I have been waiting for the release of Terraforming Mars since I first heard about it late last year.  In fact, prior to Gen Con 2016 I posted a Top 10 Games I’m Interested in Trying Out at Gen Con 2016 and my #1 Game was Terraforming Mars!  I have been building it up in my mind for so long that I was becoming worried that it wouldn’t live up to the hype around it or to my own expectations.  I was so excited to get it that at 10:00am on Thursday at Gen Con, I lined up in front of the doors nearest to the Stronghold Games booth (after carefully studying the Exhibit Hall map for the optimal starting point) and made a beeline as soon as the doors were opened, literally running to the booth, slapping down my $70 in greenbacks and grabbing my very own copy! It was finally mine, my own, my Preciousssss! I was about the 10th person to purchase the game and I am very glad that I got a copy as it sold out pretty quickly.  So, did the game meet my high expectations? You will have to read on to find out!

Gameplay Summary

Terraforming Mars is a Sci-Fi themed game where players compete as corporations (either as generic starting corporations or as customized individual corporations) sponsored by the World Government on Earth, to finish Projects that lead to increasing one of three global parameters including temperature, percentage of oxygen and the number of oceans.  The ultimate goal is the creation of a livable environment on the 4th planet from the sun in our solar system so that it can be colonized and this is done through increasing your Terraform Rating or TR. The game is a medium weight Euro style game incorporating several mechanics seamlessly into gameplay including hand management, resource management (resources other than sheep, wheat and wood though!), tile placement, and if utilizing the various game variants, card drafting and variable player powers. The player who wins will most likely build the most efficient engine to meet the global parameters and score victory points. The interesting twist to the game is that while the corporations are in direct competition to claim the end prize, they must work together in the terraforming process, while competing for victory points that are awarded not only for your contribution to the terraforming process, but also for advancing human infrastructure throughout the solar system. As you look through the various Project cards you will see that many have minimum requirements in order to be played. These minimum requirements are usually in connection with one of the global parameters and the cards will identify that minimum requirement (e.g. Symbiotic Fungus requires that the temperature be -14 degrees C or warmer). It will be impossible for each player to be able to meet the varied requirements for the cards and therefore must rely on others to increase parameters as well.

The game time is marked by Generations which account for the great amount of time needed for the completion of some of the Projects and each Generation is made up of four distinct phases.  The phases are as follows:

  1. Player Order Phase – the first player marker simply shifts 1 step clockwise and the Generation marker is moved up 1 step. Seeing as how the Corporations are competing with each other, I  was surprised that there wasn’t a “competition” of some type for the ownership of the first player marker each round such as who placed the most tiles or who increased their TR the most that round, etc. More on this later.
  2. Research Phase – at the beginning of each Research Phase, each player will draw 4 cards from a deck with nearly 200 unique cards and then decide how many of those cards that they wish to add to their hands. The cards (projects) can represent anything from introducing plant life or animals to the planet, harnessing asteroids and throwing them at the surface of the planet in order to create oceans and improve the oxygen percentage, building cities, to mining the moons of Jupiter and establishing greenhouse gas industries to heat up the atmosphere. The cards can give immediate bonuses, as well as increasing your production of different resources.In order to add each of these cards to their hands, players will have to pay 3 MegaCredits, which is very costly.  The cards that are not purchased are discarded face down to the discard pile (no corporate espionage here!).  I think this is a fantastic theme mechanic as each card “purchased” represents a Corporation’s efforts in Research & Development (R&D) as the 3 MegaCredits is a very small percentage of the overall purchase cost (typically ranging from 0 to 41 MC) to play the card to your tableau.
  3. Action Phase – the Action Phase is where the meat of the game play occurs. During each Action Phase, players can take 1 or 2 actions or pass if they choose to or cannot take any actions. Once they pass, they are out of the round though. Play proceeds clockwise around the table until all players have taken their maximum 2 actions or passed. The available actions during the phase are as follows: Play a card from hand, Use a Standard Project (more on this later), Claim a Milestone, Fund an Award, Use the action on a blue card, Convert 8 plants into a greenery tile to be placed on the surface of Mars and Convert 8 units of heat into a temperature increase. I love the way the Action Phase is set up and also love the Standard Project table as this allows great flexibility for any strategy in case you are not drawing the needed Projects to move your strategy forward.  You can always simply pay a preset sum of MegaCredits to take an action that you need in order to play one of your cards. Also, don’t overlook the Milestones or Funding of Awards as they can be worth significant points at the end game and grab victory for your Corporation.
  4. Production Phase – all players perform this phase simultaneously and the first step is to convert all available energy resources into heat followed by each player then producing new resources based upon their player boards and their individual production levels. The basis for each player’s income reach round is the TR which is then added to the MC production level to create your total income. This was a great part of the game as it felt very thematic and was a different take on income. I am all about a game that takes familiar concepts, such as income, and tries to make them function differently.

Examples of Blue cards that have abilities that can be activated by players once per Generation as an action.
Your basic income, as well as your basic score, is based on your Terraform Rating or TR (which starts at 20 for all players), which increases every time you raise one of the three global parameters. However, your income is complemented with your production, and you also get VP’s from many other sources.

The player boards showing the various resources. From top left to the right is MegaCredits, Steel, Titanium, (bottom left to right) Plants, Energy and Heat.
Each player keeps track of their production and resources on their player boards, and the game uses six different types of resources including MegaCredits, Steel, Titanium, Plants, Energy and Heat. On the game board, you compete for the best places for your city tiles, ocean tiles, and greenery tiles as spots in the warmer and more fertile areas of the planet around the equator provide a placement bonus such as 1-2 plant resources. Placement is also important near oceans as you will receive a 2 MC bonus for each ocean that a placed tile touches.  I have been able to receive up to 6 MC from a single placement and have seen as high as 8 MC. You also compete for different Milestones and Awards worth many VP’s which are listed at the bottom of the game board.  If you meet the criteria of a Milestone at any time during your turn, you may claim it by paying 8 MC and placing one of your player marker cubes on that Milestone. Milestones can only be claimed by one player and only 3 of the 5 can be claimed during the game.  Each of these Milestones is worth 5 VP at the end of the game. The Milestones are as follows:

  1. Terraformer – your TR is at least 35.
  2. Mayor – own at least 3 city tiles.
  3. Gardener – own at least 3 greenery tiles.
  4. Builder – have at least 8 building tags in play on your cards in your tableau.
  5. Planner – have at least 16 cards in your hand (there is no hand limit).

Funding an award works similarly except there is no requirement that must be met to fund an award. The first player to fund an award simply pays 8 MC and places a player market cubes on it. The next player to fund an award must pay 14 MC and the last to fund an award pays 20 MC. Only 3 awards may be funded. The award funding is in essence a bet as you are stating that you think you will be first in the various area.  First place in each area receives 5 VP at games end and second place gets 2 VP. Ties are friendly and the two players will each receive 5 VP but second place will be left out in the cold.  The Awards are as follows:

  1. Landlord – own the most tiles in play.
  2. Banker – have the highest MegaCredit production.
  3. Scientist – have the most cards in play in your tableau with science tags.
  4. Thermalist – have the most Heat resource cubes on your player board.
  5. Miner – have the most Steel and Titanium cubes on your player board.

When the three global parameters have all reached their goal which includes 14% oxygen, +8 degrees celcius and all 9 ocean tiles being placed, the terraforming of Mars is complete, and the game ends after the completion of that generation. The players simply count their Terraform Rating and other VP’s from played Project cards to determine the winning corporation!


What I Liked about Terraforming Mars

Different card types, leading to different strategies – there are so many cards in this game! When we tried to shuffle the project card deck at the beginning of the game, we had to break it up into 3 manageable piles to shuffle. There are 138 cards for the base game (excluding the Corporate Era cards). There are then an additional 70 Corporate Era cards for a total of 208 Project cards! Lots of choices, lots of strategy, lots of combinations to explore! Breaking the cards down further into their categories, there are 59 Active category (Blue), 112 Automated category (Green) and 37 Event Cards (Red).  Many of these cards work together to bolster a specific strategy such as the examples shown below in pictures taken from Stronghold Games promotional materials. I have not been lucky in drawing Active category cards and have only been able to play a handful of them so this is one of my areas of concern.  I have been competitive in our games but have yet to find that workable strategy that works well for me. The good news is that there are many different strategies to explore and I will find one!

The cards in TM are unique but some are grouped into “families” that have a similar function or scoring mechanic. These city cards score victory points for ALL cities located on Mars at game end.

These cards support an oxygen building strategy and focus on increasing a player’s plant production, provide additional one-time plant resources or increase the oxygen global parameter by performing an action (Steelworks).
Semi Cooperative game play without winning together – I love cooperative games but I love the fact that the players are working together on reaching the major global parameters in order to reach an individual victory. Each player may contribute to the overall goal but may choose to be focused on only one of the parameters and is relying on the other players to increase the remaining two. This is a great design point in my view as it makes the game play differently than it would if we were all out for our own parameters! Great design choice that leads to cooperation but retains competitiveness in game play.

Engine building – the game is about building an efficient engine to be able to most effectively meet the global parameters and score the most points.  I love engine building and am the player that always focuses on resource production and card drawing. The player that discovers a good strategy and then collects those projects that are designed to make that strategy more efficient will be able to more effectively increase their Terraform Rating (TR) the most and score additional VP’s from the cards in their tableaus. Great design of the engines in this game! You will have to play the game several times to find the best ones so good luck!

Replayability – did I mention that the game has 208 different cards?!? This is only one of the great design points that lead to replayability.  There are also several variant options for the players to decide on using that will change the game and make each experience different.  The first is the choice of the starting Corporation cards.  At the beginning of the game, you can either choose to have each player start with one of the generic Beginner Corporations that are all the same (42 MegaCredits and Draw 10 cards) or you can deal 2 of the 10 Standard Corporation cards to each player who then chooses the Corporation that they desire to use. There are even 2 additional Corporations for use in the Corporate Era variant that can be added in! The second variant is the Corporate Era variant which is an extended game and instructs the players to deal in the 70 Corporate Era Project cards to the deck.  These cards typically focus on the development of the Corporations and do things like protect your resources from other players, allow you to play Project cards more cheaply, increase production values based on playing various types of Projects, etc. The third variant is the Draft. Players can all decide to draft cards from their 4 cards drawn during the beginning of the Research Phase. This partially addresses my earlier stated concerns about not drawing Active category cards. These options increase the replayability of the game and give it enough variation to almost feel different each time.

Production Value and Components – I love the cards, the game board is beautiful and the resource cubes and player cubes are gorgeous with lots of neat colors (metallic gold, bronze and silver as well as traditional opaque red, blue, yellow, green and black).

Great Sci-Fi (hard science) theme and integration of that theme – the creator has a PhD in Physics, so you know that the game will be an accurate representation of the science involved with the process of terraforming. What do they always say about design or writing? Do something you have experience with! This game feels real, is believable and is very representative of the process. I love Sci-Fi themed games and I am glad to see this game focused on the hard science of the process without including lasers, proton torpedoes, warp drive engines and Aliens (although I am sure that a future expansion will involve the various Alien artifacts supposedly present on the surface of Mars!).

The famous “Face on Mars” in the Cydonia Region first imaged by the Viking I orbiter on July 25, 1976!

 What I Didn’t Like about Terraforming Mars

Dependence on card drawing – I have been concerned with the number of the Active category cards (Blue) in the deck and the card drawing process.  In the base game, if you don’t draw one in your Resource Phase, there is no other way to get an Active card. Several of these draws in a row can nearly eliminate you from serious contention in the game. I know that the Standard Projects are always available and these projects replicate some of the abilities on the Active cards but they are more expensive and the management of MegaCredits is a key to victory over the course of the game. The abilities on the cards are very good and support many of the strategies in the game.  This can be somewhat addressed by using the Card Draft variant but is a concern of mine. Future expansions will need to address this issue in my opinion.

Quality of components – while I stated above that I loved the components, I also dislike them.  The metallic cubes are coated plastic and when they were broken from the molds, left a minor imperfection in the corner of nearly every cube. This has caused the metallic paint to chip off and I don’t like that.  I also have concerns with the flimsy quality of card stock used for the player boards as they will not stand up over time and will be easily bent. For $70, I would have expected these problems to have been addressed. I will say that I think the cards are thick enough and will last, especially when sleeved.

Art selection – this is more of a nit-picky thing but I don’t like the change in art on the cards. Most of the cards are illustrated and colored showing gorgeous shots of the Martian landscape while some of the cards, mainly those involving pictures of humans or animals, are simply photographs. I would have preferred to see a consistent style on the art for the cards.

Limited player interaction (and when there is it is always bad!) – I am a fan of player interaction and aside from a few of the Event Cards, there is almost no interaction. No trading of resources, no Corporate Espionage (this would be a great expansion), no joint projects, etc.  And, when there is interaction, it is all negative including eliminating resources using meteor or asteroid strikes. I would like to see some addition of joint projects that may require assistance from 2 Corporations and each share in the benefit. This could introduce some bartering, trade and negotiation, which will increase the interaction in the game.

Change of the First Player Marker – I would like to see this change of the marker tied to the results of the previous round.  Seeing as how the Corporations are competing with each other, this needs to be a part of the “competition” to decide who gets to go first.  The Corporation doing the best should have the first shot at actions, including the very important City tile or greenery tile placement, or raising  last parameter for the final TR bonus.  It could be as simple as who placed the most tiles or who increased their TR the most that round, etc. There was simply nothing to decide it and that felt unfinished to me.

Summary & Conclusion

I love Terraforming Mars and it was worthy of being my most anticipated game at Gen Con 2016!  The game is all that I hoped it would be…and is SO much more. Our group always ask ourselves after games whether we would want to play the game again immediately or not and our group has answered YES emphatically to Terraforming Mars! In my opinion, the only things they got wrong were the component and art issues that I mentioned as well as the need for more player interaction but I am sure that fixes will be coming in future expansions. I look forward to many future plays, including several more solo ventures, to explore and master the varied and multitudinous strategies the game offers. Go out and get a copy of this game immediately!

We also posted an Unboxing video so enjoy!