As entrepreneurial wunderkind Elon Musk reaches out to settle humans on Earth’s little red brother, mankind wonders what awaits us on that alien soil. How will we come to terms with our new existence as off-world colonists? What trials will we face? Well, if it turns out like our first forays onto crimson soil, we’ll scrap the first dozen missions and kill off the first wave of settlers by accidental asphyxiation. Tropico developer Haemimont Games’ latest foray into city building is often as cold and unforgiving as space itself, but it’s also a tranquil and rewarding experience.

Far from the comedic communism simulator of Tropico, Surviving Mars doesn't have a traditional story to usher you through the tutorial phases. Rather it offers a few suggestive text-based hints and leaves you to it, which can be a blessing and a curse. There also isn’t a clear narrative goal, instead you can choose from a collection of emerging "mysteries" at the beginning of a custom game. These stories unfold as your Martian colony expands and each one is themed on a key science fiction concept. The mysterious phenomena takes time to emerge but the ones we did encounter add a fun and unsettling spin on proceedings.

The lack of an immediate plot can make your initial planetfall rather daunting, with the threadbare tutorial offering little help. It’s likely that you’ll churn through a number of restarts before the fundamentals of dome prep click into place, but when they do it’s easy to lose yourself in the game’s intoxicating charm.

Starting a new game has you prepping a mission and payload before choosing a healthy landing spot to start your new colony. Each option carries with it a set of bonuses and difficulty modifiers, from the sponsor (one amusingly named ‘SpaceY’) to mission leader and starting resources.

Upon landing, your first priority is setting up adequate conditions for human habitation. Certain build options are locked off until you get some colonists settled, so having your little drone buddies build a dome is a must. Domes – funnily enough – need power, water, and oxygen. These resources are easy to find, but erecting a living bubble and making sure your new residents continue to thrive can be a bit trickier.      

First of all, Mars has a day night cycle and weather conditions that require you to juggle energy sources, making sure you have a good balance of power harnessing and storage. Water and building materials can be spread a good distance across your landing site and since drones have limited range, the early game can feature a good amount of back and forth.

Regular resupply from Earth can help stock up on resources you haven't managed to find yet, as well as prefab buildings you won’t be able to produce in those early sols. These round trips can also be used to send back special materials, which is a key source of income.

After laying the foundations for your fully functioning dome, it’s time to send over some people and start to populate Mars. This is where the game starts to really engage and adds a much needed sense of humour. On top of managing the infrastructure of your colony, ushering humanity through extraterrestrial life is now your primary concern. Making sure your dome dwellers remain fed and sane is just as important as using them to expand your colony. As new structures open up to you – most emerging from fresh knowledge garnered from the research tree – you can grow your Mars civilisation into a bustling metropolis. The social branch of the research tree also expands the pool of applicants you can bring from Earth, from their careers to political leanings and nutrition preferences.

Of course, many things conspire to scupper your efforts at populating the red planet. Adverse weather conditions, the constant need to repair and maintain your structures, and the emerging concerns of the game's many bespoke mysteries. It’s Sod's law when everything in your colony is ticking along with Swiss watch precision, only for a giant asteroid hits the power supply to one of your most productive domes. Then there’s the management of the colonists themselves, who seemingly go insane on a whim.

One thing that Surviving Mars gets right is the freedom of its sandbox. The lack of a story driven campaign prompts the creation of your own narratives, driven by the configurable difficulty and mission payloads. Want to send down a bunch of unruly children, corralled by a small cadre of vegan loners called Steve? Try it and see what happens. Maybe create a Martian sin city with domes full of bars and casinos; screw the productivity and stave of space insanity with bright lights and booze.

This is also one of the best city builders to lose at, if only for the macabre spectacle of watching your settlement slowly decline and your neo-Martians drop like flies, before starting it all over again. Just remember to build reserve O2 tanks next time.

Conclusion

A dearth of tutorials and a lack of consistent narrative can hamper the early stages of Surviving Mars. But have patience and this city builder emerges as an entertaining and addictive experience with tons of replay value and a dark streak of humour.