Surviving Mars – Review – Trying out the Elon Musk Experience

Played on Windows
Also Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, macOS, and Linux.

Surviving Mars is a new city builder, though obviously with a large twist. Rather than trying to build a working city on Earth, using the normal process with streets, zoning, and more, Surviving Mars brings the entire genre to Mars and focuses more on maintaining a living world rather than trying to optimize the city itself. It’s a different city or base builder, but is it a better one?

This is the second Early Unlock that is part of the Humble Monthly Bundle for August 2019. The other being Kingdom Come: Deliverance that I reviewed recently, and feel free to check that review out. At the same time, this is a very different game than I have been playing. Let’s see how it goes.


The graphics of Surviving Mars works for what is being done. Each building and object looks unique and is easily identifiable on the map. An oxygen generator looks different from a water generator and a power generator, with the same being true for the water tank and oxygen tank and every building in the game.

Admittedly, the graphics are on the weaker side, as one would expect from a city builder, the player isn’t here to be dazzled by graphics. Rather, solid simulation and a more involved world are almost always desired over graphic fidelity.

Even without knowing what each piece is, it’s a little clear what certain pieces are for.

Surviving Mars might be a little behind where it could have been. While there are humans in the game they’re limited to a few areas. Robot drones are running around but they are only active when you’re giving them commands, as there are very few idle tasks at least in the early and mid-game. Most drones become controlled by Drone Controllers which are a little expensive to create so they also have limited reach. This means there’s not that much going on with a majority of the map. It is fun to watch the drones and people for a while, but overall, not much will be going on.

Admittedly, the world is interesting, and there are many different areas of the world. Every map seems to be different, from the layout to the valuable resources and the question is, how are you going to exploit each area. So overall it looks good even if it’s not going to wow most players.


While there is not a strong story in Surviving Mars, there are a few bits of story in some places. Each “Sponsor” has a couple of unique goals for the player and those can be accomplished for rewards but it’s not a full story.

Instead, the story appears during what the game calls the Mystery, however it’s a minor part of the gameplay. The Mystery for my game included a whole setup for Black Cubes that appeared and even attacked one of my buildings. There was a lot of information and thoughts about the Black Cubes during the mystery, everything from some people pushing to destroy them, to others wanting to revere it.

There’s a few choices like this that are interesting, but not major story elements.

However, these updates aren’t often. The game could go over ten minutes of real-time between parts of the story and that was a little disappointing. A few times I sat back and waited to see what was going to happen next and I eventually found I was missing some steps, such as having to harvest some black cubes that had appeared.

The mystery’s story is solid, but it’s only a few panels of text over a 10-hour game, so if you want a story behind the game, this probably isn’t for you. You’re mostly going to be here to build a society on Mars and trying to make it into anything else won’t be easy.


Surviving Mars is all about building a working colony on Mars. This starts with the player landing a shuttle, several drones and beginning supplies to set the player up to start. From there you need to start building an early base. This means everything from generating power to gathering metals and getting a stockpile of concrete. Each of these tasks requires a different strategy or maneuver, but almost any player will be able to complete them to get the early game going.

After getting a good start, the player can start building a habitat that he can eventually support human life with. The drones the player starts with is attached to the Shuttle, and limited in reach but players can build drone controllers to reach farther and continue to gather resources.

You can even watch the resources accumulate at your build sites if you wish.

The biggest issue I have with Surviving Mars is how overly active the beginning is. Most city and base builders are active with planning or preparing the early stages of the game. Players have the starting money and resources and need to start building the initial generators of funds. While I do prefer an active city builder than a passive one, Surviving Mars though focuses on sending your transport vehicle out to gather ore manually and return it as well as sending your remote explorer to research anomalies. This doesn’t change throughout the game. The number of metal ore your base will be able to directly reach is low, so the player will have to actively gather resources.

The downside of this cycle is this is also what a majority of what the player is expected to do for the entire game. Gathering resources, and planning the colony becomes much of the game, as well as preparing for major events, such as meteor strikes, and wind storms.

While I played a low difficulty game, the meteor strikes came often enough to be a minor annoyance to me, but eventually I found that the drone controllers if spaced properly made much of my bases resilient to these failures and the game became a series of waiting to see if anything happened that I had to react to..

While playing Surviving Mars though it’s up to the player to find some goal to chase. While the Mystery will become a major goal for the player to chase, it takes a long time to reach that point, and the starting criteria for the selected Mystery is unknown as any of several possible Mysteries can be chosen. The best thing to do is to reach 100 citizens and see if that triggers it as a majority are triggered at that point. However, to get that big usually requires a large amount of those resources, and certain resources are limited.

While there are metal deposits on the surface, those will eventually be collected by an active player, from there it seems like Surviving Mars expects the player to start mine for further metal as well as rare metals. This sounds great, though it requires a nearby dome with appropriate life support, from water, air, and power.

While many domes will look the same, there does appear to be a lot to do in each one and ways to customize it.

The issue is that as the game went out, I found after about 6 domes fully built out I was running out of the resources on the surface of the planet. It was clear I needed to gather more Metal and Rare Metal to start building advanced resources like electronics and machine parts.

Luckily for my game, I had enough money that I was able to ask Earth to send more of the advanced resources, but eventually, I needed to earn money. The only thing that Earth seems to import from Mars in Surviving Mars is Rare Metal, and that’s a good name for it because I found the metal to be exceedingly rare on my map. This becomes one of my rather big issues for the game.

It feels like a majority of the focus of Surviving Mars is to acquire these rare metals to earn money. Even if the player is somehow able to find a wealth of every other resource in the game, including Metal, and Water, the player still will need the rare metals to build Mars’ version of Electronics, an important resource. If he can’t gather enough he’ll be forced to sell the rare ore and import these materials, and other resources that are lacking.

So ultimately at least one of your domes will have to be near a deposit of Rare Metals. This isn’t a problem but it limits exactly what the player can do with his Habitats. I didn’t have a great place to put down many of my habitats, and so I was choosing their locations at random. It’s a learning process, but one that I wish felt like there were more good choices, than just “Where I can find important resources.”

By the time I had figured out my resource situation as best I could, the game’s mystery was upon me. While in each of these missions, these are just miniature stories, that do appear to be the “goal” of each playthrough. While you can continue to make the base bigger and better, that’s about all you would be playing for. At the same time, the mystery is lacking something.

The mystery for my society was the Mystery of the Black Cubes. All of a sudden black cubes clusters started to appear on my map, and I created specialized depots to store them at. It sounds simple mostly because it was. After each step of the story surrounding the mystery, the game would sit waiting for around 10-20 sols, which are in-game years, time passed, and I looked for something to do actively. Much of the metal on the surface had been claimed, so the game had fallen into very passive gameplay Even when I switched the game’s speed to the highest rate it was still a reasonable amount of time.

There are many opportunities for micromanaging, like in selected colonists, where players can decide exactly who to bring to mars.

The Black Cube Mystery is rather weak. The player just sits and waits for the event to proceed, every so often, the player needs to collect the mysterious resource and wait even longer. The only major change to the gameplay during this time was that one of my concrete extractors got destroyed by the cube which happened immediately, and I got a couple of tech tree improvements to chase. But even there, I was just forced to wait, most of the time with no further change to the story.

Ultimately the story resolved itself as the cubes started to form a large structure and my base started to assist in delivering them to that location. And suddenly the structure had enough resources and was complete and I earned a “breakthrough” which is a hidden and random science improvements. That was it, suddenly the mystery had finished, I earned an achievement and the game played on as if nothing happened.

Though there was still a mystery left. Why was I playing Surviving Mars?

Before we dig into that final mystery, there are a couple of things to understand. In Civilization the player is in an eternal race against all other civilization, usually forced to try to chase multiple progress paths to win the game before other opponents complete their game. This can make sense, and it becomes a major part of Civilization’s experience. Surviving Mars doesn’t have a true opponent.

I would say Surviving Mars is a bit sterile. There are no alien life forms, there’s no history of life, at least not a real source. There are just humans on Mars, as well as the hope everyone doesn’t die. There’s not even a true difficulty, but rather a “Challenge” percentage to the survival, with higher values being more challenging.

The idea here is fine, humanity attempts to survive on Mars with the Red Planet striking back and attempting to be as inhospitable as it can be. In theory, this could work. But sadly the Red Planet is almost too welcoming. The resources that can be found on the planet assists the player, and without direct competition, it’s just a survival game. I realize that many people play survival first-person games, and admittedly there could be a survival base builder with no enemies. I would even say that I have now played it, and it’s in the name.

That might be fine for fans of the survival genre, but ultimately I was just hoping there was something more to the game. Some group to play against, some danger outside of the danger of boredom or poor planning. Even having a second or third base that the player could be racing against for some goal or even just funding would have been a fine way to add in a little more competition.

You can and probably should make large power grids for your colony.

Another way to look at Surviving Mars is as a thought experience for people who care about space exploration and want to think about maximizing survivability for Mars. Elon Musk probably has taken a look at the game out of curiosity. But ultimately, Surviving Mars doesn’t stand out to me the way other base building games like Two Point Hospital does, nor does it scratch the same itch as Cities: Skylines where I want to see how big a city I can run. The fact that it’s heavily focused on limited resources rather than an ever-expanding scope and world limits which is what I’m interested in tackling, and personally I sat there after finishing my Mystery and thinking of the other games I could play.

Civilization has consistently gotten a large number of people to buy and play it because it is almost a board game with challenges, and victory point races. Civilization players can play against each other with predefined rules and that has worked. Surviving Mars lacks that competitive aspect. It has become more like solitaire than a competitive or cooperative board game and that’s really what has me lacking an interesting to return. A competitive board game will feel different on each playthrough. Surviving Mars offers me almost the same experience for another playthrough but with a different Mystery, which feels like a stack of 10 cards that get turned over at predetermined times in the late game and won’t challenge me. If that is the case, I think I’m good.

It’s not that my time with Surviving Mars was unfulfilling, it wasn’t a bad experience, or disappointing. Solitaire is a fun game to play every once in a while. It’s just that I feel that I could be playing almost any other game and expect to get just as much enjoyment out of it, if not more. Some people may say that’s because it’s not the type of game for me, and that’s fine, but I enjoy building cities and bases. I just wasn’t able to find much on Mars for me to make a return trip and start again from scratch.

I give Surviving Mars a


Final Thoughts: A Survival city or base builder focused on our neighboring planet. While it’s interesting at first, there’s just not enough to do in it to really draw me beyond playing through it the first time.

Stats: 11.1 hours played 11/70 achievements earned