Terraforming Mars – Review

Type: Euro

Time to play: < 120 minutes (Teaching: 25 minutes)

Best played with: 4 players

Terraforming a new planet is quite a novel idea for a game and yet in Essen Spiel 2016 there were three major games released about venturing to Mars and transforming the planet. each mechanically distinct, each with unique artwork, and all to be followed by by the Portal Games release in 2017  – First Martians. It’s therefore quite something to say that Terraforming Mars has been the undisputed best of these thematically similar games.

Terraforming Mars is not your average Euro game – this is an engine with a difference. During the game you are developing the planet and the choices you are making will have small but significant impacts to your opponents. That could be the taking of spaces on the board, or the placement of cities next to enemy tiles but it could also be the last step in the terraforming of the oceans, oxygen or heat on mars – which leaves it impossible for other players to gain points from this.

There are a mass of ways to score points here and I have seen players do a wide variety of tactics, but first let’s bring it back to basics. As a collective group you will transform Mars to a habitable planet – raising the heat, oxygen and amount of oceans through cards that you play. Along the way, you will claim parts of Mars, scientific developments on the cards and a set of predetermined milestones and awards which will all give you points either now or at the end. Points now have a material advantage as your points (or Terraforming score) counts towards your income. Points in the future are thus normally more numerous to compensate for the time value. As with all my reviews I am not going to try and explain the details of the rules here (the rule book is concise and excellent) but I hope these steps help to frame further comments below.

Adding to this framework then of drawing different cards and competing for points, you have a well developed “research” mechanic. When you draw cards, they are not eligible to be played. At the start of the round you must decided which to pay 3 megacredits (the currency unit) to research. Researching a card means you keep it, but you still need to pay to develop it. In other words, every card has a cost and that cost is printed on the card but each card also costs 3 to acquire. This is interesting because researching cheap to build cards is relatively expensive, but developing the expensive cards is going to prevent you from buying lots of cards at the start of the round – after all, you only have so much cash to start with!

The game also adds an asymmetric starting player feature by having each player given a “company” and that “company” has a special advantage. They are all based on the games core resources or scoring mechanisms and actually help the player to focus on a certain method of efficiently scoring points. They also add greatly to the replay-ability of the game.

However, my first negative note on the game would be that these companies feel quite contrived. In a lot of cases there is no intrinsic thematic link to the way in which that company has an advantage and the game – sure a company has a better ability to produce heat than another which can better use steel, but does it seem obvious that Mars will be competed for by these slightly asymmetric corporations which don’t have the ability to compete on a level field with opponents. This is not me trying to be negative for the sake of it, and I suspect many will disagree with me (given the flavour text given) but for my tastes these don’t fit as thematically as say the hosts in TIME stories, or the different player powers in a pandemic.

Of course this doesn’t ruin the game and these corporations do push players to differing goals each time. The one mechanic that truly feels frustrating is the dealing of the cards. That is because 10 cards at the start can leave new players floundering as to where to start, and the regular 4 cards a turn can deny players cards in big groups of 4-5 players. That is to say that a lot of the start time goes into picking a combination from the first 10 cards, and the rest of the game may be impacted by the 4 cards a turn you get out of the 20 round the table. The solution to this is presented in the rule book though, and I think is widely adopted – draft the subsequent round cards. Whether that’s in the form of Inis or a more simple draft is up to you, but I would highly recommend this rule change.

So is it just a good game because the negatives are limited and it provides an interesting points salad at the end? NO! That’s definitely not the conclusion I would suggest taking away here. This game has that satisfying ability to build complex engines that combine area control, hand management, and a variety of points tracks to build to an interesting finally. The fact that the game finishes when all three (oxygen, heat, oceans) are maxed out, means that the players control the pace and differing paces can benefit differing strategies. Also cards like pets which pick up points from other players’ actions make you and your friends choose between difficult and interesting optimisations.

This is an evolving game that you will play differently for a number of games before settling into a grove. With the additions now of Hellas & Ellysium boards (and the differing milestones / awards) this will leave this in the top 10 on BGG for some time I expect.

Last notes:

  • If you like that feeling that you achieved a lot, but could have done even more with just one more turn… this brings the perfect balance
  • If you like direct take that / combat with your opponents, then this may feel like a cold war of economics and science – pass over it, and take a look at Blood Rage as a mix-Euro.
  • If you win at this game then it’s time to reseed the corporations and go again – you have much to try and many cards to combine

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