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How to Play: Terraforming Mars

How to Play Terraforming Mars

Terraforming Mars is an economic engine, victory-based game where each player takes control of a corporation involved in bringing life to the red planet. Victory points are earned through increasing the terraforming rating for that corporation, which happens every time one of the three global parameters are raised, these being temperature, oxygen level and ocean. Victory points can also be earned in a number of different ways such as founding cities, protecting the environment and so on.

The key to this is operating the corporation in an efficient way, raising its economic ability and performance, simply put; the better the corporation is performing in an economic sense the more credit will be available to carry out terraforming activity.

Since Terraforming Mars, published by Stronghold Games, comes with Corporate Era included, I’m going to include this expansion in this guide - to be honest it makes the game even better and takes nothing away. Ultimately, as I said, the game is about taking charge of a corporation so why take anything away from those corporations? Similarly, and for the same reason, I’m going to put the beginner corporations to one side in favour of the regular corporations.

Each of these corporations have different abilities, it makes the game slightly asymmetrical, giving each player a potential different focus and means to develop, and the Corporate Era adds a great deal to the game. It probably also makes the game slightly longer, but by the time Hilary and I were on our third game and using the optional drafting we were still finishing in around two hours.

Ultimately, Terraforming Mars is not a difficult game, the rules are pretty simply, but there can be a lot of choices to make. Sometimes the choices are pretty obvious, but not always, and through play there is always the need to balance between developing the economic engine of the corporation and spending the production of that engine on terraforming activity.

Early on it is best to focus on developing the engine, later on terraforming activities and anything else that gets victory points will become priority.

Terraforming Mars Set-Up

At the beginning Mars is dead. Oxygen levels are at zero so place the oxygen level marker in the zero slot. The temperature is a chilly -30C so place the temperature marker at this base point. The planet is arid, so place nine ocean tiles in the space on the board reserved for the ocean tiles. Place the generation marker on the terraform rating track at one, this represents the first generation (turn one), with each full turn played move this up one.

Finally, on the board place one marker for each player, using their coloured cubes at point 20 on the terraforming rating track, this represents their initial corporate income in MegaCredits (income) henceforth M€.

Next we come to the player boards, these are where you record and manage the economic activity of your corporation. Like the surface of Mars these start pretty much empty, so place a coloured player cube on the zero point of M€, and also on the zero point for steel, titanium, plants, energy and heat.

Note, if not playing Corporate Era, the above parameters all start at one.

Now we move on to the corporations and projects. Shuffle the 12 corporation cards and deal two to each player. Then shuffle that huge pile of project cards, there are 208 in total, a lot less if you remove the Corporate Era ones, and maybe a few more if you have any of the promotional cards. Deal each player 10 project cards and then put the remaining deck of many project cards to one side.

Players then get to select one corporation to play, discarding the other, and to apply the profile of that corporation to their player board. For example, if player one selected Ecoline he would give himself 36 M€, two plant production and three plants.  If player two selected Saturn Systems he would start with 42 M€ and titanium production at one. Players then select to keep as many of the 10 project cards they were dealt as they want, paying three M€ per card. Corporations not selected and projects not selected are discarded from the game.

Finally, though this can be done at any stage, select who is first player to start the game. You can use any method you want to do this though the rules suggest that the player who last won a game of Terraforming Mars should be first player.

That’s it, set-up is done, now you are and ready to play.

Here are some thoughts on set-up. corporations and projects:

  • From the two Corporations and 10 projects there are likely to be some combinations that fit very well. Give serious thought to selecting these.
  • Initially you will want to develop an economic engine, look for cheap projects that ideally fit your corporation to kick-start your economy.
  • Whilst M€s are not everything and cannot solve every problem, having a huge pile will certainly help, as will flexibility and having access to numerous different resources.
  • Try to plan and play to the abilities and strengths of the corporation you have selected.


So you have your corporation, some project cards, some resources including some M€ and as matters stand an income next turn of 20 M€. What next? Okay, at the start you are probably not going to be crashing giant ice asteroids into Mars or building space elevators, these come later when the M€ supply is far more healthy.

There are options, hopefully you have some cheap project cards, cards which increase income, or steel production, or production of something else, because at the start the key is to get the economy moving and that is all about producing resources.

So how does this play out?

A turn, known as a generation, is broken down into four steps:

  1. Player Order Phase – The first player token moves one player clockwise each generation. This phase is skipped in the first turn because it is covered in set-up.
  2. Research Phase – Draw four cards and decide how many to keep, paying three M€ per card. This phase is also skipped in the first turn because players have already selected from 10 Project cards in set-up.

Note - There is an optional drafting rule which can be used, this increases player interaction but can make the game slightly longer. It is actually a good optional rule because not only does it increase interaction, but that it allows players to see more cards so getting a better feel for the game and what cards are in play.

  1. Action Phase – Possible actions are:
  • Play a Project Card.
  • Use a Standard Project.
  • Claim a Milestone.
  • Fund an Award.
  • Use the action of a blue Project Card.
  • Convert Plants into Greenery.
  • Convert Heat into Temperature.

In turn order players may take one or two actions, or pass. Play continues until all players have passed. In theory, the number of actions is only limited by the resources available to fund them, but as said, only two per player before giving other players an opportunity to take actions.

  1. Production Phase – Performed by all players simultaneously. Convert Energy into Heat. Players get M€ equivalent to the terraform rating and in addition any income from their player board. No note income from this board can be negative. Players get other resources according to the production. Place all generated resources in the appropriate box on the board.

Project Cards

The Project Cards are pretty much the heart of Terraforming Mars, so let's take a closer look. The cards come with a requirement or condition, an effect, and a cost. In order to play a card the requirements must be met, for example, if a card says it can only be played if Oxygen is at 8% or above then it cannot normally be played in currently oxygen is 6%.  Similarly, if the effect of a card is to place an ocean and there are no oceans left to play then the card cannot be played. Finally, the card can only be played if the corporation playing it can afford the cost.

The cards come in three flavours; Event cards – red, Automated cards – green and Active cards – blue.  Event cards are one-off things, once used they are placed face down in front of the player, they really do have no further function. Automated cards are placed face up when played, they have no further effect, but they represent the current extent of operations and their tags remain active. Active cards have on-going effects that may be triggered at any time, though normally only once per generation and any activation costs must be paid for.

There is always a balance in playing any card, its cost and the benefits, and if you are fortunate or have planned carefully then cards you have in play may well make future cards less expensive to play. Look for these connections between your corporation, the cards you have in play and the cards in hand that can be played.


Thoughts on Corporations

Each corporation in Terraforming Mars has different abilities. Some pretty much push play in certain directions but try to keep some flexibility, putting all one's eggs in a single basket might work, then again, it is rarely a great plan.

The corporations are, along with the cards, the heart of Terraforming Mars. It is a vibrant heart that will spring to life. You should play to the strengths of the corporation.

On paper some Corporations might look better than others, don’t fall into this trap, Phoblog for example might look really weak because of the low income, but that titanium reserve is awesome and if you have a few space cards you’re on a roll.

Generations and Placing Tiles 

Early on I’m pretty much only going to be bothering with cheap projects that create resources especially if they also pick up the odd victory point, or maybe if stuck for options then standard projects. When your corporation has sufficient M€s give more consideration to Standard Projects, Milestones and Awards, and always, when possible, convert plants into Greenery and heat into Temperature.

Remember, every time you raise temperature, place an ocean, or raise the oxygen level by placing greenery,  your terraforming rating goes up by one and so does your income in M€s. As the game progresses through generations the terraforming progress can accelerate, watch this carefully and don’t get left behind. Do note that at certain points as temperature and oxygen increases there are additional rewards.

You need to consider carefully where to play your tiles. The water spaces, marked pale blue, are exclusively for oceans. When you place a tile on the board you may receive resources as a placement bonus, consider what resources are most needed and remember that placing next to an ocean tile is worth bonus M€’s.

Don’t lose sight of the benefits of Awards and Milestones, especially if you have a corporation that lends to significant progress in these areas. Also, remember to place a marker designating ownership whenever playing a city, greenery tile or anything else on Mars other than oceans.

Don’t forget to claim your M€s every time you place a tile next to one or more ocean tiles, and make the most of such placements, any and all means of obtaining M€s is very worthwhile.

Game End

The game ends when all three global parameters have reached their maximum, oxygen is at 14%, the temperature is +8C and there are nine ocean tiles on the board, at this point finish the current generation. After the production phase players have one last opportunity to convert plants to greenery which may trigger other placement effects, and then final scoring takes place.

Final scoring is fairly simple. For each player take their terraform rating, add in any scores for milestones or awards, add bonuses from the game board which are one point for each greenery tile and each city tile is worth one point for each greenery tile adjacent to it no matter who owns the greenery tile. Then add any victory points from cards. The player with the highest total is the winner, M€s are a tie breaker.

Closing Tips

Remember that Terraforming Mars is a card driven game about creating an economic engine to generate victory points. Simply put, the economy of the Corporation is developed so it can finance the terraforming effort and through this terraforming victory points are obtained. There are a few different routes to victory, but ideally play to the special abilities and strengths of you corporation because this is likely to be the most efficient strategy.

Don’t be wary of corporate era and drafting, these add far more than might appear and in my experience do not add greatly to complexity or duration.