Terraforming Mars sounds like it should be a pretty complex process. I mean, it’s Terraforming… Mars… Neither of those words should have you thinking this is going to be a space walk in the park. Unless you’re thinking about chocolate bars. In which case, let’s figure out whether Terraforming Mars is more about work, rest or play!
(That joke might only make sense if you’re from the UK)
Terraforming Mars is the big success story of last year. So successful that copies have proven almost impossible to obtain, expansions (plural) have been announced, and the main game itself has rocketed into the BGG top 10. But I looked at it with a mixture of confusion and horror. This was a euro game, with a supposedly heavy dose of luck, based on your draw from dozens of cards, coupled with a personal violation of take that, and to top it all off featured a mix of artwork and components that left a lot to be desired. So it’s fair to say I landed on Mars with a fair bit of trepidation.
I needn’t have. As a player your primary interaction with the game is through the many, many cards that offer technologies, events and production systems that allow you to steadily grow an engine. These are dealt out randomly, and you can just deal with that or, once you’ve played a round or two as we did, leap into a drafting phase that gave somewhat more control. The skill is in finding opportunities in what options you get, and leveraging those opportunities to the max. Knowing when to save something for a long term strategy or when to not waste your resources. I had no idea what I was doing, but oh boy could I see what a deep and bountiful hole of possibilities this game presents, once you are more familiar with what could happen!
To that you add the actual terraforming which is the bit that probably looks coolest to everyone. Adding oceans, plant life and cities to the surface of Mars changes it from a dead and boring place to spend your Saturday night, to a lively patchwork with opportunities for points galore. Plants and oceans in particular improve the terraforming status of Mars, which unlocks certain mid to late game cards, earns you points directly, and brings you closer to the end of the game. Cities are a means of grabbing quick resource bonuses from the board, and also points depending on how much plant life they end up next to. The whole puzzle is neat, and while the board still looks a little empty with only 3 players, you end up with a fully covered board with 5 that really looks the business.
Terraforming Mars is really doing some clever stuff with how all of its systems interact. Everything you can do on the surface more or less needs resources that you earn through the cards you invest in. Then making those changes on the surface, raising the temperature, creating oceans, unlocks cards that need a certain temperature to function, especially the life cards, which finally help raise the oxygen as the final step towards a habitable Mars. It’s wonderfully thematic and wonderfully clever and it all fits together as tightly as the habitation dome’s airlock.
My first game of Terraforming Mars didn’t blow me away like my first game of Great Western Trail did. But that’s because it’s a game that, like Mars, requires some upfront investment to get the most out of. I can absolutely see that with a few more plays, the card combos and strategies will be so much better understood and you can let loose with exploring the astonishing number of terraforming solutions in that box. That’s when the game comes to life!