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Terraforming Mars

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

It’s a year since I picked up my copy of this game at last year’s Internationale Spieltage SPIEL. I played it the day I bought it and I have been introducing new people to the game steadily ever since. Anecdotally, at least, it has to have been one of the hottest games of the year: it’s attracted a lot of interest and it appears to have spawned a minor industry in accessories for ‘pimping’ the components, with many enthusiasts spending two or three times the cost of the core game to buy third-party 3D plastic tiles to replace the cardboard hexes in the game.

So what’s all the fuss about? Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games / Fryxgames) is a euro game where players spend resources on cards that individually or in combo increase their resource production and which help them to alter the planetary environment. Collectively, players are seeking to raise the temperature of Mars, oxygenate its atmosphere and create cities and oceans.

The game incorporates card drafting (an option, but one most players will prefer to use). The basic game has players starting off equally, each controlling a vanilla corporation, but the game can also be played with an asymmetric start: players choosing corporations that give an advantage in a specific activity and so are likely to drive the player’s priorities (pushing them to focus on mining, perhaps, or on promoting forestation). The sheer number of cards in the box also means that no two games will ever play out quite the same. If you feel the need for still more variety and replayability, this summer saw the publication of two alternative boards (representing different regions of the

planet) and this year’s Essen Spiel will see the release of a Venus expansion. Other planets may not be very hospitable but the solar system is home to a host of potentially exploitable moons, so my guess is that there is scope for still further expansion before the publishers eventually feel the need to jump the shark to give us the inevitable Cthulhu version (‘Terrorforming Mars”, anyone?).

Terraforming Mars is a game that mirrors the slow process involved in embarking on a deliberate programme of altering a global environment. Turns are viewed as generations, and it will be several generations (and maybe an hour of gameplay) before you are seeming to have a very noticeable impact on the planet. Later in the game, as players have each built up their ‘engines’, the terraforming process accelerates rapidly. This rhythm contributes greatly to the game’s appeal. Many of the cards represent pseudoscience but there is enough fact mixed in with the factoids to give a verisimilitude to the actions players are taking.

It’s a long game. You need to allow at least three hours and I’ve certainly played games that have run to four hours – and that’s not due to anyone dithering over their moves. I’ve heard tell of people finishing a game in under two hours but I put no more faith in that than in the Little Green Men who are also absent from this game. The important thing is that though the game is long it never drags: you can expect to be fully engrossed all the way through. That’s true playing with 2 to 5 players, and it’s true too if you play the game in solitaire mode, where, in effect, you are working against the generational clock: to win you need to succeed in all of the terraforming goals with 14 generations.

Though Terraforming Mars has garnered much praise, it’s also attracted some criticism, particularly over the components. Metallic-coloured plastic cubes are used to signify money and resources in the game. These are attractive and perfectly serviceable but some critics have complained that they are prone to chipping. A more serious complaint is over the player mats used to track production. These are really just paper sheets with nothing to hold marker cubes in place. That means that a jog to the table can create huge problems. It would have been much better if the game had come with mats with indentations for cubes (like, for example, the player mats in Stonemaier Games' Scythe). The spin-off industry that has sprung up around Terraforming Mars has stepped in to fill this gap: several companies and enterprising individuals make and market their own plastic or wooden trays to replace those supplied in the game.

If you haven’t yet tried Terraforming Mars, you really should check it out. It is deservedly in the top 10 rankings on BoardGameGeek, and that’s an especially notable achievement because it’s currently the ‘youngest’ (newest) game in that top 10. And that’s despite all the quibbles over components. ☺

(Review by Selwyn Ward)

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