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Designer Diary: Terraforming Mars, or Life to Mars and Mars to Life!

Jacob Fryxelius
Sweden
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My first Spiel was 2011, the year that FryxGames was founded. We were five brothers there, of which four were in the company, and the fifth was just company. Our few handmade Wilderness sold out and my low-production Space Station didn't fare so badly either. Spiel was amazing, and we were greatly encouraged, deciding to go for it and start making high-quality games in decent (for us) print-runs.

Shortly after that first Spiel, I thought to myself one day: "I should make a game about terraforming Mars." The thought wasn't far-fetched since I LOVE Mars, science and epic scales — and so I did. Now I will show you how Terraforming Mars evolved.

My love for card games shines through all my designs. It is so easy to start prototyping a card game, and the format allows you to simulate almost anything! Beginning as usual with just pen and paper, I made the first prototype with pieces of paper torn from ordinary printer paper. (I get 16 from each sheet.) There are a number of aspects that need to be addressed when terraforming Mars, of which I deemed oxygen, temperature, and ocean coverage to be the most important, so I also had a sheet of paper for these scales.




Aside from being card-based and having scales for different things, other things started to become clear, too:

-----• That the players were corporations paid for terraforming, which was simulated by a terraform rating that provided both income and victory points.

-----• That I wanted unique cards that could simulate anything from importing water and building various industries to introducing life and hurling asteroids at the Martian surface to create heat.

-----• That I would need different resources to simulate these things.

-----• That many cards would continue to work over time, necessitating a production phase.

-----• That I wanted the cards to have thematic tags that could be used to create cool combos and enhance the thematic simulation of the project cards.

-----• That the scales should have bonus steps that could simulate different things, e.g., water being released when the permafrost begins to melt at 0º C, and an increasing greenhouse effect and rising temperature due to a thickening of the atmosphere.

-----• That the game would end when Mars was fully terraformed.

-----• That I wanted to be able to raise temperature gradually, introducing the heat scale that feeds the temperature scale.

One of the most important aspects of terraforming Mars is plant life because it can turn carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into breathable oxygen via photosynthesis. It can also give food and useful materials, in addition to binding the dust. Thus, I had a plant scale on which players marked their accumulated plant resources and received extra oxygen increases and VPs accordingly. All of these aspects still remain in the final, printed game (plus more as you will see).

After a month or so, I made a simple Word version of the "cards" and "board" to get a clearer and more playable experience. Algae, for example, costs 1, is a plant bio project, produces 2 plant resources every round, requires there to be 5% ocean in play before you can play it, and gives you 1 immediate plant resource when you play it. This card gets you higher on the plant scale over time, causing oxygen to rise (and your terraform rating!), and is worth extra VPs at the game end.

After designing for a couple of months, I remembered that the Red Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson was about terraforming and began rereading it, discovering that most of "my" ideas in the game subconsciously came from my earlier reading of those marvelous books. I also found more stuff to put in the game, of course. Anyone familiar with the Red Mars trilogy will feel at home in this game! But inspiration has also come from NASA, ESA, Wikipedia and other web-articles, as well as Mars One, and the Mars Society president Robert Zubrin (who, by the way, really liked this game and came up with the slogan "Life to Mars, and Mars to life" that I used for this designer diary). Collecting all this information and inspiration on terraforming naturally got my own cogs turning, too, and I came up with a few terraforming ideas myself, being the nerdy science teacher I am.

The next step in the design process was to visualize the parameters on an appealing game board. You cannot do a theme like this justice without some cool graphics, and here is what I came up with:




The market is where you buy new cards for your hand. This was a feature we abandoned because with all the cards being unique and players buying cards from the market all the time, it was a real chore to constantly reevaluate the market. Instead, I decided that players should simply draw cards and choose the ones they want for their hand, paying for each of them and discarding the rest. This created an investment and a difficult choice: Buy more cards for your hand, or save the money to afford playing the ones you already have?

I realized that this layout wouldn't really visualize the terraforming process, so the next iteration had the surface divided into areas that you could claim and on which you could place cities, forests and ocean markers.




Maybe a cool idea, but markers would still not visualize the spreading of water and life on the surface, so another solution was needed.




By using hexagons, tiles could fill up the areas and create continuous oceans and forests. By this time, we'd also worked in standard projects to complement the cards, and milestones and awards for which you could compete. All these changes greatly increased player interaction and helped visualize the development of a living planet.

We also moved much of the resource management to a player board on which resources and production were marked. Gone were the days of filling up cards with common resources! The plant and heat scales were replaced by a simple conversion of resources, which felt much better. The production phase was also much simpler when all production was summarized on the player boards instead of on all the individual cards.




Speaking of the cards, they also got an overhaul by Jonathan:




The player board shown above features fancy icons that we used for a while, designed by Daniel. (Oh, the blessings of a big and creative family!) We went back to plainer icons in order to increase readability.

Just as the game board now illustrated the theme better, we needed the cards to do the same, but adding pictures to Jonathan's design was tricky because of the semi-transparent panels covering a big part of the picture area, so we needed a new card template with opaque panels and dedicated space for the illustration. I made a first design to illustrate the concept, and handed it over to Daniel — and you can see who the better artist is!




However, we felt that this game should have a positive, scientific look to it, not the usual dark dystopia we always see in sci-fi, so we eventually handed the graphics over to another brother, Isaac, who made the final graphical design for Terraforming Mars:






Needless to say, we are very happy with the result. Another development was that of the corporations. From being anonymous and equal, I invented twelve different ones for the game, each with a background and a specialty.




We still had three problems with the game, though, going into beta-testing.

The first problem was the feeling of being overwhelmed when new players tried to digest their starting cards and choose which cards to buy for their starting hand of ten drawn cards and two corporations. Having all these cards to choose from at the start of the game is important to get enough for a strategy. The solution was beginner corporations for new players that simply gave you the cards and have no extra functions for players to track. Instead of needing to evaluate which cards to buy before even knowing the game, new players could now focus on how to use the cards they received while the experienced players chose their starting hand and corporation. This created a much better learning experience.

The second problem was downtime. As the game progresses, you increase your economy and abilities, meaning there's more to do on your turn; the game bogged down considerably towards the end! A beta-tester suggested that players should alternate doing actions one at a time. This I knew wouldn't work because then the players could just wait until another player was ready to grab a bonus — such as a milestone or bonus step on a parameter — and simply grab it right before their nose without the other player being able to do anything about it. Then it hit me: Let the players choose to do one OR two actions at a time; then it would be much harder for the players to control each other completely, but still the turns would pass quickly. As a bonus, this change allowed players to play fast or slow in order to either race towards a bonus or try to wait out the other players. Worked like a charm...

The third problem was the game time. Even with the new turn structure and its nice flow, the game was long. That's okay for many players, but sometimes you just don't have that time. Shortening the game by adjusting the length of the parameters didn't feel right, so what could we do? Terraforming Mars ends when Mars is terraformed! There are cards that help you towards this goal and cards that increase your economy or victory points. Each action you do in the game takes a few seconds to perform, so shortening the game time would mean reducing the number of actions that players perform, which means taking out cards that don't help move the terraforming along (which turned out to be about a third of all cards).

A lot of fun and interesting cards were cut, so we decided to keep them in the box as a kind of expansion called "Corporate Era". We also decided that the basic game should have starting production to give the players a jump start. As a result of these alterations, the game time was reduced by a full hour!

Many people (and companies) have put work into this game to make it great – thank you so much! There is, of course, much more to say and many more design iterations that I haven't shown you here, but I'll stop now and hope this has been an interesting read for you.

Cheers!

Jacob Fryxelius
FryxGames
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