The red planet beckons, reviewing Terraforming Mars

Updated: Apr 10

I've been looking forward to playing Terraforming Mars for a long time and was eagerly looking forward to trying it out at our 'local' games café but then Covid happened and put a damper on that idea.


In the meantime, I've seen a couple of playthroughs of the old fashioned dead-tree format to try and get a feel for the game to see if I should buy it. So when I saw Asmodee had produced a digital edition of the game on Steam I had to buy it and try it out properly.


So without further ado, let's talk about Terraforming Mars... It's been a hit ever since its initial release in 2016 by Stronghold Games. It's a game for 1-5 players with a lot going on, but the 12+ suggested suitable age range seems about right. The advertised play time of 2 hours seems reasonable... but if you're new to it, you should bank on it taking a good few hours to get through a game.


Players: 1-5 Ages: 12+ Game Time: 120 mins


Gameplay

The objective of Terraforming Mars is written right there in the title, you need to make Mars habitable. Players will control one of the many Terran corporations taking action over generations to increase the amount of water, oxygen, and increase the temperature of Mars. Once all these parameters have reached the habitable threshold then Mars has been terraformed, and that generation will finish their actions to try and secure those final victory points.


Budding terra-formers can also play this game solo where they have 14 generations to terraform Mars single-handed, quite a challenge indeed.


Each generation starts by players choosing to purchase up to four event cards to add to their hand. There is also a drafting variant where players pick one at a time and pass the rest on before making their purchases, which is almost needed to stop players getting too good a run of luck and getting all the best cards.


Once you've purchased event cards, players take turns of up to two actions. You can do as many actions as you can afford but once you pass that's it for that generation.


Each generation ends once all players have passed. The generation in which Mars is terraformed will be the last generation, and ends with one last-ditch effort where players can use their remaining plant resources to place greenery tiles.

Most engine builders start off quite slowly... and Terraforming Mars is no different

At its heart, Terraforming Mars is a great combination of engine building and resource management, playing cards, and laying tiles to improve your terraforming rating and earn victory points. There are also a series of standard actions available to all players, so even if you don't get the best card there is always something you can do to stay in the game.


Most engine builder games start off quite slowly as you build your engine in your chosen style, and Terraforming Mars is no different. I like that there is plenty of variation with how many different resources that are used, and that you can choose to focus or diversify. It leads to interesting strategic decisions.


The game is great. However, for me, you spend far too much time focusing on your player mat, building your engine, and examining your hand of event cards. I'd like there to be more interaction with the planet and other players, as other than a few 'gotcha' cards and a drafting variant there is very little interaction with your fellow gamers giving it a multiple solitaire feel.


The digital edition has options to play both locally or online, and has three difficulties of AI player you can choose from. I've only tested the easy AI and it was difficult enough and actually felt like a good emulation for once.


The tutorials in the digital edition are, like most, a little forced and tiresome at times but this is a necessary evil and it is very comprehensive without being too overbearing.


Production

While this is primarily a review of the Steam edition of the game, I'll explore the dead-tree format too, having seen it played a number of times in the 'local' game café.


The digital edition of this game is just stunning!

The graphics are so detailed and improve greatly on some of the more generic tokens, tiles and cards of the original. It is also particularly useful that it's much easier to understand the restrictions of when cards can be played in the digital edition thanks to clearer iconography and additional text. The only thing that's missing is the alt text that helped enhance the theme in the original version.


The soundtrack for this game is a work of art and is so fitting of the space theme. Relaxing and unobtrusive, it complements the game perfectly and enhances the user experience in a way I adore.


The user interface is easy to use and operates smoothly for the most part; I've had a few experiences where I want to play faster than the game so the action buttons weren't available and don't become available until you re-enter the selections menu. Another thing that irks me is that when using the drafting variant when selecting cards to keep, you have to deselect the chosen card to choose another rather than the select action overriding the previous selection. Not a huge issue in the hand view, but it can be very annoying in the exploded view.

Digitising games though doesn't always work out in every aspect.

For me, the biggest drawback of digitising turn-based games is the number of prompt boxes it gives you, especially when passing between player turns. It feels too cumbersome and really slows the pacing of the game. I wish they would add a setting to allow you to turn it off and just pass control over with some sort of alert sound notification without having to confirm via a prompt box, maybe even add a review turn button so you can choose to look at actions taken rather than it being forced upon you.


Okay enough of digital land, let's address the original dead-tree format.


Overall it's beautiful, it looks great on the table and everyone pays attention. The drawback comes from closer inspection where the card graphics lack a common style with a mixture of stock images digital art and more cartoonish illustrations. It's quite token heavy with the various land, city, and water tiles, not to mention the array of other special tiles.

While there are after market acrylic overlays to solve this, I shouldn't need them ...

The copious amount of cubes to track resources and their production is the real downside of the original format. With so many things to keep track of, I was hoping for something a little more robust in the player card. As it is, a small bump of the table would irrevocably lose track of where you were to the point of effectively ending your game. While there are after market acrylic overlays to solve this, I shouldn't need them to make the game playable.