Mars is inhospitable. Let’s change that. Terraforming Mars is not a new game, having been released in 2016, but I still thought it was worth reviewing here in 2018 because a) I just played it and b) it’s so damn good.
A game for one to five players, Terraforming Mars puts players in control of futuristic corporations who are all working at the same time to alter the climate of Mars and in doing so make the Red Planet a little bit nicer for humans to live on.
Players take turn spending money on actions, which range from building things to calling in asteroid strikes, while at the same time harvesting resources like titanium and plant matter from their company holdings.
Turns aren’t designed to reflect days, or even weeks: a single turn comprises an entire generation (you build cities and mining colonies, not individual structures), because the end goal here isn’t to dig a few rocks out of the ground and send in some colonists, it’s to affect severe and lasting change to Mars’ atmosphere by increasing the oxygen levels in the air and raising the surface temperature high enough to support plant (and later animal) life.
This is the first interesting thing about Terraforming Mars: everybody is working together towards the same goal, one that will benefit all of humanity. And yet this isn’t a cooperative game, not in the slightest.
It’s competitive to its core and while every gain made ostensibly helps everyone, the game is designed to make jumps in temperature and oxygen more of a strategic goal for a single player than something for everyone, since the players instigating the jump are often rewarded, while many of Terraforming Mars’ actions are limited to certain thresholds of these values.
This makes every advance a double-edged sword: it might unlock new abilities that require a certain amount of oxygen, but it can also obsolete others. It also draws the game closer to its conclusion; Terraforming Mars ends only when three conditions (oxygen, temperature and ocean coverage) have been met; players building strong resource-gathering combos may prefer to draw things out, while others can seek to cut this off with a rushed ending.
Alongside this tension, the other notable thing about Terraforming Mars is that no player can ever perform the same action. Aside from the option to purchase a small selection of them — which is prohibitively costly — actions are performed in the game by drawing a small hand of cards then choosing a few to play each turn as your projects for that generation.
There are just over 200 of these in the game, and every single one of them is unique. Which is wild. Sure, many of them fall into broadly the same categories — there are a few varieties of space mirror, each with roughly the same effect — but they’re not identical, meaning their costs and effect are one-of-a-kind.
This makes every action special, because you know when you play it that nobody else can copy or match it. And it makes every action a rival plays equally special, because you’ve got to make the most of what you’ve got in your hand if you want to counter it. It also adds a massive amount of replay value to the game, since you can never count on getting the same hand of cards twice.
Terraforming Mars is a Euro board game by design, but those two factors, combined with a theme that’s actually been thought through and skillfully applied to each system, make it a far more accessible and enjoyable experience than many of its peers.
Sadly, the one Euro legacy it can’t shake is its looks. This is an ugly game. Card art is inconsistent (sometimes stock photos, sometimes 3D renders, sometimes illustrations), all of it poor. The board’s design can charitably be described as functional and the player mats are so poor that my crew, like many others, have resorted to third-party replacements.
Terraforming Mars is so good that it’s a damn shame that it’s on looks and interface, and not its actual design, that the game runs into its only problems. Hopefully its success means that we’ll one day get a second edition to addresses this (though in the meantime there’s always the upcoming video game adaptation, which promises to do a lot of this work).
I had a great time with Terraforming Mars. I’m normally hesitant to recommend Euro games to everyone, since their abstract nature and reliance on number-juggling can sometimes be a bore, but this is a rare exception. The game absolutely nails its theme and its blend of cooperative outlook and competitive urges means its a tight, tense experience the whole way through.