Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
Terraforming Mars review: Create the

Nathan Anderson

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend overview of table games. Check out our full board game coverage at Cardboard.arstechnica.com.

Terraforming Mars is a board game inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard-hitting sci-fi “Mars Trilogy”. Although the author does not endorse it, Jacob Fryxelius of Sweden enlisted his relatives to produce a science-driven game that is a pure homage to Robinson’s classic series; even the players in the tutorial examples are called “Kim,” “Stanley,” and “Robinson.”

The goal is simple: to make Mars habitable. Forget about Matt Damon as the primitive first “Martian”; Terraforming Mars takes place much further in the future and unfolds over centuries, ending with a green and blue map of a red planet covered in cities, vegetation and oceans.

The result is one of the true board game surprises of 2016. While it was buzzing in the lead up to Gen Con, Terraforming Mars had nothing like the hype of it Scythe or Seafall. Still, Stronghold Games’ stock sold out on day one, and despite some serious flaws in the art and components, the buzz from those who played the game was red hot. Terraforming Marspeople said, was flat out pleasure.

They were right.

The player mat, where you keep resources.
Enlarge / The player mat, where you keep resources.

Nathan Anderson

The Red Planet has never looked so… unique

But to find the pleasure, you have to give Terraforming Mars a chance – and the game itself does little good when it comes to table attractiveness.

The game’s icons look like early 2000s vector clipart, all shimmering gold surfaces and apparent depth. The player mats are made of thin cardboard that ensures only enough space to track the game’s essential production levels using cubes; because they do not have a linen finish, the mats are also smooth. Even minor bumps can loosen these essential gameplay elements, so you need to be extremely careful while playing. Speaking of cubes, the cubes used for resource counting are covered in metallic paint, which has already started chipping off some of the corners, giving them a slightly sad faux-luxe look.

But it’s the card art that really stands out. A mishmash of public domain photos, NASA 3D renderings and original artwork, Terraforming Mars earns some kind of award for using in the same game a photo of former US Secretary of Energy Chu looking at something scientific (credit: “USGOV”), a photo of a underwater fish (credit: “NOAA”), and a computer display of a giant rocket clearly marked “United States” (credit: “NASA”), even though the game is about future mega-corporations. These images sit shockingly alongside custom drawings by members of Clan Fryxelius, who themselves differ stylistically.

Give the gameplay a chance anyway. While I found myself longing for a higher quality “Second Edition” just 20 minutes into my first game, Terraforming Mars has it where it counts.

From red to green

In Terraforming Mars, you play one of many rival companies seeking to transform the Red Planet into a livable – indeed hospitable – place filled with cows, dogs, fish, lichens, bacteria, grasslands, atmosphere and oceans. That goal is achieved when three things happen: the atmospheric oxygen rises to 14 percent, the planetary temperature rises to 8 degrees Celsius, and all nine ocean tiles of the game are placed.

There is real science behind each of these numbers. The ocean tiles each represent one percent coverage of the Martian surface; once nine percent of the planet is covered with water, Mars should develop its own sustainable hydrological cycle. An atmosphere of 14 percent oxygen can be breathed by humans (although it feels like an altitude of 10,000 feet on Earth). And at 8 degrees Celsius, water remains liquid in the equatorial zone of Mars. As this explanation indicates, Terraforming Mars is absolutely driven by the theme, rather than the other way around.

Nathan Anderson

Once all three milestones have been reached, Mars has successfully terraformed, the game is over and the scores are calculated.

This may sound like a cooperative game, as everyone works together to raise temperatures, pump more oxygen into the atmosphere, and settle the oceans that result from melting ice. But that is not it; this is a competitive game that feels like a race. Sit back and build your own resource-generating engine for too long and your opponents can push the game to an early end where you’re low on points and losing badly.

The terraforming action takes place in a series of rounds. At the beginning of each card, all players draw four new cards with the changes that can be made to the planet. These can be expensive and fanciful (purposely crashing Deimos into the surface of Mars to raise the temperature by +3 degrees Celsius) or cheap and boring (growing lichens to increase your plant’s production by one step). Choose which of these cards you want to keep and “buy” them permanently into your hand by paying 3 MegaCredits for each.

Once all players have made their choice, play continues in turn order. Each player can do one or two things per turn, play cards, or perform actions (some of these actions are common to all players and printed on the game board; others are provided by cards in your personal pool). Most cards and actions require resources such as money, energy, heat, steel or plants. Sometimes the resources are actually consumed; at other times, the production level of those resources is affected. (Each player’s personal board keeps track of both the production level and the total amount of each resource that person controls.)

For example, playing the “nitrophilic moss” card from your hand requires eight MegaCredits and two plant resource cubes, but it also raises your plant production level two steps higher. Or, for a whopping 35 MegaCredits, you can play the “soletta” card and build an ultra-thin mirror to focus sunlight on the surface of Mars; this increases your personal heat production by seven steps.

Why not build everything? Because you will have limited resources for most of the game, especially when it comes to money. Building the “soletta” card can use up all your money for the round, after which you have to watch everyone else play until everyone passes and the round ends.

The second hitch to building like a maniac is that many cards have requirements. Do you want to build a water splitting plant? This is only possible if at least two ocean tiles have been played. Fish cannot be played with until the overall temperature on Mars rises above 2 degrees Celsius, while birds require a minimum of 13 percent oxygen from the air. Other maps should be played before certain temperature and oxygen levels are reached.

After each round, players produce resources. If my heat production had been at +2 and I just played the “soletta” card to bring it to +9, I would get nine resource cubes in my heat pool. This is simple for the most part, although the crucial resource “money” can be changed in two different places. If my base production level of MegaCredits (which doubles as the victory point score on the game board) is 45, but I have a production level of -3 MegaCredits on my player board, then I gain 42 MegaCredits to use in the next round .

In other words, Terraforming Mars is an exercise in engine building – and I mean that in an entirely positive way. I love a good engine builder, who raises my production levels so I can buy and do more, more, MORE at every turn!

Ahem.

By akfire1

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