Review: Terraforming Mars

BGG Rank #10 – 4/23/2017

Terraforming Mars was among 2016’s hottest releases, and it’s been high up in my watch list ever since I first heard about it on BoardGameGeek. So when I finally got a hold of it earlier this month, it was an exciting day. I’ve played it three times so far– once with five players, and twice with four players. This is a game that’s going to get a lot more table time in the coming months, but I wanted to go ahead and put out my initial observations about what makes this game so good– and also to discuss its drawbacks, few as they may be.

The Good

1) The Theme

I’m starting off with this because it was the first thing that drew me to this game. 400 years in the future, scientific advancements have enabled us to take a great leap forward and attempt to make Mars habitable for human life. Several major corporations are spearheading this effort, each seeking great profit and recognition as the company primarily responsible for terraforming the red planet.

I’m a sucker for space games. I was similarly attracted to Race for the Galaxy, another game about space colonization. However, upon digging into both games, I far prefer the theme of Terraforming Mars. While Race for the Galaxy goes an inch deep and a mile wide, Terraforming Mars really delves into the concept it presents. When playing Terraforming Mars, you really feel immersed in the narrative. In my opinion, that always makes for a more entertaining experience.

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The map features the names of many real locations on mars, and the areas set aside for ocean tiles are based on actual topography.

2) A Large Variety of Unique Cards – Yet Still Well Balanced!

Terraforming Mars features over 200 project cards, each with its own unique text and art. I think that these cards are really where the game shines. No two cards do the same thing, and each one fits in perfectly with the theme. The most impressive part of all is that the game feels well balanced despite the volume of unique cards. This is a massive accomplishment, and one that must have required an enormous amount of playtesting to get right.

I’m sure the designers have more insight than I do, but I see a few clever ways through which they’ve achieved this balance.

First, there’s the varying cost of the project cards. Prices range from 1 to over 40, giving a lot of flexibility to tweak the cost just right to reflect the card’s relative value. Other games have tried this (like the aforementioned Race for the Galaxy) with slightly less success when not allowing for such a wide variance in cost.

Secondly, some cards have stated limits on when they can be played, usually based on one or more of the three terraforming criteria (number of ocean tiles, oxygen level, and temperature). For instance, a card might state that the oxygen level must be at least 2% before it can be played, or that it cannot be played after the temperature is above 0 degrees Celsius. This eliminates the problem of certain cards that might be overpowered if used very early or very late.

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These four cards all have limits on when they can be played, as denoted in the rectangular ribbon next to the price (as well as in the text).

Finally, at the beginning of the game and during each year’s research phase, players draw far more project cards than they need, and choose which ones they want to keep. Each kept card has a small incremental cost of 3 megacredits (the currency in Terraforming Mars). This is important because through drawing many cards and choosing the ones you want, the role of luck in drawing is reduced. You’re less reliant on drawing the one card you need, and more reliant on being able to plan properly and determine which cards are worth keeping to hopefully be played before game end.

Balance + variety = outstanding replay value. There are so many different strategies to explore, and I can’t wait to try out more of them.

3) Strategically Heavy Without Being Slow or Clunky

Terraforming Mars is a highly strategic game, but it avoids feeling overwhelming or boring even to players who generally prefer lightweight games. It feels like a very streamlined design, with several measures to improve speed of play and ease of decision making.

Each card clearly explains itself, virtually eliminating the need to constantly check back to the rule book. The cards feature icons for quick reference, but also the text to explain it for those who are still learning the iconography.

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Every card features a concise and clear explanation, along with icons for quicker reference. Also, check out those images!

Another streamlined feature is that the same cubes are used for tracking the amounts of all six resources in a player’s inventory. Players have separate spaces on their player board for each of the six resources, where these cubes are added and removed to track when resources are earned and spent. I actually really prefer this method over having individual resources to sort out, even fancy wooden ones. In my experience, it dramatically cuts down on setup and teardown time, and even makes gameplay feel smoother.

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By my count, that’s 52 Megacredits and a production of 30 extra Megacredits per generation. And yes, that was mine 🙂

My wife tends to like lighter-weight games, and she really enjoyed Terraforming Mars and said that the pace of the game felt good (even though the game lasted 2+ hours each of the first few times we played it). So this is a great game to bring to the table if you’ve got some gamers who prefer light games but you’re in the mood for something a little heavier!

 

The Not-as-Good

1) Player Boards

Overall, the component quality of Terraforming Mars is quite good. The cards have great artwork, the map of Mars is delightfully detailed, and the resource-tracking cubes are nice and shiny. However, my one gripe with the components is the individual player “boards”. I’m putting it in quotes because they’re really just flat pieces of paper. I understand that manufacturing costs affect MSRP and I appreciate that Terraforming Mars doesn’t break the bank, but I think this was the wrong place to cut costs.

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While it’s easy to keep track of all resources with the same cubes, you’re always just one clumsy motion away from disaster.

The player boards are used to keep track of the six different resources (money, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat), with a distinct section of the player board as the inventory for each resource. Each resource also has a ‘production track’, which denotes how much of that resource you’ll gain at the end of each round. You’re constantly adding, removing and moving cubes on this board, and one clumsy motion can cause a major headache (not to mention potential interference of a cat / dog / toddler / free-range hamster). This risk could have been easily reduced with some ridges or indentations. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the wonderful Scythe player boards.

2) Corporation Cards

It may be too early to make a definitive ruling on this one, as we used the beginner corporation cards twice and have only used the unique corporation cards once. But when we used the unique corporation cards, our group unanimously felt that the beginner corporations made for a better game. It’s a cool idea, starting out with a corporation that has specific bonuses and thereby an ideal path to victory. However, I think it actually takes away from the level of strategy involved, and can make the game feel far less balanced.

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The advanced corporations (examples on the right) are much cooler-looking, but the beginner corporations seem to make for a more balanced and exciting game.

In our game with unique corporations, I got a corporation that gave me bonuses for building cities. I started out with a couple of project cards that allowed me to build cities, and from the get-go that was my primary strategy. There was little guesswork as to which cards might be best each round; I just snagged any cards that would aid my pre-ordained strategy. It felt like it pretty much came down to which player drew the most cards that aligned with their corporation. In that particular game I won, but it felt less well-earned than when we all played with beginner corporations, which have no specific bonuses. Those games involved much more analysis of what path might be best, and there was more of an ability to shift with the current midway through the game.

This is a relatively minor complaint, as we’ll probably just continue to play with the beginner corporations going forward, but I was excited for the advanced corporations and a little disappointed that they didn’t lead to a better game experience.

Overall

All things considered, all the things I love about Terraforming Mars far outweigh the few gripes I have. Not only do I recommend this game, but so does everyone that I’ve played it with so far, unanimously. In fact, last Thursday my wife and I got together with our friends Matthew and Caitlin to play Terraforming Mars, and they liked it so much that we ended up getting together with them again just three days later, to play the same game. Terraforming Mars’ spot in the BGG Top 100, and on my game shelf, is very secure.


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