Otherwise history-centric Decision Games‘ new ‘Free Mars’ science fiction universe has two vanguard mini-games out; Ceres: Operation Stolen Base covering fleet actions in the belt, and today’s investigation in Phobos Rising! Insurgency on Mars. Spaceman Che, spaceward ho!
This iron oxide squadder is a solitaire affair, the likes of which aren’t unfamiliar territory to a number of Decision’s mini-games. After Border War: Angola Raiders, which was a snappy, if simplified use of the Cold War’s largest forgotten throw-down, I was keen to investigate more of Decisions’ solo fare. Waging a low-intensity guerrilla campaign on our red neighbour sounded like the perfect tonic.
Phobos Rising, tucked away in the series’ convenient A5 zip-lock with its small cardboard contingent of 40 chits and 18 cards, offers a freer hex-laced map of the Martian surface. The playing field takes up a little over half of the 11×17″ board, with the remaining area filled with reference charts and modifier tables. It’s a tasteful production, the map rendering the Tharsis quadrangle in relative sympathy with its real [off]world topography. Clean, clear, crisp.
Given the economic size of the Mini series components, the counters and cards might be a touch fiddly compared to the real estate of games elsewhere. However, given that Phobos Rising doesn’t require a huge number of chit-shunting or stacking, pushing pieces isn’t a particular chore. Cards run about half the size of a regular playing card, but their harboured information is generally only a couple of sentences and doesn’t strain the eyeballs.
The game itself is a procedural romp where players select and support a small band of insurgents, laying the foundation for planet-wide revolution. In a Red Faction-esque manner, and just in time for season two of The Expanse, it’s up to this small band to turn a slew of installations against a despotic Earth Federation and surmount an objective across each of the game’s four missions.
A mission itself doesn’t actually come into play until you’ve got the necessary means to attempt accessing it, and until that time, it remains a mystery. In the interim, structures placed across the map are targets for your merry band of freedom fighters, with each structure offering stat boosts or specialized recruitment. Given the checks and squad grunt you need to attempt a mission resolution, it’s much better to graze installations for perks and recruits.
Generally, a player has twelve points to play with in selecting their squad, gear and vehicles. Some gear is persistent, some single use, and in the case of some vehicles like dropships, unavailable until you meet certain mission milestones.
Recruits themselves fall into a number of specialised categories: leaders, cyber, engineers, weapons specialists, pilots and augmented Exo-humans. They each sport one or more skills that provide bonuses and boosts to automatic actions –pilots can increase shuttle movement, for example. Given the recruit and requisition points are relatively meagre, the pinch is felt early if, say, a combat-heavy squad gambit is upset by a slew of cyber-focused operations cards. But that’s life on the Red Planet.
Once marshaled, the team’s token is deployed in the same randomised manner as facilities, and it’s time to get traipsing.
A turn in Phobos Rising consists of movement, operation card, combat, special actions and, if within the same cell as the mission nexus, a tilt at mission resolution. Movement is limited to the squad’s slowest member, so you’ll generally be raking the team token about the dust at a rate of two hexes before shuttles are brought online. Terrain also has certain parameters and modifiers, such as friendly bonuses for fighting in chasms, or favouring the OPFOR when clashing on Sulci lava flows.
Operations cards are drawn after each movement phase, eight of which are selected to serve as the mission timer. Once you’ve expended your Ops, the game ends. Each draw offers up a range of scenarios, such as combat or special events. Much of the time, they drop a battle in your lap, but there’s also the chance of receiving bonuses or an opportunity to try a special action then and there. Phobos is not interested in being your friend, but while the combat and survival event cards are abundant and scary, there’s still a chance you’ll enjoy a windfall here and there. Small comforts.
Combat is a brisk affair, with cumulative combat factors determining the number of dice after a tactical edge tally demarcates who shoots first. Units not immediately taken out are flipped, or ‘crashed’, and in the case of the player’s squad, can be repaired at the end of the turn — provided they survive the fight and there’s an engineer on hand. There are also rules for breaking off in the event of outrageous odds or need for discretion.
Successful combat gives the player a choice of drawing a reserve Ops card to extend the mission timer, or upping the NET level.
Installation capturing is predicated on the success of a NET run. Sandra Bullock aside, the NET element is essentially the electronic infrastructure of the Martian colonies. You’ll have to deal with it whenever you’re attempting something other than combat. It is also how the system that gauges your visibility on the ground. The squad generally starts with a NET level of one, and as the game progresses, this level rises by ops card circumstance or by player choice. Increasing a NET level snags the squad additional tactical edges for combat, as well as boosted die rolls for objective challenges. By that same tantalising token, it also determines how many extra OPFOR units rock up when contact kicks off.
Once you do manage to turn a facility to the cause, it gets flipped to reveal squad bonuses. Domes produce recruits. NET relays offer an additional token for cyber infiltration. Security HQ boosts tactical edge. From the outset, figuring out which installation to tag, and in what order, offers a tidy little tactical wrinkle.
To cap off a turn, the squad is able to attempt a mission resolution if they’re sitting on the nexus. Otherwise, rinse and repeat the above until you’re ready and able to roll for victory.
Phobos Rising is a one hell of a grueling game. While I desperately want to know more about this universe, and why the blazes I should be fighting for Mars in place of donning a fine pair of Earther jackboots, it uses its systems deftly to effect a sense of rangy survival with limited resources. The bonuses of increasing NET with the breathing room of an extra Ops card feels balanced on a razor’s edge, either choice a pivotal commitment. Gritty little rules like ‘burnout’ die rolls of 1 during action checks crashing your squad and gear, rasping away skill proficiency until you can repair them.
I’ll be straight with you, I’m yet to win a single game, and I’ve run a good few for this spiel. I’ve burned the life-giving nature of reservist Ops in favour of those sweet NET bonuses. I’ve left my squad in the shadow of Olympus Mons, their combat proficiencies strangled by the scarifying winds of a Martian sandstorm and utterly poor die rolls. Crashed and without the logistics to get back on their feet, the final card drew a boosted OPFOR detachment and the revolution died on the slopes of Mars’ mightiest mountain.
But Phobos Rising doesn’t feel unfair. The odds should be stacked against you, and by Deimos, they are. If I have any real quibbles, it’d be slightly jumbled documentation that could be smoothed out or reordered, but once the basics are devoured, Decision Games’ dusty little insurgency runs at a solid clip.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when cracking the zip-lock on this twelve-bone offworld gem, but I’m pleasantly surprised. Phobos Rising! Insurgency On Mars is a detailed yet brisk and replayable game that has me thirsting for more from this universe.
Ceres, here I come!