Or should that be Mars Attacks vs Deadzone?
The most frequent question I’ve had about Mars Attacks is “what’s the difference between Mars Attacks and Deadzone?” Actually, “what’s the same¹” is a shorter list.
Game designs can be divided into two very broad camps: those that start with mechanics and slap a theme on later, and those that start with a theme and derive the rules from that. You can get great games with either method, though they do tend towards different styles. Personally, I almost always start from a theme and let the rules follow from there. It’s just what suits me. This was what happened with both MA and DZ, and this is the root of the differences.
Deadzone zooms into a tiny corner of the vast Warpath universe to concentrate on small groups of highly trained special forces. This is Blackhawk Down, Bravo Two Zero and the Cockleshell Heroes all rolled into one. Set in space. With monsters.
The tone of the background is serious – it is, after all, the end of humanity if the Enforcers get this wrong. That would probably be important.
DZ springs from this background of highly trained individuals, and so individual models are important and powerful. There’s a wealth of options in the tactical detail for the player to choose between, and the minutae of these choices can be critical. He can combine the moves of his various models to pull off complex, interlocking plans. Of course, you have to be aware of the overall progress of your force, but it’s in managing the detail of the individual actions that you will probably win the game.
Mars Attacks, on the other hand, is not serious. How could it be? It’s based on the larger than life comic style of the collectable cards and comics. It’s all slightly retro brash colours, dastardly aliens, buxom heroines, manly heroes and deadly ray guns in a style reminiscent of the covers of Astounding! and Amazing! magazines. Approaching this the same way as Deadzone just wouldn’t sit right in my brain.
So Mars Attacks is a much lighter game. It’s slightly more random and less “thinky” in a rules sense (though the better player will still win 95% of the games). To reflect the background, individual normal Martians and Humans die in droves. They are very much not important. Oh sure, one might get lucky, but they’d need to. Mostly it’s the heroes that will be winning the games for you. If the rank and file are getting anything done it’s because they turned up mob handed and outnumber you by lots.
Mars Attacks is replete with wacky events like wandering herds of burning cattle, distracting squirrels, thrown cars and loads more. It also has flying saucers and ray guns.
So, detailed and thinky, vs lighter and sillier.
Both games share the same basic dice mechanic that you might have seen in DreadBall. It’s a nice, simple and very quick process that is both easy to explain and quickly becomes second nature. I’ve used it for a while now (it’s based on the one I used in God of Battles and was in development for another game before that). As I know it works and works well it seemed like reinventing the wheel to replace it with something else. Just as cars all use round wheels, I didn’t think replacing it for the sake of being different would help anyone. Square wheels? No thanks.
Both games are also action driven in the sense that you choose an action per model from a list. Again, this is the same as DreadBall (and a thousand other skirmish games). However, the list of possible actions is different in DZ and MA. DZ allows for a lot more detail and includes more modifiers on each of its larger list of actions. This means that Mars Attacks focuses less on the detail of individuals, and more on the overall movement of the force as a whole.
Another thing that underlines this difference is the fact that only heroes get injured. Normal Humans and Martians just get dead, and they do that pretty quickly. If you’re familiar with the background you’d be surprised at anything else. The stories have an impressive body count.
Overall, I’d say that the games look closer on paper than they feel in play. When you’ve got them on the table the difference in focus is clear. Deadzone wants you in the details. Mars Attacks wants you in the war².
So who is Mars Attacks for? Well, it’s for anyone who might want a lighter and sillier gaming session. In some cases this will be a group that loves the background and appreciates its black humour. This could be casual gamers or (in my case) veteran geeks who are looking for a light game to end or start a session of something else. It could be anyone that wants to fight their way through the narrative campaign to save or conquer Greenville. Mars Attacks is also a good way to introduce someone to gaming as it combines ready to go out of the box with simple rules and fun (pre-assembled) models.
Personally I expect to play DZ and MA with the same opponents. Just because someone likes the detail grit of Deadzone doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate disintegrating waves of the opposition with heat rays, chucking a car at the enemy or setting fire to a herd of cattle. It’s not so much one or the other – they’re both different sorts of fun 🙂
I’m sure we’ll come back to this question again. It is, like the DB/BB elephant, looking like a hardy perennial. However, for me the issue is simple. The points of similarity are like the same things that two cars have in common. Both a Maserati and a Humvee are good at what they’re designed for, and both have an engine, wheels and brakes, but you wouldn’t mistake one for the other. Would you? If you’re confused, the robust and practical Humvee is shown above, and the very shiny Maserati is shown below.
Similarly, DZ and MA both use dice, actions and fight over a gridded board, but that doesn’t make them the same thing. Far from it. I look forward to enjoying both, each for different reasons.
Can I have some Martians now Stew?
1: what’s important and the same. I’m ignoring the fact that both games use dice and models, have rules for movement and so on. If we count those then there are hundreds of games which are effectively the same, and that’s daft.
2: And making the sound effects. Obviously.