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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!

Cascading interplay

The core premise is that each player takes on the role of a corporation that are all competing to become the best at terraforming the Red Planet. You earn points primarily by increasing one of the planet's three key attributes: temperature, water content, and oxygen content. These are accomplished by playing cards or taking other actions using the resources that you collect, which include food, metals, energy, heat, and money. Fore instance, you might play a card that allows you to melt the ice cap and release more liquid water onto the surface. Or you might convert your generated energy into heat and release it into the atmosphere to raise the global temperature.

Other players may activate prerequisite(s) for your cards.

Since many cards can only be played if certain attributes are at certain levels, there ends up being a surprising amount of interaction between the players. Another player may raise the temperature enough to allow you to start growing plants, which may, in turn, increase the oxygen level to a point at which another player is able to start raising livestock, which may, in turn, allow another player to introduce predatory species that feast on the previous player's livestock (thus taking resources away from the livestock player and giving them to the predator player). Every advancement of an attribute is a double-edged sword that gives money and points to you, but may allow another player to play a powerful card at less cost to themselves.

Some thresholds are particularly tense, as a few attributes also cascade at certain points. For example, if the temperature is raised high enough, water will start to melt on its own. The player who raised the temperature to that point will then be allowed to place a free water tile, which allows him or her to combo together multiple points and potentially meet the prerequisites for powerful cards. No player wants to raise the attribute to a point that allows another player to cross that cascading threshold. There's only four of these cascading thresholds in the game, so they don't dominate strategy.

Pacing and scaling

These interactions and cascading effects may dramatically change your strategy. The game is divided into rounds, called "Generations", in which each player can take multiple turns as play passes around the table. Each turn, you get to take two actions, one action, or you may pass (and take no actions). If you pass, you do not get any further turns in the current generation. You have to weigh the opportunity cost of not playing a card (and receiving the benefits right now) against the possibility that you may run out of things to do and be forced to pass your turn long before the other players. If other players continue taking their turns, they may raise a Martian attribute high enough to meet a prerequisite for one of your cards. But if you already blew through all your available plays and passed, you'll have to wait till next generation to play your newly-playable card, and risk not being able to use the card's full effects.

More players means more people raising Martian attributes, which increases the pace of the game.

Since each of the three Martian attributes also caps out, you have to be wary of being too efficient. If you invest all of your effort into producing heat to rapidly pump up the temperature (for instance), you won't be able to do anything with that heat once the temperature is capped out. At this point, you may not have much (if anything) else that you can reliably do to earn points. While it is important to specialize so that you can combo certain synergistic cards together for points, you have to be careful not to specialize on one resource at the exclusion of other resources.

The max values of the attributes also doesn't scale with the player count, since this game is rather uncompromising with regard to its scientifically-accurate themeing. Having more players will mean there's more people contributing to the temperature, forestation, and water levels of the planet, and the surface will be fully terraformed in fewer generations (e.g. game rounds). With fewer players, you can chain more cards and abilities together, and will have to do more of the actual terraforming yourself. With more players, the other players will drive up the Martian ratings, which will allow you to play your more advanced cards sooner, but also puts more pressure on each player to implement their master plan as efficiently as possible. More players taking turns will offset the fact that each player takes fewer turns, and so the game length doesn't change all that much as a result of different player counts. I've played three, four, and five player games, and despite the different pacing, I've enjoyed every session.

Being dealt end-game cards that you can't use at the beginning of the game,
or early-game cards that are useless at the end, can be very annoying.

Executing your master plan will depend, in large part, on the luck of the draw. I feel like I would prefer if the cards were divided up into different phases so that the more powerful cards are stacked later in the deck (similar to the ages of Seven Wonders). Maybe set aside some high-level cards and then shuffle some of them into the deck at the start of the third or fourth generation? This would eliminate the annoying situations in which your options are limited by the fact that you drew late-game cards early in the game (which are too expensive to play), or you draw early-game cards at the end of the game (which have moot or no effect).

There is no hand size limit, and in fact, you can be rewarded for stockpiling cards by being able to activate the "Planner" milestone (which is available to any player who holds 16 or more cards in their hand, and pays the 8 Mars Buck prerequisite). So this isn't like a deck-building game in which unusable cards just accumulate as dead weight in your hands. You do, however, have to pay 3 Mars Bucks for each card that you keep in your hand, so paying for a powerful, end-game card at the start of the game, only to never be able to use it, can be quite frustrating. Not only do you never get to use the card, but the opportunity cost of that 3 bucks might have prevented you from taking other actions earlier in the game which may have been beneficial. But then again, that's one of the many strategic tradeoffs of the game, and the strategic tradeoffs are what makes the game good...

The card-drafting optional rule gives you more
control over what goes into your hand.

There are some very powerful cards. The Jovian cards in particular are really valuable, and if you can chain them together, you have a pretty good shot at victory. However, they are expensive, and you may not draw all of them.

If you don't like the randomness associated with drawing cards, or are annoyed by the cards not being divided into distinct phases, then you can use the card draft variant, which adds some strategy to the act of drawing cards. You'll get to see more cards and will have some control over which cards go into your hand, as well as controlling which cards your opponents get stuck with. It will add a bit more time to the game, but it may be worth it if you want the extra element of strategy. The rules say that you drafting is only for the research phase (and not for the first set of 10 cards), but I see no reason why you couldn't do a draft for the starting hand as well.

Industrial warfare

You aren't limited to just indirect methods of influencing other players. You can also directly "attack" them as well. Some cards allow you to steal or destroy another player's resources. For example, you can tow an asteroid or comet into orbit and crash it onto the surface to release heat and/or water, and doing so may allow you to destroy resources belonging to another player (presumably, you crashed the asteroid / comet into that other player's farm). You can also play cards that "consume" other players' resources. As mentioned above, you can introduce predator species into the ecosystem, which allows you to "eat" another player's prey animals to decrease their animal population and increase yours.

Chosing to steal or destroy all of another player's resources can feel mean,
since the game doesn't require that you do so.

While I don't mind the inclusion of these sorts of "screw you" attack options, I really don't like the fact that attacking other players (playing a card that removes resources from another player) is optional. You can chose not to remove resources, or to only remove some of the possible resources.

I generally prefer when games with such mechanics require that the player have to take as much from an opponent as possible, since this makes the play feel less like it is "picking on" that player. Some players get very sensitive about that sort of thing and take it too personally. By allowing the player to chose whether or not to take all of the resources possible, when a player does chose to do so, it can feel a little more personal and bitter. The inverse is also problematic. If you chose not to remove the most resources from the other player as possible, then you can be accused of favoratism or "king-making".

If, on the other hand, the mechanic requires that you play its effects to their fullest extent, then it's usually seen as less of a personal attack and more like "I'm just following the rules". This is especially true in games that actually specify that you must use such abilities against the player(s) with the most of the given resource. These sorts of mechanics work well as catch-up mechanics for players that are falling behind, and the Bloodborne card game is a great example of this sort of mechanic.

Some cards can even take resources from someone else and give them to you.

One of our preferred games

Terraforming Mars has become a particularly popular game among my co-workers, and sits up there with Dark Moon, Avalon, and Dominion as a mainstay of game nights both at home and at the office. Of course, my co-workers and friends are mostly scientists and engineers, so your mileage may vary depending on your group dynamics and preferences. In any case, it's a fun and well-designed game. It may seem overwhelming for some new players (especially those who don't play many board games), but it's nowhere near as complicated or unweildly as it may first appear. I highly recommend it. Just be prepared to spend some extra money on third-party components and accessories that will improve the lackluster components packaged in this $70 box.

WHAT I LIKE

  • Lots of different mechanical paradigms that interact
  • Lots of gameplay variety
  • Tableau is surprisingly space-efficient
  • Smooth pace with limited downtime
  • Scales well with different player counts
  • Shiny resource cubes
  • Rulebook includes foot notes explaining the real-world scientific inspirations for game rules and mechanics

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • "Attacking" being optional makes targeted player feel picked-on, and can result in "king-making"
  • Cards should maybe be divided into phases
  • Board and tableau sometimes feel disparate
  • Components are cheap and flimsy

FINAL GRADE: A-

Manufacturer: Stronghold Games
Lead Designer: Jacob Fryxelius
Original release: June 2016
MSRP: $70 USD
Player(s): 1-5 players
Game Length: 2-3 hours
Official site: https://strongholdgames.com/store/terraforming-mars-line/

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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