Terraforming Mars sees 1-5 players act as intergalactic corporations trying to make the most of the new opportunities available to them, now that humanity’s technological advances have turned towards taming the Martian atmosphere. Each player will invest in projects, mine for resources, and make money while terraforming the fourth rock from the sun by increasing its oxygen, temperature and water availability. The person with the best ‘terraforming rating’ walks away the winner.
When people think of big space games on the tabletop, one tends to see images of giant games of Twilight Imperium or Space Empire, day-long slogs of galactic diplomacy, exploration and war. Expansive and detailed, it you would be forgiven that thinking that actually flying to the moon might have taken less effort than even setting up a game of TI4.
Terraforming Mars is deceptive. Its box is big – its contents not, a handful of player boards, cards and a few sets of coloured cubes. Its concept is complex – its gameplay not, a simple, accessible mix of mechanics with a little bookkeeping. On the outside – and what I thought before we bought the game – was this was a meaty, mathy, heavy game whose turns would play out as complicated as it’s setting suggests. On the table, it’s much less alien – and it’s fun almost every step of the way.
Each game, you’ll pick a corporation (one of many) with a certain special power or ability. For instance, you might play as ‘Helion’, who specialise in heat production (useful for increasing the temperature), but can also use heat to subsidise purchases they make with money. Each turn, you’ll get to select a number of project cards, some of which you may later play (paid for by money or other resources such as steel or titanium). Projects come in all shapes and sizes, but are mainly one-time events, developments to build on in the future, or active projects which increase the pool of actions available to you.
Cards and card effects may do things such as increase your production of one of the games 6 resources (money, steel, titanium, plants, energy, heat), increase one of the three game-ending parameters (oxygen, oceans or temperature), or have various other special abilities (such as gaining you victory points for each science card you’ve played, or sabotaging an opponent). The card’s are varied, and there are lots of them – and you will only usually see four per turn, so a small fraction of the total game leading to some great replayability.
By placing oceans and greenery tiles on the surface of Mars, as well as cities and some other special landmarks, you can gain victory points (your ‘terraforming rating’), which increases each time you contribute to the terraforming process as a whole. The combination of hand-management, engine building and area control is pleasant, with no single mechanic becoming too dominant or annoying to deal with. The semi-friendly end game condition – terraforming the planet – also means everyone is working towards a common goal, albeit with different ways to go about doing it.
With Hellion as my corporation, for instance, I built on my early steer towards heat production by increasing it even further in the early game. With this I increased the temperature of Mars until it reached the optimum 8 degrees celsius in only a few turns, meaning I could then use my excess heat as money, rather than terraforming. My opponent was doing well putting oceans on the surface, so I used my new income to focus on placing cities and greenery, hoping to dominate the most valuable areas of Mars to gain some bonus steel and titanium. I had previously funded an award (end-game bonus VP targets that players have to pay to put into play, unsure if they will eventually win it or not) for most mining resources at the end of the game, and although my steel and titanium production was poor, ‘settling’ some prime real estate was enough to give me some solid extra points at the end of the game.
Building off a foundation to find a working engine is exciting, and surprisingly simple. Although luck may be a bit of a factor in how successful you are (the project deck is of decent size), everyone is in the same boat, and it appears the best way to play is not to set yourself up with an engine that requires specific cards to be successful. The project deck always levels the playing field a little and the randomisation aspect is not too severe – you’re probably going to get a chance or two to boost the production of one of your resources at least once – and it avoids players going into the game with a pre-planned strategy. Having a good knowledge of the game’s fundamentals is important, but the game relies far more on instinct and reaction than it does on one single ‘best path’ to success.
There are a couple of gripes with the way this is all presented. The player-boards are thin, and with so many tiny cubes needed to be placed in specific positions, insufficient. Recessed player boards are already doing good business online and you can see why – many players will splash out on such a luxury if they can afford it, if only for the odd accident which sends cubes halfway across the table.
The resources cubes themselves, too, feel a little cheaply produced. They sparkle in bronze, silver and gold but the paint is poor and quickly chipped – solid plastic colours may have worked better than the glossy ones shipped. But, again, to press the point, this game came in at a reasonable £50, which is very good money for the quality of the gameplay and the replayability on offer. Although the components are somewhat disappointing, as someone currently playing a couple of strategy computer games from the 1990s, I’ll happily play a game for the mechanics over presentation any day.
Terraforming Mars will doubtless see repeat plays at both the solo (yes, there’s a variation for when your significant other is out) and 2 player count, and will likely become a common competitive duel for us for a while to come. There are already some well-received expansions out, and there will be no doubt be more to come as the game feels modular enough to add in extra corporations and cards when the publishers see fit.
The game sits nicely in our collection alongside Great Western Trail and I think the two make a nice pairing. Trail is probably the better game, it’s assortment of mechanics and point scoring make it craftier, ‘gamier’ than Mars… But Mars, with its plethora of corporations and projects, has an effortless replayability that Trail simply doesn’t match. Don’t get it instead of GWT, but make it an ambition to own both, and go first for the one whose theme appeals.