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Brave New World – Terraforming Mars Review

Mars used to be such a lovely place to go for a bit of gaming peace and quiet.  No zombies, no Renaissance Florentine traders, no Cthulhu, just the remnants of some superannuated microbial life forms.  Now, though, a gamer cannot go from one sand dune to the next without tripping over a new game based on the red planet.  Heavens, Ignacy Trzewicek has even rethemed one of his games to make it more Martian!  In the past eighteen months we have had Project Mars, Pocket Mars, Martians: A Story Of Civilisation, First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet, Misson To Mars 2049…and that’s without mentioning all the Mars related games in the works.  Unlikely as it sounds, Mars is hot stuff.  It’s enough to make you want to move back to Earth until you realise that we are in desperate need of another place to ravage, exploit and ruin…sorry, make our beloved home.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Sweeping vistas of our new home.

Taking Earth by storm!  Is it worth the hype?

The really big hitter, though, snuggled in tight orbit within the inner circles of Board Game Geek’s hallowed top ten, has been Terraforming Mars.  Like some exotic meteor it flashed across the gaming firmament some months ago before it disappeared from shelves as quickly as it had arrived.  In one of those rarest of cosmic alignments, here is the second printing and it has come to ground in my house, meaning that I now get the chance to wallow in the hype and either buy into it entirely or impress people with how coolly above it all I am.  So which is it to be?

For a game that makes a reviewer’s life tricky by arriving with a great reputation it at least has the courtesy to allow me to be all sniffy when I open the box, because the components seem a little underwhelming at the start.  There is no widescreen overproduction, just bags and bags of cubes in pretty colours, and a hefty supply of cards and hexes and various boards.  The player boards are thin and flimsy, like those in The Castles Of Burgundy, and similarly slippery, while the central board, depicting the red planet itself, turns out to hold most of the information players will need to play the game.  Other than that, the box, like the solar system, contains an awful lot of empty space that allow its contents to wander about as they see fit.

Some beauty lies below the surface, and the components of Terraforming Mars are slow burners.  The cubes are used by players to represent ownership of items such as tiles, while others are used as resource markers.  The former are in lovely translucent colours – red, green, yellow, blue and black – while the latter come in three sizes and are bronze, silver and gold, and they look fantastic just waiting there to be handed out to needy players.  While the contents of the box sit there doing nothing much, when Terraforming Mars is being set up to play it is much more of a looker.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

I dare you not to say “ooh”..!

Rules and regulations done?  Let’s get terraforming!

The rule book is more or less understandable on a first run through, but it does suffer from that irritating characteristic of having different points dotted about without a strong enough sense of organisation.  Terraforming Mars is actually quite easy to understand once its players are up and running, but it does make life a little more difficult than is necessary in that getting-to-know-you stage, and first plays will likely include more than their fair share of page-flicking and double-checking, despite there being reference cards included in the components (though only two sets).

Stripped down to its essentials, though, Terraforming Mars is about – well, guess – yes, that’s right, terraforming Mars, with players achieving this aim in three ways.  Adding oceans, and raising the oxygen level or temperature will help to make the planet habitable, and getting all three of these elements to their targets will trigger the end of the game and presumably shortly thereafter a huge influx of humans with all the betting shops, coffee bars and board games they can bring with them.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Some steps bring rewards with them.

Play the corporate game!  Use your strengths!

Setting up Terraforming Mars is easy, amounting to little more than shuffling the deck, laying out the board and placing a couple of markers, but the first thing to do is to decide your corporation.  The game comes with enough Beginner Corporations to accomodate the full five-player count, but it is the advanced options that are so much more interesting.  Like the leaders in something like Core Worlds, they serve to drop a hint as to where the player should be aiming this time around, and the draw-two-keep-one mechanism means that a player always gets at least some kind of a choice.  The beginner corporations are so bland in any case that beyond a first game I think they should be slung into orbit, or maybe just placed back into the box.  After choosing their corporation players draw and select their opening cards (or keep all of them if playing as a beginner) and then it is down to business.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Beginner Corporation is less interesting than the others.

Turns in Terraforming Mars progress in a fairly uncomplicated fashion, leaving the tricky stuff to the players themselves as they try to decide what to do with their MegaCredits.  At the start of each round players receive four new cards and may buy these for 3 MegaCredits each – there is a drafting option here, but let’s not worry about that now.  Then comes the meat of the round in which players play or activate cards and actions as they see fit, and here Terraforming Mars does something slightly different, allowing its prospective terraformers to take one or two actions per turn.  At first glance a nascent Martian might see no reason to take the lesser option, but given that cards and tile placements have the possibility of gaining goodies from what other people might do sometimes prudence is the better option.  Once all players have passed they then convert energy into heat and receive resources and income based on their production levels and score.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

These boards track production and resources.

Is it a board game?  Or is it a card game?

It is the cards that are the real engine of the the game.  They form a large deck and will take some shuffling, so it is a shame that they feel quite thin, but they are surprisingly thematic and can end up turning a player’s baby corporation into something with proper levels of ambition.  Some of the artwork is based on photographs and some on an artist’s impression, so if you are the kind of person who might be put off by the aesthetic gear change between a wonderful illustration of an asteroid being towed and a photograph of a dog, then look away now.  Some of them have requirements that need to be met, and they all come with tags to represent their type (science, building, Jovian and so on) that can prove useful in combination with other cards.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

The cards are the engine of the game.

Apart from the cards held in hand there are standard actions that all players may take on their turns, helpfully printed on the central board, and also awards and milestones that may be funded, likewise printed on the central board.  These can offer a one-off reward to the first person to build three city tiles, for example, or provide an end game incentive to stock up with the most science tags.  None of these is active when the game begins, and only a certain number may be activated in each game, so they throw in an extra wrinkle of risk versus reward to add an additional layer to the game.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Awards and Milestones bring bonus points.

Familiar yet fresh!  And solo play too!

Terraforming Mars begins very slowly but picks up substantial momentum as the rounds go on until cards and actions are riffing off each other and it feels as if you could go on forever, building this to gain that and convert it into the other to then build something else…and onwards.  In this respect it reminded me of Imperial Settlers, which does something similar with its card decks, while the hex placement and the associated point scoring and bonus accumulation has a little of The Castles Of Burgundy about it.  Importantly, though, while it uses ideas that have been seen elsewhere, Terraforming Mars remains resolutely its own beast and, oddly enough, feels as though it has its very own runaway greenhouse effect.

Terraforming Mars also comes with a robust solo mode in the box, in which a player has fourteen rounds in which to attempt to terraform the planet.  It is a simple win or lose scenario, but points also get totted up so that a player can either rejoice in the extent of their victory or weep at how far off the mark they were.  In the solo mode Terraforming Mars does away with the awards and milestones, and the set time limit on the game means that it plays slightly differently from the multiplayer version and definitely has its own feel, and that is no bad thing.  The solo mode also includes all the Corporate Era cards, which are optional with more players.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Solo mode is different and engrossing.

Playing the corporate era?  Set some time aside!

These Corporate Era cards form part of the various options that Terraforming Mars offers for customising the experience according to your own group, but they do come with warnings.  Including these extra cards adds to the game’s complexity and lengthens its play time, while throwing in the option to draft cards in every round will slap yet more minutes onto the experience.  To be fair, the manual does warn prospective players about this, but when you combine all those options with a game that could go on for a very long time indeed  – the multiplayer game only ends when the planet has been terraformed, remember – you can encounter a game that is far too long for its weight.  I am wholly in favour of games that allow their players to tweak the experience to fit their own group, and while some of the options here are less successful, at least the choices are there.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Different game modes…and a warning about the Corporate Era.

A little like the process it represents, Terraforming Mars is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, taking tried and testing mechanisms and throwing them together with a dollop of theme to provide something that is emphatically better than the sum of its parts.  It did not thrill me at first play in the way that some other games have done, but it has certainly had the slow burn factor, and is one of those games that sends me away thinking about the mistakes I made and how I could possibly eke out a couple of extra points next time around.  It has taken only two or three plays to make me realise that this is a box that is likely to make its way to the centre of my collection and possibly stay there forever.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Player actions are detailed on the central board.

Got the right group?  This is a great choice!

Terraforming Mars is not a light game, however, so it is distinctly inadvisable to throw it in front of gamers whose heaviest gaming experience has been something like Carcassonne, but with a crowd who know and understand how to get cards playing off each other for the maximum effect, Terraforming Mars can be involving and satisfying.  It also helps that the interaction in the game, while sometimes direct in terms of snaffling somebody else’s resources, tends to be more second-hand.  The ocean you placed is now going to earn me 2 MegaCredits when I place my city next to it, that kind of thing.  It is interactive without being too intrusive so, again, if that fits your particular game group then dive right in.

Terraforming Mars Board Game

Tiles bring points and other goodies.

Maybe as I grow into this game I am going to up my mark, but Terraforming Mars is something that polishes and refines rather than innovates and redesigns.  It does it spectacularly well, none the less, and feels solid and robust, something that could readily support many, many plays and provide a different experience each time.  It gets a 9 out of 10 for me, and with expansions already out there ready to explore, it is clear that Mars is just the start.

5 (100%) 1 vote
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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.