Super Motherload is a new title out now from Roxley Games. It is not only co-designer Matt Tolman’s second foray into the really non-existent digging game genre- before working with Gavan Brown on this design he also did Undermining over at Z-Man- but it is also based rather unusually on a 2013 Playstation and PC game that was itself built on the foundation of a decade-old Flash game. In its current incarnation, it is effectively a simplistic deckbuilder with a set collection mechanic driving cardplay that results in the placement of tiles on a board representing what lies below the Martian soil.
That capsule description sounds more complicated than anything that actually goes on in Super Motherload. This is a very approachable, accessible game that you can definitely slot into your family games shelf, if you’ve got one. There’s enough interesting going on in the design to avoid the dreaded “cute” appellation that usually means that you’re looking at a frivolous but forgettable title but it still doesn’t quite reach its potential. For a game about digging, there is hardly any friction.
Players represent miners working for the Solarus Corporation to dig up various valuable minerals from the Martian soil. Per deckbuilding standards, you start out with a seed deck of starter-level pilots and over the course of the game, you get to purchase more pilot cards from a personal display to add to it, increasing your ability to dig deeper, faster and into more profit. Each pilot card you buy is effectively a new “level” in each of your stacks, and as you buy into the ordered piles personnel become more expensive, scaling with the income curve of the game. The pilots you buy also add victory points to your deck, so the game is ultimately more about upgrading your operation than actually mining the minerals. There are also achievement cards that offer rewards for accomplishing certain goals such as purchasing certain sets of cards or digging an exceptionally long tunnel.
Each turn you take two actions from a short menu of three. You can draw two, which is critical because there is no mandated redraw in this design. The core action is to dig, which means you play matched sets of colored pilot cards (possibly including a wild suit) from your hand featuring a drill icon. Each card you play in a meld lets you dig one square of the map and you get to keep any minerals that you dig through. The digging is expressed visually by laying void tiles of varying sizes over the grid and of course, you have to either start drilling from the surface or continue a tunnel that has already been dug out. The third action is to play a bomb item along with a pilot featuring a bomb pattern icon to blow up an area and claim all minerals in this space. It’s also the only way you can get through rocks in the Martian soil.
I really like how the minerals are used to buy the cards. Everything you earn in one dig has to be applied to one of your stacks of cards. When the minerals on a top card have an equal or higher value, you take the card into your discard pile, uncovering the next level of card in that color. There is an Alhambra-like “no change” element at play here, where you may have to overpay to get what you need at a given time. There are also achievements that award you for having specific sets or arrangements of minerals on your cards at a given time.
That’s really about it, but there are a couple of twists. There are artifacts that may be uncovered, imparting bonuses or special one-shot abilities. Some of the cards have icons other than those drillbits and bomb patterns which impart a special function when a card is played or even as a “buy bonus” when it is acquired, incentivizing certain cards in your display. There are inexplicable metal plates buried on Mars that require you to play completely matching sets- no wilds allowed. And the whole thing “scrolls” downward- you add new boards on to the bottom of the current one when the artifacts at that level have all been excavated.
So there’s some really fun stuff going on here in this game. The digging-for-treasure concept is immediately rewarding and it’s the kind of thing that anyone can grasp right out of the gate, as is the Dig Dug/Mr. Do conceit of drilling down through scrolling “screens”. The cardplay is interesting, requiring players to spend time developing a hand while watching others drill into lucrative veins. There is an analytical element that is compelling but not taxing. You’ve got to see what you can do on your turn, what your profit from digging would be, and where you are going to place those earnings and then weigh out whether it would be better to wait or to just drop a bomb card and rush to purchase another pilot to increase your potential with its color in your deck.
But what this game doesn’t have, unfortunately, is a sense of friction. It’s definitely a design where player interaction is largely passive-aggressive. Getting to a mineral or achievement first is the primary source of conflict. There is no sabotage, there is no on-board opposition, there are no events or narrative to impart a sense of adversity. You just dig, get rocks, put rocks on pilots, buy new pilots and dig again. I appreciate how simple and direct the game is, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a missed opportunity in terms of offering a more aggressive competition option.
I’m also not fond of the lack of an on-board representation of the player. There’s no little drilling machine chit or stand-up that shows where you actually are- you can just drill anywhere. Given the scope of the design, it makes sense to abstract movement and position but there again it feels like there was a potential there for this game to be just a touch more interesting with a positional element without necessarily fouling its simplicity.
What matters the most though is that Super Motherload is fun to play. It’s charming and unique, and as someone that loves the aforementioned Dig Dug and Mr. Do as well as games that have digging mechanics in general, I’ve had a good time with this one. My kids are just a little too young for it since they wouldn’t really get the deckbuilding element or the special powers, let alone the sort of tricky budgeting of spoils. For older kids with a little more gaming experience and for all ages thereafter, this is a solid example of the modern hobby/family hybrid game.