Phobos Rising! Insurgency on Mars Review
Review by David Lent
I’ve always enjoyed playing micro/mini games. They were very popular in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Decision Games is one of the few manufacturers that still produce them. What has always attracted me to micro games is the fact that game designers are more likely to try revolutionary game mechanics due to the fact that design and manufacturing costs are much lower on micro games than traditional board games. Thus, a failed micro game is less likely to bankrupt a manufacturer than a failed full-size game. In other words, manufacturer’s can afford to take risks with them. The fact that a micro game must fit in a very small package and be sold for an inexpensive price encourages innovation.
Phobos Rising is a solitaire game where you command a group of insurgents who begin the game with limited equipment and attempt to secure key facilities on Mars. If you complete all 4 missions in the campaign game, the Free Mars revolution begins and will be continued in the future game Free Mars. During the game, you recruit new cadre, get new gear and vehicles, fight security forces, create temporary autonomous zones and attempt to complete your mission before you run out of cards. Don’t worry, there’s ways to put more cards into your deck if you start running low. This game isn’t your typical wargame. It’s a cross between a wargame and a Euro! That’s the micro game innovation I was talking about.
The components in Phobos Rising are much better than the components that were included in the micro games of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. An 11” x 17” map, counters, 18 cards, plastic bag, main rules and scenario rules are included. You must provide your own dice.
Phobos Risings’ hex map looks good and has the Martian surface with terrain features. In addition, it has a terrain effects chart, installation chart, special actions table and the all-important net track. The net level represents both your team’s awareness (cyber and otherwise) and the enemy’s awareness of your presence. A high net level ensures that more enemies are present in a fight, but increases your initiative modifier. Of equal importance, it allows you to roll extra dice equal to your net level during mission resolution. It’s a two edged sword. I’ve had the best success when I kept the net level 3 or less.
The playing pieces are counters that represent friendly and enemy cadre, flying vehicles, equipment, buildings and the nexus marker. Enemy cadres have their combat and initiative values printed on them. Friendly cadres have a combat value, special ability and movement value. Buildings have a picture and name on the front, but when they are captured they are flipped over to reveal either a special ability marker that your team can use anywhere on the map or they state they are a place for regular recruiting or exo-human recruitment. If the captured building is a spaceport, your team can use it to move directly to any hex on the map.
Included in this game are 14 event and 4 mission cards. The event cards can cause either good or bad things to happen. Some of the bad things are sandstorms, discarding cards, movement to a random location and combat. The good things are putting cards into the deck from the reserve deck, recruitment and changing the net level. Most cards use a challenge to determine if something good or bad happens. We’ll go over challenges next.
Challenges are a test where you roll a number of dice equal to the number of special ability symbols your troops and captured buildings have (remember, I said this game is part Euro). If any of the dice are a 5 or 6 you are successful. You can also do special ability checks during the game to perform certain actions. Here’s a list of them:
Leader: used for recruiting and provides a bonus for initiative
Netrun: increase the net level, gain one op card, capture building or reveal mission card and nexus location
Nano-morph: repair/heal units
Sniper: only used for op card and mission challenges
Hot Pilot: can move the shuttle additional spaces
Special ability checks have a down side. If you roll a “1” it causes burnout. Burnout can cause a loss of recruiting points or gear or can cause a cadre to flip depending on which special ability you are using. It’s best not to do any unnecessary checks because of this.
Combat in this game should be called “Shoot first or die!” The first thing you do in combat is to determine which side is going first and then fight. All casualties are taken immediately. It’s possible to wipe out the enemy before they can even fight back. It is imperative that you win initiative rolls. Having too high a net level will cause too many enemies to deploy and their initiative bonus will be so high that you automatically lose your initiative roll.
Mission resolution is done when you reach the nexus marker. You first fight a number of enemies determined by the mission card, your net level and how many previous missions you have won. If you survive, you get to try to complete the mission. Mission cards have 2 or more symbols on them that dictate what type of special action checks you must pass. If you fail to roll any 5’s or 6’s for any of these checks you may roll additional dice equal to your net level. This is where having a higher net level pays off. If you succeed, the mission is a success and you get a special bonus such as extra cadre for your next game in the campaign. You also get to use the special symbols on the mission card for yourself during follow up games in the campaign. If you fail, the nexus marker moves to a random location and you can attempt to get there and try again before the game ends.
The first time I played this game I lost and l thought it was too difficult. I decided to use the variant rules, which give you more cards and recruiting points, but no burnout. After three more games, I finally won. It turns out that the game wasn’t too hard. I just needed to learn how to use the special abilities to my advantage. I stopped using the variant rules and after playing 4 more full campaigns, I ended up with a 75% success rate of winning all 4 games in a campaign in a row. What I originally thought was an unbalanced game, turned out to be the most balanced micro game I have ever played.
Phobos Rising is an extremely unique micro game because it’s a cross between a Euro and wargame. I thoroughly enjoyed playing it and found it to be a breath of fresh air. The strategy you use is different than in the typical wargame, but the combat and movement is familiar to the typical wargamer. As a bonus, it can be used as a gateway game to get Euro gamers into wargames or vice-versa. Best of all, the game only costs $12.95
Buy your own copy here.