Introduction and Game Play
When I first started dipping my toe into hobby board gaming years ago I completely avoided the Euro game scene. Many of the games in the genre looked dull and too complex. Why would I want to play a game about farming or trading in the Mediterranean when I could play with a large toy in Fireball Island or be blasting away at other worldly creatures in Arkham Horror?
That all changed in 2016 when Stronghold Games released a new title on the market. Terraforming Mars (TM) broke away with the typical Euro themes, placing itself on the surface of the red planet. This breakthrough game challenged players to work towards making the Martian surface livable while trying to strike it rich in doing so. Your ultimate goal is to raise the temperature, oxygen levels, and water levels on the surface of Mars in order to trigger the end game. The player who with the highest Terraforming Rating (TR), aka victory points, at the end of the game wins.
At the beginning of a game of Terraforming Mars each player has to pick a corporation that they will control for the entirety of the game. These corporations not only determine how much revenue and resources you will have at the beginning of the game but also any unique powers that will be available to you over the course of the game. After this, each player is dealt ten cards. Unlike most games, these aren’t just free for you to keep. Each card you decide to keep costs you “credits,” the game’s currency.
A game of TM takes place over a number of rounds, called “generations.” Each generation, players take turns performing one or two actions, before passing to the next player. As long as you’re able or willing to perform an action on your turn you can continue playing more actions each time it is your turn during the current generation. There’s a number of things you can do on your turn, such as activating actions on the board (called standard projects), paying credits to activate rewards and milestones (which increase player’s TR), and playing cards from your hand.
These cards do a wide variety of things, such as: straight up giving you TR, giving you new actions that only you can take on your turn, causing extremes like meteors to striking the surface of the planet, raising some of the global parameters, or attacking other players to hinder their progress.
Once every player is done taking actions and has passed the last phase of the generation begins. All players gain the number of resources, (credits, steel, titanium, greenery, energy, and heat), indicated by the resource tracks on their player boards. These resources are used in a number of ways, such as: giving you discounts on certain cards, playing tiles to the game board, or raising the temperature of the planet. Once everyone is done collecting their resources the start player marker is passed to the next person. Then everyone draws four new cards from the deck and pays credits for each one they want to keep.
I highly recommend playing with the “drafting” variant. This forces each player to pick one card from their hand of four and pass to the next player, and so on until each player has four cards. This increases the amount of cards you’ll see over the course of the game, and allows for some “hate drafting,” giving you more control. The game continues as many generations as it takes until all three global parameters- oxygen, heat, water- are maxed out. Then whoever has the highest Terraforming Rating is the winner.
Sweeter than a Mars bar
Right from the beginning of the game, you’ll be forced to make some critical decisions that will heavily affect your strategy in the early game. Being forced to decide what cards are worth spending credits on and which ones work in conjunction with your corporation’s special power is so satisfying. Every card in the deck has a purpose but trying to decide which ones will be worth holding onto can be agonizing, and keeping too many could hurt you in the long run.
The designers had the foresight to also include beginner corporations for newbies. While these corporations don’t have a unique ability, they all get the same amount of credits to start the game and they don’t have to pay for any of their opening hand of ten cards, meaning beginners will have the luxury of having money while not having to make tough decisions in the early stages of the game, allowing them to absorb the mechanics much easier.
There are so many clever mechanics built into the game design. Selecting whether to play one of two actions is one example. Some cards require certain parameters to be fulfilled before they can be played, (like requiring a temperature of -2), so it might be beneficial to limit some of your turns to one action at a time in the hopes another player will trigger the parameters you require.
The milestones and awards are wonderful. Milestones are goals any of the players can try to fulfill. After a player has completed a milestone they can pay to activate it, earning them five points at the end of the game. Awards are similar to milestones on the surface, just like Milestones only three can be activated each game, but once activated anyone can try to fulfill them before the end of the game. For example, one award might be having the most steel and titanium at the end of the game. While you may think you have a great steel/titanium engine going, if you activate it too early it gives other players the opportunity to try and swipe it away from you. However, if you wait too long you might be paying more to activate it later, or you might not get the chance to activate it all, missing out on crucial points.
The tile placement part of the game is fairly straight forward but still allows for some clever maneuvering. Certain spots on the board give a bonus to the player who places a tile there, (more cards, resources, etc.). Players can cash in greenery cubes to plant trees on the game board, which in turn raises the oxygen level on Mars, giving you points. The placement of city tiles is to make things interesting. These tiles are controlled by the player who placed them and give them points at the end of the game for every greenery tile neighboring it. This allows clever plays. For example: let’s say another player is working on a greenery engine and you sneakily build a city tile in the middle of all the greenery tiles they placed siphoning some points at the end of the game due to their hard work.
There’s so much room for cunning game-play decisions in Terraforming Mars. You’re pretty much guaranteed that no two games are going to be the same. While there is a bit of randomness because the cards can determine a lot of what you’re going to focus on, this also means the game encourages a wide variety of strategies. You may not always be able to go for that “heat engine” you like so much if the cards you were dealt are telling you should focus on greenery and tile placement.
The other side of the planet
The game isn’t without its flaws. The most obvious one is the production. When I first saw the game, in my naiveté, I actually thought the production quality was pretty good. For some reason, I was unusually attracted to the bronze, silver, and gold cubes, and the overall look. Boy, do I feel foolish.
I’ve since realized that the player boards are rubbish because they are thin and easily damaged. Your player board is responsible for keeping track of how many resources you get each generation as well as how much you have currently. If your friend gets back from grabbing an RC Cola and bumps the table trying to sit back down, it will leave your board looking like a natural disaster just hit, putting you in full panic mode, trying to remember how much you had of each resource and where its track was set. This game cranks the “cube pusher” aspect to 11. Everything is a cube. Player markers, parameter markers, and resources are all different colored cubes.
The graphic design lack of cohesion as well. While not a big deal, portraits on the cards can range from original art to generic photographs, (one of the cards is supposedly just a picture of the designer’s dog). Not everyone is going to notice, or even care about this, but it seems odd at times looking at your hand of cards and seeing everything from a stock photo of construction workers to a below average drawing of a piece of equipment.
The game is also a time sink. Until you’ve played the game a few times and really have it down, expect it to take over three hours. This is lessened somewhat by larger player counts since the end game triggers always remain the same, but with larger player counts each player gets less turns. The game can accommodate up to five players, but I recommend capping the player count at four. Either way, just make sure you have a larger block of time set aside to bring this one out.
At the end of the day, life on Mars is what you make of it and these issues are all minor hiccups that you either forget about overtime or find fixes for. One fix I strongly suggest is upgrading the player boards by replacing them with a third party product like Broken Token or even crafting your own. Terraforming Mars is just such a treat to play. Each game has you learning more and more about its intricacies and it never feels repetitive. If you’re at all interested in board games, or maybe just looking for a Euro game to get the feel of the genre like I was, I couldn’t recommend it more. Stronghold is constantly coming out with expansions for this game which means Terraforming Mars has staying power for years to come.
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AKA “The Board Game Mole”
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