RNGround Control to Major Tom
Outer Space exploration is oddly rooted in the past with NASA’s Apollo program, while also quietly pushing toward the future with private ventures like SpaceX and their ongoing rocket testing, teasing future trips to Mars. In that vein, developer Auroch Digital brings us Mars Horizon: a base management sim where you start as a fledgling space program in the throes of the original space race and push toward launching missions to the red planet.
At the start, you’re given a selection of space programs to choose from, including the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and a consortium of European Nations. Each of these selections come with different perks—the United States gets additional support for being first to reach achievements and gets a larger astronaut pool to hire; the Soviet Union is able to hire astronauts at half price and doesn’t face any penalties for failed missions. After that selection, you’re thrust into a new career as space program director, making decisions to balance scientific progress and public support while being the first space program to reach different mission milestones.
To do so, you’ll have to navigate base building, investment in research, and launching space missions. There is a skill-tree like research system broken up into sections of missions, buildings, and vehicles. Missions need to be unlocked to attempt them, but they may require a specific building built on the base to launch, and the craft may need to have certain boosters or other equipment in order to attempt the mission. In practice, it means bouncing between the different skill trees to line up upgrades in time to complete critical missions.
Those missions are divided into two types—milestones and requests. Milestones are the primary objectives your space agency is trying to reach ahead of your rivals. Requests are technically optional missions to complete in between milestones. I say “technically optional” because in truth, the rewards of science research points and public approval are important to keep churning. The science research dictates how quickly upgrades to the skill tree are unlocked. Public approval is important to gain approval for more funds. Those funds finance the spacecraft and base buildings needed to reach the deeper milestones.
The act of launching spacecraft involves selecting different pieces of ship to assemble the spacecraft. Some components won’t be allowed on certain missions, and each has a different cost that makes you balance cost versus reliability. After a few days of building the spacecraft, you then select a day of the week to launch. Each of these days will show whether or not they’re ideal days, and if a competing agency is planning on launching their own craft. Upon launch day, weather conditions may reduce likelihood of a successful liftoff, so you can choose between rescheduling or throwing caution to the wind. Upon successful launch, some missions will also include collecting scientific data in order to orbit back to earth safely for your agency to retrieve.
Both launching and acquiring scientific data have outcomes based heavily on chance. Each one has a meter with gradients of color based on a 100% range. Pre-launch steps can help reduce the percentage chance of failure, but ultimately the game uses RNG to dictate a successful action. Even when taking every precaution, you’re at the mercy of chance. Spent a bunch of coin on this craft? Better hope it doesn’t fail the dice roll; otherwise, you’re out the money and time. Experiments in space don’t get the dice rolls you want? There goes half of the scientific research points you were hoping for. A failure here or there is one thing, but too often in my play I’d string together three or more failures at a time, and when the name of the game is speed to market with new spacecraft, you’ll quickly fall behind other nations.
That said, Mars Horizon is a low barrier to entry space management sim that is easy going enough to be something played while sitting on the couch with a show in the background. Its systems are light enough to not be overwhelming, and even if they become too much for you, a well-defined tutorial does a good job of holding your hand as you get a grasp of things. The core problem and one that brings this down from a great game to simply fine is just how little control you get over actual launches. If there was more agency in that side of things, then this would be a no-brainer recommendation.