Terraforming Mars (Android/iOS) (physical game reviewed here) is a recent classic and has seen countless expansions released over the previous few years so it was only right that a digital adaptation followed suit. The app version of the evergreen game tries to shrink a heavy, sprawling game onto a screen only a few inches wide. Does it succeed?
For the most part, yes.
I’m not going to cover the rules of the game but do know that the app features a fairly in-depth tutorial that will help immerse players into not only the gameplay, but also how to interact with the digital interface. I found the tutorial helpful, even as a veteran Mars player as there’s a lot of information to keep track of and while the app does that record keeping automatically, you still need to know where to access that information. In addition to the tutorial, there is also an indexed set of text rules that players can jump around in for further clarification.
Just like the physical version, the app edition will probably require players play a game or two before they fully grasp the concepts of Terraforming Mars and more importantly, how they work together. The actions themselves are simple; it’s how they tie together that provides the challenge for players new and old and in a small screen, it will take players getting used to everything in front of them.
Right off the bat, I want to make it known that the app does not feature any type of undo button. For cards, there is a confirmation but not for other types of actions. Maybe it’s my sausage fingers but it’s all too easy to place a greenery tile one hex from where you truly wanted it. Since some tiles are limited to wear they can be played, it was difficult to ensure I clicked on the correct tile when the map was zoomed out. You can zoom the map in but make sure when doing so, you’re not touching any legal tile area on the map as you may just place the tile instead of performing the zoom action. For such a strategic (and long) game where every decision matters, it’s a shame that players have to worry about mis-clicking. Clicking is also important as everything is done by touch. There is no dragging and dropping. I haven’t had any issues with clicking on icons (even small ones) minus the times I’m in a shaky environment like a plane or train (or even an automobile).
Playing on a phone (LG V30), the screen is cramped and I definitely benefited from playing the physical copy a lot when navigating the cards and board. I was aware of some of the cards that were in my hand and how they interacted together which made the process a little easier. Without that prior knowledge, I would have had some frustrations and the game would have taken longer as I bounced around learning what each card does. There are helpful sections devoted to all cards that a player has played, a log that has all actions taken by all players as well as sections devoted to tags, victory points and more. It’s a nice way to organize your items and when needing something, such as a tag, the app will let you know whether you fill the requirement or not (so you don’t have to go searching through your tagged cards). In addition, when something happens and you need to add resources to cards, the app provides a list of those cards and lets players only choose from those.
After playing one game I felt comfortable but that was definitely helped by my previous experiences. I would say it will probably take new players two games to grasp everything that’s going on. Playing on a tablet (Kindle) or on my Chromebook was a much better experience just due to the screen size. The text and graphics are well-done and easy to read (when they all fit on the page) and my biggest concern going into the app, the iconography on each card, is organized well and easy to see.
The game will look cramped on a screen regardless of the size you’re playing on and if that tightness of a playing area will cause issues for you, I highly recommend doing further review on this app before spending money on it. All your information won’t be present on the home screen and you will need to bounce between menus to see cards that could be played. It’s not a deal breaker and it does help mitigate the amount of clutter on the screen but it’s worth noting as many board game apps are created from simpler games and have all their information present all the time (like Ticket to Ride). Another aspect I didn’t think about was that I was so used to my own organization methods when playing the physical game that I had to teach myself the ‘new’ layout. I typically had these type of cards on my left and these in front of me and while it seems trivial, it was a bad habit to break for one of our most played games.
The app version does allow for cross-platform online play with two options for game speed: real-time and asynchronous. You can create private games for just your friends or you can host and/or join games in the central lobby that allows you to play with strangers. There is a chat feature built into the game that allows you to talk to opposing players and the online play has a ranking system that rewards players for completing games and submitting turns. Players can pick up games from where the left off in online and offline modes.
I’ve had some issues with the notifications working in regards to the app (which is a common theme in the apps I review) so I’m constantly having to check my active games when I know I have a few of them running. The interface unfortunately does not offer any way of saying which game is awaiting my turn actions so having multiple games active at once can prove troublesome.
In addition to the online way to play, the app supports pass-and-play modes (which I don’t really recommend for this game. It takes so long). Another issue with pass-and-play (and private games in general) is that the final score cannot be seen unless you’re the last player to play. It’s such a colossal error and I cannot believe it’s still an issue months after the app was released. We tried two different pass-and-play games and both times had the issue. I guess from a technical standpoint, it makes sense as you’re both using the same device but it’s weird that there is no record once the game is over or that a player could exit out quickly by accident and leave you with no idea as to the final tally. Regardless of the way players choose to play, there can be up to five players in a single game.
Another issue is the animations. There are so many and they take so long to process. You can increase the speed to ‘Very Fast’ but I honestly wish I could just turn them off entirely. I appreciate the thematic idea behind them but they offer nothing for someone who just wants to play the game as quickly as possible. Even with the animations though, games are relatively quick. I’m only going to speak towards playing against the AI (as games against real human players will take longer) but I can finish a game against one AI bot in about twenty to twenty-five minutes with an additional five minutes per bot added. That’s relatively quick in the grand scheme of Terraforming Mars.
Besides online and pass-and-play, Terraforming Mars offers a single player mode that tasks players with trying to outperform AI opponents with rankings labeled as Easy, Medium and Hard. I find the AI to be challenging. It took me awhile to get to a place where I was comfortably beating the Easy AI and I am definitely feeling challenged by the Medium and Hard bots. I will say that the caveat is that Terraforming Mars is not my strongest game. I’m routinely beat by my significant other so it could just be that I’m really bad and the AI is just slightly bad. For solo players, there is also a Solo Challenge mode that mirrors the solo mode from the physical game.
When setting up games, the app allows for standard games or corporate era rules as well as the ability to include a draft variant. As of the time of this posting, there were no expansions available for purchase.
The last weird tidbit I want to share is that final scoring is listed by the company you play and not your profile. Your color is associated with the company but I find it weird that it doesn’t associate the play with your username (or the other players username).
All said and done, Terraforming Mars feels like a success when you crack it open and play some games. It includes all the information you need, is easy to read and navigate and doesn’t skimp on the experience of playing the physical game I know I listed a lot of aspects of the app that I didn’t enjoy (no undo button, the animations, lack of notifications) but this feels like an exact port of the game from table to tablet. It’s nice if you have no other way to play the game or even want to try it out for cheap before paying full price. I have fallen in love with the app and recommend it for players that want to experience the game or want to play it more often than the physical copy allows.
As always, if you’d like to play a game, my username is TwoofftheTop!