First Play Review: Terraforming Mars
Last week our gaming group FINALLY had the opportunity to try out Terraforming Mars, one of the top-rated board games that you can get right now, apparently. The board game group is also the RPG (role-playing game) group, with the emphasis on RPG stuff, so it’s not too often we sit down and play a board game rather than do roleplaying. Every year or so we look back, realize that we didn’t play as many board games as we really wanted to, and collectively say we should play at least one board game each month. Which, when we meet up once a week, takes 25% of our RPG time and turns it into board game time.
I don’t mind, because I have a lot of board games that I’ve bought over the years, plus gotten through massive Kickstarter campaigns, and we’ve never played them. In fact, I’m going through a big sell-off of several board games and expansions that were ordered at the height of the hype around several campaigns. Then, of course you wait months or years, the game arrives and there’s maybe another resurgence of interest, and the hype machine moves on to the next huge Kickstarter campaign. It’s hard to keep up with, especially when you have limited room for huge boxes of board games, and when you’re not even playing them, it’s impossible to justify the cost.
Anyway…I digress. Suffice to say I’m selling off a lot of games that we sadly never got to play, so I hope they’re off to good homes. Now, let’s talk about Terraforming Mars!
Opening It Up
Opening the box for the first time, you’re greeted with a short gameplay manual, a relatively small game board (when compared to Rising Sun or Scythe), a huge pack of cards, a couple of punch-out token boards and bags of little cubes in various colors. There’s even an extra couple of bags for the tokens and cards (I like to keep the cards separate), which is very cool – I like that game publishers are including these little zip-lock bags. They’re just a couple of cents but make tidying the game up so much easier for game owners!
This set came with an expansion that adds a few dozen extra cards, for a total of 200 cards, I believe. For the first game, you’re told to take out these cards (marked with a small red triangle) and set them aside for later games.
There are about 15 or 20 different corporations you can play as, ranging from eco-friendly to wild multibillionaire and everything in between, but to start with you’re told to play as ‘Beginner Corporation’, with no special rules, everyone using the same exact starting money, per-turn income and that’s it.
The game is designed for 1 to 5 players, which is great, because our group has 5 players and 4-players games are a shame because we can only play them when one person can’t play. I hope to try playing this as a single player game at some point in time, I think the wider cultural acceptance of introverts and the popularity of games with this feature like Scythe have made playing a board game by yourself more acceptible – a good thing! We may be living through the golden age of board games right now, but not everyone has a handful of friends they can bring over for a game night.
The Object of the Game
If you’ve watched movies like The Martian (or read the book, which is great) or seen shows like Mars on Netflix or just have a general interest in space travel, NASA, space programs, SpaceX or other things like that, you’re likely aware that getting to Mars (possibly by way of a base on the moon) is a driving goal for many people who want to see humans break out into space. Terraforming Mars imagines how people would eventually make Mars into a liveable, real place for human habitation. I think a key part of the game is that it uses what seems to be actual science and plans that have been discussed in papers and seminars, so that it all feels like it would actually work. There’s no sudden bonuses for discovering alien tech to leapfrog other players, there’s no cyborg evolution or anything like that – the game takes place over generations, not just years, using microbes, algae, asteroids and very expensive supply ships to achieve the goal of finally terraforming Mars.
The game ends when the players have enriched the atmosphere with enough oxygen to sustain life, have raised the temperature from a chilly -30 or so Celcius to positive degrees, and have created oceans across Mars. Of course, at first, there’s 0% oxygen and all the water is frozen in polar ice caps, but you’ll get there…
Because terraforming a planet is not something that takes years or even decades, the game turns are played out in generations – no actual time period is given I think, so you can imagine that each game turn takes 20-25 Earth years. Each player takes the leadership role of a corporation. These two game concepts highlight the ‘big view’ of the game – you’re planning huge sections of a planet, not individual mountain ranges, for example. There are many Earth corporations over 100 years old, and there are many more (like Volkswagen or IBM) that you can easily imagine will last for much, much longer. So the game forces a very long, wide perspective. I think that goes into the strategy as well – focussing entirely on one thing is probably a dead end
Preparing to play is pretty easy – everyone chooses a cube color (grey, yellow, blue, green or red), gets a dashboard and you put the cubes on the outer edge of the game board. Choose or randomly draw your corporation (which decides your overall strategy, probably!) and shuffle/deal the research deck.
The first player for the first turn/generation is the player who last won the game – if it’s the first time playing, I say (as game owner!) the game owner should go first 😉 of course, that puts the onus on you to know what you’re doing first.
The Game Turn
Each player gets 2 actions before the next player can go. If you have the resources, you can place down various cards that have ongoing effects, one-time effects or effects on other players – sometimes all at once! Most of the cards are various types of research that your corporation advances.
You can also build factories to boost your energy production, build cities, plant forests and other things. Many of the things you build will marginally advance the terraforming of Mars. Plant a forest, and the oxygen level goes up 1%. Each unit of energy you produce becomes heat, so over time, that builds up to raise the temperature of the planet (in this case, a good thing). The different things you build with your research cards also have various effect, like increasing or decreasing your energy output, cash flow and other things.
If you’re able to build things that improve your steel and titanium production, you can use your steel or titanium to build things that require those metals much faster.
The first couple of turns are a bit clunky, because no one knows quite exactly what they’re doing, and understanding how a brand new game works takes a little while to sink in. But you’re not actively working against each other – there’s no PvP or ‘Player versus Player’ in this game – it’s 95% a race to the finish. There are a few cards (asteroids, mostly) that can affect one other player, but the effects aren’t game-breaking for that player and are generally temporary.
One of the most interesting parts of the game is that deciding on an overall strategy of ‘mine everything!’ or ‘be super-eco!’ won’t necessarily work, because you don’t know what cards you’ll pick up each turn. And even if you do pick up a card you like, you have to pay to put it in your hand, and then pay to use it in-game. Maybe this line of thinking will change as we play more games, but that’s how it seems to me.
Definitely one thing to look at and try not to ignore are the challenges and awards you can get along the way. Build three forests, or three cities, or other things, and you can pay to get an award that gives you victory points at the end of the game. Keeping an eye out for victory points on your research cards is important, too.
I’m sure I’m missing quite a bit, but this was just our first play-through, I’m sure more will come up in future games (which is good, because I’m hoping we play this again soon!) and especially with the corporate expansion.
As for negatives, the dashboards could be designed a bit better so that the color cubes aren’t so easy to slide all over the place. This would raise the price of the game, though, and if you’re really clumsy there’s probably MDF makers or 3D printer guys with custom dashboards you can buy. The cards and dashboards feel a little thin, again probably a cost thing but those are the only two very minor drawbacks. Only our clumsiest player knocked his dashboard (twice…) and the rest of us were fine. All of the other components were totally fine, and looked and felt great.
As for the game itself, I think it takes a very birds-eye view of a quite complicated matter and makes it a fun semi-competitive game that’s (eventually) easy to absorb and understand. By turn 2 we were in top gear and pressing forward quickly. A full game took less than 3 hours.
Overall look & feel – – 4/5
Overall game design – – 5/5
Time to play first game – – less than 3 hours
Best for – – anyone with basic interest or better of space or solar system travel
Would we play again? For sure