Blast Off in the Space Race in Strategy Simulation Mars Horizon

Mars Horizon Launch

We first looked at Mars Horizon way back in May during the semi-closed beta.  Developed by Auroch Digital and published by The Irregular Corporation (also publishing Good Company), the game has received support from the ESA, with Tim Peake even doing some promotion for the game.  I've been keeping an eye on this one and (im)patiently awaiting the release.  The game released on 17th November 2020 and I need to give a massive shoutout to the guys at Auroch who very kindly provided me with a key for the game so I could have another look at it.

Starting in the 1950's in the heat of the Space Race, you need to establish your space programme, launch satellites, rockets and, ultimately, put the first humans on the surface of Mars.  The first thing that strikes me when starting the game is that now rather than being able to play as the ESA, NASA or the Soviet Union, there are now options to play as either China or Japan.  Each of these agencies have a variety of differences, some cosmetic such as the the location of your space port, and others key to the gameplay experience in the form of traits which will give various penalties or bonuses.  What is really great though is that you can also customise each of the agencies by selecting different traits, giving a different experience on subsequent play throughs.  After setting up your agency, you then are faced with the option of Explorer, Pioneer and Veteran games modes (essentially easy, normal and hard settings).  Again, these are things which you can customise and tailor the gameplay to your style.

Mars Horizon Agency Traits
Selecting the traits for your space agency during game set up
Jumping into the game I would strongly advise enabling the tutorial as there are lots of systems at play in the game and it will help you with establishing your first missions.  You will first see the Solar System Screen, a map of the navigable areas of our Solar System in relation to your research.  This will be a place you spend a fair amount of time as all the other functionalities are accessed from this main screen.  Selecting a body (such as Earth) will allow you to open the Mission Select screen.  This displays two types of mission.  Milestones are the key moments in the Space Race which all 5 agencies will be competing to complete first.  There are also request missions.  These are a good way to boost your support and science resources as they normally don't require any additional research to be carried out, but they are time limited.

Once you have selected your mission, you will need to plan for the execution.  This requires assigning the appropriate payload, if required, and designing/building a rocket.  The rocket available to be built will depend on what research you have carried out, but will eventually have larger rockets, fuel tanks and devices such as parachutes for re-entry.  Basically think of this as a pared down version of the vehicle construction in Kerbal Space Program.  This is definitely not a negative comment, I find the designer in Mars Horizon a lot easier to use and things just seem to slot into place where you want them to be, something I often struggle with in KSP.  

Mars Horizon Vehicle Construction
Building our first very basic sounding rocket
As in real life, rockets take some time to build, so whilst your engineers are hard at work you can look after other aspects of your agency.  This will include activities such as managing your research, or developing your launch facility.  Technology in the game is split into 3 distinct trees - Missions, which will unlock the required technology for new missions - Buildings, which will unlock facilities for your facility - and Vehicles, which unlocks new parts for your rockets.  As you complete the research and work your way through the various eras of space exploration, you will unlock new planetary bodies in the Solar System screen, and completing an era will reap a special reward, such as a boost to vehicle durability.

You can see Auroch's background in tabletop games and tabletop adaptations (they even hosted the Tabletop Games Festival on Steam in October 2020 and made a physical card based version of Mars Horizon) with one of my favourite features of the game.  With so much to do and manage it would be easy to get wrapped up in designing your latest rocket, tweaking and trying out different combinations of parts, to completely forget about the rest of your tasks and find yourself suddenly months behind the competition.  Fortunately the game works on a turn-based system.  This gives you to time to chill out, experiment and decide on your actions before advancing to the next month, or skipping some months and going directly to the next important event, such as vehicle completion or launch. 

Mars Horizon Solar System Screen
The Solar System screen showing the next in-game event (a vehicle construction completion) in 1 month with options to advance by a month or to the next event
When you reach the time for your mission to launch, you will be presented with a launch pad which will display your chances of a successful launch.  You decide whether to postpone the launch for a more favourable window, or go for it.  When you launch there are 4 possible outcomes with a failure, sub-optimal launch, a neutral launch or an optimal launch.  In a failed launch your vehicle and any crew will be destroyed, a sub-optimal launch will cause a penalty for the mission and an optimal launch will give you some benefits, such as bonus energy for use during the mission.

After a successful launch you will progress to the first phase of the mission.  Depending on the mission and which planet/celestial body you are travelling to, the mission may have more than one phase.  These mission phases will consist of a number of turns where you will need to generate a set number of a variety of points, such as short range comms, data and navigation, whilst managing energy, heat and thrust.  These actions are very driven by RNG, which can be frustrating as there is no skill to the success of these.  I also find that these became a bit repetitive, but you can set in the menu to be able to auto-resolve request missions only, or all missions which means you can skip these if you wish,

Mars Horizon Mission
A mission phase requiring short range communication and navigation points to succeed
One of the best things I have found about the game is the controls.  The game is almost entirely controlled using the left mouse button.  This means that the game translates very well to touch controls.  Using the Steam Link app, ensuring my home computer is running I have been able to enjoy the game excellently on the go.  Due to the simplicity of the controls, if you set the input as Direct Cursor rather than using a gamepad or other on screen controls you can enjoy the game on your phone or tablet - ideal for having a couple of turns during breaks at work!

Overall I've thoroughly enjoyed the game, even if I've not managed to get man on Mars yet.  The gameplay design is good, even if the RNG aspects can get frustrating, and the way that the research tree has been built means that you never find yourself overwhelmed with lots of new available missions, although it would be nice if you could research multiple things concurrently, such as one item from each of the three trees,  as you always want to push the technology advancements to support new missions, however I often find myself where I can't actually progress the missions as I don't have the correct vehicle parts.  Due to the varied agencies, and the ability to customise these, the game can be replayed a number of times to optimise your journey through the space race.

My biggest surprise with the game came with the price point.  After playing the beta and being impressed with it then, I had expected the game to be priced at around £25, instead it is priced at £14.99.  This pricing combined with the points I have made previously, such as the ability to play it on my phone and table with ease, make this very much a buy it now from me.

Mars Horizon China Base
Each of the agencies has their own landscape for their space base, this image shows the Chinese base with some buildings added
Mars Horizon Europe Base
The European base of operations
MArs Horizon Launch
5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Blast Off! Ready to launch on a mission
Mars Horizon Positive Launch
CA launch with a positive outcome providing a bonus navigation point on the first task
Mars Horizon Thrust Task
A task within a mission where you need to manage the thrust to keep your mission on course, note this mission also includes astronauts
Mars Horizon Failed Task
One of the possible failures to a task resulting in wasted resources, or a lower payout from the task
Mars Horizon Solar System Mars
The Solar Sytem Screen showing some vehicls on their way to Mars
MArs Horizons Satellite Mars Orbit
It may not be humans, but finally getting a satellite into orbit above Mars
Mars Horizon is available to buy now from Steam priced at £14.99/$19.99/€17.99 and is also available for Switch, PS4 and Xbox One. 

Blast Off in the Space Race in Strategy Simulation Mars Horizon Blast Off in the Space Race in Strategy Simulation Mars Horizon Reviewed by Parcival on December 29, 2020 Rating: 5

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