FIRST MARTIANS: ADVENTURES ON THE RED PLANET and the Double-Edged Sword of Hype
Like living on a barren planet, game designer Ignacy Trzewiczek has spent the better part of 2017 in hell.
Ignacy developed and created First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet which, to many tabletop gamers, was the “most disappointing game of 2017.”
In First Martians, players are inhabitants of the first permanent human station on Mars, cooperating to complete certain mission objectives within a timeframe to win, but everyone loses the game if someone dies. It is very easy to die on Mars, especially if life-sustaining equipment in your habitat malfunctions every single turn, and it pretty much always does.
Gameplay in First Martians is mostly based on Ignacy’s previous work, Robinson Crusoe: Adventures of the Cursed Island. Crusoe was immensely popular: quickly selling through its first print run in 2012, making it difficult to find and commanding high prices on the secondary market. These days, Crusoe has been reprinted into a snazzy second edition from Portal Games, and is still quite revered, holding the 29th overall rank at BoardGameGeek.
A unique mechanism of Crusoe was story-based event cards that would add certain cards to the deck as the first card’s effects were resolved. In other words, current events would trigger future events that players would encounter later in the game, providing more story-focused gameplay, rather than unrelated, random events happening as cards are drawn.
When First Martians was announced two years ago, people got excited - really excited. The game would take the Crusoe experience into the not-so-far-future. It would replace the big event card deck with a digital app that would help manage the game and also deliver new content beyond the capabilities of its predecessor. It topped many “Most Anticipated Game” lists in 2016. First Martians was a popular topic.
Ignacy was concerned. Before the release, he tried to get people to calm down, telling fans at press events and conventions to “lower your expectations.”
In a recent blog post, Ignacy recalls that time [note: grammar is unedited, he is not a native English writer]:
But the hype was there and it was out of the control. The more I talked about the game, the hype went higher. It was pointless.
On one hand, it was the best months of my designer career - my design was hot, everybody talked about it, I was so proud. I was designer of one of the most anticipated games in the whole industry. Quite the feeling. On the other hand, I knew I was screwed. It was impossible to meet the expectations, and the more I tried to lower the hype, the worse it got, the hype went up and up with every interview.
I got caught up in the hype. I was really interested in Crusoe, but held off picking it up because the hard sci-fi theme of struggling to survive on Mars resonated with me more. The potential of the digital app also sold me. I jumped on the pre-release mostly because Portal Games provided a few extra goodies that wouldn’t be in the retail version. However, I’ll also note that, at the time of the preorder, a full rulebook had not been released. I had expected gameplay to be pretty similar to that of Crusoe, and many who played Crusoe loved it, right? But the fact was that I bought a game without knowing exactly how it played. Shortly before the pre-release shipped, I finally got a copy of the rulebook.
And then the hell began. The game was pre-released and the first feedback was very bad. Players had no clue how to play the game, the app had some problems, the rulebook apparently was a one big issue, and on top of that the game was too complex and got - in many cases - in the hands of people who jumped on the hype train, ordered the game without knowing what to expect and then hit the wall. Poor rulebook, very complex rules - the first date with First Martians was not that sexy as everybody expected. ‘I hate this game’, ‘The biggest disappointment of 2017’ threads were all over [BoardGameGeek]. I was devastated.
It was the hell. 3 years of hard work, designing 16 unique missions, hundreds of event cards, and nobody even talked about the game. The whole discussion was on the app, on poor the rulebook, on all other things. Of course, there were players who complained about gameplay, there were people who complained the theme is boring, but overall, the discussion was all about the ruleset, not the gameplay itself. It was clear that Ignacy-publisher failed Ignacy-designer.
First Martian’s rulebook is a tough read - beyond Arkham Horror/early FFG-tough. After reading it a few times, I got the basics, but there were many gameplay situations where it wasn’t clear what to do. BGG was filling up with FAQ requests, which Ignacy stayed on top of to the best of his ability. A commissioned “How to Play” video from Watch It Played clocks in at a massive 50 minutes. The app… well, it worked, but didn’t feel as connected to the gameplay as I hoped. However, I was committed to learning the game, because I had scheduled a game night with my wife and my friends. I stumbled through two solo games just to figure out how to teach it. We always have a good time playing games together, so it wasn’t a bummer of an evening, but as we played, it just didn’t inspire or spark excitement the way I thought it could.
First Martians went back to the shelf and hasn’t moved since.
As 2017 closed, Ignacy has found some semblance of peace. After the dust settled on the retail release, Portal released app updates and additional resources, and then a strong fanbase of players began to develop.
Ignacy pondered that…
It’s because of First Martians Almanac PDF? It’s because customers who buy the game today are ready and prepared for the complex game? It’s because there is a ton of content on BGG, with videos and threads helping people play the game? It’s because the app has now tutorial mode? Probably all of that I guess.
I dreamed and hoped to design the best game on the planet. Well, I designed the most controversial game of 2017, that’s for sure. I was in heaven, I was in hell, I am in purgatory now. First Martians did not meet the expectation of many players, but after all, it wasn’t that bad as people were saying in summer. It has a solid fan base. It has a ton of content in the box, it has more content in the app and it will get more content in 2018. Some people will put it as an example of the overhyped project. Some will put it on the table over and over playing all those missions I was designing for years.
First Martians is a heady, cooperative eurogame with strong thematic elements (that some argue are problematically dissonant); it is an oddity in today’s game market. Many were not prepared for that. Including me. The big takeaway from this experience is that I no longer purchase a game without a copy of the rulebook. Hype in fandom is fun, it’s an emotional upswing that is collectively shared, but how often are we disappointed when things don’t turn out the way we expect? When even the creator is asking folks to check themselves? How do we channel that disappointment?
Would this game have been more successful and well-received if the hype had not reached such levels? Would my opinion be the same? I don’t know. I considered selling my copy of First Martians, but the more I read about Ignacy’s experience and think on this cautionary tale, the more I’d like to revisit this game and give it another go (likely on my own). So First Martians will stay in the collection.
Maybe, given enough time and space, I’ll find new life on Mars.