Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is the sibling to the ever popular Terraforming Mars. Slimmed down and streamlined yet retaining some of the clever card play and combos, Ares Expedition has become a big hit. The game can be played solo or with up to four players and the solo game is probably my favourite way to play for a number of reasons. But, before we get into why I like it so much, what are you doing and how does it play solo?
In Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, you are trying to, well, terraform Mars. You have a central board with temperature and oxygen tracks and a hexagonal grid with ocean tiles. To win the game (when playing solo) you need to flip all the ocean tiles and increase the oxygen and temperature tracks to the end, all in a set number of turns.
Ares Expedition is driven by a card action selection mechanism. On your turn, you pick one of five action cards. The AI is also controlled by a deck of identical action cards, shuffled and a single card drawn. You perform the actions on both cards in action number order and you gain a bonus for the action you have selected.
Actions include playing green production cards, playing blue or red cards, performing actions, producing and finally, drawing cards. On subsequent turns, you can’t play the action card you played in the previous round and must select one of the remaining four. The AI card used is not shuffled into the deck at this stage.
Play continues this way until the AI deck has run out. At which point the round marker is advanced, the AI deck shuffled (you may get some advances on one of the tracks depending on difficulty) and you go again for a total of four rounds. In the fifth round, you can select which AI card to play rather than drawing randomly from the deck.
After a total of five times through the AI deck, you win if all the ocean tiles are flipped and both temperature and oxygen markers are at the end and you gain points for your terraforming rating and any other card bonuses/tokens you may have accumulated. If the tracks have not reached the end of all the ocean tiles have not been flipped, you lose.
Ares Expedition pulls on a few gameplay elements that I really enjoy. Engine building, card combos and tableau building. I like these mechanisms in my games and I like them in Ares Expedition as well. The fact that only the actions selected by you and the AI will be performed is exciting and often tense, as cards are drawn from the AI deck you can get a more informed idea of what the next cards might be.
Trying to pick actions that have been played previously by the AI results in being more efficient and effective each turn. There are still times when you draw the same action which is not great, but it happens few and far between.
The actions are fairly straightforward and easy to understand. You will be selecting actions to build various coloured cards (green, blue and red), producing to gain income (money, plants, heat, cards), draw new cards and perform the actions of previously built cards. The main goal is to raise the temperature (spending heat) and oxygen (spending plants) levels of Mars and flip ocean tiles (spending money) on the centre board.
Cards may have certain requirements, such as oxygen or temperature level to be at certain thresholds and will incur a cost. There are ways to reduce the costs of certain cards if the corresponding “tag” has been previously played. Cards may give you additional production for each of a certain “tag” you have in your play area.
More Often Than Not
I like my solo card games around the 45 - 60 minute mark. Ares expedition fits right into this time frame. Set up is quick, turns are snappy and there are some tough choices to be made. One of the major draws of the solo game is how easy the AI is to run. No complicated “if this then that, but not if this” type rules and I love it.
The meat of the game is in the card play. You can create some nice combinations of actions which I very much enjoy exploring and exploiting. The multiplayer game can run a bit long for what it is, but the solo game is very quick and is the main way that I enjoy playing Ares Expedition. The card deck is huge and there is always something new to see in the game.
I will say it is a slightly different game solo than it is multiplayer. In the solo game, your main focus is, as stated above, to push the oxygen and temperature tracks to the top and flip all the tiles before the end game. It is a race against the clock and you have a set number of turns to fulfil your goal.
In multiplayer, there is more emphasis on points. The game end is still the same but if you can get nice points generating engine then you don’t want to terraform the planet as quickly. You will be in no rush to push the oxygen levels and temperature up.
For me personally, Ares Expedition is a fantastic solo game packed full of choices, paths to victory and interesting card play. The AI is easy to control and just involves flipping an action card and the player performing that action. Five cycles through the AIs action deck and you are done, having had a satisfying 45 minutes.