Terraforming Mars

Steam recently released a digital version of the board game Terraforming Mars. I haven't played the digital version (which is getting "mixed" and negative reviews at the time of this writing), but I have played the board game version. It's pretty fun, and in celebration of the latest NASA probe landing on the surface of Mars, I thought I'd launch a review of the board game.

Terraforming Mars has a wide variety of gameplay mechanics, which makes it kind of difficult to clearly categorize it. It also makes it a little difficult to teach the game to new players efficiently. It's not an overly-complicated game, however. It's just a lot of different concepts that you have to explain. Regardless, I've been able to get through learning games with new players in about three or three-and-a-half hours (including the rules explanation). So it's not overly burdensome to learn and play. It's also not terribly hard to simply play a sample round to teach the game flow, and then mulligan the game if any players feel they dug themselves into a hole.

Terraforming Mars has multiple distinct mechanics, ranging from tableau-building to tile-placement.

There's tile placement with adjacency bonuses. There's resource management. There's action economy. There's a little bit of tableau building and hand management. There's even a certain degree of bluffing. Playing with the non-basic corporations adds variable player powers, You can even optionally play with card drafting! Pretty much the only thing that we're not doing is loyalty / betrayal mechanics. Despite including so many varying game mechanics, nothing feels out of place, and everything fits together well.

The rulebook includes footnotes explaining the scientific basis for the rules and mechanics.

Depending on how you play, however, the actual game board and your tableau of cards can sometimes feel very disparate. If you're not actively placing tiles on the board, then the whole board can pretty much boil down to a score and prerequisite tracker. However, if you're avoiding placing tiles on the board, then you're probably going to lose, as I've yet to see a predominantly card-based strategy win the game.

The board itself includes a map of Mars' surface, and has notable landmarks on Mars clearly labeled. Unfortunately, the board only covers one half of Mars' surface, so there's some notable landmarks that are not included at all (perhaps the other side of the planet is an expansion?). The resource cubes are very shiny and pretty, and have an appropriately sci-fi aesthetic to them. The rulebook also includes little footnotes that explain some of the scientific bases for the game's rules and mechanics. it's like the kind of thing you might expect if Neil DeGrasse Tyson wrote a board game. Science and space nerds will probably really appreciate these efforts at scientific accuracy.

The resource cubes are pretty, but shift around very easily on the flimsy, card stock economy boards.

Other components besides the resource cubes are kind of cheap and flimsy though. The player economy boards are printed out on basic card stock. There aren't any slots or grooves for the production cubes to sit in, so they slide around very easily if the table is jostled, or if the economy board is shifted around. You may want to invest in some third-party replacements or overlays in order to solve this problem.

The box also doesn't have any inserts of any kind for storing components -- just a handful of plastic, zip-lock bags. They expect you to just drop all the cards in a plastic baggie and just toss them in the box haphazardly along with all the other pieces!

At a price point of $70 (USD), I expect more from a game's components! Fortunately, where the game lacks in production value, it more than makes up for in entertainment value!

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Star Trek: Fleet Captains - manual shows painted miniatures
Star Trek: Fleet Captains is an exploration and combat board game by WizKids.

Good Star Trek games are few and far between. That goes for both video games and board games. Part of the reason for this is that it's often difficult to capture the spirit of Star Trek when trying to adapt it into en existing game genre. This is why Trek-themed games end up turning into dull shooters or tactical combat games. Games about exploration or scientific discovery, or role-play are sadly uncommon in video game formats (which is what makes 1999's PC game Birth of the Federation stand out to me as an underrated Trek classic). Sure it was just a reskin of Master of Orion II, and it had lots of technical and A.I. flaws, but in a market dominated by cookie-cutter games like Star Trek: Armada, Elite Force, and Invasion, Birth of the Federation was a rare game in which "exploring strange new worlds" and "seeking out new life and new civilizations" was a primary game mechanic.

Board games and table-top games have maybe fared a bit better than video game adaptations. We have our Dungeons & Dragons-inspired role playing games, our tactical starship simulators, and then countless board game reskins (ranging from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan, and virtually everything in between). Most of these games are pretty old, but there's also a handful of newer Star Trek games that run the gamut. One such game is WizKids' Star Trek: Fleet Captains.

WizKids is probably best known for its Mage Knight and Hero Clix miniatures games based on fantasy, video game, and comic book characters. The bases for these figures include a rotating dial that allows the player to change the attributes of the character to one of several pre-set values. This can include altering their combat attack power, hit points, mana, or any other value that the specific game might require. Fleet Captains uses a similar clix system as the backbone of its starship management mechanics.

Unboxing impressions

My first impressions upon opening the box was a bit disappointing. I'm not a big fan of the ship miniatures. They're fairly well-detailed and made out of a sturdy plastic and seem like they should stand up to a lot of play, but that's the only thing that I like about them. They take up a lot of space, making it difficult to cram more than two or three ships on any single hex. There seems to have been some effort made to scale the size of the Federation ships with one another, but it isn't consistent. Voyager, for example, is almost as large as the Enterprise E, but the Enterprise A and Reliant are noticeably smaller and appear decently-scaled against the Galaxy class Venture. Klingon ships, however, seem to have no effort put into trying to appropriately scale them. Birds of Prey and classic cruisers look huge compared to most Federation ships and to other Klingon ships. The Negh'var, despite being one of the largest ships in the game, just doesn't seem as massive and intimidating as it should be.

Despite the manual showing painted miniatures in its components list [LEFT],
the actual miniatures [RIGHT] are unpainted and not to-scale with one another.

The ships are also all are made of the same mono-chrome plastic and are un-painted (even though the instructions appear to show painted miniatures in the components list). These ships are different enough in design that it's really not hard to tell them apart, and so I see no reason why they couldn't have been painted (as opposed to being the same color for ease of recognition)...

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