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Pros: Engrossing beginning keeps the player busy with many buildings and tasks to attend to.
Cons: Once the initial base is set up, the middle part of the game is a slog, and the game expects the player to want to play multiple times!
Bottom Line: Lots of potential and perhaps much better in a year or so of updates; use this in a class about space exploration and the harsh realities of colonization.
Surviving Mars is a great game to explore the science of colonization and the realities of living on a planet with no atmosphere. Any class that currently uses SimCity or the like could use Surviving Mars in a similar fashion, maybe best in an afterschool setting or as homework (since a single game can take dozens of hours). The game could easily be played over multiple sessions, interspersed with other assignments, and would make a good companion piece to the recent book (or movie) The Martian. The game keeps track of a score already, so it would be possible to use a high score list in class; maybe divide the class into groups and compare their aggregate or average scores to each other so that it isn't so competitive. Team members would then be compelled to help each other out, sharing tips and tricks for successful colony management.
The only problem with any sort of competition is that it's easy to install custom mods, which could give certain students advantages. The ease of making mods, however, poses another interesting opportunity to have students learn basic scripting to alter an existing mod or make one on their own. The class could play a game first, research the science behind the game, and then design mods to make it more accurate or to express particular values for a utopian colony.
Surviving Mars is a lot like other sims: SimCity, Cities: Skylines, The Sims, etc. There are even some lesser-known space-base building games that Surviving Mars follows. What makes it different is its emphasis on bootstrapping the colony: starting the player off with very few resources and a handful of drones to install initial harvesters for concrete that's used to build other resource extractors and structures. With the right resources, it's possible to build even more advanced structures, such as farms and polymer factories. Eventually, the player can build biodomes, install some housing, and invite their first colonists from Earth. Each structure needs power to function, and biodomes need water and oxygen for their colonists as well. Part of the strategy is figuring out how much to build and how fast to build. Growing too quickly can result in an unstable system -- running out of food or oxygen is disastrous!
While the drones are doing their thing, the player is also scanning the surrounding area for mineral deposits and conducting research on more advanced technologies and structures to build. Once in a while, an anomaly is discovered and the player can send an exploration vehicle to investigate, which usually leads to a pop-up dialogue describing some notable event. These narrative vignettes are a welcome addition to the normal building sim, but unfortunately, there aren't enough of them, and the game doesn't offer choices to make (based on them) often enough.
Eventually, once the colony is big enough, a "mystery" will occur, sometimes offering the player a science fiction bent to their game. These can be exciting, but each game only features one mystery, and it takes dozens of hours just to get to the point where it triggers. It'd be too much for most students to want to play over and over again to experience all of these endgame events, since the game basically always plays the same way in the beginning and middle. Adding in many more random narrative events -- such as reports of a competing colony on the other side of the planet -- could go a long way toward making the beginning and middle part of the game more compelling even in repeated playthroughs.
Building a colony on Mars is pretty exciting -- at first. The main issue with Surviving Mars is how repetitive the game becomes once the player understands its underlying systems, and unfortunately, that basically takes a single playthrough. This could be fine in a classroom setting (students would grasp the science behind the base building in that one playthrough), but it goes against the desires of the developers in that the most exciting parts of the game are the endgame random mysteries. There are numerous possible mysteries, but only one mystery appears per game. It's hard to imagine any middle or high school student wishing to play through more than a few times (maybe just once!) to see all the different mysteries.
The saving grace for Surviving Mars is in its mod system, which is well-documented and gives players a way to modify the game to their liking. There was a mod that allowed the spawning of multiple mysteries in a single game, but alas, at the time of this writing, it wasn't working.