Designer: Jacob Fryxelius
Artist: Isaac Fryxelius
Oddly enough, I thought I had already written a review for Terraforming Mars several years back. I have half a dozen plays of the game thus far, which is usually enough for me to pen my thoughts. Apparently, it had slipped through the cracks and I realized I hadn’t played as much in the past year. It is quite timely that I write my impression for Terraforming Mars given that I recently acquired and played Underwater Cities, a game that is often mentioned in the same breath with Terraforming Mars. Having had a chance to play both games in recent weeks, I thought I would finally put my thoughts into words for this well-beloved (and reviewed!) game. I don’t expect my writing to change any minds as there must be a couple hundred reviews out there for Terraforming Mars, but this will be my contribution to the hobby.
First off, both Terraforming Mars and Underwater Cities are card-driven tableau building games. If you are curious about how I feel about Underwater Cities, please visit my impression right here. I have compared both games as well over in my write up for Underwater Cities but since replaying Terraforming Mars, I have a few additional notes to add to the comparison. To get a complete picture for these two games, you will need to read both articles.
By any measure, Terraforming Mars is a hit. It has earned a ton of awards and I am sure it is economically very successful. Five years after its release, the game now has expansion maps, new modules, more content, a new spin-off card game and also a super-duper ultra-deluxe version which cost an arm, a leg plus your first-born. All of this success must mean the game is good and loved by all…… or not. In short, Terraforming Mars is a fine design, probably one of the best in this genre, but there are certain design features such as game length and the tactical aspects of game play that will make the game a tough sell for some game groups.
The structure of Terraforming Mars does not stray very far from other heavy tableau builders where players play cards to enhance earning income, increase production capacity, or improve resource generation all in the name of scoring points. Same is true for Terraforming Mars. In this case, players try to earn MegaCredits to fund different projects (i.e playing cards) and to enhance production of steel and titanium, to generate energy and heat as well as improve the ecology on Mars. These “things” ultimately allow players to terraform Mars by increasing water supply in the oceans, oxygen content in the atmosphere and elevate temperature on Mars. Players earn points for performing actions in each of these 3 categories enroute to terraforming mars and the game ends when Mars is covered with 9% water; reaches 14% Oxygen levels and the temperature is elevated from -30 to +8 degrees Celsius.
Players start off by choosing a corporation that has a stake in the race for making Mars habitable. Each of these corporations come with startup cash, a hand of cards and some benefit that may shape the way you approach the game. Players start with 10 cards to choose from and can pay 3 MegaCredits to keep a card with no limit on the hand size. In subsequent rounds (also called generations), players get 4 new cards to choose from. In the basic game, cards are dealt to each player directly but a variant card drafting option is included. This variant is indeed highly recommended and only increases play time by a smidgen. Essentially, the draft variant significantly reduces luck of the draw and also allows a modicum of planning during card drafting. To summarize the rule for the variant, players select one card to keep from a hand of four and then pass the remaining cards around the table, each time selecting one card to keep until each player has four cards once again. You still don’t have to buy all the cards as they cost 3 MegaCredits, but you can deny other players cards that benefit them. Besides, it’s pretty clear toward the end of the game that some card are “useless” either because they do not fit your strategy, or that some of the terraforming requirements have been fulfilled and further improvements on specific resource tracks are meaningless.
Each generation, players get to perform up to two actions from a list of choices. In reality, most of the time, actions are center around either playing cards or activating previously played cards. Occasionally, players will also perform terraforming actions if enough resources are available for conversion. However, if players have enough money, they can also pay to perform terraforming actions directly while skipping the resource conversion step. These actions tend to be costly and more common toward the end of the game when money is plentiful. Finally, players can also take actions to secure end-of-game scoring categories.
Like most other card-driven player tableaus, everyone is trying to make the best out of their hand of cards in order to drive their engine forward. The card drafting certainly helps in trying to cobble together a strategy, but many times, cards are played to move the needle on the terraforming requirements, increase production or income or receive raw materials. Overall, the cards themselves are not complicated and can be broken down into 3 categories: events, automation and action cards. The red event cards which are pretty costly, but will provide a one time boon that are quite spectacular and powerful. These cards can sometimes abruptly end the game by advancing the terraforming tracks by a few steps. They are game changers. The green automated cards are mainly cards that will increase production or enhance income. They generally allow you to improve your production capacity and generate more resources. Once played, they are usually put aside and rarely used. Finally, we have the blue action cards. Only the blue cards require some baby sitting as most of these cards allows accumulation of scoring tokens across generations. They are usually in the form of activating or tapping the card to add a scoring chit which will converted into points at the end of the game. Almost all cards come with some tags. These tags labels each card as a particular subtype that allows additional scoring strategies. For example, some end of game scoring cards will earn you 1 point per jovian tag you own. Some tags will also allow alternate payment modes in lieu of MegaCredits such as cards with space tag can be paid using titanium at a much favorable ratio (1 titanium=3 MegaCredits).
At least in the core game, points are actually quite hard to come by. There is really no scoring inflation in Terraforming Mars. While you start at 20 points, the upward creep on the track is slow. Each time a terraforming action is carried out, such as raising the temperature of Mars by 1 degree or place a greenery tile to improve oxygen levels, players will earn ONE terraforming point. As the game progresses and your engine sputters alive, you might be able to start gaining a few more points by purchasing more expensive cards with built in victory points or by babysitting the blue action cards. Another way to earn some points is through grabbing a Milestone or by funding an Award. Milestones are first come first serve points where you race to finish common objectives (i.e. first to build three cities, etc.). Funding an award will allow you to score specific achievements at the end of the game (i.e. most heat or most land tiles, etc.). In either case, awards or milestones both confer 5 additional victory points for the victor. I am actually quite fine with the slow burn for points. I much rather that than a point scoring glut which is part of Underwater Cities. Tight scores can elevate a close race and it gives people an impetus to keep trying their best.
Overall, I do enjoy Terraforming Mars as a tableau builder. What brings it together for me is really the theme of making Mars a habitable planet. You can criticize the artwork all you want, but the game makes sense thematically and the corporate struggle to gain dominance over the planet is also quite realistic. I think the cards feature very sensible artwork that is also well-described by the flavor text. In particular, I really enjoy the ecological improvements of the blue action cards. They give you a real sense of trying to turn things around for Mars. Now, part of Terraforming Mars is also the spatial component of the game. The Martian surface is barren at the start and slowly gets filled up with oceans and greenery over time. I don’t think the spatial component of the game is strong and is certainly dispensable. That said, the board contributes immensely to the theme as you get to observe how the Martian landscape changes after terraforming.
The curious thing about Terraforming Mars is that the game isn’t exactly an engine builder as it is a tactical smorgasbord. The only element of engine building comes from the blue action cards to gain points or specific cards that allow set collection of tags. Otherwise, you end up spending each generation trying to optimize and play cards that come across your hand without really knowing what you will get ahead of time. Tactical games can be fun as well because lots of people enjoy hand optimization exercises, but you cannot really plan long-term and say “I want to become a titanium tycoon for this game”. This also means selecting corporations that focus on a specific resource is quite risky. Often times, players will get cards that feel “powerful” and will play them. It might be to place a greenery tile this round or increase temperature the next to gain that single point. The outcome is not linked to a specific strategy per se. Even cards that score points based on tags can be risky. You score 1 point per Jovian tag, but if don’t ever get cards with the Jovian tag, it will be moot. The only true engine building part of the game are the blue action cards. Most of these cards score points with each token placed on the card, but they do a more efficient job if linked with other similar-type cards. If certain blue action cards are played early enough, one can slowly build up a cache of points at the end. But going this route is not a dominant way for victory.
In general, the tactical nature of Terraforming Mars is a feature and not a bug for most tableau builders. Most of these card driven games will always have similar tactical feel which is subject to the draw. The best example is Race for the Galaxy which is in a way, a compact version of Terraforming Mars, albeit the action selection mechanism is different. To enjoy RftG is to embrace the uncertainty of the card draw and the tactical nature of the game. Lots of folks love RftG but I don’t. I know exactly why I don’t like RftG and it is because of the card draw. You can play a 6-cost development card but just never get the right cards to take advantage of it. It is precisely for that reason why I like Res Arcana. The card draw aspect is eliminated in the game. You see what you see and you make the best of it. Terraforming Mars also has that same issue but the game is longer and the choices are varied and spread out and with the scoring inflation low, it keeps the game close and feels less punishing. Chances are everyone will get to build at least a couple of tiles and contribute toward terraforming Mars. Everyone will also get to have a couple scoring cards in the end and maybe an Award or Milestone thrown in. The swingy-ness of Terraforming Mars is more muted and more so with the card drafting variant.
Things I like about Terraforming Mars when compared to Underwater Cities: As mentioned, I like the map in Terraforming Mars and the tile-laying competition on the planet surface. Underwater Cities has an individual layout but I prefer a central board that facilitates some player interaction even though most tableau builders tend to be multiplayer solitaire. While the worker placement in Underwater Cities is a form of player interaction, the card drafting variant in Terraforming Mars does the job adequately. I do like the Milestones and Awards and I think it compares favorable to the special scoring cards in Underwater Cities. In both cases, I think the designers should have included more end-of-game scoring options in the base game as they are one of the few ways to promote specialization. Despite the criticisms, I think the art is fine and I don’t have any issues at all with the components or player mats since they are more than adequate. I do think that Terraforming Mars suffers from a messy draw deck that is not streamlined into specific stages like Underwater Cities. As a result of having just one massive deck, many late game cards are completely meaningless and makes the game somewhat anti-climactic when all your final round of cards are useless. It would be painful without the draft variant. I think this is a pretty significant weakness and one that compares unfavorably to Underwater Cities where the deck is split into 3 ages.
Both Terraforming Mars and Underwater Cities play differently enough it warrants having both in the collection. They both have their strengths and flaws. While both are tableau builders, they also play differently. There is slightly more long-term planning for Underwater Cities but Terraforming Mars is just more opportunistic. I don’t like the end game scoring for either game, but I think Terraforming Mars does it slightly better. More interaction. Art and theme are both decent but Terraforming Mars has a more cohesive theme and the visuals are more appealing to me. Both games are also quite long for what it is.