I’m not sure if it has more to do with science or the stunning crimson vistas, but lately it seems like everyone is packing their bags for Mars. The red planet has been a beacon for human imagination for years, from Robert Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth to NASA’s push to the stars. Novelist Andy Weir stranded us on Mars in 2011, an adventure echoed four years later in Ridley Scott’s big screen adaptation of The Martian. Now game designer Jacob Fryxelius has set his sights on the planet as well, asking players to spend a couple hours bringing life and sustainability to the fourth rock from the Sun.
If you’re wondering what playing Terraforming Mars is like, this isn’t a game you unpack only to find a mix of mechanics slapped beneath a thin veneer of theme. The sense of shaping the landscape of a foreign planet comes through in every turn, helping not only make this game memorable, but also a joy to play. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At its most basic, Terraforming Mars is a game about managing resources, a path so worn in tabletop games that it might as well be a highway. And yet, the game keeps things interesting by pairing the rote task of pushing cubes with building a tableau using hundreds of unique and fantastically thematic cards. These cards, as well as other standard actions that are always available, represent projects players take on as they spend turns juggling income and raw materials in order to generate resources and place a variety of tiles on the board, eventually changing what was an inhospitable wasteland into a home away from home. It’s a slow burn, however, and players short on patience or without an eye for the long game may find Terraforming Mars a bit difficult to enjoy.
The whole thing takes place on a board made up to look like Mars, complete with tracks highlighting the current state of the planet’s temperature and available oxygen. A larger track runs along the outer edge of the board representing players’ Terraforming Rating, a score that does double duty as both an illustration of how well each player is doing as well as how much money each pockets at the start of a round. Money is a central asset in Terraforming Mars, and is required to do practically anything a player might want to do on a given turn. As such, those actions which increase a player’s Terraforming Rating not only have an impact on the final score, but also help make it possible to do more each turn.
In order to make Mars livable, players spend turns amassing and utilizing a variety of resources, from money and building materials, to energy and plants. Each of these is tracked using a collection of shiny, metallic-colored cubes of different sizes which represent how much of a given resource a player has on hand. Cubes are kept in piles on each player’s individual mat, which also tracks how much of each resource a player will earn at the start of their turn. When it comes to money, this is in addition to the aforementioned Terraforming Rating, and can even result in less money than would be gathered otherwise should this track dip into negative territory as a result of actions a player may have taken.
I thought it interesting that the designer chose to use cubes to stand in for amounts rather than types of resources. It’s no-doubt efficient and likely served as a cost savings for the publisher, but it also introduces one of the fiddliest aspects of Terraforming Mars. A misplaced cube or accidental bump can cause confusion and frustration around the table. This, together with chintzy player mats printed on far too thin cardstock are head scratchers in what is otherwise an attractive and well-constructed game.
If component quality might call into question the game’s value, the same cannot be said for the sheer variety in Terraforming Mars. Players begin by selecting a corporation to control from several included in the game. Each offers some unique benefit, such lowering the costs associated with playing cards or making a particular resource easier to obtain. Arguably more important, however, is that these companies help establish focus in a game in which options are seldom in short supply. There are novice corporations included as well, which forego any special benefits and which the rules recommend for first-time players. The likely thinking here is that the extra layer of complexity added by the standard corporations might be too much for new players to handle. However, I’d honestly recommend just jumping in and using the standard corporations right away. This isn’t necessarily a complex game, but there are a lot of options to consider, and knowing from the onset that you are better at one thing versus something else goes a long way towards helping diffuse the kind of analysis paralysis a game like this inspires.
One of the main reasons that Terraforming Mars can be so paralyzing is that there is no hand limit, and with every card in the game being unique you’ll find yourself wanting to do literally everything. Players begin the game with just a few cards in hand, and then kick off each round by drawing four new cards and deciding which, if any, they want to keep. Keeping a card costs a bit of money, so right away the game slaps you with having decide between giving up resources for a future opportunity, or losing it forever. Hashtag Sophie’s Choice.
Resources are obviously limited, and so Terraforming Mars is all about planning ahead, investing in those projects that not only can help out now, but also building a hand of cards that hopefully will pan out down the road. For example, some cards might require the planet’s oxygen or temperature be raised to certain point before they may be put into play, while others might just be so expensive that you’ll need to sit on them for a while. Whatever the case, it isn’t long before you’ll find yourself with a literal handful of options, thumbing through cards each turn as you decide what to do next. Of course, this can and does lead to downtime between turns, a fact that keeps me from recommending this game for more than three players, at least until everyone at the table is familiar with the game.
There is also a fair amount of engine building in this game, and those players who enjoy constructing impressive combos involving interplay between cards will find plenty to appreciate in Terraforming Mars. While early turns in the game can boarder on the mundane, later rounds often spiral into territory full of synergy typically reserved for collectible card games. It’s incredibly satisfying to finally get to play a card you’ve been holding onto since the beginning of the game, only to have it kick off a combo with other cards in your tableau to turn a couple actions into a windfall of points, tiles, and resources.
While there’s so much I enjoy about this game, Terraforming Mars also includes a collection of awards and milestones that in a game already so flush with options feels a bit like a bridge too far. Players have the option to spend money to claim a milestone, which then translates to bonus points at the end of the game. These include having a certain amount of cards in your hand at the time, or a set number of city tiles on the board. In addition, players may also invest in awards, essentially spending money to establish goals for all players at the table to aim for. For example, by spending money on the Landlord Award, this gives bonus points at the end of the game to whichever the player has the most tiles on the board. However, spending money to put this award in play merely means that it will be included in the scoring at the end of the game, and in no way restricts that scoring to the player who claimed it. It’s a curious concept, but in my experience players are often so caught up in building their own engine that these opportunities go largely ignored until the game is nearly over.
Thankfully, however, Terraforming Mars is a game in which the good far outshines the not so great or even fiddly corners of what is otherwise a really fun experience. Every game I’ve played has those kind of “Ah ha!” moments you pine for in games, and the remarkable variety keeps me coming back for more. Terraforming Mars even includes a wholly separate deck of cards, set aside as being for more advanced players, which I have yet to even include in our games. Additionally, what’s perhaps even more interesting is how well everything in this game works together. Often games that try to string together as many different ideas or mechanics as Terraforming Mars end up feeling clumsy or over engineered. This game includes elements of tile laying, engine building, as well as resource and hand management, and while to an outsider this no doubt looks messy, in practice Terraforming Mars moves from round to round like a well-oiled machine. No game is for everyone, and this, like anything else, will find favor among some players more than others. But for armchair explorers looking for a fun experience rich in options and strategy, Terraforming Mars is easy to recommend.