17th Jan2018

‘Terraforming Mars’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

terra-mars-box

Although Terraforming Mars has already been lauded as the best game of 2017 by many and in fact as the best board game ever by a not insignificant number of people, it took me a long time to really see the appeal. There’s no doubt that the concept of transforming the surface of Mars into a habitable landscape is enticing, but the game components look amateurish and disjointed in pictures and there is an assumption that the game will be much heavier than it actually is.

Despite these reservations and a few more, curiosity (as well the fact that I recently reviewed Portal Games super challenging First Martians) led me to suit up and visit The Red Planet as one of the in game megacorporation’s. After all, when a game is this well rated by so many people, it must be doing something right. Is the praise fully deserved or is it all hyperbole? Let’s find out.

If you think Terraforming Mars looks below par in pictures, then there is little in the box that will change your mind at first opening, even though I did grow to love some the peculiar card art and the fairly ridiculous metallic resource cubes. You will see a modestly proportioned but nicely detailed board, eight bags of resource and player cubes plus a trio of larger cubes to track global conditions. You’ll also find some very, very meaty stacks of cards adorned in questionable artwork and indecipherable iconography. A few punch boards of cardboard hex’s and four of the worst quality player boards I’ve ever seen complete the full set of pieces.

Whilst the instruction manual contains all of the information needed to play Terraforming Mars, it is perhaps among the worst I’ve seen for clarity and ease of reading. Thankfully, it features some great example scenarios shown in italics which do a good job of providing much greater clarity. It’s interesting to compare the manual in Terraforming Mars with that of First Martians (which was heavily slated) because I’d say that the one in Terraforming Mars is actually worse in terms of composition and certainly appearance.

It just so happens that Terraforming Mars gets away with this lack of quality because it is one of the most straightforward to play games that I’ve ever experienced, relative to the power level of the things you are doing in the game. This works both in a mechanical sense (increasing resource production engines, changing global parameters, drawing cards) and in a thematic one (building solar panels on Phoebus, crashing Deimos into the surface of Mars, or signing a research agreement.)

From the very outset Terraforming Mars bombards players with a myriad of options to spend their mountains of cash on. Players choose the corporation that they wish to represent from a random selection of two, draw ten cards from the project deck (which is in fact, the only deck,) set their starting production and draw funds, then decide which of the ten projects they want to invest in (at three mega credit each) to form their opening hand.

This smorgasbord approach can be enhanced further through the introduction of a draft variant, which adds time to the game (you’ll draw or draft project cards during a research phase on every turn, not just during setup.) Whilst the game plays very differently in each different variant, both result in a number of options for players to choose from when the action phase begins. In addition to the project cards that you’ll buy to build your own hand, every player also has access to a number of standard projects (such as building an Aquifier to add a sea tile to the board, or building a power station to increase their energy production.) Between cards in hand and standard projects, Terraforming Mars ensures that players almost always have a number of options, each of which has an immediate and visible impact on the board state.

When it comes to paying for those projects, players are each assigned one of those abysmal player boards, each of which is actually just a thin and floppy bit of card covered in numbered boxes. Those boxes actually represent production tracks for various resources, including megacredits, iron, titanium, plants, energy and heat. At the end of each turn (which the game refers to as a “Generation”) these tracks generate resources based on the current number. Players add megacredits equal to their production plus their Terraforming Rating (which is a measure of their current score,) whilst all other production tracks stand alone.

The major problem with the player cards is that players use colourful cubes to mark their position on each track, but the cards are so flimsy and glossy that the cubes slide all over the place at the slightest knock. Entire games can be ruined as a result of this, which can be incredibly annoying after a couple of hours of play. Regardless of the poor build quality, using the player cards is intuitive and straightforward from a mechanical perspective. Iron and Titanium can be used against as currency in association with specific building or space projects as denoted by an icon on the card. Plants can be converted into greenery on the board as a standard action when a player has eight, whilst heat can be dispersed in the same way to increase overall temperature.  At the beginning of each turn, any energy on player cards is converted to heat, which is a good mechanic and a nice nod to some kind of actual science.

The objective of Terraforming Mars is twofold really. Firstly, all players must work together to achieve the global objectives relating to increasing the temperature, oxygen level and the number of sea tiles on the board, each of which must be achieved for the game to end in success. Should these conditions all be reached, then the player with the highest Terraforming Rating, which is a measure of the number of positive impacts to the global objectives (plus a few other factors as specified on cards etc) will be the winner. If the global objectives are not reached before the generation limit is reached (fourteen turns for solo players and twenty for competitive games) then no one actually wins, because Mars is not deemed as being adequately capable of supporting human life.

During each Generation, players can take as many actions as they can afford, up to two at a time before passing. This results in some fairly subtle metagaming, because whilst it may be tempting to take both actions every time you can before passing, there are often advantages for doing things in a particular order. For example, as the temperature rises, certain spots on the track provide permanent heat production bonuses. On the board itself, placing cities, seas and greenery tiles adjacent to each or certain other tiles (that relate to projects) can also confer a bonus. The action phase consists of players taking one or two actions then passing and repeating the process until one player passes, at which point they cannot take another action during the round. All other players continue until only one remains, allowing he or she to take as many remaining actions as they can.

This probably makes Terraforming Mars sound a bit laborious, but in truth I found turns to be generally quick and often exciting. Even in the late game, it’s infrequent to have access to more than about five to ten actions, although there are certainly exceptions and with luck, players can create some incredibly powerful ways to increase production and hence, open up more options. Working out when to take certain actions is highly tactical, but most importantly whether you are power gaming or just playing for fun, every action is super thematic and more or less everything a player can do in Terraforming Mars feels like it has an impact on the board and in the grand scheme of achieving the titular grand scheme.

Having played the game solo several times and at player counts up to four, it is worth noting that Terraforming Mars can range anywhere between an hour or less for one player, right up to more like two or three hours with four (and certainly with five) players. I found the sweet spot to be two or three players, with two being an optimal balance between enjoyment and speed and three introducing the additional dynamic of less predictability between actions and more competition for key locations. At four or five players, Terraforming Mars is still a lot of fun, but it’s also a much longer proposition that can overstay its welcome just a little bit.

Whilst I could never claim that the poor build quality of Terraforming Mars is excusable, the disappointment of the components is hugely mitigated by how compelling the game is to play. As a solo proposition, I found it much more exciting than First Martians (as well as almost every other game that I’ve played solo) whilst also being remarkably quick to work through, so it’s possible to play multiple games in a single sitting. With more players, the simple rules and straightforward, transparent mechanics win the day. I found players able to pick up Terraforming Mars and understand the objectives (which are very grand) within minutes. It’s incredibly easy to teach as a result, which does somewhat mitigate the long play time at higher player counts.

In conclusion, I do understand why many people rate Terraforming Mars among their very favorite games. Beyond that, I can even see why it achieved a number of Game of the Year awards, top ten lists and other accolades as well. Terraforming Mars offers a very pure experience that is highly replayable, largely because the number of corporations and project cards work together to create effectively limitless combinations of different strategy. I wish that somewhere in between the original release and now, Stronghold Games had invested some of their success in updating the player cards, but that really is the only knock that I can level at Terraforming Mars. It is perhaps the most accessible and thematically interesting eurogame I’ve played and it absolutely deserves to be in your collection.

**** 4/5

You can buy Terraforming Mars online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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