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. You'll be turning the red waste into a green and blue wonderland with Forests, Oceans, Cities, wildlife, and various other spectacles.
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. The game takes approximately 120-180 minutes to play. The reason for the large disparity in playtime is due to a couple of factors. There are variations in some of the rules which can extend/shorten the 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 gameplay. 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 mine.
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 required but nothing more. Thankfully, you’ll spend at least half of your time looking at the cards, which are of better quality - even if the artwork is inconsistent at best.
As I said, it will leave you feeling underwhelmed. 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 cooperative 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. They can then purchase these cards for 3M€ each (that’s three Mega Credits, not Euros!). These will add to any cards the player already owns and form their hand, ranging 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 number of resources 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 at 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 your 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 and waiting for the opportunity to steal the points away from you.
The final stage of a Generation is the Production Phase. It's no surprise that this is where you produce materials to use for future generations. There are six unit types to produce: 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 3M€ for space cards. 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 the 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 is 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. At 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. They can be funded at any time by any player, but only pay at the end of the game to the person who wins the category. This 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€, while 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, like the Corporations each player acts on behalf of having a special ability to help you decide on potential strategies. The Corporate Era expansion is also included in the base game, which introduces around 50% more cards to the game and two extra corporations. The draft variant adds some fun to the Research Phase and the Solo variant, which at the time of writing I am yet to venture into.
There is no hiding that this game has its flaws. The components are steeped in mediocrity, the play length can be an issue, and 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 that either was affected by or had an effect on nine other cards, points, resources or requirements. As you can imagine, this can be hard to keep track of. It is not suited for those who enjoy the lighter side of Tabletop Gaming.
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 to keep the game time to under two hours.
Overall, Terraforming Mars is one of my favourites games ever. I would highly recommend it!
Editors note: This blog was originally published on November 8th, 2018. Updated on April 13th, 2022 to improve the information available.