Terraforming Mars is one of the most popular board games ever made and the Ares Expedition is the long-awaited spinoff!
Mars needs to be made habitable again, and players’ corporations are sparing no expense to get the job done and seize influence over the planet. Raise the heat, form oceans, and create an oxygen-rich environment for the next stage of human civilization.
Brief Overview of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is an engine-building game with cards (projects) being the main catalyst for progression. The game features resource production tracks for every player and three progression tracks that dictate the end of the game.
I’ll refer to the game as Ares Expedition from this point, as I’ll make a lot of references to the original Terraforming Mars, and I’d like to avoid confusion.
The game can be played by up to 4 players, solo, or in a cooperative 2-player mode. The box states that games will last around 60 minutes, but realistically a 4-player game can easily take up to 2 hours.
The biggest drawback of Terraforming Mars was the slow tempo, which Ares Expedition has improved upon by having everyone take actions at the same time. Ares also streamlines some of the mechanics, mainly the game board, making it a lighter game than the original.
I’m sure a lot of people are wondering whether Ares Expedition is worth getting instead of the standard Terraforming Mars.
As someone who loves the original, I’d rather buy a game that provides a completely new experience than Ares Expedition. However, if you’re just getting into Terraforming Mars, Ares Expedition might be the better option.
Versions & Expansions
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition – Crisis
Crisis expansion provides a coop system for all players. The game still plays out normally, but instead of competing with each other, players will have to work together to handle crisis situations that occur every round.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition – Discovery
Discovery reintroduces the awards and milestones systems from the original game, along with upgraded phase cards and wild (joker) tags.
Milestones provide victory points to the first player that achieves them, while awards are an open competition to be the best at a certain metric by the end of the game.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition – Foundations
Foundations is the most significant of the expansions, adding components to accommodate two extra players. The game board is expanded to adjust the tempo of the game and adds infrastructure as the fourth metric.
Unboxing Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
The box contains the following components:
- 1 Game Board
- 4 Player Boards
- 1 Rulebook
- 208 Project Cards
- 9 Ocean Tiles
- 24 First VP Tokens
- 208 Project Cards
- 14 Corporation Cards
- 20 Phase Cards
- 148 Resource Cubes
- 52 Player Cubes
- 2 Tracker Cubes
- 5 Phase Tracking Tokens
From a visual standpoint, Ares Expedition delivers a great package. The project cards now feature dedicated artwork rather than stock images used for the original game. They’re also easier to read and keep track of, especially the tags on the side.
The currency cubes are more intricate than those of the original, but I haven’t yet confirmed if they’ll chip on the edges as the old ones do. The tiles and boards look very good, but that’s as far as the positive things go.
I’m not sure why, but the designers haven’t changed the materials since the first game. The cards, game board, and especially player boards are slippery to the point where an accidental swipe or knock of the table will throw all the production trackers around.
The fix for the original Mars was to get the optional 3D player boards, but Ares Expedition should’ve included them as a standard component. The game board marker trackers are too big, and the Terraforming rating track is too small to accommodate 4 cubes.
Overall, I’m not particularly satisfied with the components of the game. They’re serviceable, but I expected more, especially since the designers had years to improve upon the original.
How to Play Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
Ares Expedition is best described as an engine-building game with dynamic rounds. Cards (Projects) are the most important element of the game as playing them provides immediate bonuses, increased resource production, game progression, and victory points.
The game does not have a fixed number of rounds; Instead, the game goes on until all the game-ending conditions are met: oxygen, oceans, and temperature.
During a round, players will select a phase card they want to play, and then play out every phase card played that turn. I’ll explain the phases in a separate section, but let’s look at the key mechanics first.
The game board consists of three trackers and 9 ocean tiles on the map of Mars. Ocean tiles are a bit specific in that they provide a random benefit when flipped.
Terraforming rating serves as a victory point tracker, but the rating also has an impact on players’ income during every round.
Oxygen and temperature tracks are divided split into four colors. Certain cards can only be activated if the color condition is met. For example, plants require warmth while animals need a high oxygen rating.
To keep track of their resource production, each player is given a board. Resources gathered during the game are:
- Mega Credits (Coins)
On the left side of the player board, there are resource production trackers, while the right side is reserved for resource storage. Only the produced resources can be used, and they’re essential to performing almost any action.
Player boards contain two extra tracks: steel and titanium. Progress on these tracks provides discounts on cards that can be built with either of the materials. At the very bottom, there are four standard actions that allow you to progress the game by trading in resources.
Ares Expedition is all about playing project cards and getting your economy going. Cards are divided into three types:
- Red cards are flipped after resolving their effect.
- Green cards stay face-up during the game.
- Blue cards provide actions that can be taken throughout the game.
To play a card, you must first pay its cost in Mega Credits, minus the steel/titanium discount if the card has the correct tag. Tags are located on the left side of the card and aside from discounts, collecting them is important for satisfying the requirements of high-value cards.
Think of the corporation cards as something similar to hero classes. Each player gets a corpo card and it provides strong benefits towards a certain playstyle.
Some corporations favor construction while others are focused on developing wildlife. Playing into your corporation will be very beneficial and it mixes up your strategy from game to game.
Unlike its predecessor, Ares Expedition is very easy to pick up and play well. The game is broken down into three steps:
- Planning Step
- Phase Resolving Step
- End Step
During the planning step, players pick one of five phase cards and place them face down in front of them. A player cannot play the same phase twice in a row, but that is not necessarily a problem.
There are five phase types that have to be played in order:
- Development phase: Play one green card.
- Construction phase: Play one blue or red card.
- Action phase: Resolve a blue card action.
- Production phase: Collect resources based on production, corpo & green cards.
- Research phase: Draw two cards and discard one.
As you can only place one phase card, you must rely on other players to choose different phases and diversify the round. It’s important to know that the person playing a phase will always receive a bonus, while everyone else gets only the action.
Phases are always resolved in order and players may choose to skip a phase if they cannot or don’t want to perform it. Phases that are not played are disregarded for the round, and if multiple people play the same phase, it’s only executed once, but all players receive a bonus.
Game End & Scoring
When the temperature reaches 8 degrees Celsius, Oxygen reaches 14% saturation and all nine ocean tiles are flipped, the game ends after the current phase.
Now the players can sum up their score based on their Terraforming Rating track position, a number of forest tokens, and victory points printed on the played project cards. The player with the most points wins, with ties broken by the number of spare resources.
Your First Game of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
The best advice I can give you for the first game of Ares Expedition is to try to keep up with the flow of the game. The phases in this game are executed immediately by all players to reduce downtime and improve the tempo of the game.
Your first engine will be far from optimal, so you can focus on figuring out how the phases synergize and play actions that come your way.
When you get more experience with the game, you’ll learn to read people’s actions and anticipate which phases they’re going to pick, so you can optimize your choice. However, for the first game, always go with what you need, regardless of what other people are doing.
You can lean on your corporation card, but don’t hyperfocus on it; It’s not a bad idea to play the first couple of games as if the corpo card wasn’t in play. That’s because you’ll always need all the resources, regardless of the corpo bonuses.
Pros & Cons
- Dynamic Gameplay
- Streamlined Engine Builder
One of the biggest strengths of Ares Expedition is the dynamic gameplay where all players take actions at the same time. This makes the game feel more interactive, especially when more players are involved.
Ares Expedition also benefits from the more streamlined mechanics that are easy to grasp but have enough depth to keep the game interesting over a longer period of time. The added plus is that newer players will find the game more approachable and fun in the first couple of sessions.
- Component Quality
- Similarities With the Original
While other cons are debatable and up to personal preference, I feel like the issues with components are more objective. I’ve hated the slippery surfaces of the original, so I’m twice as critical when Ares Expedition repeats the same mistakes.
The fact that people are creating many variations of the game and player board overlays to 3D print says a lot about the issues players have with the game.
With the name Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, it’s obvious that this game is a sequel/remake of sorts, but what’s odd to me are certain design and gameplay decisions.
The game still features a map of Mars that takes up a lot of space, but unlike in the original, it serves next to no purpose. The ocean tiles could have easily been stacked or made as cards.
Another, more outrageous example is the Discovery expansion, which takes the elements that were included in the original Mars, and sells them in a separate package. With three expansions prepared just a year after release, I suspect that Ares Expedition will bloat much like the original.
Terraforming Mars; Ares Expedition Review (TL;DR)
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition delivers an alternative and refreshing experience to those that didn’t like how the first Mars game played out.
With everyone taking turns at the same time and more streamlined engine-building mechanics, Ares Expedition is going to keep your attention until the very end of the game!
I would not recommend Ares Expedition to those that own and still enjoy the original; The similarities between the two are too great to justify another copy, especially when there are plenty of other games to try out.
If I were to disconnect my feelings towards Terraforming Mars, I’d say that Ares Expedition is a very good game for all the reasons I’ve stated above. If you’ve never gotten into the original, I strongly recommend Ares Expedition, and that you stop reading this section right here.
The following is my biased opinion as a huge fan of the first game: I’m not all that impressed with Ares Expedition. In some ways, Ares Expedition feels like a completely different game, but in others, it’s no more than a remake/remaster.
Some elements have clearly been improved: the card layout and design can’t compete, and the currency cubes are also better. However, Ares didn’t do anything to improve the slippery surfaces, which were the #1 problem with the original.
Personally, I liked the order of play in the original. On a lot of turns, I’d be nervous that 4 people ahead of me would do something that would mess up my plan, and that kept me engaged.
However, I will admit that the Phase system of Ares will be preferred by the majority of people, but it’s not like it makes the game any faster; With four players, Ares takes as long to finish as Mars does.
The expansions are what makes me anxious; It feels like Ares Expedition came as a compact, seemingly better experience, but then they’re re-inserting mechanics from the first game through expansions.
With the announcement of the Terraforming Mars dice game, I feel as if they’re trying to milk the IP rather than create a new experience for the fans of the theme.
While I won’t be switching to Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, I know that plenty of people are having a lot of fun with it. As an isolated product, it’s a nice game and I’ve enjoyed the sessions I’ve played.
That is why I can still recommend it to those new to the Terraforming Mars series, or those that haven’t had much fun with the first game.
We hope you enjoyed our Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition review! Have you tried this game? What did you think of the original? Drop a comment below and let us know your thoughts! We’d love to hear from you.