the sixth and seventh rounds, when it seemed that Haavisto would be a total dud for Mars, his desperation showed in the nature of the solutions he chose for the problem situations. I wanted to score high or not score at all, and I knew that I was just one failure away from being recalled, so Haavisto's frustrations showed in heavy-handed, unilateral ways: he did not use dictatorial powers, but he ignored the representative system in favour of turning directly to the populace, angering his dwindling support base among the party elite. This ultimately proved to be the correct road in resolving the deadly Martian deadlock to massive relief for Haavisto. I'm pretty sure that he would have ultimately ended up killing himself if he had to leave the colony a total failure - it would have proved that humanity has learned nothing and that he and his ideals are useless to this world in a very vivid way. For an old rejuvenate like Haavisto this job wasn't just a job, but more like a chance at personal salvation - proof that he was still capable of working in this new century, and that the ideas he fought for in the 21st century had not died with his generation.

Pekka Haavisto is a homosexual, so we did fit in a minor side plot about his adapting to the new world by finding a new lover, and later husband to compensate for his lonely struggle against Martian groupthink he was trying to change. This was directly because of the Sympathy procedure and the idea of Personal Scene. I think that we did a basically solid job in laying out this material (with some insights into how the various political parties and the society at large in the new century view the perpetual sexual minority), but I judge the end-result to be pro forma - as in, we showed the highlights of Haavisto's personal development, but the structure and pacing of the game didn't really cause it to matter in the same way our developing understanding of eg. the significance of the homesteaders to the Martian economy did. I might hazard a guess that the personal facet of the game is the strongest when it can be made a pay-off from the political developments, rather than a basis for the same. This seems a bit hit or miss, though, perhaps because there aren't mechanics involved.

Quote from: Tim C Koppang on February 14, 2012, 02:32:05 AM
You are correct in your reading. I wanted to add that the rules in Mars Colony are open ended in terms of narration, but with some definite hard restrictions. As you point out, when a player reaches 40 points, the problem is solved. There is no room, narratively, to change that fact. The idea was to provide the players with fictional "checkpoints" around which they are free to narrate. But when the rules says "X happens," that's that. Another example, as you point out, is the harsh dice mechanics. When you fail, everything breaks down. There is no room, per the rules, to fudge that one unavoidable fact. I hope that was clear in the rules, as I don't believe the game works otherwise. Would you agree?

Yes, this is how I understood it. The rules were a bit vague from my personal viewpoint, but I understood their intent well enough, so it wasn't difficult for us to just interpret the vague bits in the way that we knew would work best in a game like this - I understand this kind of game pretty well despite how confusing I can find playing these at times, strangely enough.

Incidentally, the reason for why I found the text ambivalent is probably in that you use grammatical forms to differentiate between things that are best taken as absolute rules and things that are merely indicative. This is probably best exemplified by the endgame text sequence that suggests various metrics for the success of the colony, such as the idea that solving three Issues is an unqualified success for the Savior. As I describe in the first post, it was a discovery for me to figure out via play that this epilogue is genuinely a freeform climax for the political exploration, utilizing the personal understanding and interpretation of the players - the governor decides how much each outstanding Issue really matters to the colony, it's not like you count score and then adjust your narration to that. If you'd asked me before I played, I would have said that the modality of the text regarding eg. the progress point target numbers and the epilogue is identical, and both are intended to be "strong suggestions" (as opposed to firm rules or mere examples). Only through play I found out that one of those is best played as a rule, while the other is just a suggestion. Were I writing this game text, I'd probably have done more than grammar (often vague, it's not a good idea to take game writers too literally) for this - for example, different text colors or other separations between hard points and soft points that guide narrations.

The above is especially true because the game is much more interesting than what I got from initial reading. As is so often the case, the creative excitement in a sparsely mechanized game focuses hard around the few truly firm requirements and limitations that pace the story-telling, and now that I understand the end-game it's truly intense; technically speaking the Savior is not trying to just blindly resolve Issues, he's trying to figure out which Issues will ultimately matter in the Governor's view of the colony's future, and thus he's playing not just the Issues, but the Governor's understanding of them. Writing the game text like it was all a mellow ride of cooperative story-telling does the game itself a bit of a disservice, I feel. It is not difficult to follow as a procedure, but it does do things in practice that are not obvious from reading it. (I've lately had bad luck telling people about what I got from various game texts, it seems to get interpreted like I'm somehow brain-damaged. Just take the above as a random person's personal reaction - I'm sure that eg. the very nice designer's intent section at the end is more than sufficient to put the game to context for most people.)
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.