05th Jan2022

‘Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

The original Terraforming Mars remains one of the most popular and highly rated games of all time, and currently occupies the fourth space on BoardGameGeek’s all-time ranking list. For me, it is one of the most complete integrations of mechanics and theme in a game, and even though I am not traditionally a sci-fi fan, I love the way in which the players are clearly in competition with each other, yet their actions really build towards a singular vision of creating a habitable Mars. Poor components and considerable overall weight did put some people off Terraforming Mars though, and Stronghold Games are back with Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, a supposedly lighter, card-based variant on the same theme. Let’s check it out.

At first glance, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is noticeably simpler than its bigger brother. The box of the “Collector’s Edition” that I received includes just four dual-layer player boards, two trays filled with cubes, the components for each player (in their colour), a huge deck of cards, and a very small number of ocean and forest tokens. This stuff will all be broadly familiar to players of the original Terraforming Mars with the difference being obvious streamlining. There are no city or special project tiles, ocean tiles go on the board (face down) but forest tiles are just victory points and the player boards are simplified a little.

The key difference here is that Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition uses an action selection system based on leading and following actions – similar to Puerto Rico, if you know it. This means that each player has a deck of five cards that represent phases. These include; Development, Construction, Action, Production and Research. At the start of each round, the players will simultaneously flip their cards over and then resolve any cards shown in the numbered order. Let’s pretend player one chose Development (which is number one.) In this example, that player would develop (which allows them to build a green project card) and then each other player in turn to do the same. The player who played the Development card would receive a three mega-credit reduction in the cost of their build, but the other players would not.

This continues around in numbered order of the cards played with each player taking the bonus associated with their chosen card. For Production, for example, the player who plays the card will generate an additional four mega-credits, but every player will still get to Produce. The trick to realise here is that if two players use the same card, then both will resolve – and if that means you miss a chance to take an action twice (because you don’t have project cards or money to do so) then that’s a missed opportunity. Equally, because Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition supports a maximum of four players, there will always be one card that is not played – and thus that action will not be available during that round. Players cannot use the same card two rounds in a row, either.

Whilst Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is based on fundamentally the same objective and approach – playing project cards to build up infrastructure, increase oxygen and heat, generate oceans and plants in order to terraform Mars – as Terraforming Mars, the way that you do it here feels so very different. In Terraforming Mars players would often end up passing out of a round when they ran out of things to do, and whilst it was rare, this could lead to them having to watch two other players taking several actions before the next round. This is part of the game and it happens rarely in evenly matched players, but Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition keeps everyone in the action, and even if you “miss” the chance to take a situational follow action (Development or Construction, mainly) then the turn is still over quickly, and you’ll still get chance to do what you wanted to with your own action card.

In addition to this mechanical streamlining, I also really like the reduced bulk in terms of the board itself. It’s not like it saves loads of time not having to place cities, forests or oceans, but it definitely feels like turns are faster and very little is actually lost as a consequence of this different approach. If a player achieves something that flips an ocean tile – fine, they just choose one and flip it, then take the bonus printed on the back. It’s super quick and very simple. Forests? Well, when you buy one either by trading in plants (just like in the original) or through some other mechanism, you just take a token and increase the oxygen level. Cities don’t exist in this version at all.

What Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition retains from the base game are some of the best bits. Specifically, a massive stack of over 200 project cards and a number of different production tracks for each player. These things combined give that sense of infrastructure and progression that I love in Terraforming Mars. It’s certainly true that in Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition you’ll end up with a massive amount of played projects per player – probably twenty-odd per player as a bare minimum. The tracks in the dual-layer player boards in the Collector’s Edition are a massive improvement on the flat boards from the original game, and I strongly recommend this version if you can get it.

Having just praised Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition for retaining these parts of the base game, I have to say that it feels like the sheer number of cards – and the way in which they affect the game by decreasing costs, increasing production tracks, affecting other decisions etc – are what added a lot of weight to Terraforming Mars in the first place. What this results in is a game that feels like an only very slightly streamlined version of Terraforming Mars. If you intended to buy Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition with the hopes of it being a light and airy version, then this sadly isn’t it, and I would say that it is far above the weight of your average gateway game, and almost as long as the original in terms of elapsed time – excluding any expansions of course.

Overall, I really like Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, but that’s possibly just because I like the original game and this is quite similar. Whilst the streamlining of the board features is present, it isn’t a major factor, but the one big difference – the phases being driven by cards – is. I really, really like this new way of playing, with the action cards keeping everyone in the game at all times, and in a four player game, giving everyone the chance to do lots of things. On the downside, the simpler board play makes Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition feel even more like a solo game than the original, and it is practically impossible (and kind of pointless) to keep track of other player tableaus. Still, this is a very solid game in its own right.

**** 4/5

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is available 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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