Category: reflection

Raving about Surviving Mars!

Role-playing city building and PVE real-time 4X strategy in a near-future Mars colonization simulation game

Wanted to put out a quick rave about my favorite game of (my) 2019 so far: Surviving Mars (2018), by Haemimont Games (out of Sofia, Bulgaria), published by Paradox (which also published my favorite game of 2015, Cities Skylines)!

Xbox Release Trailer

I bought Surviving Mars on a whim after checking the Steam review metascore, having never heard the game before (kind of the best way to have any kind of media experience, really). I was not disappointed! The title may suggest survival-oriented game mechanics, but I think the best description for the game would be Cities Skylines on Mars. Or as another reviewer wrote: Simcity with soul.

Simulations are one of my favorite game genres (the first game I ever bought was SimAnt, by Maxis) and games like the SimCity and the Sims series’ have provided me hundreds of hours of fun, challenge, and a sense of accomplishment; kind of like growing a virtual garden from scratch and checking it out once completed. The sheer scale of what you can build and simulate produce intricate emergent properties entirely artificial life constructs that are fun to observe on their own. It’s kind of like the Conway’s Game of Life, but with far more variables and a sense of purpose.

Come on USA! We got $8 billion dollars; LFG!

Clearly a lot of love went into this game to represent a believable martian environment both at the macro planetary level as well as down to the human scale. I particularly love that the game provided the ability to land basically anywhere on the planet, including some historical sites–just to give it a, “this is the real Mars” personality. It doesn’t create any in game consequence though. Just use a little imagination 😉

We’ll check out the Viking 2 Landing Area
Choosing a landing site
Mars is a harsh, unforgiving place… can it be tamed and made livable by soft fleshy humans?

The purpose of Surviving Mars, of course, is to build a self-sustaining city on Mars (Elon Musk would earn his ST:Discovery mention if he can get humanity to this point). This is no novice task — Surviving Mars has you starting with a rocket (imagine the early iterations of SpaceX’s pre-Starship BFR) landing with a skeleton complement of autonomous robots and resources. Living off the land is the only way to get anywhere (as it will be in real life), so much of the early game is a constant hunt for resources; more concrete, more metal, more water, etc…

I spy some concrete and metals behind my ‘murica rocket! Humble beginnings, really…

Through most of this, the early game feels a bit more like real-time strategy / 4X than city building. Unlike Cities Skylines or Simcity, you directly control key “hero” units like Explorers that survey planetary anomalies and cargo rovers that enable a crude point-to-point supply chain management (or desperate resupply to a fledgling satellite colony). The game quests (or “Mysteries” as the game calls them) also operate much more like a real-time strategy game than most city building game scenarios, much to my enjoyment.

Unleash the drones!
Kinda cute little robots!
Aforementioned “hero” units – An explorer, transport, and drone commander (controls drones, duh)

The game has quite a number of random events/quests that give a lot of depth to the game’s backstory. City building games rarely have such things, leaving most to the imagination, but Haemimont’s done something awesome here in creating a single player simulation strategy game that’s more than just a city builder with disasters.

Real time 4x right here
The game has a good sense of humor; and lets you indulge in the dark side
Like any good city builder, there’s a good set of survival metrics to take care of
In this game, running out of resources means death. That’s not surviving Mars.

The game also provides a great ambient atmosphere, thanks to a stellar soundtrack By George Strezov and series of entertaining “radio” options, with a great tie-in to Cities Skylines, which curiously had the Mars radio station (perhaps they’re set in the same Paradox universe?).

I also remember reading somewhere that “real” martian geography was somehow included in the game, but the actual maps appear to be a far smaller set of maps in rotation (less than 10 vs the 50,901 start locations available). Perhaps future expansions can provide more scenario-based maps, or at least a greater variety of terrains.

Minor quips in an otherwise spectacular package.

Also of note, the Green Planet expansion offers an entirely new next step in colony development with the addition of a terraforming dynamic that continues until the entire planet is a lush, Earth-like world.

One of the Green Planet loading screens


  • Near-future space theme has a tech tree and plausibility is more believable than most science fiction
  • Game is challenging, mostly in a good ways! Many Steam reviews complain about the difficulty of Surviving Mars. I recommend auto-save at short intervals (once per sol for me). One temporarily disrupted supply chain can quickly cripple a city lacking redundancy and drive an early stage martian colony into collapse. Many of the same people also describe the game as often “stressful”. That too can be apt, but this is a game that one attains mastery in with experience; and as that occurs, much of these issues can be avoided.
  • Scenarios add unique game dynamics that feel like minigames of their own; adding replayabilty.
  • Visuals are beautiful! See screenshots! After building a massive Martian city, I’d often poke around in Photo Mode for hours taking snapshots of the dynamic ecosystem that is a Martian colony. It also runs reasonably well at 4k resolution on my 5-year old GTX 970 (latter screenshots).


Spectacular stuff! I hope to see more of it!


  • Gamespot review:
  • Surviving Mars Soundtrack:
  • Surviving Mars Announcement trailer:
  • Surviving Mars Xbox release trailer:

From the Ashes of War… a Lasting Peace?

It’s May 9th 2015, around the world yesterday and today were commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II*, the most apocalyptic conflict the world has ever seen, and hopefully will ever see. It’s with an odd detachment that I reflect in this history while sipping a Starbucks frappuccino in Hawaii. For those of my generation, the world we live in is truly the product of our (great-)grandparents’ history, and seventy years seems such a short time ago for the transformation of everything.
(*In Europe, but for the sake of remembrance, let’s say WWII)

If anything gives us perspective into the relative insignificance our problems today, it should be the what the Greatest Generation endured through those few terrible years, which for the dwindling millions still alive today, remains a living memory, and for the rest of us, a foundation of our world we enjoy today. So powerful was the impact of that one terrible War that every single person that lived then and is alive today has been shaped by it and the world order that emerged from its ashes.

In middle school, our class had the privilege of being the audience to veterans of the War. This was in the spring of 2000, when an estimated 5 million US veterans remained alive, mostly in their 70s and 80s. I remember being told that we were very fortunate, as we may be the last generation of children privileged enough to meet and hear their stories first-hand. Recent statistics I’ve read suggest this is likely to be true, as 15 years later, fewer than 1 million vets remain, many in declining health. Still they gather, to remember what they can of a War that will soon become collective history.

Out of deference to the Greatest Generation, even with their first-hand accounts, I admit that I will never truly understand what it was like to live through this crazy period of our modern history, but it’s also with mixed feelings that I reflect on all that was destroyed and lost. How horrible is it that so-called civilized nations would take upon themselves as their national agenda to inflict such vast destruction on each other, drafting mere children, young men and women to slaughter each other and civilians by the millions across the lands of others. Why did this piece of history have to happen? And could it happen again?

Growing up in the United States, my perspective of the war was one where the Allies had no choice but to enter, with the US dragged in by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and fuelled by the just need to fight fascism of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Given the stakes, it can’t be disputed that it was a just, necessary war. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve taken a more balanced perspective from the eyes of a global citizen looking back at humanity’s collective history. The sheer scale of the conflict in aggregate eludes any sense of individual comprehension. That the powers of the so-called civilized world could allow, as national policy, the absolute carnage that was the slaughter of nearly 100 million men, women, and children–most of which had no care in the world of the ambitions of the war’s executioners–defies rational understanding.

As an adult, I’m left with the disturbing realization that even those executioners of the war were mere humans, like you or I–humans, acting out of some sense of purpose and necessity. The victims, were everyone else–all innocents–whether they were the kids drafted into the conflict of their national leaders, or even worse, the victims of ethnic hate and mechanized genocide, and the unthinkable suffering of peoples and families in lands that were laid in waste through the conflict.

We live in an age today where we can, and should, learn to take a global perspective of the War, where the pain and anguish caused to peoples across all nations should be remembered, as to prevent such horrors from ever again touching our common human history. This responsibility is on all of us, and in a world where more nations are democracies than ever before, we must hold our leaders accountable to ensure that the long peace since the War remains a lasting peace for us and our succeeding generations. With the weapons of war at our disposal today, this is an imperative for our survival as a civilization.

It is with this understanding that I have come to further appreciate the international order that came to rise from the ashes of the conflict, not least of which includes the United Nations. Founded in the tail end of the conflict, and remains to this day (albeit imperfect as it is) a body devoted to international peace, it is an incredible common achievement of nations, given the years of horrors that preceded it.

It is certainly an imperfect body, but given that no major power has gone to direct war with each other since it’s founding, I find its role highly successful given its initial goals. The founding document is the United Nations Charter, a sort of constitution if you will, encompassing a shared treaty of all member states, which today is basically all the countries of the world. If you’ve never read the preamble, I encourage you to do so, if anything, to understand the common will of peoples just emerging from the ashes of the greatest destruction that mankind has ever inflicted on itself. For the sake of the lazy, I’ve included the text below.

May we all become more enlightened of our common history, and our individual roles to protect the peace that cost so many millions of lives.






  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,


  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,


Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

Signed, June 26th, 1945
Ratified, October 24, 1945

Xander’s (Post-College) Life – Year 1

“They can’t make any decisions, because they don’t know what they want, and they don’t know what they want because they don’t know who they are…”
-Kate Carraway, on the Quarterlife Crisis (
It’s been a long time since I’ve sat here like this, armed with a few reflective thoughts and a burning drive to get them out on electronic paper. It’s been months, maybe even years, since I felt like I do now. As the Starcraft marine put it in the SC2 trailer a year ago, “Damn… it’s about time…”
Nearly five years ago, I had been diligently writing in my Xanga about my experiences as a new college student (; I wrote about my expectations, the challenges, the joys, and the inevitable pains as I explored the social, academic, and miscellaneous elements that made up the college experience. It’s a joy reading it again, and a pleasure knowing that even then, I had the passion and drive realize a particular story of my life–that of the un-regretful life learner. Clearly, I didn’t end college without mistakes, but perhaps I could live without regrets, knowing that the best is, as always, yet to come.
And now, here I am again; where I was 19 then, now I’m 24–a little older, and who knows, maybe even a little wiser, and better able to reflect on what I’m trying to do with my life, and where I’m going. Thankfully, I don’t think I’m facing a crisis right now; as my freshman year at Microsoft dwindles to a close, I feel I’m in a good place with my career start. My greatest unknowns at this point are not my short-term career situation (thank God for that) but rather the two-to-five-year plan. Whereas in undergrad, the four years made sense; broken down into neat measurable chunks called semesters (or quarters), where you could frame distinct goals for yourself, be it GPA, a job, or some other personal goal, in the career world, things aren’t nearly as distinct, and goals are completely personal. As my fellow career-following brothers and sisters know, it’s not so easy to measure your progress, and three weeks of vacation is hardly enough time to reflect. There are no checkpoints or goals than those you set completely on your own.
I read a good book in college that taught me: “Never confuse your career with your life,” and I’ve lived with that mantra for several years. It doesn’t mean that career isn’t important; in fact, I took it to mean that your career should be focused and be what enables you to live a good life (and not the other way around). So, while I spent time building my skills and proficiencies for work, I’ve also been balancing it out with personal development in the form of hobbies, idle-time, friends, and meaningful relationships. And while I sometimes envy those that know exactly what they want from life and have never questioned the way of things, I still hope that by debating to death every major path and choice in life, I will gain a stronger sense of perspective on the path I end up taking.
    “Do I stay in neuroscience, or should I jump ship to engineering?”
    “Is the University of Illinois going to give me what I want out of my undergraduate experience?”
    “Chicago, or Seattle; Microsoft or Accenture?”
These are all questions that I’ve grappled with over the four years of college, and have ended with a swift decision; none of which have led to any lasting regrets. I spent the first year here, intending to explore what this young-adult, post-college corporate work lifestyle had to offer. Yet now, as I look towards the second year at MSFT, with a half-dozen hobbies, and just as many groups of friends, I wonder how all of this fits into where it will take me over the next few years.
Sad as it may be, watching Transformers tonight made me realize that I have this immense internal drive to DO something meaningful, save the world, impact people, and have a Michael Bay-isque rollercoaster ride of a life while I fight to get there. But drive alone takes you nowhere, and as Kate mentioned in her entry, before you can do something with your life, you have to know what you want… and that means knowing yourself. She also mentioned that there’s a lot going on out there in the world, and now, with Facebook, Twitter follower counts, Technorati numbers, or Virology scores, there are evermore ways to judge your own odds for the kind of success you dream for. Fear of mediocrity looms large in our young-adult minds. But rather than feeling inadequate in the face of greater success by those around us toting 4.0s, or 20%s, or followers in the tens of thousands, why not let it serve as a reminder that there’s much work to be done? For even the greatest individuals had to start somewhere.
I’ve always become a fan for people that know themselves and derive true satisfaction from the passion of what they do. Even if they struggle in finding their place in the economy, in their industry, their life plan, or even in their own minds, I love speaking with anyone that has a burning desire to live a meaningful life. Maybe it’s just the bittersweet idealist in me, but I always think it’s better to hope and lose, than never to have hopes at all. One’s a story worth telling, the other… that’s just lame.
Anyway, enough of my disjointed post-movie watching ramble; here’s to yet another beginning! Where I’ll be in four years time, I can hardly guess. Let’s just say that I am absolutely dedicated to making it something I’m proud of.
All right now, enough of that reflective idealistic crap, time to jump into reality. On to Xander’s Life, Chapter 1.