Updated: Aug 7, 2021
It's five years since I first played Terraforming Mars (FryxGames/Stronghold). I was at Internationale Spieltage SPIEL (Essen), I'd bought the game at the Stronghold booth and I eagerly played it as soon as I got back to my hotel. And it's a game that has certainly stood the test of time. It's firmly established in the BoardGameGeek top ten and it's spawned a bunch of expansions which have alternately added variety, streamlining or bloat to the core game. From the outset there were criticisms of the production quality of the core game, particularly of the paper-thin individual boards. The publishers have been slow to respond to this, creating a gap in the market that dozens of enterprising folk have rushed to fill. I have lost track of the number of companies and individuals selling organisers for the components, 3D-printed hex tiles and their own improved multi-layer versions of the boards. The publishers only very belatedly produced their own improved dual-layer player boards, and enthusiasts have just this past few weeks been taking delivery of the official Terraforming Mars Big Box, designed to accommodate all the expansions and replace the cardboard hexes with sculpted plastic versions. Odd timing, you might think then, to release Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition - a smaller squat-box standalone Terraforming Mars game that is quite separate and distinct from the original...
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is not an expansion for the original game. I am reluctant to say it's incompatible because there will doubtless be gamers already hard at work home brewing their own way of integrating it with their copy of TM. Suffice to say, Ares Expedition is intended as a fully independent game.
There is much about Ares Expedition that Terraforming Mars aficionados will find familiar. This is still a card-tableau engine-builder where you are managing resources and scoring points by driving up the heat and oxygen levels on Mars while replacing sandy dunes with Martian oceans. You'll still be using 'tags' on the cards, tho' in this iteration the tags for steel and titanium are simply used to denote the discounted cost of playing certain cards. There's a much-contracted central board with hexes to denote the surface of Mars but the board in Ares Expedition isn't ever played to or built on: it's simply a place to store randomised surface tiles that are flipped to their ocean side when an ocean is created. The tiles on the board serve only to randomise the additional bonus a player gets for creating the ocean.
The principal game play difference is that, in their design for Ares Expedition, Jacob Fryxelius, Sydney Engelstein and Nick Little have melded Terraforming Mars with the core mechanic used in Race for the Galaxy (Rio Grande). The game is played in distinct rounds where players simultaneously choose which of five phases they want to activate that round: Development (play a green project card); Construction (play a blue or red project card); Action (activate the action symbols on all the cards in your tableau); Production (collect income and resources); or Research (draw more project cards). A player cannot choose the same phase on consecutive rounds. Players all get to take the action indicated for all of the phases that are chosen but you get a bonus for the phase you personally chose.
Tho' this action selection mechanic adds an extra process, it serves to speed up and streamline the game, not least because the simultaneous phase selection also helps to encourage simultaneous play. Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is a competitive game in that you are competing to earn more points than the other players, but it isn't a 'take that' game or one where you're jostling for position on a central board. The cards you play will rarely affect directly my tableau. Ares Expedition is designed to accommodate solo play but even with a full complement of four players, you are largely playing multi-player solitaire. If you are looking for a game involving high-level interaction or conflict then Ares Expedition isn't for you, but if you're looking for an engine-builder where you can focus on optimising your own card combos without overly worrying about others throwing a spanner in your works, then you'll love this game.
Our plays of Ares Expedition have mostly taken around 90 minutes - which is longer than suggested on the box but still notably quicker than almost all of our plays of the original version of Terraforming Mars. The phase selection works smoothly and the engine-building is satisfying. Tho' we'd classify it as a medium weight euro game, the rules and card iconography are clean and clear enough to make Ares Expedition very accessible and easy to teach. Our one gripe is that the publishers have once again lumbered us with paper-thin player boards. Have they learned nothing? Good news, I suppose, for the Etsy entrepreneurs.
The game comes with a huge wadge of more than 200 project cards - so you will certainly see different cards every time you play. Whenever you draw cards (Research) you get to choose between at least two cards but it is never going to be practical to hold out hope of getting a particular individual card, so you may very well find you need to modify your game plan in the light of the cards that come your way, but then nobody said that terraforming a planet was going to be easy.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)