Terraforming Mars has been out for over half a decade now. That’s long enough for the creation of multiple expansions, a cut-down version in Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, and a soon-to-be-released dice game. Yet even after all these years, it maintained its popularity by being one of the best engine builders ever made.
Each player takes the role of a corporation trying to make Mars suitable for human life, and by the end, you will. Although, at a tepid 8℃ it won’t be a comfortable life. Anyway, you’ll do this by raising the temperature, increasing the oxygen level, and creating oceans.
Improving these global parameters requires you to pay for and complete different projects. Ranging from establishing a farm to causing a giant meteor to crash into the planet. You’ll use them to gain money, generate resources, and terraform the planet.
A round, or generation, of Terraforming Mars begins with you getting four project cards and then deciding which ones to keep. Each card costs four Megabucks, which isn’t a lot but stacks up quickly if you keep buying cards.
From then on, players take turns of 1-2 actions or pass. For the most part, you’ll either complete projects from your hand, pay for standard projects everyone has access to, or use actions from your already-built projects. With the goal of getting resource production, or victory points.
Once everyone passes, you move on to the production phase. Where you gain money and generate resources according to counters on your player board. Afterwards, a new round begins.
Continue playing through the generations until you max out the three global parameters, oxygen, temperature, and oceans. At that point, count up your points and whoever has the most wins.
Those are rookie numbers
Terraforming Mars is the board game equivalent to Cookie Clicker, where the hook is in watching your numbers go up. This can be either through your resource production counters on your player board or your Terraforming Rating (victory points) racing around the outside of the planet board.
Everything you do within the game makes you a more powerful corporation, and it taps into that primordial desire for growth and accomplishment. But the game is more than just this growth aspect, you’re constantly trying to solve an efficiency equation.
You get a specific amount of resources this round, how do you turn that into more resources next round? CEOs across the world are asking themselves the same question. So it makes sense that you are doing it for your fictional terraforming company.
Meanwhile, you don’t get points for resources by themselves. At some point, you have to turn them into Terraforming Rating. But when you do so, you must trade in your resource generation tempo. Therefore, you walk this thin line between gaining victory points – and staying close to the leaders – and falling behind in resource generation.
Rewinding back to the start of the game, Terraforming Mars isn’t all that exciting. While there’s a rags-to-riches throughline to the game, before your engine kicks into gear, you spend a long enough time in the rags that people will mistake you for a pre-fairy Cinderella.
Thankfully, there’s an expansion called Terraforming Mars: Prelude, which bypasses this slow start by giving you a jump start on resource generation.
Teamwork makes dreams work
The magic behind Terraforming Mars is the mesmerising synergy between the project cards. No matter how wild your strategy is, you always find something that compliments it. Given how many cards are in the project deck, and how they’re delivered by random draw, this is some serious game design voodoo at work. Playing within this system, you always end up with an unexpected series of cards that build upon one another.
So one game, you might create an engine that generates more heat than a thousand suns. While in the next, you become the embodiment of Poison Ivy with how many plants you grow. There is an endless amount of combinations you can come up with, and that keeps the game fresh play after play.
With this randomness, comes imbalance, where someone might draw the most complimentary cards, and you draw, well, anything else.
To combat this there is a drafting variant, where each generation you draft the four cards. But as a casual player, I’ve never felt it too out of whack. And anyway, it’s already a long game, who’s got time for drafting?
One thing all strategies have in common is that you end up focusing on one global parameter. Late in the game comes a point in the game when that parameter is maxed out. Then you need to transition your engine’s focus to another parameter.
At this point, there’s a lull in your engine speed. Like hitting roadworks on the highway, having to slow down can feel frustrating. Especially because it already feels like you’ve completed your objective. This was particularly prevalent in the two-player game, but not so bad when you add more players.
Put Terraforming Mars straight into my veins!
Despite the length of the game, Terraforming Mars never feels that long while you’re in it. This is because the gameplay is so smooth, it puts you in a state of flow. The repetition of gaining resources, seeking to use them efficiently, and growing your engine is meditative. In this respect, it reminds me a lot of Merchants of the Dark Road which transfixes me into a similar state.
So far we’ve avoided the elephant in the room, the one with six eyes, and arrived on a spaceship. Unfortunately, the art is all over the place, and as such has been hotly debated since the game debuted in 2016. Although some cards are wonderful hand-drawn pieces, others are stock images of real-life cows.
This wild inconsistency adds a certain charm to the game, reminding you of its humble beginnings. But the further removed we are from its release, the more unexpected it becomes that one of the most successful and best-selling board games on the market has this kind of presentation.
Although, credit where credit is due. The card descriptions on the cards are fantastic and make this game a lot easier to pick up and play.
All in all, this is a magnificent board game and lives up to its reputation. The interplay between cards and the engines you can build is unmatched – even by close rival Ark Nova. As such, there are few better ways to enjoy a Saturday afternoon than gathering a couple of friends and enjoying a game of Terraforming Mars.
Designer: Jacob Fryxelius
See how Terraforming Mars compares to all of the other board games I’ve reviewed.