Adapted from the 2013 video game by XGen Studios, Super Motherload, designed by Gavan Brown and Matt Tolman, is a tile-laying, deck-building tabletop game that feels as though you’re playing competitive Dig Dug with your friends. As in the eponymous video game, players each represent teams of pilots who control digging machines that have been sent to Mars to harvest precious resources, while also discovering the secret alien artifacts below the planet’s surface. Each turn, player have the opportunity to dig tunnels down though the Martian soil and use the resources they find to purchase new pilot abilities in the form of cards which are added to their respective decks. Super Motherload also features a multi-leveled game board mechanic, which adds and removes areas of the board throughout the game creating a “scrolling” feel reminiscent of classic 8- and 16-bit video games. Should you delve deep into the Martian underground, discovering the planet’s secrets? Read our review to find out!
What’s in the Box?
Super Motherload comes in an incredibly slim box; however, you shouldn’t be concerned that this suggests a lack of game inside. There are a fair amount of components packed into a small space, and plenty of boards to punch – and the footprint of the game is also not small. In the box, you’ll find:
- 1 Rule book
- 4 Double sided game boards
- 76 Tunnel tiles (in three lengths)
- 4 Player decks
- 23 cards each
- 16 Bomb tokens
- 16 Artifact tokens
- 80 Double sided Mineral tiles
- 10 Major Achievement cards
- 20 Minor Achievement cards
How to Play
As mentioned, Super Motherload is, at heart, a game of tile-laying and deck-building. As the game begins, each player has deck of basic cards, representing the team of pilots they control. Over the course of the game, players will use their resources to “reinvest” in their team, purchasing new and more powerful cards to “train” them with new and stronger abilities. Each of the teams are slightly asymmetric, leading to a degree of variety between the four options – and unlike many deck-building games, players do not share a pool of cards from which to buy. Instead, each team has it’s own supply of pilot cards from which to purchase, and these are intentionally stacked in a progressive market that indicates the “training” levels for each of your four pilots.
On a player’s turn, they will have the opportunity to take actions to draw more cards or play cards from their hand, allowing them to drill or bomb patterns into the ground, extracting and minerals or other bonuses on the areas they’ve excavated. This is where the tile laying comes in. If, for instance, a player plays three blue cards, each with single drill symbol, they can then select Tunnel tiles to place on the board in a straight line from the surface or an existing tunnel covering a total of three squares on the board. This new tunnel is the area they are excavating, and any minerals, artifacts, bombs, or other bonuses they cover up are immediately collected. When a player collects minerals, they immediately choose a pilot on which to place their resources, slowly building towards purchasing that card. Some cards give you an immediate bonuses when purchased while others may offer additional bonuses when used. Every card purchased is also worth victory points (VPs), which are also earned by completing the very video game-esque Achievement cards that are face-up in the game area or by finding alien artifacts deep within the planet’s surface. When the game ends, the player who has earned the most VPs is the winner.
The Details: Setup
This is where we start to get into the nitty-gritty details of the game. If the overview above gave you enough of a rundown and you’re not looking for a detailed walk-through on on how to setup and play, feel free to jump down to our Final Thoughts below. If you want the a more detailed explanation, we’ve got you covered.
The setup for this game happens in two distinct ways: 1) setting up the game area, and 2) setting up the player area. To start setting up the game area, you will first choose a starting player. The rules suggest that this should be the most recent person to have dug a hole. While cute, most groups will probably devise their own random way of determining the start player. After picking the first player, the player immediately to their right will place the “Depth 1” game board on the table, and will choose which side to place face-up. After that, follow these steps:
- Place all of the Mineral tokens, Tunnel tiles, and Bomb tokens near the board.
- Mix up the Artifact tokens face down and place them near the board.
- Shuffle the Major Achievement cards together, deal 3 into the play area, and place the remainder in the box.
- Shuffle the Minor Achievement cards together and place them all in a deck near the board. Deal 4 face-up below the major achievements in a 2-player game, or 3 face-up in a 3- or 4-player game.
- Place the remaining game boards nearby (only a max of 2 will be used at any point during the game).
- Each player selects one of the four player decks into their own play area to set up.
Pretty straightforward stuff there. After all players have selected their decks, they will need to setup their own player areas as in the picture shown in the overview above. To setup the player area, you should:
- Remove the 7 Starting Pilot Cards and place them face down into their own deck, leaving room for a discard area. These cards do not have a cost in the upper right-hand corner or VP values in the lower left-hand corner.
- Take one Bomb token and place it in your player area.
- Sort your remaining 16 Pilot cards into four stacks according to their color (red, blue, yellow, and the wild “rainbow” color). These stacks should be ordered in such a way that the cost values are in ascending order, with the cheapest ($10) on top and most expensive ($25) on the bottom.
- Each player shuffles their current deck (comprised of the Starting Pilot Cards), and draws four cards into their hand.
And that’s it! Setup happens fairly quickly, but takes up more space than one would initially think. It’s important to leave space below the “Depth 1” board. As the game progresses, the “Depth 2” board will be placed below the starting board, with subsequent boards “pushing” the boards on the table up, with the topmost board being removed from the game. This process of pushing boards up and removing boards from the game creates the “scrolling” effect that is such an important part of Super Motherload – so it is important to ensure that you are setting up the game in a way that allows for this process.
The Details: Playing a Turn
After setup, play begins with whoever was selected as the first player during the setup phase and moving clockwise from there. The game play is dead simple. On you turn, you can take up to two actions from the three available actions. You may:
Importantly, you can perform any combination of these three actions, including performing the same action twice. When you perform the Draw action, you take two cards from the top of your deck and add them to your hand. If a player needs to draw cards, and their deck is completely empty, they must shuffle their discard pile together, put those cards into their deck area, and then continue drawing. On each turn, a player will end by checking to see if they have more than 5 cards in their hand, if so, they must discard down to 5. If players choose not to draw for one or both of their actions, they may also bomb Drill and/or Bomb.
To perform the Drill action, the active player places any number of cards of matching color from their hand into their discard area. The rainbow colored “wild” cards can be used with any other color, however all wild cards used must represent one color. The player will then count the number of Drill Icons they’ve played and take Tunnel tiles from the supply with a total length equal to that number. The player can place these tiles on the board in a straight line on any legal place on the board. Generally, this means that at least one tile is perpendicular on one edge to either the surface or an existing Tunnel tile (though some cards may allow you to connect corner-to-corner as opposed to edge-to-edge). Tiles cannot overlap and must be placed entirely on the board, but they can be “dug” in any direction, including upward towards the surface. After you have placed your Tunnel tiles, you will collect the resources on the squares that you covered with your tiles.
In addition to Drawing and Drilling, players may also perform the Bomb action on their turn. To do this, you must be able to discard a Bomb token to the supply pool and a Red Pilot card to your discard pile. After you have done this, you must collect Tunnel tiles from the supply and place them on the board in such a way that they match the Bomb Pattern appearing on the Red Pilot card that you discarded. You may flip or rotate the Bomb Pattern however you see fit as long as it follows the same rules as the Drill action. Again, after placing Tunnel tiles on the board, you will collect the resources visible on the squares that you covered.
You should notice that the board has several types of squares. Most of the spaces appear as various colored dirt, and these can be Drilled or Bombed as you see fit. However, some spaces have colored lines around them with a “steel plate” background, while others look like rock. These represent different materials in the ground that your team of expert excavators will have to work through. When performing the Drill or Bomb actions, only the Bomb action can produce Tunnel tiles that can cover the rock spaces. You cannot perform a Drill action and use the Tunnel tiles that you produce to cover a rock space. So it will be important to ensure that you have Bomb tokens and Red Pilots throughout the course of the game. As for the spaces that have colored lines around them, these can only be excavated with a Drill action; further, you can only cover the space if you are using a Pilot Card that matches color of the surrounding square. So, if you want to place your Tunnel tiles in such a way that they cover a Ruby Mineral space, and that space has a yellow box around it, you must perform a Drill action with a Yellow Pilot card or cards – this space could not be Drilled with a Red or Blue Pilot or Bombed.
When you’ve used your actions to build Tunnel tiles on the board, you will cover spaces. On those spaces, you will find Bombs, Artifacts, Cards, and Minerals. When you cover a Bomb, you simply take a Bomb token from the supply and place it in your play area. Covering an Artifact allows you to randomly choose a face-down Artifact token from the supply and place it into your play areas. These are secret and may offer powerful one time abilities or end-of-game VPs. You may store any number of Bomb or Artifact tokens in your play area, and you do not have a limit to the number of Artifacts you may use on any turn. If you cover a space that has a “Draw Bonus” on it, you immediately draw the number of cards represented on the icon from your deck. This does not use an additional action. Finally, if you cover a Mineral space, you immediately collect a matching Mineral token from the supply for each Mineral you covered. All of the Mineral tokens collected from a single action must immediately be placed on the topmost card in one of your Pilot Stacks and may not be split between stacks of Pilot Cards.
Mineral tokens each have a monetary value printed on them. If at any point the value of the Minerals on the topmost card of a Pilot Stack meets of exceeds the cost of that card, you buy that card and place it in your discard area. All the Mineral tokens on this card are returned to the supply, and no change is given. This purchase happens immediately after your action and cannot be delayed or ignored. When cards are purchased, most have a “Buy Bonus” that is immediately performed in addition to your normal action. This is identified by the icon on the bottom edge of the card and can include drawing cards, performing an additional action, or placing the card directly into your hand (among others). These bonuses can be strategically valuable, and you may want to consider in which stack to invest and when to pay for a particular Pilot depending on the bonuses you can earn.
In addition to the “Buy Bonus,” many of the Pilot cards you will be purchasing also have a Drill Bonus, an additional action that they can perform in addition to creating Drill icons when they are played as part of a Drill action. The best part about these bonuses is that they stack, so if you play three cards as part of a Drill action and all of them have a bonus icon, you get all of those bonuses and decide in which order you’ll resolve them – and like the Buy Bonus, these can be very powerful and might include drawing cards, drilling corner-to-corner, or other abilities.
Throughout the course of the game, players will want to consider the available, face-up Achievement cards that are in play when they are deciding which Pilots to buy or actions to perform. Major Achievements are laid out at the beginning of the game and are never refilled. These are focused around developing your Pilots and collecting certain sets of cards (collecting 3 Red and 3 Blue Pilots from your Pilot Market, for instance). Each of these Achievements are worth 5 VP and can be claimed at any point during a player’s turn once they have fulfilled the goal shown on the card – however, you can only claim a maximum of 1 Major and 1 Minor Achievement per turn. That brings us to Minor Achievements. These are very similar to their Major counterparts, except they refill each time a face-up card is claimed. The VP values on these cards also tend to be variable and worth less than Major Achievements. Addtionally, these tend not to focus on Pilot cards, but goals you might complete during gameplay (drilling a length 4 tunnel, using 2 Artifacts in 1 turn, etc.).
Finally, as play progresses the game boards will need to be added and removed. When the last Artifact spot visible on the current board is covered with a Tunnel tile, the player who covered the Artifact will take the game board of the next highest Depth, choose which side to place face-up, and connect it to the bottom of the current board in a matching orientation. If this would be the third game board in play, the top-most board (with the lowest Depth value) is removed from play. Removing a board may leave Tunnel tiles “hanging” over the top of the board in an apparent violation of the rules. This is allowed, but new tiles may not be placed in such a way that they also overhang.
The Details: Ending a Game
So that’s it’s for gameplay. Super Motherload is actually a remarkable simple game, but there is a fair amount of strategy in that simplicity. Players will take turns as described above until one player eventually covers the last Artifact on the “Depth 4” game board. When that happens, instead of triggering the addition of another board, the game comes to an immediate end when the current player’s turn is over. At this point, players will count up all of the VPs that they have collected on Pilot cards (in their hand, deck, and discard pile but not those remaining in their markets), Achievement Cards, and Artifacts. The player who has collected the most Victory Points is declared the winner. The rules suggest that ties be broken by determining who lied about most recently digging a hole (the method of determining the start player) being declared the loser. This doesn’t seem super useful. In the games I’ve played, we generally agreed to break ties by determining who had the most VPs in Pilot cards alone amongst tied players and declaring that person the winner. It only came up once in more than a dozen plays, so consider whether that is valuable for you and your group.
Okay – so now you know how to play Super Motherload. What else should you know about this game? Let’s start with components. I’m a big components guy, and Roxley does not disappoint. In fact, they are absolutely crushing it in the art, design, and quality areas for all of their games, and Super Motherload is no exception. The visuals are a fantastic blend of pseudo-1950s atomic age art aesthetic with a grungified “used” or “worn-in” look popularized in the late-70s and early 80s. All of the pieces and cards are just really attractive and well presented, and the iconography in the game is generally easy to follow. Overall, the art and graphic design for this game is absolutely top notch – though small player cheat sheets for the bonus actions would have been nice (though they are conveniently listed on the back of the rules). After a few plays, it’s easy to remember what each icon represents, and most of them are fairly self-explanatory for seasoned gamers, but if I had a small complaint about the game’s appearance, it would be that there are 10 card icons whose explanations need to be memorized in order to plan effective strategies.
In addition to the art being great, the quality of the components is off the charts. The tokens and tiles are a thick, heavy, durable cardboard. The boards well designed, easy to read, and high quality. The cards are a heavy stock with a linen finish. Roxley absolutely knocked this out of the park in terms of look and feel. This is the type of work you expect to see hobby game industry giants like Fantasy Flight and Days of Wonder, and I was very impressed. My one big criticism with the components is that the Mineral tokens are double sided – so, for instance, one side might have Diamonds while the other might have Rubies. This is less than ideal as it can lead to confusion and sometimes tokens get accidentally flipped through the course of a game. I’m not sure why the decision to do this was made, but it is a fairly significant drawback in my eyes. In fact, in every group where this was played, at least one person felt the need to comment on this weird setup. It’s minor, I know, but it’s worth mentioning.
So the game looks great with excellent design and quality. But is it fun? Well… that depends. I think the answer is yes, absolutely – but with some caveats. With 2 players, this is one of the best deck-building games I have ever played. With the 3 or 4-player setup though, the game really slows down to a crawl – it actually feels longer than it is in real time. Analysis paralysis is definitely prevalent in this game and grows exponentially with an increased player count. Players are trying to find the perfect moves every turn because there is almost always a most effective path to getting you great minerals that can help you achieve goals and maximize VPs. In addition to AP, it is virtually impossible to do any strategic planning in this game with more than 2-players. The board state just tends to change too much and every turn devolves into less interesting decisions about what I can do now to maximize VPs as opposed to trying to set yourself up for bigger scores in the mid- and end-game. The shift from a strategic puzzle to tactical point maximization is incredibly obvious at different player counts.
The increase AP and reduction in strategic thinking that come with more players is such a problem in the groups where I’ve introduced this game that I have come to view Super Motherload as an exclusively 2-player game. I love this game, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever suggest playing it again with 3 or 4 players – which is kind of disappointing. I don’t want to critique the game too much for these flaws because the same things that make it good, its simplicity of design and video game puzzle feel, also lead to its issues. Overall though, I cannot recommend this game enough for the 2-player experience. I’d honestly stack it up against some of the all-time great light to mid-weight 2-player games (7 Wonders: Duel, Lost Cities, Patchwork, Jaipur, Targi, etc.) and say this game absolutely holds its own. 3 players is somewhat less interesting to me and 4 is something I’d probably play if someone else suggested it – but almost begrudgingly.
Ultimately, this game is so well crafted that the minor flaws seem to stand out even more. I really want to give this game an 8/10, but it’s a high quality production that suggests 4-players and really only plays very well with 2. And I can’t understand the baffling decision to make the minerals double sided. For those reasons, I have to take a little something off. We don’t really do partial points here at Initiative: Tabletop, so this is a 7/10 for me. I highly recommended it, but with some small qualifications.