Terraforming Mars Overview
Colonizing the red planet requires the brightest minds, the most advanced technology, and the sternest of wills to persevere through the many generations of work it would take to create a new home by Terraforming Mars.
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So it’s only natural that such an effort is spearheaded by a handful of wealthy corporations. We all know those totally focus on sustainability and not short-term profits, right?…right?
You play as one of these corporations amid the terraforming effort alongside your friends. You all may share the goal of Terraforming Mars, but you aren’t allies. The World Government offers generous funding to corporations that aid in the task of making the planet livable, and you want to ensure you have the biggest slice of that pie.
Terraforming Mars is a competitive engine-building and card management game for 1 to 5 players where corporations have to find ways to generate a variety of resources to help terraform the planet. Oxygen, Temperature, and Oceans are the primary factors to forge a liveable environment, but how you get there is up to you.
|Gideon’s Bias||Terraforming Mars Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: Stronghold Games, FryxGames|
|Number of Plays: 20+||Designer: Jacob Fryxelius|
|Player Counts Played: All||Player Count: 1-5|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Engine Building, Card Management, Tile Placement.|
|Fan of Weight: Yes||Weight: Heavy|
|Gaming Groups Thoughts: Loved it||Price: $69.95|
It should come as no surprise that a heavier weight game such as Terraforming Mars would come packed with components, but it’s still pretty impressive just how much is actually there.
The massive board showing a large region of Mars is not only beautiful, but it uses its size and iconography in elegant ways to aid with the gameplay. Once you learn the basics, all of the small icons on the map itself and the sidebar are easy to make sense of at a glance.
I particularly enjoy how the game incorporates its theme directly onto the board itself. A large thermometer represents the temperature tracker, and the Oxygen meter reminds me of an air tank gauge. The awards along the bottom of the board look like medals you would either pin to a vest or hang up in a display. It all fits the theme really well.
Cards, Bits and Bobs
You get a massive number of unique cards, and while the card art is often criticized as being poor, I disagree. It’s certainly on the simpler side, and some of it may even be edited stock photos. But it doesn’t look bad by any means.
Furthermore, despite having over 200 unique cards, it all conforms to a consistent style when compared card by card. That said, the cards are on the thinner side, so it’s definitely a game you’re going to want to sleeve.
Terraforming Mars comes with a variety of simple cube tokens to be used as resources and markers. They are pretty generic, and they all have a manufacturing flaw with a chipped corner which is a bit of a bummer.
The box comes with a bunch of nice doubled-sided cardboard tiles that represent greenery and cities. There are also a handful of special and ocean tiles. The tiles are made out of pretty thick cardboard and hold up despite frequent use. You get 12 unique corporation cards to play as, a few reference cards, and of course, a rule book.
The overall component quality is mixed. But the general look and feel of the game, once it’s tabled, is great. It has a strong table presence, especially once players start laying out their engines. You get a fair bargain of bits and bobs for the price, but it’s the content that they represent that really makes the price worthwhile.
Player Board Issues
You also get five thin player boards and a fancy first-player token in the shape of Mars. The player boards are going to be my biggest complaint component-wise. They visually look nice and are again consistent with the rest of the game’s style, but they can be a pain in the butt during play.
You pile all kinds of cubes on the player boards and use them to track very important elements of your production. It’s very easy to accidentally bump or knock the cubes around and forget where they were. It’s fine if you’re careful but frustrating when it happens.
Some will disagree, but despite its weight Terraforming Mars is really not a complicated game to learn. Everyone I’ve taught it to caught on within just a few turns. That’s largely thanks to the game’s great internal logic. How actions function and what the cards do, all run on a very consistent framework that melds the theme of the game and its mechanisms.
Playing a power plant raises your power production, which in turn generates power that is later converted into heat. Steel can be used to help pay for buildings, while Titanium can help pay for space projects. The player boards subtle hinting with its layout pull it together nicely. The biggest obstacle is learning all of the iconographies, but beyond that, it’s smooth sailing.
That makes the poor rule book much more frustrating. Visually speaking, Terraforming Mars is a lot to take in and looks more intimidating than it is. Rather than dismiss that illusion the rule book makes it worse.
Key information is spread over various pages in different places, and none of the information is concise. It gives examples in an ABCDE type format, but in the middle of a paragraph in bolded letters with the cards, it’s actually detailing at the bottom of the page. It’s awkward and convoluted.
There’s too much information to read the whole book then play. You definitely learn by playing, but there will be a bunch of page flipping to figure out how to complete a single turn. That said, the game does come with starter corporations and nice reference cards to help ease you in. If you go in knowing it’s not as complicated as it looks, you may be able to parse it better.
Terraforming Mars’ mixture of mechanisms is difficult to distill into a reasonable amount of words that still do the game justice. It gives you a goal, Terraform Mars, then it opens up a warehouse of tools and says “Have at it.”
Saying that there are many paths to victory is a gross understatement. Since every card is unique, no two games truly feel the same. The strategies that players use change and adapt. Not just at the start of the game, but during it. This is especially true if you use the drafting variant, which you totally should.
The engine building in Terraforming Mars is more than just forging a successful corporation. Watching what other players are doing is important to actually win. While the game isn’t high on player interaction, what’s there is pretty pivotal.
Watching what strategies they pursue can and should impact your decisions. If someone is building a powerful engine, it’s in your best interest to terraform the planet quickly and end the game. Yet, if you are building a powerful engine, you may want to draw it out instead.
If a player is going heavy on placing Greenery tiles, you can place cities in key locations to not only disrupt their plans but gain free victory points from their tiles.
Only a few milestones and awards can be claimed each game, and they all grant points. It’s always a race to see who can claim which ones first. Cutting another player off from one can give you a nice advantage. Playing the draft variant adds another layer. You can hate draft cards that another player would want, in addition to what you need. Yet, every one of these aspects feels elegant and natural, not forced or clumsy.
Placing oceans, raising the temperature, and generating Oxygen aren’t just required to end the game, they contribute to your income while you play. Anytime you raise a parameter, your Terraforming Rating goes up. Terraforming Rating doubles as a source of end-game victory points and income.
In most point-focused games, the points largely don’t matter until the game ends. The TR track is a clever one-two punch that opens up the gameplay in interesting ways. For one, players are incentivized to actually terraform the planet, and it also means you always have a secondary source of income, regardless of your engine.
As a corporation, you have several resources you need to produce depending on your strategy. Money, heat, steel, titanium, plants, and power. But you always have the planets well being in the back of your mind. Not just to fill your own pockets, but to hinder the other players.
Each Terraforming Parameter is finite. Once 9 Oceans are placed, no one can place another, for example. Each one you place not only bumps up your own TR rating and income, but it’s one less for the other players to take.
Terraforming Mars carefully balances an interesting number of strategic factors without being overwhelming. Every turn you’re doing something meaningful, and staying engaged is easy. What the other players are doing matters, even if it doesn’t affect you directly most of the time.
The game’s mechanisms meld well with the theme. The actions make sense within the context of the setting. You really do feel like you’re managing a megacorporation balancing production and profit with the task of terraforming the planet, while also trying to outpace your rivals to come out on top.
Most of your actions are dictated through cards. Each round, you will end up with four new ones. But the catch is, you have to buy them first, then pay their actual cost to play them on your turn.
Buying cards puts a unique decision space quite literally in your hands. It’s not just a matter of which cards you can afford to play, but which ones you can afford to buy for your hand in the first place. That might not seem like a big deal, but many cards have requirements, such as the planet having a specific level of oxygen.
This means that even in the early game, you need to make long-term decisions. What do you need now? What do you need in the mid to late game and how much of either can you afford to put money toward any given turn? It adds a layer of depth and engagement that you would never have if you simply drew four cards to keep each turn, and it’s brilliant.
It’s even more important when drafting, as you can draft cards you have no intention of buying that you know another player would want!
Building a corporate engine is a big part of Terraforming Mars. There are several resources that can be generated, many of which can have additional uses with specific cards. Mega credits are obviously always important. But Steel can be used to help pay for buildings while Titanium can help pay for Space cards.
Power has a bunch of utility with various cards but is also turned into heat during the production phase. Heat can be converted into Temperature to terraform the planet while plants can be turned into Greenery tiles
Building up your corporation continually grants you more and more options as the game progress. Early rounds might consist of only a few moves per player while the later rounds players take actions in the double digits. Yet, each player only gets two actions at a time before the next player’s turn. The game proceeds smoothly with minimal downtime from the game itself.
While many cards offer one-time effects, several others offer you additional actions that can be used once per round that can really help you round out a winning strategy. For example Development Center allows you to trade in one power to draw a card. Others like Pets grant you a pet resource whenever a city is placed and grants victory points at the end of the game based on how many pets you have!
Many other cards grant positive or negative point values at the end of the game simply for being in your play area.
Beyond that. The board offers a set of standard projects you can always use if you have the money. Standard projects add an additional layer of decision-making while also ensuring you rarely get locked out of a turn from a poor draw.
Occupying The Red Planet
Many cards or actions let you place different tiles on Mars. This has a large impact because Greenery tiles provide oxygen, and oceans serve as a key part of a life-sustaining ecosystem. In addition, you also earn bonuses and points for placing them.
Greenery tiles contribute victory points at the end, while cities grant additional points for having greenery tiles near them. Several spaces on the board grant you resources or cards for simply placing a tile there. These combinations of factors make the board a hot commodity.
Players often vie for certain layouts for the most points. But care must be given to avoid giving another player free rein to plop down a city in the middle of your greenery tiles. Plus a number of special tiles can be placed using certain cards. Some of them exist to simply take up space while others offer unique bonuses.
Terraforming Mars mixture of card play, engine building, and tile placement make the game a multifaceted affair where no aspect feels tacked on. Its mechanisms are cohesive and give you numerous options to pursue the strategies of your choice and that makes the game very fun to play.
Awards and Milestones
Milestones and awards are clever mechanisms that force players to adapt in both the long and short term. No one player is capable of fulfilling the requirements for all of them, but only three of each can be claimed in each game. This places a unique kind of pressure on everyone playing, regardless of personal strategy.
Milestones cost an action and money to fund but are claimed by the person funding them if they meet the requirements. For example, you need three cities for Mayor or three Greenery tiles for Gardener.
Awards, on the other hand, aren’t checked until the end of the game. Only the awards that are funded are checked at all, and it doesn’t matter who funded them. For example, I could fund Scientist if I’m confident that I’ll have the most Science tags at the end of the game, but if someone else manages to acquire more science tags than me they receive the 1st place reward and I’ll get 2nd.
It places an interesting dynamic between the players. Funding an award late sounds like the best move, but they go up in price for each one funded. There can also only be three funded awards, so if you wait too long you may be locked out of the one you want! Yet if an award is funded early, everyone can see it and plan to take it.
In my last game, I even funded an award I knew I couldn’t win. But only one award slot was open, and there were two awards I knew another player would have locked down if she claimed them. So I claimed a different one first that I knew I’d come in second on for a couple of points, instead of none. That kind of thinking really adds to the game.
Some of the cards in Terraforming Mars allow you to directly affect another player. Such as stealing a small amount of money or steel with Hired Raiders or by dropping a big asteroid on their precious plants.
The issue is, the game really doesn’t go far enough with it. Most aggressive cards are a nuisance at best and rarely if ever, slow down another player to a meaningful degree that’s truly worth the cost.
It’s problematic for a few reasons. I know some argue that attacking players doesn’t fit the theme of the game. But I disagree. You are playing Greedy Corporations that will use concepts such as Indentured Workers, Hired Raiders, and literal Sabotage to get ahead. It’s already baked into the theme, it’s just fairly toothless.
It’s the one aspect of Terraforming Mars that feels underdeveloped. It feels like you were truly meant to be able to be more aggressive to stall opposing players’ progress.
There are times that a player can get certain combos of cards in play that it’s clear that they are going to win. When it happens, there’s really nothing you can do about it. Yet, you will still have an hour or more of game time ahead of you, with no way to slow that player’s powerful engine of combos. That engine is only going to gain more and more steam with every turn.
A lot of players don’t like “take that” mechanisms, and plenty of Terraforming Mars players will actually remove the aggressive cards that do exist. So I understand the reasoning. But I do feel it impacts the game in a negative way. Terraforming Mars is a long game, so a total blowout that you’re powerless to stop feels really bad.
I’ve played a lot of Terraforming Mars, and at all player counts. The game works great from player counts 2 to 5 and is pretty much the same game at any of them with a couple of exceptions. The more players there are, the faster the parameters increase since they don’t change with the player count. So while the game may last longer with more players, you have fewer rounds before the end.
This isn’t a problem. You just need to adapt your strategies to account for fewer rounds with more players and more rounds with fewer players.
There is a solo mode too, and it’s a neat little replayable puzzle, but it’s a much different game. When playing alone the game ends in 14 rounds, and you are challenged with fully Terraforming the Planet before then.
It’s an interesting mental exercise, but I found it hard to enjoy simply because it’s clearly tacked on. A good portion of the cards, I’d say roughly half, are dead cards when playing alone. The only thing that matters is Terraforming. So many cards meant to earn points or pay off in later rounds just serve to clog the deck instead.
That also makes the solo mode feel much more luck reliant. You aren’t buying cards out of a four-card hand as much as you’re buying any card that actually works in solo play out of a four-card hand.
One of my criteria for buying a game is I have to believe it works well alone or with one other person. I wouldn’t recommend Terraforming Mars as a solo game. But it does thankfully play great at two players, in addition to three, four, and five!
Verdict on Terraforming Mars
It’s difficult to convey what makes Terraforming Mars so great because it’s not any single mechanism that sells the experience. It’s a large number of them that blend together seamlessly, which elevates the fun factor.
Every turn is interesting and full of player agency, there is no set path to victory, and no two games truly feel the same. It’s a wonderful mix of resource management, risk assessment, and planning, and the fact that every card is unique makes every draw exciting. Plus there are the 12 unique corporations that all work differently.
The strategic decision space is just so wide. Featuring several elements that never feel overwhelming thanks to its elegant design. It mixes tile placement, engine building, and hand management beautifully. Despite all of its moving parts, it’s fairly easy to learn thanks to the symbiotic relationship between its rules, setting, and theme. The rule book is not great though. If you’re the game teacher of the group, you may want to watch a video.
The components are going to come down to taste. I like them, although I wish the cards were thicker. But you do get a ton of them in the box. The box comes with something much less tangible but just as important, a game with no shelf life. Terraforming Mars just doesn’t get old, you can play it over and over, and every game feels fresh and fun.
I think the fact that the aggressive cards don’t go far enough is a massive misstep. Especially in the absence of a catch-up mechanism in a game that can easily take over two hours to play.
However, an ecosystem is never truly perfect. It’s just a bunch of variables tuned and twisted in the right way that life, found a way. Imperfect it may be, but there is great beauty in its existence. Terraforming Mars receives my golden shield award. For being the right combination of variables, tweaked and tuned in just the right way.
My Perspective on Terraforming Mars
Terraforming Mars is a game that can look and sound incredibly dull to play. The first time I opened the box I thought it looked more like work than fun. The first time I taught my group to play it, they looked as if I was about to have them count grains of rice for the next three hours.
It turned out to be such a hit, however. That they offered to split the cost for all the expansions and it entered my own personal top five favorite games.
One of my side projects is to create a homebrew expansion that focuses on addressing the lack of aggression in Terraforming Mars. It’s something my entire group desires. I play a lot of games and I don’t have a lot of time. The fact that I want to devote the energy to address something I felt was a flaw, speaks to how great the game actually is.
What makes Terraforming Mars even more special, is the fact that many of you will disagree with me about whether or not the lack of aggression is a flaw. If you aren’t a fan of “take that” mechanisms, it’s an even better fit for your table.
The bottom line is the game is simply fantastic and has definitely earned its rank on Board Game Geek. Keep an eye on my Patreon for updates on the progress of my little homebrew side project. Also, stay tuned for more reviews and content related to Terraforming Mars.
More Reviews of Heavyweight Games
- Over 200 unique cards
- 12 Unique Corporations
- Mechanisms meld with the theme, the actions you take make logical sense
- Wide-open strategy with many paths to victory
- Subtle but meaningful player interaction between drafting, tile placement, and awards
- Building an engine is satisfying and opens up more and more actions as the game progresses
- The milestone and awards system put a brilliant type of pressure on the players
- The fact that you get monetary benefits for TR makes the points worth more than just victory at the end
- Having to choose which cards to buy from a hand of four each round deepens the games strategic strength
- The cards are pretty thin, and the cubes have nicks at the corners
- While the game features some “take that” elements, it’s fangless and doesn’t go far enough
- A player can snowball to the point that victory is certain, even with an hour or more left to play
- It’s very easy to knock your cubes from your player board, resulting in frustration and confusion
- The Rule Book is obtuse
- The Solo mode is a letdown
Who Would Like Terraforming Mars?
- If you want a game where you can see your long term strategies unfold, yet still need to adapt turn from turn.
- You want a deep, long game.
- You want something highly replayable with a lot of variety
- If you like the idea of building a production engine to fund your plans.
- You like games that mix mechanisms, Terraforming Mars has several common ones that work cohesively.
- If you want a game with subtle player interaction, most actions in Terraforming Mars affects other players indirectly.
- You’re looking for a game that works great at players counts 2 to 5.
- You enjoy games such as Underwater Cities, Furnace, or Race for the Galaxy.
Who Wouldn’t Like Terraforming Mars?
- If you want a short game, Terraforming Mars can last between two to three hours.
- If you want a game with high player interaction, Terraforming Mars is fairly subtle.
- Gamers with a severe disdain for “take that” mechanisms should take note that Terraforming Mars does have a limited number of cards that target other players.
- If you want a great solo experience, there are better choices.
- There is no catch-up mechanic, while not terribly common, the game can be decided with an hour or more left to play. If that sounds awful, the game might not be a great choice.