Game: Mission: Red Planet (Second Edition)

Release Year: 2015

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

Designers: Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti

Player Count: 2 to 6 players

Play Time: About 45 to 90 minutes

Rules Complexity: Moderate

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Last Christmas, I had the opportunity to snatch up a cheap copy of Mission: Red Planet—and with how widely it's been praised as a quintessential gateway game for the area control genre, of course I had to jump on it.

The question is, is Mission: Red Planet the kind of game that deserves to be called a classic, one that's just as good today as it was when it was revised and reprinted in 2015? Or is it a victim of its age and rough edges?

Here's everything you need to know about Mission: Red Planet, whether it's still worth picking up, and if it's a game that's right for you!

This review is based on my own personal copy of Mission: Red Planet (Second Edition), which I bought on sale from Amazon. Not a free review copy.


Mission: Red Planet is what you get when you combine two genres that don't often go together: area control and simultaneous card play.

Each player represents a company that wants to colonize Mars for its resources, which means sending astronauts to the planet's nine different regions and maintaining majority in each region to claim the resources in those regions.

To do this, players must jockey against each other to load their astronauts onto spaceships. Each spaceship is bound for one specific region of Mars, and each spaceship has a limited amount of room—once the last spot is filled, the spaceship is launched and sent en route to the destination region.

That's the area control aspect of Mission: Red Planet.

The next part is where the crux of the gameplay shines: How are these astronauts loaded onto these spaceships?

Well, every player has the same exact set of nine cards, which are numbered from 1 to 9 and each number corresponding to a specific action. Every round, players simultaneously play one of their cards in secret. Then, counting down from 9 to 1, players reveal and take their action when their played number is called.

Most of these action cards are actually split into two halves: the first half determines how many astronauts you can assign to spaceships (sometimes with restrictions or stipulations), the second half determines some other special action (such as destroying a docked spaceship, changing a spaceship's destination, moving your astronauts to different regions on Mars, etc.).

Once you've played a card, it's done. The only way to play the same action again is to use the action card that retrieves all of your played cards back into your hand, allowing you to play them again.

Mission: Red Planet is played over 10 rounds, but there are three checkpoints along the way. During these checkpoints, each region on Mars produces resources that are claimed by the player who maintains majority control over the respective regions. (Some regions produce more valuable resources, but no one knows what a region produces until the first time an astronaut sets foot in it.)

One more thing: players each start with a special mission, which provides bonus points for accomplishing some sort of unique requirement. Maybe it's controlling a certain set of regions, or monopolizing a certain resource, etc. This gives each player a different way to approach their colonization of Mars.

In the end, whoever has the most points wins.

Setup and Table Footprint

One of my biggest marks against Mission: Red Planet is the unwieldy setup. The game involves lots of pieces—cards, cards, more cards, various resource tokens, spaceship destination markers, astronaut minis, and the planet Mars itself—and I find the whole setup process to be overly lengthy for the experience.

It's especially bad because the box doesn't come with an organizer, so everything is split across many, many baggies... or nothing at all. Opening so many baggies and sorting it all is a daunting mental block that stands in the way of every replay.

Mission: Red Planet setup takes me about 10 to 15 minutes.

Another big mark against Mission: Red Planet is how much table space it takes up versus how much gameplay it offers.

Mars itself is pretty big, but it's the centerpiece so I can forgive that. But there's also the moon Phobos, which sits off of Mars. And there's also the docking stations where spaceship cards are tucked. And then you need room for the various supplies of resources, mission cards, and spaceship destination markers.

For what's essentially just an area control game plus hand management game, Mission: Red Planet takes up a disproportionate amount of space. It feels unnecessarily big despite relatively simple gameplay.

Learning Curve

Mission: Red Planet is a strange one because the game is actually simple and straightforward once you know how it plays, but the initial learning curve is tougher, denser, steeper than you might expect.

The main difficulty as a first-time player is acquainting yourself with the nine action cards at your disposal. Their two-part design makes them somewhat complex, and their wordy text makes them tough to digest. You'll have to re-read all of your cards numerous times, so expect that to slow down the game's pace.

The second difficulty as a first-time player is wrapping your head around the two-step process of playing cards and getting astronauts onto Mars. You aren't sending your men directly to Mars—you're loading them into spaceships, and those spaceships may or may not go where you want them to.

The third difficulty as a first-time player is getting comfortable with the nuanced, next-level gameplay at the fringes. Which regions should I colonize? What are the Event cards and how do I make use of them? What is my strategy? Because the "point" of the game can be murky when you're just starting.

I personally don't think Mission: Red Planet is a good gateway game. It's a little too complex for non-gamers with too much extra stuff on top of the core mechanisms. Even casual gamers might struggle a bit with their first few games.

Game Experience

Decision Space

At a high view, you're "only" playing 10 cards in a single game of Mission: Red Planet. However, you have a surprising amount of factors to consider when choosing which card to play—and then you have to execute the actions of that card. A lot can happen in a single round, and every decision compounds into the next.

Here are the kinds of things you'll think about in a given round:

Which action card are you going to play? When choosing, the first thing you'll consider is what you want to accomplish. If you have a mission card that rewards you for controlling regions A, B, and C, then your number one priority might be getting astronauts into those regions.

You could do that by loading astronauts into a spaceship headed for one of those regions. Or you could move astronauts from one region to another. Or you could kill opponent astronauts in a crowded region. You have options.

So, the next thing you'll consider is how early you want to be in turn order. Playing the 8 card lets you move astronauts on Mars, and you're almost guaranteed to go first before anyone can mess up your plans. But it also leaves your vulnerable because players who act after you can respond to where you've moved.

On the other hand, playing the 3 card lets you load more astronauts in a single turn than any other card, but you're likely to act last—and if there isn't enough room left in any of the spaceships, you forfeit your action. It's a high-risk-high-reward play that could be thwarted by how the other players act.

Which spaceships are you going to occupy? Every spaceship has two defining traits: its capacity for astronauts (between two to five) and its destination. You obviously want to load up your astronauts into spaceships that are headed to the regions most relevant to your strategy, but that's not always possible.

Maybe there's a vacant spaceship that's headed for a region that's adjacent to the one you want to control, so you go there instead to later move your astronauts across regions. Or maybe you can sense that the lead player wants to fill up a certain spaceship, so you act early and fill that spaceship yourself to deny them.

Furthermore, you might suspect that a player is going to blow up a particular spaceship, so you decide to avoid it altogether. Maybe they blow it up, or maybe they don't. You can never be totally sure until it happens, and that makes for interesting decisions that twist your gut.

Which regions are you going to colonize? There are nine regions on Mars, plus a tenth region in the moon called Phobos. You don't have enough astronauts to control all of them—or even most of them—so you have to allocate smartly.

Of course, every player has their own valuations for each region. You might have a mission to overtake the Ausonia region. Or you might have a mission to acquire Sylvanite, which might be plentiful in the Hellas region. Or you might have a mission to put one astronaut in every region, encouraging you to spread out.

The thing is, when region valuations overlap between players, that's when you get conflict. And as players vie for control over certain regions, that leaves other regions open for control. How many astronauts are you going to commit to one region? Is it so important that you'll sacrifice control elsewhere?

And that's the interesting bit. The more you commit to a region, the less valuable it becomes in relation to other regions. Or, to put it another way: the more crowded a region is, the less influence a single astronaut has for controlling it. If there's too much conflict for a region, you might be better off switching gears.

This push-and-pull ebb-and-flow is what makes Mission: Red Planet interesting to me, as it's never entirely clear how to value the different regions.

How are you going to execute your overall strategy? The thing that makes Mission: Red Planet such an engaging thinker of a game is the fact that you start with a hand of nine cards and you can only play each card once—unless you essentially skip a turn to retrieve all played cards back into your hand.

This means you need to be thoughtful in two ways: the order in which you play your action cards, and the timing of when a particular action card is played.

It's not just about doing what you need to do at any given moment, but orchestrating a longer strategy that ensures you're able to make positive gains on subsequent turns, too. You don't want to play an action card too early and end up hampering yourself down the line. You also don't want to delay too long and end up missing the opportunity to make that tide-turning move.

All of these factors come together in Mission: Red Planet to create a strategic game that forces you to make tactical pivots along the way.

Luck Factor

Mission: Red Planet doesn't have much luck involved, and the luck that does exist is mostly "input randomness," meaning the luck happens and you get to respond to it. As such, it's never frustrating or game-changing.

For example, each region is assigned a random resource at the start of the game. You can alter your strategy around this, so your destiny still feels within your control. Similarly, spaceships and their destinations are randomized, but you get to make your decisions based on how they're randomized. There's also some luck of the draw when it comes to personal missions, but the missions are well-balanced so it's okay.

However, there's one aspect that can feel lucky, although it's more chaotic than it is lucky: the simultaneous action selection feels increasingly luck-based as more players are involved. With 3 or 4 players, you can effectively play mind games; with 5 or 6 players, action selection is closer to a crapshoot.


Mission: Red Planet is a mellow, thinky, strategic game punctuated by moments of surprise, excitement, cheers, and misfortune.

The first third of the game is mainly about establishing yourself in relation to the other players and trying to eke out an advantage. Most of your strategizing happens during this phase, and you'll also be gauging everyone else's strategies. Resource production is minimal early on, so no worries there.

The second third of the game will be when conflicts begin to arise. As player strategies become clearer, heads will butt against each other and tensions will brew. And since motivations are more forthright, you also have more information to outplay others during the simultaneous action selection. Resource production ramps up here, so you don't want to fall behind if you can help it.

The final third of the game is when tensions erupt. Players will be making their big moves, pushing to accomplish their missions while denying others as much as they can. Resource production is greatest here, so overtaking even one region could result in big swings and comebacks. The reveal of Discovery cards at the end can also result in huge changes that shift who comes out as winner.

Simply put, Mission: Red Planet's pacing is fantastic. You might think it's rather boring or uneventful at the start, but by the end it's as tense as it gets and the final climax might even have you leaping out of your seat in surprise.

Player Interaction

What's nice about Mission: Red Planet is that it's a game laden with conflict and PVP action—both direct and indirect—but it never feels mean or frustrating.

For starters, area control as a mechanism will always involve player interaction. If you have the most astronauts in a region, you have majority control. If you send more astronauts to a region, you can overtake control from someone else. You can also steal spots on a spaceship before others have a chance.

But then you have the action cards, which introduce direct interaction.

For example: You can kill astronauts on Mars. You can coerce astronauts to join your side. You can also blow up spaceships, killing everyone on board. You can plant Discovery cards on certain regions, which can potentially make them worthless (thus causing a setback to the other players in that region). You can change the destination of a spaceship, derailing the plans of players already on board.

All in all, there are plenty of little moments where players can butt heads, and they all serve the important purpose of keeping players on their toes while constantly increasing the underlying tension as the game reaches its climax.


I think Mission: Red Planet is the kind of game that has great potential for longevity, but you have to play with a group that's fully on board.

There's a depth to the hand management and simultaneous action selection that doesn't show itself until you've played several times. You have to familiarize yourself with—and internalize—the various action cards, which can be admittedly overwhelming for first-time and/or casual players.

But when you're playing with people who all understand the nuances of each action card, who can manipulate those actions to employ their strategies, who are willing to play mind games and think on multiple levels? Mission: Red Planet can be a fascinating game with a lot of depth.

And that's augmented by variable setup and randomized game elements:

  • The spaceships have randomized sizes and destinations.
  • The regions of Mars are assigned resources at random.
  • Players start with random personal missions, and players can acquire more missions by playing the relevant action card.

While every game of Mission: Red Planet feels the same, the variable elements cause you to approach the game with a different plan each time. It's fun to see how it all plays out, and the results are satisfying more often than not.

So, with the right people, I'd love to play Mission: Red Planet again. It serves its purpose and delivers a great experience. But it can fall flat if you don't play with the right people, and that's something to keep in mind for sure.

Production Quality

In terms of production, Mission: Red Planet is neither amazing nor terrible. It's a practical creation that's perfectly functional and fine to look at, but has the aesthetic of a game that's stuck in the 2010s.

The cards are good quality but with room for improvement. As most of the game is played using cards for action selection, it's great that the cards feel good in hand. But the graphic design is dated and the text is pretty wordy. A bit of refinement would've been nice, especially since this is the Second Edition.

The cardboard resources, tokens, and trackers are great. There's a smart blend of cards and cardboard in Mission: Red Planet, which makes it easy to tuck cards where necessary (e.g., spaceship cards tucked into their docking stations). It bumps up the playing experience a non-trivial amount.

The Mars board can be disassembled for storage. For whatever reason, the Mars planet is a set of four cardboard quadrants that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It could've easily been a board that folds, but this is definitely unique and helps make Mission: Red Planet stand out on the table.

The astronaut miniatures are visually hard to distinguish. If there's one thing that's actually pretty annoying in Mission: Red Planet, it's the fact that the astronaut minis are holding flags. When astronauts are clumped together across the regions of Mars, those flags make it really difficult to count them at a glance. It slows the game down, especially in the later rounds when lots of astronauts are everywhere.

The box doesn't come with an organizer, but it's sized well. I definitely think Mission: Red Planet could benefit from a well-made insert that speeds up setup and cleanup. Lots of cards, lots of resources, and miscellaneous bits. A good organizer would make it easier to reach for, as it's sort of a pain otherwise.

The Bottom Line

Mission: Red Planet (Second Edition)

Approved Score Guide
  1. Multilayered strategic gameplay, if you're willing to play several times and grasp the nuances
  2. Strong pacing with a gradual ramping of tension towards the final round climax
  3. Direct player interaction and conflict but doesn't feel mean
  1. Learning curve is steeper than the gameplay would suggest
  2. Astronaut minis are hard to count at a glance when crowded on the board
  3. Plays best at 3-4 players; more chaos and luck at 5-6 players
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