A review copy of Super Motherload was provided by Roxley Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I confess I had no idea that Super Motherload was a thing, certainly not a thing successful enough to spawn off a tie-in boardgame. And yet, my diligent research (a lazy Google search) suggests that it was at one point sufficiently prominent to merit a strip on Penny Arcade, and a news post commentary to accompany it. Meeple Like Us has never achieved that lofty accolade, but Jerry Holkins once described the output of this very blog as ‘f*cking fascinating’ in personal correspondence. As such I feel a certain kinship with Super Motherload. It helps that it’s also a damn fine game.
It’s also a weird little game – a board-based deckbuilder that doesn’t rely especially heavily on the usual tropes and techniques so common to that school of game design. It’s a game that’s not about carefully sharpening a deck until its edge is keen enough to draw blood. It’s not about creating clever and complex synergies that are less like drawing a hand of cards and more like carrying out a magic trick. Super Motherload instead offers something simpler and to my mind more satisfying. It doesn’t rely on the erratic and unreliable juxtaposition of chance to make your cards work. All your cards work, all of the time – your job is to make sure they work as optimally as is possible for the game you have in front of you.
It all starts on the surface of Mars. You and your crew members are miners in the employ of the Solarus Corporation. Your job is to dig the whole night through. In a mine. Where a million diamonds shine.
And my word, shine they do – the earth below the surface of Mars is remarkable for just how rich and profitable it turns out to be. It’s threaded through with iron, gold and platinum. The rich veins of metal are in turn studded with emeralds, rubies and diamonds. There are also many seams of explosive materials, mysterious alien artefacts, and the occasional pocket of what seems to be raw motivation. Every so often you’ll drill into a location on the map and suddenly you’re drawing new cards of fresh, energised miners as a result. This is never explained but I like to think you stumble into an extra-terrestrial deposit of abandoned Tony Robbins audiobooks in a chamber marked with some exotic other-worldly biohazard sign.
It’s hard to imagine what else might be happening since your cards don’t represent events or equipment. They represent – well, I‘m not sure. My own personal interpretation is that each card signifies an untapped portion of a crew member’s potential. As you use them up they become tired and over-stressed, and it takes the reshuffle of your deck before they find a second wind. Really though it’s important not to read too deeply into anything that’s happening in Super Motherload. None of it makes an awful lot of thematic sense.
Your cards are your crew, or whatever portion of their time you have to allocate to mining opportunities. Each player has a different deck from which they’ll draw, and they all play ever so slightly differently. You’ll have your own mini-team of intrepid space spelunkers and you’ll be spending them to drill and bomb your way into the tectonic plates of this planet of untapped potential. You begin with four green recruits in your hand, and as you liberate the rich mineral resources of Mars you’ll be able to invest money into additional training opportunities . You’ll open up new capacity in your crew and ever greater opportunities for satiating their appetite for destruction. Every resource you mine from the depths of Mars has a value, and every time you collect a resource you can spend it on one of your crew members to double down on their skillsets.
You drill by spending collections of colour-matched cards – each card has one or more drill symbols located along the side. These are red, yellow, blue or ‘wild’. The number of drill icons you spend determines how many tunnel tiles you place down. When you cover a tile, you get the bonus, if any, displayed on its square. Tunnels have to either connect to the surface or to an existing tunnel. Dirt is easily drilled away, but some drill actions require penetration into steel plated vaults. Only drills of the correct colour can make their way through these. Hard rock in turn can’t be drilled – it has to be bombed.
Bombing is conducted by your explosives expert – the card marked in red in your hand. You need to have a spare bomb token to carry out the activity, and the effect it has is going to be determined by the bomb pattern of the card you’re choosing to play.
Look at this cheerful little chappie you just so happened to have in your starting hand of four cards – he bombs a 2×1 square, so your first action on Mars can be to spend him and your starting bomb token to claim some resources. You can’t bomb the steel plate sections, but you can blast out the dirt that connects to the surface to get yourself some iron and some gold. Those resource can then be put towards staff development, but…
Well, here’s the thing. The Solarus Corporation has a weird system of financial remuneration built into its contracts. All resources mined in an action are claimed, but they can be spent only on one staff member for development. Each successive level of training is more expensive, and you’ll be spending a lot of time balancing the investment you’re making in each member of your team. Once you’ve spent enough, you get the card that you’re currently working on and reveal the one underneath. The problem is that nobody on Mars seems to have discovered the ‘make change’ technology. What you overspend is lost, and the financial systems located on Mars do not act particularly in alignment with the sums expected.
You get two actions to take during a turn of Super Motherload. Above, we used one to bomb a chunk of Mars and then we can spend another two cards, this time blue drills, to drill down into the steel plated vault and claim the platinum within.
That’s worth $5 to us, which we spend on the dog because he’s a good little guy yes he is, yes he is. You can see that he’s better than our base cards because he acts as a drill, and whenever we play him in an action we’ll get to draw a card of our own. I guess everyone working around our little buddy (I call him Astro after the dog in the Jetsons) is just happy to have a dog on the team. This is why I say every employer should issue every staff member a dog in the same way some corporations give managers a company car.
You don’t replace cards in Super Motherload, you just new card to your discard deck so they get cycled into availability as the game progresses. As your dog gets trained he becomes more able to do better things, but he can still do the earlier things too. You’re investing in unlocking potential and capacity. This little feller is going to bite his way right down into the heart of Mars and give the tripods lurking within its unwelcoming heart a damn good cuddle because he’s a good little guy.
Cards also often come with a buy bonus, and when you pick them up you get that as a freebie. Astro here gives a bomb token when he’s purchased. Devil-boy to his left gives the player another action. Other cards let you take the one you just bought directly into your hand. Others have more exotic effects, like engaging in a degree of embezzlement to steal money right out of the bank accounts of your corporate overlords.
The artefacts you can collect have similar powers, and you get to use them whenever it’s convenient once you’ve collected them. They might give you free resources, or secret victory points, or give you the quick energy you need to take multiple free actions in succession. Collecting these also sets the pace of the game, because it’s only when you’ve collected all the artefacts on your current board that you dig deeper into the mantle of Mars and seek ever more impressive riches. Oh, yes – did you think that board we saw above was all you had to work with? We go deep on Mars. We go very deep.
Each subsequent depth of board, up to the fathomless pit of four, offers more complex drilling environments and ever-increasing riches to seek. The more lucrative, expensive gemstones become more common. Iron becomes correspondingly rarer. The rock patterns and steel vaults start to interleave in ways that limit your ability to leverage the specialist crew you’re building – if you can’t place all of a drill or bomb pattern, you can’t place any of it. All of this makes managing your dwindling resources more important at the exact same time it ramps up the competition, and the effect is to create an agreeable sense of accelerating tension in play.
Those bombs you have are hugely important – they’re the only way, aside from some very unreliable driller cards, to carve out the heavy rock that surrounds some of the more lucrative supplies. They’re available in intensely limited quantities though, and when you’re busy training up your crew you’re often not drilling into those parts of the map where you can find them. Bombs are useful, but situational – gold and jewels are always worth collecting especially as your crew gets ever more difficult to level up.
There comes a point as you delve too deeply and too greedily that your accumulating wealth starts to become its own problem. Let’s say you’re deep down and you manage to get yourself a nice chunk of mineral wealth – a piece of $5 platinum, $3 gold, and a nice $8 ruby. That’s a total of $16 that has to be spent in one transaction on a single card. If you’re lucky, you can dump that on a nice, fresh $15 cost card and lose only a single $1 in the exchange. Remember, nobody on Mars has worked out how to make change for a purchase.
The problem is that you won’t be doing that. You’ll be staring at a roster of crew members that doesn’t so much resemble an HR training session as it does a night in a strip club. Everyone has money draped all over them, and finding a slot for that $16 that doesn’t make you wince at the overpayment can be very difficult.
I mean – what do you do here? Buying the first card is an overpayment of $8. The second is an overpayment of $11. The third is $14. The fourth is $12. Each and every one of those is a painful prospect given how if you could just spread the money you claimed you could buy every single one of them. There’s even a specialist driller in one faction that lets you do that very thing.
It’s more than just the loss of money that you need to consider though, it’s the use the card will have in the here and now. The first card lets you instantly draw two new cards, and maybe that’s worth $8? The second and fourth cards are worth 9 and 10 victory points each, and that’s a lot. And the third one… well, he’s the most significant overpayment but his buy power is that he lets you duplicate a mineral resource that is on any other pilot. Occasionally you may find that fate smiles upon you because of how you have cannily spread your money in the past. You buy the yellow card, and then duplicate the diamond on the second card to bring your total overpayment down to a svelte $2. Mmmmm.
That’s not a trick you can repeat too often though and it gets much more difficult to do it as time goes by because the real solution to dumping vast wealth for minimum reward is to aim for a greater granularity of resources. Why waste four drill icons on a huge score if you’ll only get the value out of a fraction of it? Maybe spend one drill to get that iron deposit farther up the shaft – that way you’re making sure you get the absolute most out of the cards you have.
The problem is that as your crew gets better, so too do the hands you draw and sometimes you find that your own effectiveness is a problem all of its own. You can’t place a partial tunnel tile, so sometimes you find that all your drillers are just too good to let you do precision strikes at the optimal resources.
I mean, maybe you need $5 to buy a card and the iron and gold that’s in the top right of the shaft would be perfect. If the only way you could do that is by spending two cards summing four yellow drills, you can’t get it. Yellow drills can’t go through blue steel. They’re like jet fuel. They don’t melt steel. Sometimes you find yourself yearning for the less effective cards to come into your hand because they permit you to more finely manage your drilling activities. This is maybe the first deckbuilder I have played where you need precision from your cards as often as you need sheer power. The later cards are not always better because you want to get the most out of every drill and every bomb.
But there’s more still, because while the cards you buy determine your victory points there’s also a powerful need for you to play flexibly if you want to pick up the achievement cards that add flavour to the game. At the start of play you deal out three major achievements which are awarded upon purchasing the qualifying number of crew cards. You also deal out three minor achievements which are awarded for more idiosyncratic activities within the game. Only three major achievements are ever available, but claimed minor achievements will be replenished. As you do that you create a constant throughput of new incentives for people to act in unusual ways.
Minor achievements have all kinds of interesting effects on how the game progresses. Sometimes they synergise well with your own strategies. More often they need you to aim to do different things than what you had planned. Sometimes you can accomplish them without too much difficulty. Sometimes they need a conjunction of luck and forward planning. Performing two bombing actions in a turn requires you to have two bomb tokens and two demolitions experts available, as well as the shaft real estate within which to conduct those operations. Whether that’s going to be worth three victory points depend on how it coheres with your own strategy. What you need to do is balance all those ongoing considerations, and this makes a game of simple spatial manipulation into an experience with surprising tactical and strategic complexity.
And that’s really how Super Motherload came across to me – surprising. I didn’t expect these simple mechanisms to come together so cleverly and create such a forcefully effective system for vexed decision making. I’ve documented several times on this blog that I don’t get on especially well with deckbuilders – I like them well enough, it’s just they rarely manage to rise beyond a vaguely benign indifference. I admire the artistry of the mechanisms, but they always seem somewhat creatively bereft. You buy cards, you get rid of your weaker cards, you continually refine your deck until every turn you can do amazing things. Super Motherload basically abandons the whole concept of deck curation in favour of something more interesting – the spatial explicitness that permits every hand of cards to do something. And then with that board it creates a tempo to play that leads to new and interesting experiences associated with timing and the branching opportunities you create for your opponents.
The way I’ve been describing the game so far has been very much as a solo experience but the other players around the table here are doing more than simply drilling away according to their own agendas. They’re adding a risk component to every action you take because they’ll each get to take two actions when you’ve spent your last. That means you spend as much time waiting for your perfect moment as you do actually seizing it. Why should you be the one to waste your red drillers opening up that lucrative rock vein? Why not wait for someone else to do that so you can conserve your demolitions experts and claim the riches for yourself at minimal expenditure?
Well, maybe that’s what your opponents are also waiting on. Maybe none of you will get the riches because nobody had the strength in hand to seize everything in a single turn and so everyone gave in to caution. Or maybe they’ve simply decided there are less contentious opportunities elsewhere. It might be safe for you to methodically work your way towards the richest prize but it can be snatched away at any time. Sometimes playing Super Motherload is as much about reading your opponent as it is reading the board, and that again is surprising in a game that is explicitly about deckbuilding. It also makes that reading of the table difficult because this is much about scalpels as it is about swords. Perhaps the reason nobody wants that super valuable collection of gemstones is that for now platinum and gold permits a more efficient allocation of effort to reward. It’s a rare game that can make the ‘vendor trash’ of the early game retain its value all the way through to the end.
However, buried in all those comments about what Super Motherload does well is a hidden undercurrent of what it does poorly – it doesn’t really play as a very effective deckbuilder. In fact, the deckbuilding in Super Motherload is so cursory as to make the whole thing practically irrelevant. You don’t get opportunities to be clever in Super Motherload, except in terms of how efficiently you leverage the tools you have within the constraints of the board. You don’t get a chance to build a deck that makes your opponents recoil in fear. The mechanisms work perfectly well, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that deckbuilding is most effectively leveraged as a tool for enabling player creativity and that isn’t the case here. The economy of the cards is completely open, the variation between them is very slim, and the end effect they have on the development of the game is minor. Deckbuilding lets you do more with greater power, but it doesn’t at any point change the fundamental experience of the game. The game of Super Motherload you play at depth four feels identical to the one you play at depth one.
That’s something of an issue because really the longevity of Super Motherload has a series of question marks hanging over its head. The boards you get are double sided, which theoretically gives you sixteen possible maps within which to work. None of them feel very different from any other – this isn’t a game where people will have their favourite boards, or where one flipped bit in the system will yield a fundamentally different experience.
And sure, the board arrangement changes the specifics of the game but it doesn’t change them much. For the life of me I couldn’t give you a meaningful opinion on which side of any board I prefer simply because I don’t even notice the variation. There’s scope here for expansion content to give meaningfully different boards that require all kinds of different strategies. There’s, at least as of yet, no suggestion that’s coming. Where are the vast open caverns that create natural openings for drilling activities? Where are the layered fortifications of steel and rock that need players to work together to penetrate? Where are the boards that stretch off left and right as much as up and down? All of that could change every session of Super Motherload into something with the long-term sustainability of a roguelike, but we don’t have it here and the game suffers somewhat as a result. As it is, you can save bombs for later on if you like but you rarely encounter a scenario where it turns out to have made much difference. That wouldn’t have been the case if you drew the next board to find it had a thick crust of rock that needed blasted out before you could get to the trivially gained riches below it. Sometimes variation is as much about changing the way you approach the familiar as it is introducing the novel.
We shouldn’t though get too bogged down in what isn’t especially when what is has so much going for it. Super Motherload is a deckbuilder that does something genuinely interesting with the concept – it emphasises sustainability of a deck more than razor-sharp efficiency. It’s a game that manages to avoid the problem of snow-balling capability by ensuring low-grade resources have as much, if not more, value than the big scores that can be found elsewhere. It doesn’t add a layer of negotiation to play, but it does add a system of wary watchfulness that can verge into outright paranoia. It does a lot of things very well, and on those measures alone this is a game that likely deserves a place in your collection.
A review copy of Super Motherload was provided by Roxley Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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