Designed by Jacob Fryxelius
Published by Stronghold Games & Fryxgames - 2016
1-5 players - 90-120 minutes
They tell you not to judge a book by it’s cover, but what about a game? With Terraforming Mars, I took one look at the box and knew it was for me. The industrial pallette, the brilliant artwork, hell, even the font was captivating. Unfortunately, once I unpacked it’s aggressively mediocre components my heart braced for disappointment. But as it turns out, Terraforming Mars is at its core as beautiful and wondrous as its cover suggests; a game that blends deep systems with a rich and original theme so well that it may be the most immersive strategy game I’ve ever played.
How to make a planet
“Perhaps I seek certain utopian things, space for honour and respect, landscapes not yet offended, planets that do not exist yet, dreamed landscapes.” - Werner Herzog
Each player is a rival corporation trying to convert Mars’ desolate atmosphere to one that can sustain human life. While this seems like an excellent premise for a co-op, developing mars is no friendly affair; this is a game about colonization after-all, and Mars is an untapped hotbed for economic growth. Each player starts with a unique power, giving them a slight focus as they begin to colonize and grow, and the game ends when the oxygen, temperature, and water levels of the planet have reached their limit. The corporation with the most points at the end claims industrial Martian supremacy and wins the game.
The game’s overall flow is simple; rounds start with players drawing several cards and choosing which to keep (paying a few mega-credits per card), then they alternate taking actions that will either develop the planet or further sculpt their engine, until all players have passed. There are a handful of actions that are always available so long as you got the goods to pay for them, but the real backbone of your vast Martian Empire will come from your hand. The cards you play have a huge range of ongoing and one-time effects, such as increasing your resource production, further developing the planet, or offering you new and exclusive actions.
Each time you take an action that increases the temperature, oxygen, or water on Mars, your corporation’s “terraforming rating” goes up, a sort of measurement of industrious prestige that tracks both your points and mega-credit production per turn. Players gain additional points at the end of the game through various cards; the cities and forests they placed on the board; and the awards and milestones that were funded throughout the game. It’s at this point that you’ll survey the massive human achievement that each player took part in, transforming a lifeless wasteland into a thriving and verdant world, only to end up like middle schoolers on every group assignment ever, arguing over who did the most to take home the blue ribbon prize.
“To distill so specific a form from that chaos of unpredictability” - Doctor Manhattan
With over 100 unique cards, independent production of 6 different resources, and many, many ways to develop the planet; Terraforming Mars is a veritable playground of options to explore. While this may sound tough to manage, there is a superb elegance to the game’s design. The synergy between your cards, your corporation, and the development of mars feels intuitive; you rarely feel like you are at a loss for what to do to pursue your goals. Then, as the game goes on, you’ll naturally lean into one or two resource types and strategies, and your corporation will evolve from a lumpy, wet-behind-the-ears generalist to a lean-mean-economic machine. The range of specific and yet effective engines you can build is really astonishing.
And for being in many ways a classic engine builder, the game manages to inject loads of player interactivity.Take for instance the awards and milestones; one of the most clever systems to spearhead competition that I’ve seen in a modern tabletop game. There are five of each and both must be funded during the game, costing precious money and actions. Milestones, which can be claimed when their conditions are met, are tiny races to have a giant hand or be the forest king (*spoiler* I am always the forest king). Awards are more speculative, as they determine their winner at the end of the game. Players have to gamble that they will end with the most land on mars or have the largest horde of mega-credits.
Ultimately, it’s the thematic resonance throughout Terraforming Mars’ many systems that truly make it so special. Mars is an expansive ecosystem where you really feel the mechanical AND thematic impact of each action. Increasing your plant production allows you to place forests, which in turn make cities more valuable and raises oxygen levels, which then increases your corporation’s government funding, broadening your options so you can continue to grow. The reward feedback and interconnectivity is outstanding and it really adds to the intuitive nature of the game, creating incredible immersion. It truly feels like you are terraforming a planet.
“We earth men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.” - Ray Bradbury
Remember how I said I braced for disappointment when I opened the box? Yeah… The components were that off-putting to me. The resource tokens were garish, the player boards flimsy, and overall the color scheme could best be described as “Disco Thanksgiving”. It’s not that the artwork is bad, although some people may find the real life photography a turnoff. It’s that the overall aesthetic seems incongruent or ill matching. The best comparison I can make is to edutainment video games from the early 90s, though even they still had more cohesive palettes.
That said, the components are adequate and do their job, and since the mechanisms resonate theme so well, it’s easy to look past some of the stranger design choices. But it’s the mere adequacy that bothers me, there has to be a better way to track 6 different resources than thousands of universal brass, silver, and gold cubes. In a world of outstanding components made with sturdy materials designed so that the game is more elegant, intuitive, and manageable, Terraforming Mars falls short. In truth, I’ve settled into a state of resigned affection toward Disco Thanksgiving, I find it both bizarre and endearing, but the publishers really missed an opportunity to make an incredible game look as good as it feels.
Solo games… Now not a total pain!
“I’m a Rocket Man... Burning up his fuse up here alone” - Elton John & Bernie Taupin
Solo in Terraforming Mars is so good, it gets it’s own section in the review! In the solo game, you alone are responsible for terraforming the entire planet within a set number of turns. That’s it! It’s brilliantly simple. You don’t have to manage a dummy player, you still have all the options at your disposal, and it requires virtually no additional upkeep between each turn. In a way, solo in Terraforming Mars is a distillation of the best parts of the game; exploring the deep systems and crafting an incredibly efficient engine of economic supremacy. It is tense, fair, and brutally difficult. Between Scythe and Terraforming Mars, I will fondly remember 2016 as the year that I finally came around on solo gaming.
“To boldly go where no one has gone before” - Captain Jean Luc Picard
As intuitive as the themes and mechanics can be, it’s important to stress that Terraforming Mars is denser than my wife’s dark chocolate brownies. The game may sit solidly in the mid-weight Euro camp by measures of game length and difficulty, but it is certainly not a casual affair. There are many people who will find the sandbox nature of the game too freeing, preferring instead a more structured and guided experience. Furthermore, I really feel that it plays best at 1 to 3 players, as turns can occasionally be long with not much to do when it’s not your turn.
But if you enjoy exploring rich systems, love engine building, or have an affinity for the boardroom-in-space tone of Star Trek TNG, I feel pretty confident that you will really like Terraforming Mars. It is a gripping, intense,and at times even exhausting experience that I am thrilled to play again and again.