Mars Needs Mechanics: An Interview with Ben Rosset

There's a been a slight hum about Mars Needs Mechanics for a while now. It tested very well at UnPub and it was picked up by Nevermore Games. I had the pleasure of meeting the game's designer, Ben Rosset, at GenCon AND playing the game with him and two other great guys. Immediately following the game, I asked Ben if he'd do an interview for my site. 

Mars Needs Mechanics is very simple, elegant, and clever. If you like economic games, you should read this interview.

HG: Hi! Introduce yourself.

BR: My name is Ben Rosset. I'm 31, born and raised in Chicago, and a lifetime gamer. I have fond memories of games of Boggle and Scrabble with my grandma at her kitchen table and, slightly less pleasant memories of being made fun of in high school for staying home on Saturday nights to play epic Axis & Allies games with my dad!

HG: Tell us about Mars Needs Mechanics. What do we need to know?

BR: It’s a 2-4 player medium weight strategy game that takes 45 minutes to play. At its heart, it’s an Economics game with a unique timing mechanism that I call the sales order line. This timing mechanism only allows players to control the prices of components indirectly, and players have to rely heavily on their read of their opponents’ intentions in order to time their own moves correctly.

HG: What were your original goals for the game?

BR: Originally, I wanted to make an easy-to-learn Economics game where players could only control the price of goods indirectly. I'm a big fan of Economics games, but I usually don't think they are worth a 90 minute play time. So this game had to be quick to learn and quick to play. I went through several major iterations until I came up with the sales order line. Right away, I felt like I had something unique, and players who know the game have confirmed that. Mars Needs Mechanics takes about 5 to 10 minutes to learn and it’s a very accessible game. I'm lucky that I ended up right where I wanted to be with the game.

HG: What are some of your favorite economic games? 

BR: For Sale, by Stefan Dorra. Not sure if you can call it an "Economics Game." It’s definitely a bidding game. It’s short, simple, and addictive. Mars Needs Mechanics is "heavier" than For Sale, but like For Sale it moves quickly.

Power Grid. Just a great game. I wish I could play it more.

I'm going to surprise you, I hope, and pull out a game here that I used to play as a kid with my dad and brother, Ticker Tape. I gotta be honest, at this point I don't remember much about it, I probably haven't played it in 15 years. But as a kid, I remember wanting to play it over and over again.

HG: What were some of the most difficult problems to solve with the game? How did you get from point A to B?

BR: Once I came up with the sales order line, the rest of the game fell into place quite quickly. From there, I knew I had a simple, fun game, but I wanted it to be just a little bit heavier, more strategic. Adding to the game in a way where the sales order line retained its importance was the difficult task. I had a few ideas before the game got picked up by Nevermore, and then Bryan and I went to work reviewing my ideas and coming up with more. The game today, as it will be sold on Kickstarter, is pretty much the same game I had when Nevermore first played it. We've just added 9 "mechanisms" to the game which players can build, tear down, and rebuild, to give them small but useful abilities during play. The cool thing about the system is that you only use 4 or 5 mechanisms in a game, and with 9 different mechanisms in the box, that translates to over 100 different unique combinations of mechanisms, which really helps with replay value, even though replay value was not our immediate concern.

HG: One thing I loved about the game was how quickly it moved. Buy, buy, buy, finished. Was it always this crisp?

BR: It was, once I came up with the sales order line. Before that, no. Not even close. In fact, during the first playtest in my first iteration of the game, players needed calculators, as the scores (unintentionally) got into the hundreds of thousands! "Well, that didn't work," I said. Mars Needs Mechanics was one of those games that took a little while to come together. Once I found the sales order line, I completely tore down the game, and rebuilt it completely specifically around the sales order line. After that, it just flowed!

HG: Your game ties its components and board layout together so well. How did you get it to this point? Can you tell us about the process here?

BR: I have to give Bryan Fischer, the artist, credit for this one. He's really done an amazing job, and made the game come to life. The feedback on the art has been incredible. Bryan's a good designer, but he's also got a really bright future ahead of him doing art and layout for board games.

HG: What is your favorite part of the game?

BR: My favorite part of the game, from the designer's point of view, is that moment when a new player realizes how the sales order line work. They get this expression on their face, like a light bulb just went off, and a little sneaky smile in the corner of their mouth, and I know they get it. It can take players about half the game to "get it". Once they do, it’s awesome to watch them play.

HG: The game was originally not a steampunk themed title, right? Tell us about this transition.

BR: I'm not shy about admitting that theme isn't my strong suit. I'm a mechanics first designer. Often when I start to design a new game, I get an idea for an interesting mechanic or gameplay variant, and I set out to design that. I'll usually just use a "placeholder" theme for the game until I get the mechanics of the game where I want them, and then I'll mindfully choose a theme. It was this way with Mars Needs Mechanics. Originally, it was just called "The Market", and it had a Middle Eastern Bazaar theme. That was the placeholder. Once I got the mechanics of the game finished, we turned to theme, and Mars Needs Mechanics was born.

HG: Do you have any development advice for other designers? How to test, how to pitch to publishers, and more?

BR: Oh yes. My first words of advice are just "get the game on the table." So many people tell me they would love to be a game designer, and that they have good ideas, but they don't know if the game will be any good or how to test it. I ask them, "Have you printed it out and played it?" And they say no, but they've been working on the rules for a couple months.

You can tweak the rules forever, but it’s meaningless unless you print the game and play it. A single playtest will give you more feedback than a month reading and re-reading your rules to see if they make sense. In terms of pitching a game to publishers, you've got to go to conventions. That's where it’s at. You can write emails to publishers for a year with very little to show for it, but if you go to a convention, even a small one like PrezCon, you can get your game in front of a half dozen publishers in a weekend. It’s well worth the cost of a convention pass to go.

HG: Is there anything you'd like to add?

BR: The videos that we shot for the Kickstarter campaign are awesome. They were done by my good friend Justin Schauble, a professional video editor. I can't wait to see them up on our BGG page and on Kickstarter. I'd also like to give a big thank you to Labyrinth Game Shop in Washington, DC. They've been really supportive of me, and they even let us shoot one of the Kickstarter videos in their store.

Mars Needs Mechanics is trying to raise money for a print run on Kickstarter now. If interested, take a look.