I heard of this game during the interview with
Mr. Forbidden Psalm himself – Will Rahman-Daultrey. Since we’re suckers for both Forbidden Psalm and games recommended to us, we had get a copy. A contact with the devs and package from Northstar Miniatures later, Mars: Code Aurora physically reached my hands – and it’s a skirmish miniature game set early in the dystopian colonization of Mars!
Listen to the podcast episode.
In Mars: Code Aurora, everything has gone wrong in the future. Europe is under the control of a technically benevolent AI, corporations run even more rampant, and so on. Even getting shit together long enough to build Arks Mars colonization isn’t a bright spot. Earth nukes itself shortly after their departure, the colonists start fighting shortly after arrival, and they also shoot the first alien envoys they meet. Things are on the wrong side of “ideal.”
In the game itself, you choose one of the generic factions, and then build a force by choosing from their roster. Then you upgrade some troops to officers, swap out their weapons (when/if available) and purchase some upgrades from the generic list. In the end, your list should be a dozen models strong, comprised of infantry and vehicles/mechs. The next step is to build a deck of cards – one card per unit – and mix it with the opponent’s, getting the activation deck. it determines the order of unit activations, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll get to move all of your troops. There are three drone activation cards, and drawing the third one ends the turn.
We broke Mars: Code Aurora without even trying. Cassa instinctively went for Science, “permanent boost to shooting, no drawbacks” faction during list building… and assembled an army that most of my list of spunky guerillas just couldn’t hurt in combat. This was an unpleasant surprise, especially in a game so heavily inspired by famously hard-to-make-an-unworkable-list Infinity. We later followed up on this with discoveries like “Furtive is the best upgrade since nobody can shoot you outside 40cm” and “Endurance 13=God-mode”.
And if you think that smoke can be annoying in Infinity, it’s even more worse here. You can very economically make an advancing impenetrable smoke wall. But that’s kind of the whole experience of Mars: Code Aurora: a death by a thousand cuts as every neat idea or thing is undermined by balance issues, unclearly written rules, weird translation choices, editing mistakes and edgy lore that will leave you wanting less, a lot less.
For example, the drones. They move around when their card is drawn, radiating a gun-disabling aura. They remind me of the drones that Infinity came up with (and immediately abandoned) when O-12 came out, but actually baked into the core game. They’re also the only thing in the game that hackers can interface with (and likely get shot for their trouble). The drones feel like a idea, but in practice, they don’t have that much impact and underline how barren the hacker mechanic is. Oh, and Science’s officers are automatically hackers who can’t be hurt by a failed hack.
The faction design is about as upsetting as the lore that features EU’s top secret and extremely immoral super soldier project named “Super Soldier Project.” Some factions have abilities that are work all the time, others get stuff that may be useful once in a blue moon. The rosters aren’t equally fleshed out and most units don’t get weapon options. The Hunger faction is especially borked, as it’s a melee faction in a ranged game and has zero weapon options. They also feature the most obnoxious unit names (their basic unit is called ‘Puppiphora, called “Gnawer”‘ – and all of their names are like that) in game where all unit names are annoying.
Man, it’s not easy! You ask the devs for the rules and get a physical copy mailed (we always ask for PDFs), only to find out that the game isn’t good. Mars: Code Aurora was fairly upsetting to the both of us and I have nothing more to say about it.