Last Updated on October 11, 2022
The Earth has become overpopulated and starved of resources, but Elon Musk’s vision of conquering Mars has finally come true in the 24th century! You’ll take charge of a corporation, and compete through generations to make the biggest impact on the terraforming of the planet. Read our full Terraforming Mars board game review.
Brief Overview of Terraforming Mars
Terraforming Mars is an engine-building strategy game for up to 5 players and includes a solo mode. The game starts slow as each player is limited in choice of actions, but as they develop their economy, the options expand and the game becomes much more interesting.
It is a fairly lengthy game with an average playing time of 2 to 3 hours and an above-average complexity. As with any game in the genre, there’s a lot of things to figure out, but Terraforming Mars does its best to make the learning process gradual.
Well-thought-out mechanics, an interesting setting, and a perfect balance of difficulty and fun are just some of the reasons why Terraforming Mars is currently one of the highest-rated board games!
Versions & Expansions
Hellas & Elysium
The first expansion for Terraforming Mars adds a new double-sided game board, with new milestones and awards. One side represents Elysium with vast bodies of water in the north and mountains in the south. Hellas has a massive crater and a resource-rich south pole.
If there’s one expansion you should get, it’s Prelude. It adds new corporations and project cards designed to speed up the slow start of the game and create new variables.
Colonies add new cards, corporations, and tiles to colonize. The thematic focus is on the outer solar system and the expansion of the terraforming process.
The focus is back on Mars, where corporations have delved into political scheming at the Terraforming Committee. Turmoil adds new corporations and projects, but also Global Events – a new type of card.
Unboxing Terraforming Mars
The box contains the following:
- 1 Rulebook
- 1 Game Board
- 5 Player Boards
- 17 Corporation Cards
- 208 Project Cards
- 8 Reference Cards
- 200 Player Markers
- 200 Resource Markers
- 3 Game Board Markers
- 80 Terrain Tiles
- 1 First Player Token
When you first open the box and take a look at the game pieces, nothing will seem out of the ordinary. Cardboard components are well made, the game board is durable, and all of the tokens pop out nicely from the mold. Plastic components seem serviceable for the job and the see-through player cubes are good-looking.
However, once you start playing the game, you’ll notice a few problems. As mentioned, all of the components are up to standard, but when you combine them together, the design choices clash.
The last thing you want in a game that requires meticulous card organization and precise cube placement is slick textures. Even a tiny nudge of the table will move all of your production cubes around. If you happen to find a version with 3D player boards, make sure to get it.
Cards need to be stacked similarly to solitaire, but they’ll slide around and make for an imperfect column. A playing cloth will help a lot in keeping the cards in their place.
After only a few games played, the paint on the currency cubes began to chip away at the corners. They’re not particularly well painted either, and left me wondering why the nice see-through design of the player cubes wasn’t used instead.
These are all minor inconveniences that won’t keep you from enjoying the game, but they’re still worth mentioning. With a sturdy table and a careful group of players, you shouldn’t have any problems.
How to Play Terraforming Mars
The game of Terraforming Mars revolves around spending credits to play cards that will improve the production of resources and money, or improve the terraforming rating by increasing oxygen percentage, raising the temperature, or creating oceans.
Distribute the player boards and set up the game board by following the instructions in the manual. Every game of Terraforming Mars starts the same way, by selecting a corporation. If your group is still new to the game, starter corporation is a balanced choice, otherwise, every player selects one of two corporations they’ve been dealt.
Project cards are the most valuable resource in the game. Without them, you’ll have a hard time advancing through the game. During the setup, 10 cards are dealt to each player, but to keep them, 3 credits have to be spent per card. The starter corporation gets 10 cards for free.
Once you’ve selected the first player, it’s time to start the game. Everyone gets to do 1 mandatory and 1 optional action. Passing occurs when a player has no available actions left, or if they choose to do so.
Performing two actions in a turn is a great way to snatch a milestone or a reward. However, playing 1 action per turn can exhaust other player’s options, and leave the whole board for you. The round (generation) ends once all players have passed.
Each generation consists of four phases:
- Player order phase – the first player marker moves 1 step clockwise and the generation marker is advanced.
- Research phase – each player draws 4 cards and chooses how many they will buy.
- Action phase – players perform actions until they pass.
- Production phase – simultaneously, all players convert their energy supply into heat and then receive the number of resources matching their production level.
During the first generation, the player order and research phase are skipped. In the final stage of the game, only the production phase is performed, but more on that later.
During their turn, players can perform any of the following actions, provided they meet the requirements:
- Play a project card.
- Use action on a blue card.
- Use a standard project.
- Claim a milestone.
- Fund an award.
- Convert plants into the greenery.
- Convert heat into temperature.
Project cards have a certain cost and possible requirements for playing. Some require that you’ve already played a number of cards of the same type, while others demand a certain level of oxygen or temperature.
Cards with a red outline and a downward pointing tag have a powerful and immediate effect, but once played, they’re flipped over. Green outline cards have standard projects and are kept face up to make the tag visible. Blue cards have long-term effects and should be fully visible. Use Action on a blue card can be performed once per generation until the game ends.
Standard projects are shown on the game board and are generally considered an inferior option to spending credits on a card. They’re mostly used to sell useless cards, create cities that are hard to get from project cards, and vegetation in the late stage of the game.
Claim a Milestone allows the fastest players to claim 3 out of 5 achievements on the game board and gain a lot of victory points. Fund an award works similarly, but rather than automatically claiming it, the player who funds an award opens up the competition for it.
Convert plants into greenery and convert heat into temperature use your accumulated resources to raise terraforming rating by either placing a greenery tile, which in turn raises oxygen or by raising the heat level.
Once the oxygen level reaches 14%, the temperature is raised to +8°C, and 9 oceans have been created, Mars is finally terraformed and the game enters the final stage. The last generation is still played out as normal. The production phase is completed one more time, with players using their unspent plants to create more greenery tiles.
Total up everyone’s points based on their terraforming rating, awards, milestones, map tiles, and victory points on the played project cards. The player with the most points is declared the winner, while ties are broken by the number of credits each player has.
Your First Game of Terraforming Mars
The main challenge you’ll face the first time you play Terraforming Mars is knowing what exactly to do on any given turn. Use the process of elimination to make it easier. Only a few of the 10 cards you’ll initially receive will be playable, so put the late-game cards at the bottom.
In the early game, focus on developing your production of credits and energy, with everything else coming in naturally. Using heat to raise the temperature is an easy way of gaining more credit production, but don’t overdo it as heat becomes useless later on.
Towards the second half of the game, start focusing on plant production and creating greenery. Each greenery tile you own will grant you one VP at the end of the game, but anyone’s greenery surrounding your city also gets you one VP per tile. Use this to your advantage, and make sure to have at least 2 cities to maximize gains.
It’s completely fine to only perform a couple of actions in a turn and prepare for big moves in the next one. Cards dealt during the research phase will always be tempting, but don’t fall into the trap of constantly buying cards and not having enough credits to play them.
Try to grab one of the milestones – they’re not something you go for, but if the game takes you in a direction where you’ve already close to achieving one, take it for a significant VP boost.
The placement of terrain tiles plays a huge role in Terraforming Mars. The grid itself has plenty of rewards you can get by building on top of them, as well as tactical placement near, or away from other player’s buildings. Building next to the oceans awards you credits, greenery around your city is effectively worth double, so use it to your advantage.
Pros & Cons
- Balanced difficulty
- High replayability
- Intuitive scoring
Terraforming Mars manages to cram a lot of complexity into simple and intuitive mechanics. With some assistance, new players will manage to compete with the veterans, and score a lot of victory points. Through playing, you will gain more knowledge of the cards and the tempo of the game, and make the right moves right before it ends.
The late game of Terraforming Mars focuses heavily on plant production and placing greenery tiles, but that doesn’t mean that every session will be the same. Advanced corporates will naturally steer your game in a certain direction, as they grant benefits for certain actions.
Some board games have great mechanics and excellent gameplay, but when it comes to scoring, they fall through. In Terraforming Mars, every action matters and gets you a step closer to victory. Once the scoring begins, there are no hidden surprises — however, this isn’t to say that the results are obvious before the end, far from it.
- Slow game start
- Slick components
- Stock photo art
Mechanically, the only problem Terraforming Mars faces is an uneventful and slow start. Because everyone’s production is limited to credits, it will take a few generations until players can perform more than one action before passing. This has been addressed in the Prelude expansion, which I highly recommend to more experienced players.
Gameplay-wise there are no other problems, but the components leave a few things to be desired. The problems with slick cards, player boards, and cubes have already been addressed in the unboxing section. In short, the texture of components makes it difficult to keep the pieces in their place, solved in part with a player cloth, and 3D player boards.
I didn’t touch upon the artwork in the unboxing section, but it deserves a mention. You would expect high-quality illustrated artwork, but instead, you’ll find stock photos with a discrete label on the side. The resolution quality varies, with a few blurry and pixelated examples. However, you’ll get used to them, and they don’t have an impact on the gameplay.
Terraforming Mars Review (TL;DR)
Terraforming Mars is rightfully one of the best strategy games on the market. An interesting theme, well-thought-out mechanics, and goals all merge to make an interesting and highly replayable game. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll be missing out if you don’t try it at least once.
This review might have been more critical than some, but make no mistake, it has all been from a place of love. Terraforming Mars is my favorite board game and the go-to option whenever my group has a couple of hours to spend.
New players might extend the length of our sessions, but we take the approach of making the first games a walkthrough. By looking at their hand and giving them advice, they’re quickly brought to speed and are ready to competently play in the next session.
Aside from the Prelude, expansions are unnecessary and only a matter of personal preference. We’ve only ever used Prelude as the core game has enough going for it to keep it fresh every time.
If you enjoyed our Terraforming Mars review, leave us a comment below! We’re looking forward to hearing about the strategies you took and we’ll let you know if you’ve managed to beat our high-score!
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