Terraforming Mars Review
Players: 1 – 5
Time: ~90+ minutes
Times Played: 16
For every board game that I buy, I do an insane amount of due diligence to see if not only would I like it, but would my friends. In my entire collection, I can think of less than ten games that were bought on a whim (Maybe I’ll write about that in the future). Board games are not a cheap hobby for the most part so striking out on a purchase can really dampen your mood.
Terraforming Mars was a spontaneous buy. I had heard about it. I had an idea about what you were trying to accomplish. But I had not read any reviews nor had I watched a gameplay video of it. I liked the theme, it looked neat and I was treating myself for a arduous work schedule.
Terraforming Mars was released in the summer of 2016, almost a full year ago, and I finally have enough plays where I feel comfortable speaking about the game. I know there has been some overwhelming positive praise and some disenchanting negativity surrounding this game so maybe what I’m about to say you have already heard. Guess we’ll see.
I want to be upfront and blunt: there is a lot I don’t like about this game. Not the gameplay, but the physical game and components.
The box is an absolute waste of space as the components take up a fraction of the packaging. Maybe with the two future expansions, they will better utilize the empty space but for now, the inside is mostly an empty void. I feel like the box is so big just so it catches your eye on a store shelf; not to currently serve a purpose.
The board feels small. I also understand that most of what you are accomplishing is happening with your hand of cards, so the board size really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things and actually allows more room for all your cards but still. I didn’t feel immersed or wowed when I first pulled it out of the box.
After you open everything for your first game, there’s really no good way to store or present everything. There is no box insert for the cards and cubes nor are the bags very helpful for organizing the game. I personally have added three deck boxes and condiment containers to help keep everything neat and tidy while the game is being stored and more importantly, while playing.
The cube components that act as the resource and money markers are actually really cool. Small bronze cubes for increments of one, medium silver cubes for increments of five, and larger gold cubes for increments of ten. But…after a few plays (I’m talking around five) they started to chip and the color has started to come off a few pieces. No bueno.
The cards are okay. The production quality could definitely be improved. I sleeved ours as they are constantly being picked up and put down and shuffled about but I don’t know if that’s necessary. I wish the art was more uniform. For some instances, they use actual photos (such as a dog) whereas for other images, it’s a rendering. This makes sense as we don’t have photos of some of the futuristic technology but I wish it was all the same. Doesn’t detract from the gameplay however.
There is a lot of information on the cards but once you play through a round or so, you have a gist of what they mean…for the most part. The nomenclature in the game can be a tad much. Let’s take Titanium for example. On your player mat, the symbol is a black and gold (I think that’s the color it’s trying to represent) hollow star where as the same symbol on the cards is a black and gold asterisk.
The rulebook, presentation wise, is really cool. It intersperses scientific facts where it can which is nice to see in a game. The rules were laid out in an easy to follow manner and only once or twice did I run into a situation that I could not find an answer for.
Lastly, there is the player mat. I haven’t played as many games as some of you but so far, this is the single worst component of any game I have ever played. This mat is the central hub for your resource production aka where you place your cubes. There are no dividers and as you use the same cubes for everything, you have to ensure there is no border creeping on your mat.
Maybe Scythe spoiled me. Having a double-layered cardboard player board with indents for where cubes went has made me resent Terraforming Mars’ mat even more. Is the game playable with just the mat? Of course. But if you have pets, children, Parkinson’s or just like to move about, this mat is a utter letdown.
I shouldn’t have to spend money on accessories just to better play the game. Enhance the experience like Viticulture metal coins? That’s fine. A better storage solution to keep everything civil? Don’t mind that either. I can still play the game with chits everywhere. But when the core component is as flimsy as a house of cards built by a toddler, I’m not having a good time.
If you run a google search of Terraforming Mars, some of the top results and images are customization that were made to the game to make it easier to store and less of a chore to organize for play.
Okay, but that’s just the physical game. But what about the gameplay? I’ve played this at least sixteen times. Is it worth playing?
I think so.
Every time I’ve played I have enjoyed myself. The game and concept is easy enough to grasp and strategy becomes apparent on your second run-through but it’s a time commitment, especially for what the game is.
I know that as we have played, our times have gotten quicker but this is a game that definitely settles in the ninety minutes or more range. I don’t mind long games. I love Diplomacy and Game of Thrones and such, but this game seems to overstay its welcome.
The hallmark for a good game for me is that it is one, fun, and two, leaves me wanting more. There are plenty of engine building games where once you have the engine built to your specifications, the game ends. And that’s fine. It makes me want to play again. It makes me even want to play an additional round just so I can see all that hard work pay off.
Terraforming Mars doesn’t do that. It lets you see that hard work pay off. Again. And again. Lets say the game lasts fifteen generations (rounds). Around generation eleven, your machine is doing exactly what you want it to do and the next four rounds is just you doing what you can to gain additional points, not necessarily terraform the planet of Mars and end the game.
This leads me into another issue: your score is your income. The more points you score, the more income you receive after each generation. The more income you receive, the easier it is to score. This snowball effect, which is supposed to happen in an engine building game, is too much. Once you get rich, you’re only going to get richer. I can’t really think of another game that I have played recently where once things are going well, they only get better.
The game offers some cards that have a “take-that” mentality, which seems to be out of place with the rest of the “better world” model the game presents. I personally don’t mind it. It adds a new dimension to the game and forces you to account for what the other players are doing and breaks up the monotony of your perfect engine.
Some people won’t like this and I can’t blame them. Not everyone wants to participate in the “take-that” nature of a game. You spend three turns finely tuning your engine to build plants and then someone sends an asteroid that destroys your hard work. It can be infuriating.
Terraforming Mars has a few different variants that can be incorporated into the gameplay. Players can start with a basic or personalized corporation, that will differ your starting abilities, unlock/purchase achievements that can be utilized during gameplay, and a draft variant can be used when picking cards during the game.
I am a fan of the varied starting corporations that can give you different abilities and strategies at the beginning of the game. For the first game or two, a basic corporation is the way to go but the variability adds to the life and replayability of the game. For the initial game or two, I would say to also play without drafting just to get an idea of what you’re doing down. But once you have the core concepts covered, instituting the draft will mitigate being left in the dust because there really is no catch-up tool in this game.
Speaking of the cards, we think they’re balanced. Are some more beneficial in the beginning of the game as opposed to the end? Of course. But with the size of deck that Terraforming Mars provides, each game should grant players a different ebb and flow.
With that great big deck of cards comes a drawback: there is the possibility of a lot of downtime. With the drafting mechanism and the amount of actions allowed per turn, there is a chance that analysis paralysis could set in for some players and push a turn time into several minutes. Even with seasoned players, the amount of actions could have turn after turn happening.
I think as long as players are aware of that heading into the game, it’s a non-issue.
I do and I do not like the achievements. I love the idea that there are only a few bonuses that can be scored and that they can differ each game, but it almost feels like an afterthought each and every time we play. It could just be me and my group becoming too preoccupied with gaining cards and pushing cubes.
Due to this, I still am unsure of the optimal strategy. We’ve had several different types of victories and honestly, it comes down to the cards available with your starting corporation right behind. Which I like honestly. There are several ways to go about scoring your points which does make me want to play this again.
I really like this game but at the same time, I don’t. I’ll never turn it down if offered and occasionally I’ll really get an itch to play but it’s never one of the first things I think of when a group asks for something to do.
I fear that this is a game that I’ll always look at and think “what could have been?” If the artwork was a tad crisper, if the components were improved or the price tag was lower or if the game could take less time, I think this would sit comfortably in a top ten of most played games for me and my group.
But every time I pull it out, I look at the flimsy paper mats and the chipped tokens and become a little more put off but the effort that was applied to this game.
I think the best way to describe this is that Terraforming Mars is a reasonably good game. It is rather expensive for the components and the experience that you get out of the box. That doesn’t include any accessories or expansions to make the experience more enjoyable. If you could snag this for half the listed price, I would recommend it but for its current price tag, you could find better things to spend your money on.