Coded blue.

Monday 1 January 2001


Pic of the day: I know exactly what it is that makes this scenario so special. It is the feeling when I see the first few green spots on the Red Planet.

Mars Now!

There's no denying it now ... I'm in the grip of a full scale fad again. Judging from my diary archive, I have a Mars Now fad approximately twice a year. I'm not sure, but I think it tends to happen after some popular science magazine has an article about Mars. And that is not unusual. Scientific American had two during a year, and now a few days ago I read an article in the Norwegian magazine Illustrert Vitenskap about the upcoming Mars missions by NASA and ESA. It is a prime suspect for the current craze.

Anyway, I thought this was a good occasion to put the blue color to use, and give y'all a glowing review of one of my favorite games. Sort of.


"Mars Now!" is actually not a game, but a scenario for the game Civilization II. I am not going to describe Civilization II ("Civ2" among friends) because it should be part of an educated person's background knowledge. If you like computer games ... No, scratch that. If you don't know with divinely inspired certainty that you hate computer games from the depths of your heart with a cold, murderous rage; if the very thought of computer games does not make you retch with nausea and twitch with disgust bordering on panic; if you have not made a holy oath to avoid computer games like plague and heresy, you owe it to yourself to try Civilization, the game to end all games.

The original Civilization by Sid Meier was the only game I have ever seen to get less than a full score in a review for the reason that it was too addictive. Civilization II expands on this game in almost any way, except perhaps in addictiveness. The sheer size and scope of the game makes it hard to play through it in less than several days, and by then a fad-based human brain like mine will leave it for something else. However, I will return in time.

Civilization II is not just a game, it is also a game engine on which you can run a large number of scenarios. Basically they transform the game in some way. It can be a minor change, like replacing some of the available civilizations with other ones, or a complete make-over. Some of the most extensive changes are found in the collection "Fantastic Worlds", published by MicroProse, the company that made the game. (I think they are also included in the newest version of the game. Check before you buy.) One of these, and by far my favorite, is Mars Now!.


As the game begins, humans have landed on Mars and built small bases. A joint terraforming project has melted part of the ice caps, giving a narrow watershed more or less circling the poles; but the rest of the planet remains dry and lifeless. The planet is rich in resources available to people with 21th century technology, but lack of water remains the limiting factor. Without water you cannot produce food, and without food you can't survive.

Suddenly all contact with Earth is broken. The national tension skyrockets, as each suspect the others of being the guys who blew up Earth. To further complicate things, another faction has gone native and designated themselves "The Martians". Each colony decides to fend for itself. Your job is to survive long enough to re-establish contact with Earth, or to unite the planet by force. (Gah.)

In addition to the usual difficulty levels of Civ2, the placement of the various starting bases determine how hard this game is to play. The French and the Australians are situated by the southern watershed, and can expand fairly easily by irrigating the fertile Martian sands near the shore. The Russians and Japanese are near the northern watershed. So are the Americans, but their base is on the end of a very long strip of land that is filled with canyons all the way, and which therefore cannot be used for food production. (The various terrain types are pretty important here, obviously.) The Ukrainians and the Martians are landlocked and play at a heavy disadvantage early in the game.

The entire tech tree is replaced with futuristic inventions that sound scientific. Some of them are actually realistic, like fusion power and improved materials of various kinds. There are also new shades of government, but these are suspicious similar to those we already know. A weakness of the game (in my opinion) is the early availability of Militarism, the equivalent of Fundamentalism. You can get this after just a few inventions, and it remains possibly the best form of government as long as you have any aggressive competitors left. Which for all practical purposes means, the rest of the game.

Late in the game - a bit too late by my book - you get the technology of Terraforming. You can terraform any reasonably flat terrain (not mountains and canyons) but cratered terrain takes a lot of time. Before you have made more than a few green specks, the game is likely to be over. That's just too bad, because I love terraforming. I try to keep alive a few cities of the opposing factions, and then go on to terraform as much of the planet as I can before my wrists give out. Terraformed terrain gives abundant food and trade, and some mineral. It is quite a boost to any nearby city. And it looks nice, don't you think?


Eventually, the thing that makes me give up on the game is my wrists. Too much computer gaming makes them hurt. (The mouse is the worst part, but typing does nothing to help.) When my wrist recovers, the fad is over, until some months later when the call of the red planet again becomes too strong to resist.

At least they had the good grace not to call it "Barsoom Now!"... [1]

[1] "Barsoom" is the name used for Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his famous tales about John Carter, whose spirit is somehow transferred to Mars and incarnated in a new body similar to his own. This successful series of books from the beginning of the previous century (ca 1920) feature a Mars that is full of life and populated by several sentient races. A must read, if only to appreciate the changes to science and society during the last century.

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