According to Board Game Geek’s ratings, Terraforming Mars is the fourth-best board game of all time, right now! That’s high praise indeed for Jacob Fryxelius’ pride and joy. It balances a blend of hand management and card-drafting that’s all driven by economic resource-management, and it culminates in territory-building on the red planet.
Yes, Mars is the setting here (oh, you’d already guessed?), and, much like Elon Musk’s plans at the time of writing, you’re a corporation looking to make the fourth planet habitable for the human race in the futuristic 25th century.
Mars begins the game in its current state: it’s an inhospitable host, with the temperature being far too cold for life to thrive, there’s a severe lack of oxygen and there are not enough oceans. It’s your job to contribute towards fixing these three factors, transforming Mars into a planet that more resembles Earth. When these three characteristics have met their goals, the game will end, and whoever has amassed the most points will be the winner. Hopefully by this point you will have built various technologies, earned set collection rewards and you’ll have a healthy bank balance (terraforming ain’t cheap, you know).
Over 200 different Project Cards drive Terraforming Mars. A round begins by players being dealt cards, and then they decide if they want to pay 'megacredits' to keep some or all of them. It will also cost you 'megacredits' to play the card (think of it as ‘funding’ the project, itself), so money-management is always tight. At the start of each round, players will receive 'megacredits' equal to their current Terraform Rating (which count towards your points at the end), so you’ll want to increase this as soon as possible.
Some projects offer game-long benefits, while others can count towards achieving certain immediate goals. Others also produce resources such as steel, or plants. Players each have player boards to manage their own resources, to further improve their ever-growing tableau of projects.
The brilliant thing about all of these Project Cards is that some of them cannot be completed until certain factors have been triggered, such as Mars’ temperature reaching a certain degrees, or a particular oxygen percentage is met. Other cards have to occur before certain landmarks are hit, making it quite the efficient race. Should you pay the 'megacredits' now, even though you can’t use the card at the moment? Will you even get to complete the project in time?
Asymmetrical starting powers are available, too (recommended for those with a few plays under their belt). These also add further cards into the mix. Players might want to also consider acquiring separate expansions – Hellas & Elysium, and Venus Next.
One thing’s for sure: Terraforming Mars provides a truly absorbing theme. It’s so satisfying when a game’s theme is logical and married with its mechanics in such a superb manner. It’s easy to see why this is rated so highly.
Player Count: 1-5
Time: 120+ Minutes
Mars is searing in popularity at the moment, not only on the table with Terraforming Mars, one of many Tabletop Games based around the planet, but also through films, TV and not forgetting actual projects to physically get us there. Whilst most of us would not have been around to witness the first man on the moon, there is a real possibility that we will get to see the first person on Mars so it’s no surprise it has become so relevant in the media.
In Terraforming Mars the premise is relatively simple. You play as one of several corporations seeking to play a pivotal role in the terraforming of the planet by turning the red waste into a green and blue wonderland with Forests, Oceans, Cities, wildlife and various other spectacles spread throughout the planet.
The game itself is designed by Jacob Fryxelius and published by Stronghold Games. It is for 1-5 players; however, this review will not include the solo play, and takes approximately 120-180 minutes to play. The reason for the large disparity in play time is due to a couple of factors; there are variations in some of the rules which can extend/shorten game time, we will come to these later, and the game ends when three shared goals are achieved which every player will at some point contribute towards, therefore there can be a reluctance to end the game if you feel you are falling behind or you just want to play that one more card, which can cause the game to be stretched out longer than necessary.
However, if you’re like me, you will want the game to take as long as possible as once you finish playing you won’t be able to stop thinking about getting it back on the table.
Terraforming Mars - Components
Now I want to address this before going into the spectacular game play. The components of this game will more than likely leave you feeling deflated.
Whilst the cubes used to track your resources are nice, shiny and feel solid, after just a couple of plays the metallic paint was already starting to chip off the corners.
The player mats are thin with a shiny surface, which is far from ideal when placing your cubes on them as a small knock can send everything flying and remembering where you were on each of the six tracks is far from easy if you have a memory like me.
The board itself is small but it contains everything you need, unfortunately the markers on the board and the hexagonal cardboard tiles you place on it are what is required but nothing more. Thankfully you’ll spend at least half of your time looking at the cards, which are of a better quality even if the artwork is inconsistent at best.
As I said, it will leave you feeling underwhelmed and after a few games you will be yearning for a special edition with upgraded components, however in spite of this, you can’t help but love this game.
Terraforming Mars - Gameplay
Now this is where the game grabs you and doesn’t let go. As mentioned previously, the objective of the game is to achieve three key milestones in terraforming the planet- Raise the mean temperature to eight degrees Celsius, increase the oxygen to 14% and place nine ocean tiles. Whilst you all work towards these shared goals this is by no means a co-operative game, think of it as a race to be the biggest contributor to the colonisation of Mars. Each round (referred to in game as a ‘Generation’) has three distinct phases – Research, Action and Production.
During the ‘Research Phase’ each player draws four cards, which they are then able to purchase for 3M€ each (that’s three Mega Credits not Euros!). These will add to any cards the player already owns and form their hand and can range from importing hydrogen to laying an ocean tile, building a nuclear power plant or even introducing pets to cities.
The main phase follows in the ‘Action Phase’. Each player takes it in turns to perform one or two actions until every player has passed or can no longer perform an action. These actions include playing a card, undertaking a standard project, converting plants into forest tiles, converting heat to raise the temperature and claiming milestones or awards.
Whilst there is no limit to how many actions someone can perform each generation, you will be restrained by the amount of resource at your disposal, this is where the core strategy of the game comes into play.
How you manage your resources, and which projects you undertake and when, will be pivotal in how well you score come the end of the game, however if you are too rigid in your approach and can’t be flexible on strategy you can easily fall short when it counts.
You can play the long game, build up you resource creation and save up for those big hitters only to find your plans ruined when someone triggers the end game by advancing several steps of the terraforming objectives in one generation.
Likewise, you can find yourself backing an award you feel certain to obtain only for someone to be hiding that killer card waiting for this opportunity to steal the points away from you.
The final stage of a Generation is the ‘Production Phase’. Its no surprise that this is where you produce materials to use in future generations. There are six unit types to produce, as long as you have at least one production in that unit type of course: MegaCredits, Steel, Titanium, Plants, Power and Heat. We’ve already touched on our Mars currency as well as both heat and plants, as for the others, Steel is worth 2M€ when playing a card in which buildings are constructed, Titanium is worth 3€ for space cards and power is used to either pay for an action on a card or the production of it can be reduced to permanently power a construct such as a city of power plants. At the start of each production phase all unused power is converted into heat to be used in following generations.
Whilst I don’t want to go into every intricacy of the game here, I do want to mention the Awards and Milestones. The latter are rather straightforward, if at any time you have fulfilled the requirements of one of the five Milestones you can spend an action and 8M€ to claim the milestone, these range from owning at least three cities to having 16 cards in your hand. Come the end of the game these are worth five victory points each but only three of the five can be claimed.
The Awards are a much more tricky affair as they can be funded at any time by any player but only pay-out at the end of the game to the person who wins the category, who may not be the person who funded the award in the first place. These range from owning the most tiles in play to having the most Heat Resource cubes. In addition, the first award to be funded only costs 8M€ however the second rises to 14M€ and the third and final one to 20M€, rewarding those brave enough to fund an award early but increasing the risk of another player reaping the benefits.
Final Thoughts on Terraforming Mars
Terraforming Mars is a brilliant game, with hidden and not so hidden depths. There is so much to talk about, I haven’t even touched on several of the game’s parts, including the Corporations which each player acts on behalf of having a special ability to help you decide on potential strategies, the Corporate Era expansion that is included in the base game which introduces around 50% more cards to the game and two extra corporations, the draft variant which adds some fun to the Research Phase and the Solo variant, which at the time of writing I am yet to venture into to.
There is no hiding that this game has its flaws, the components are steeped in mediocrity, the play length can be an issue for those who like to keep their gaming sessions under the three hour mark and of course the game is complex, not your average Euro complexity but at a level which some players will find too much.
With cards having prerequisites to play, and knock on effects often in the late game, playing one card will result in five or six other things having to happen.
Our record to date is a single card which either was effected by or had an effect on nine other cards, points, resources or requirements. As you can imagine, this can be hard to keep track off and is not suited for those who enjoy the lighter side of Tabletop Gaming.
I don’t love Terraforming Mars in spite of this; I love it because of this. The components are like that kid in school who looked weird, didn’t have many friends and definitely wasn’t part of the ‘cool’ crowd, yet you couldn’t help notice their strange charm and after a while realised that you wouldn’t want them to change to fit in with the other kids because then they wouldn’t be them (and if you think I’ve described yourself then don’t worry, you’re not alone in this).
The complexity is what will bring you back to the game time after time, and will get you excited about the next time you play before you’ve even finished counting the scores. I like my games long but if you don’t then you can strip it back to the base rules and not play with the extra cards to keep the game time to under two hours.
Overall, Terraforming Mars is my favourite game of 2017 and one of my favourites ever; I would highly recommend it, that’s if you can get your hands on a copy of course!