Surviving Mars brings hard science to colony-building

During the opening hours, you won’t see a single person in Surviving Mars [official site]. It’s a bold choice, having impersonal robots out there laying the groundwork of a colony, but the benefits are immediately obvious when watching the game in action. There’s a certain Factorium-like mechanical satisfaction to the flow of metal, creating supply chains that stud the surface with structures. The great advantage is the gradual shift from a red planet to a green planet though, even if those bubbles of green are few and far between.

More than any other city builder I can think of, Surviving Mars has the potential to show the life of a settlement, and it does that by beginning in a dead place.

I expect a certain amount of comedy from space colony management games. Whether it’s a comedy of manners stemming from the weirdness of alien visitors or a series of hilarious misadventures sparked off by a lack of oxygen or gravity, there’s room for all kinds of emergent farce. Surviving Mars goes a different route, treating its subject matter with a scientific seriousness. You won’t need to understand the chemical processes that go into creating a liveable atmosphere, or the dirty secrets involved in growing your own poo-tatoes, but you’ll be spending time ensuring basic resources are available rather than micro-managing colonists and their relationships.

There’s still plenty of work to do and the game won’t be released until sometime next year, but even the alpha footage we were shown at Paradox’s Convention last week was impressive. Visually, it’s a little austere but that fits with the tone, and makes the eventual colourful colony bubbles seem all the more dramatic. There should be a real sense of achievement in the transformation from dust and death to parks and recreation.

To get there, you’ll be laying lots of pipes and power lines, ensuring that generators (solar and otherwise) are hooked up to the buildings that require them, later doing the same for water and other resources. The surface of the planet is randomly generated once you get in close, and one of your first decisions involves picking a landing spot.

The pre-landing part of the game was the least convincing part of the presentation – you select not only a landing spot but a sponsor for the mission, which determines how much cash you have to spend on materials, rovers and pre-fabricated buildings. The combination of funds and the qualities of your starting area determine the game’s difficulty, which can be seen on screen measured as a percentage. It’s neat to be able to adjust the challenge in such detail, but there’s a risk that all of those choices will feel like difficulty sliders rather than important decisions about the future of your colony.

What I don’t want to end up with is a situation where picking a harder difficulty means I’ll spend a couple of extra hours doing busywork just to get things up and running. A big part of Surviving Mars’ appeal will be in that path to the first secure inhabitants, and building a colony dome is your first obvious long-term objective, but if the foundations needed to get to that point are always the same, it might not be a very rewarding journey the fourth or fifth time you take it.

And what happens once the colonists arrive? You can expand their colonies, adding new buildings for work and leisure, and eventually you could build more domes, creating a network of life. The actual construction and management is the core of the game, but there will be Martian mysteries developing alongside your colony. These can either be selected randomly, so that they’re an actual mystery, or selected by the player. Haemimont weren’t sharing many details but I’ll be amazed if one mystery doesn’t involve a big face and other traces of intelligent life.

As long as there’s no sad Gary Sinise discovering the secrets of the universe.

I was in the room for the Surviving Mars’ announcement and I was slightly concerned that Paradox were simply trying to replicate Cities: Skylines in space. It’d be understandable, given how successful that game has been for both them and developers Colossal Order, but putting a layer of red dust and chrome on top of a conventional city-builder wouldn’t make a convincing colonisation sim. After seeing the game up close, the most surprising thing about it is how little it resembles an Earth-based city-builder.

Sure, there are water pipes to lay and power cables to connect, but the environment is so harsh that it creates a separate layer – there are safe spaces for life, and hazardous places in which only machines can work. The inhabitants are precious, almost cargo to be stowed rather than functional parts of the colony. That will change, of course, as they start to work and play, and eventually breed. The game will track all of your achievements on the surface, placing them on a calendar, and the birth of the first Mars baby will be a significant milestone.

If I’m still not clear on what will happen beyond that milestone, it’s fair to say I’m looking forward to finding out. Surviving Mars might successfully combine the satisfaction of efficient systems with its resource-gathering robotic vehicles, and the aesthetic pleasures of a finely landscaped living area.

It’s the fragility of life in those domes, and the fact that bringing living creatures to the planet is an achievement in and of itself, that is most interesting. City-builders tend to see a settlement getting larger and denser as time goes on, but the colonies in Surviving Mars remind me of towns and villages at the edges of the world: self-contained and in need of great effort and infrastructure simply to survive, let alone to expand.


  1. Harlander says:

    The contrast of the vibrant, fragile domes against the red of the martian soil is a little striking.

    • Banks says:

      Why is that a bad thing. It’s gorgeous.

      • Harlander says:

        Yeah, that was a compliment.

        attractive; impressive:
        a scene of striking beauty

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I like the look of the domes, but aren’t huge glass/plastic/whatevertransparentmaterial domes super inefficient for actual colony efforts? I mean, gas exchange and temperature regulation and everything else would be complicated hugely by that kind of shape.

    But I guess a bunch of squat little metal and treated-canvas structures would be kind of boring.

    • Premium User Badge

      laiwm says:

      I believe current thinking is that tunnelling is the best route to creating Martian habitats, so I can see why they went with domes – more visually interesting and you only have one vertical level to plan things out on, which is easier to design for.

      I think it’s really cool that the lander ship shown in the screenshots is basically SpaceX’s ITS.

      • colw00t says:

        Yeah, Mars doesn’t have a magnetosphere, so if you don’t want your colonists getting cancers at tremendous rates a colony would have to be underground. But Dwarf Fortress On Mars would be a very different game, and less aesthetically pleasing.

        • Uberwolfe says:

          Mars does have a Magnetosphere

          • Azhrarn says:

            Not much of one, there are even ideas to try and create a satellite based booster for the geomagnetic field to help potential colonization/terraforming efforts.

        • goodpoints says:

          Evil Genius had a pretty nice style despite being mostly underground.

      • chuckieegg says:

        I don’t get the tunnelling idea. You go all the way to Mars, to become cavemen?!

        • Premium User Badge

          Drib says:

          That’s what happens when you colonize somewhere, you start at the bottom of the tech tree. It’s like you’ve never even played minecraft.

  3. chuckieegg says:

    The domes rise up in revolution against the controlling corporations. The corporations fight back by destroying the domes, and the survivors flee to live under the antarctic icecap, before winning their freedom in a guerilla war and ultimately living in space-socialist utopia. Looking forward to it. Can I be Sax?

    • NaShav says:

      Now i *have* to go and read the trilogy again… I hold you responsible for a 3 weeks setback on my reading backlog !

      • muther22 says:

        What trilogy is this?

        • grimdanfango says:

          Red Mars (/Green Mars/Blue Mars)
          by Kim Stanley Robinson

          Amazing trilogy, it’s like reading about the real history of the colonization of Mars before it’s actually happened :-)

      • Augh_lord says:

        3 weeks, more like 3 months with the dense exposition there is to science, philosophy, architecture, psychology, etc..

        I enjoyed the incredibly detailed world and characters, but sometimes I found myself skipping pages on some details.

  4. Eraysor says:

    Banished in Space

    • reasonpolice says:

      That would probably be PlanetBase haha. I don’t think Banished is complex enough to compare to this.

    • paperdivision says:

      Ha. Yes, Banished, Planetbase, and a few others from the past.

      I think though that Paradox is the wrong publisher. Paradox has a bad reputation at handling games that are not their own. Steel Division sold so bad, although it is a nice game. I doubt that Paradox can handle a game like Surviving Mars too. It will fail.

  5. BobbyDylan says:

    I’ve been looking for a game like this for a while. Sadly the last Anno game left me slightly disappointed.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Ditto, that goes for the last two Anno games actually, but having played other recent base/city-builders/RTSes lately, I’m getting more and more convinced it’s just an Anno thing. The jangling of expectations re: options and potential courses of action between Anno 1404 and Anno 2205 is a little hard to take.

  6. pollyzoid says:

    Is “Factorium-like” supposed to be “Factorio-like”?

  7. denislaminaccia says:

    I don’t like this neatly manicured green grass on the screenshots – people don’t strive to get to Mars to setup a middle class in-vitro suburbia there.

    The least that can be done is changing green to honey-bee meadow – this would at least bring some closed ecosystem diversity and usefulness rather than waste of space

  8. CaptainKoloth says:

    I’m actually really glad this is taking a more serious tone; for all the positives of Kerbal Space Program and The Martian (which are great), space exploration is a serious and majestic business, and I’m tired of it being used as the background for humor to the exclusion of all else over and over and over again because that’s the trendy thing to do now. What happened to the wonder inspired by 2001 and Microsoft Space Simulator and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Maybe this will finally fill the gap that SimMars promised to cover so many years ago.

  9. teije says:

    Looks very promising. Like me a “light science” building game.

  10. Someoldguy says:

    I’m so pleased they’ve gone for robotic creation of the infrastructure before any humans get sent to Mars. That suggests to me that they’re paying considerable attention to current thinking on how it could be possible to establish a practical Mars base. Perhaps they’ll even allow us to throw some icy asteroids onto the surface before we begin.

    The bubble domes do derail that realism a bit, but I suppose this is where game aesthetics start clashing with grim reality of being far safer with a few metres of bedrock between you and any nasty cosmic rays. If all we did was build underground cities with solar mirrors feeding sunlight through narrow apertures high above, or rely fully on artificial light, it wouldn’t much matter whether we were on Mars, Earth or an artificial orbital colony. Imagining being able to walk around on the surface is part of the thrill even if it’s a pipe dream (or would take hundreds of years of terraforming to realise).