App review by Mark Chen, Common Sense Education | Updated June 2022
Mars Horizon

Mars Horizon

Authentic space agency sim focuses on logistics, planning

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Grades
6–12
Subjects & Skills
Science, Critical Thinking

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Pros: Simulates the intense planning of space missions. A lot of interesting systems to toy with.

Cons: The mini-games, while fun at first, add a lot of time to the game and can drag on.

Bottom Line: This sim is backed by major space agencies, so it's a neat and trustworthy way to learn about the challenges of past and future space exploration.

Teachers could have students play Mars Horizon on their own or in pairs. Either way, students will need to exercise thinking skills to plan out missions and choose the best research to invest in. As students 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 students 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 students could vote on decisions in the game, and possibly elect a leader who makes decisions in case of a tie. Certain students would act as engineers, operating the computer. Creative teachers 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, students could research, discuss strategy, and decide mission priorities. Teachers might also add in an art and design element, and have students create costumes, badges, logos, and more.

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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.

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 students will take the time to read the entries. 

The main takeaway for students, 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 Rating

Engagement

The experience taps into that "just one more turn" feeling as players plan and anticipate upcoming missions.

Pedagogy

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 the learning.

Support

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.


Common Sense reviewer
Mark Chen Researcher

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