Product Review of Mars Horizon
Mars Horizon is a strategy and simulation game focused on space exploration, supported by the European and U.K. Space Agencies. The game has three main activities. First, players take on the role of a space agency in the latter half of the 20th century to plan out and shoot for various milestones in space exploration. The space agency you select (or create yourself) competes against other agencies across the globe. The goal: to reach Mars. Each mission starts with building a rocket and a payload, such as a satellite or a capsule to support astronauts or rovers. Once they’re built (which can take months), players must time the launch to align with the best odds of favorable weather conditions.
The second activity begins after the launch. This is a puzzle mini-game that simulates controlling the satellite or capsule, and involves activities like sending and receiving communications from mission control or steering and dealing with heat on reentry. This plays a lot like common beginner programming games, where you input a set of commands that control a robot and then see whether those commands were sufficient to deal with each turn of play.
The third and final core activity of the game happens between missions, while you wait for things to get built or happen. During this time, players can direct research efforts into new rockets (that can deliver more massive payloads or consume less fuel) and construct buildings on their base that add in-game bonuses. Players also have to build up good public relations to maintain and increase their monthly funds. They also have to hire astronauts who have their own individual little perks that affect mission success.
Educators could have learners play Mars Horizon on their own or in pairs. Either way, learners will need to exercise thinking skills to plan out missions and choose the best research to invest in. As learners play, they’ll encounter historical information as well as scenarios and challenges facing space agencies today, which could spark further study.
While you could just have learners play the game traditionally, one creative approach — that would take a lot of prep work — is to mix gameplay with real-life role-playing. The whole classroom could operate as a single space agency, or there could be several groups running several games. The learners could vote on decisions in the game, and possibly elect a leader who makes decisions in case of a tie. Certain learners would act as engineers, operating the computer. Creative educators might add additional roles and responsibilities outside of the game, such as researchers or documenters. The game could play out over a semester. Between play sessions, learners could research, discuss strategy, and decide mission priorities. Educators might also add in an art and design element, and have learners create costumes, badges, logos, and more.
Directing the efforts of a space agency racing to Mars offers a fun and challenging hook for play. There’s a real sense of urgency, since players compete with other agencies for big milestones like being first to the moon. Each of these milestones is an important step (both in the game and for space agencies today), which can be explored in a Spacepedia — though it’s iffy whether learners will take the time to read the entries.
The main takeaway for learners, beyond the thinking skills Mars Horizon supports, is that space missions require extensive planning and logistics. Rockets take time to build and test, technologies take time to research, and seasons provide unique weather-based challenges. There’s also the issue of funding if public support drops. Mars Horizon does a good job of simulating these challenges.
The big drawback is the mini-games. They get repetitive and feel too time-consuming. They also distract from the more important learning opportunities involved in the choice- and strategy-driven mission planning.
Overall User Consensus About the App
The experience taps into that “just one more turn” feeling as players plan and anticipate upcoming missions.
Curriculum and Instruction
It does a good job of teaching the logistics of space missions but could better build in context for each type of mission. Mini-games can distract a bit from learning.
The game has an opening tutorial and info pop-ups, three difficulty levels, and a healthy message board. An encyclopedia collects historical info. It does lack some accessibility affordances.