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Subject: Mars is a Generous Mistress - a review of Terraforming Mars rss

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Scott Sexton
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"Now this is the plan. Get your ass to Mars." - Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hauser, Total Recall (1990).

Introduction -

I've always enjoyed the schlock-fest that is director Paul Verhoeven's Sci-fi movie catalog (Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers). Each of these movies is nine part cheesy action movie, one part social commentary. Its interesting stuff if you have a taste for it. Terraforming Mars (TM) gives me a similar feel of 9 part tight euro-efficiency game, one part social commentary. I'm not sure if the original intent of this game was to offer a social-political critique, but believe you me, it is definitely there. I think there are two ways to play TM. One is to ignore the theme/fluff and just play to max out your points. The second way is to immerse yourself in the theme and let the game tell you an interesting little hard sci-fi story. As an omni-gamer who enjoys story in his games, I chose to play TM in the second manner.

Lets talks about the story.

We are roughly 200 to 300 years in the future and mankind is running out of room and resources on Earth (surprise!). The World Government (yup, the game uses the term "World Government") has implemented a grand directive to all mankind "Mars must be terraformed!" Like any responsible World Government would, the WG has decided that it isn't going to bring together mankind's best and brightest for the task, but rather, they have decided to crowd source the project out to private corporations (things worked out well in Robocop, right?).

But why would private companies throw away their fortunes on such a project (because the fate of humanity isn't enough incentive)? Government subsidies. Yup, the WG raises a Mars tax on all of humanity to fund government subsidies designed to give private companies incentive to terraform Mars. How could any of this go wrong?

Oddly enough though, it can't go wrong. At least not in the multi-player game. The game always ends the same (with Mars being successfully terraformed). In the solo game, in theory you lose by failing to be efficient enough to terraform Mars within the time allotted, but then you don't have any opponents really getting in your way like you do with the multi-player version of the game.

Here is where the theme gets a bit weirder too. Who is the winner of the game? It isn't the player who has the most money (which is what you would expect from a game where you are running a mega corp.) but rather VP are an abstraction of how happy the World Government is with your terraforming efforts. Now when you put all of this together, its VERY important to understand that your VP in this game doubles as your government funding (it isn't your business income, which is abstracted as one of the resources on your player sheet). Effectively, the winner of the game is the player who gobbles up the most government subsidies. Its kind of funny when you think about it. The whole terraforming Mars project is really just a side effect of the Mega Corps trying to exploit the World Government as much as possible (NASA be damned!). The winner is not the player who builds the best run business, its the player who best manipulates the government for their own selfish purposes.

I'm not making this up, pretty much everything I'm describing is in the fluff text, instructions, or can be gleamed from reading it all.

If you keep all of this in mind when playing the game, TM takes on a bit of a different flavor. Again, I'm not 100% sure this was intended all along by the designer/publishers, but it is definitely in the box.

At the very least, the story is more detailed then what you'd think before opening up the box.

So how are the components?

Black bordered cards. The card backs are GORGEOUS, but you'll want to sleeve them to avoid marking your cards during your first play.

Roughly 80 to 90 percent of the card art is great and gives you that "hard sci-fi" vibe. It is up to par with the good art in Core Worlds and definitely exceeds the art in Race for the Galaxy. The last 10 percent of art though is jarringly bad, like worst of Race for the Galaxy bad. The bad stuff looks like somebody slapped together some quick art to meet a deadline. Very disappointing.

The game designer and the production team have a large number of cameos in the art. Like A LOT. So many in fact that I think it puts "Bottom of the Ninth" to shame.

There are tons of little faux metal cubes. Due to the way these plastic cubes are made, the faux metal coating tends to have places where it chips off (before you even get the game). This isn't a big deal for me. You could always order metal cubes to replace them from the BGG store if it was that big of an issue (it isn't though).

The game tiles are nice and look good on the game board.

The game board is well illustrated and the layout is quite slick. I'm hopeful that we will get different maps as expansions (say the other side of Mars or from say a top down perspective .

Overall, I find the components quite acceptable. None of the flaws are big enough for me to be truly upset about. It is a euro game after all.

So how is the rule book?

Its an odd mixed bag. Overall, I think it reads easier then most of Stronghold's rules and is slightly better then most. There is one area though that is quite lacking, the set up, and game play variants. Effectively, the game has a more streamlined mode (for beginners) that speeds the game up a bit and is a touch less challenging/frustrating. The second mode is more of a normal mode that doubles the number of cards in play and lengthens play time (it is far more punishing when you make bad decisions due to resource scarcity). You can even add in a drafting element (which is what I advise for experienced players who want to minimize the luck factor of the card draws in the game). The game set up smashes both the beginner and advanced set up rules together into a single wall of text that is a bit annoying to read and can be easy to screw up. The solo rules though are the most frustrating part, as there are actual typos that dramatically effect how you play a solo game (with luck a solo FAQ and/or video will be coming from the designer). Please note that when playing the solo game, you use all the advanced cards and rules (including the part about starting with 0 production).

So how is the Game?

The game itself is great (go check out The Dice Tower Video Review for a good sense of how it plays). Its a solid euro "tableau building" style card game. People are going to compare this game to Race for the Galaxy quite a bit I think, but really, aside from theme and the fact that you are going to chase certain types of cards from a HUGE deck, the two games have VERY LITTLE in common. The "FEEL" of the game (IMHO) most closely matches 51st State 3.0 or even Imperial Settlers. You are building a card engine and there is some "take that". Unlike IS or 51st State, the take that elements are rather tame. Instead of blowing up your opponent's stuff, you can nickle and dime your opponent, causing them to loose just enough resources to perhaps delay their efforts by a single turn or so. Nothing significant. The game's rhythm too reminds me a lot of 51st State 3.0 in that you start off not being able to do much, if anything, only to have your engine ramp up so greatly that you'll find yourself taking dozens of actions per generation (round) towards the end of the game.

My biggest complaint is in keeping track of all the scoring that occurs when you place tiles. When you play a tile you can gain money, a couple different resources, and you may need to adjust multiple terraforming stats. This chain reaction of tweaks to the game state ALL trigger from the single act of placing a tile, so it is easy to loose track of everything you need to tweak. Its a bit fiddly.

Does the random card draw ruin things? Not really. Its every bit as random as Race, IS, or 51st State. Each round you get 4 new cards to look at. You then have to decide which of the 4 to keep. Any you keep cost you 3 money (which doesn't include the eventual cost to play the card from your hand). That makes choosing cards really tricky. You may want to keep all 4 cards, but do you REALLY need them so badly that you'll spend so much money you can't play any of those cards? It forces the player to really prioritize goals and not be distracted by red herrings. It doesn't help that most of the red herrings are really attractive options too.

This isn't a game to teach AP players. When new cards are drawn (or drafted) if you have a min-maxer who is susceptible to AP, you may want to avoid this game. Especially late in the game, you can math out the values and rates of return on the investment of buying certain cards. Some players MAY bog down with this.

Edit- Something I forgot to mention that the designer/producers did that really nailed things is how well the icons are integrated on the cards. Unlike Race, which just gives you a wall of icons, TM gives you the icons that tell you how the card works AND also gives you a brief little text block that tells you how the card works. The card text is extremely well translated and helps to clarify several rules questions I would have had if the card weren't written as well as it is. Then why have icons at all? Well, the text helps you to learn the game, but once you've got a few games under your belt, you'll be using the icons to "speed read" your cards. I absolutely adore how this was done. HUGE THUMBS UP TO WHOEVER MADE THE DECISION TO HAVE BOTH TEXT AND ICONS!!! HUGE THUMBS UP TO WHOEVER DID THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION!!! GREAT JOB!!!

Overall, I'm quite happy with both the solo game and the normal multi-player experience. As far as game play goes, I have no real complaints (just a bit of an issue with how fiddly tile placement can get sometimes), but I recognize that if you aren't a fan of drawing cards in your euro games, this will do nothing to change your opinion.

Conclusion -


All in all, I find myself quite satisfied with everything Terraforming Mars brings to the table. Its a solid, tight, and satisfying mid-weight euro that feels perfect out of the box, but leaves some room for future expansion (the fluff even implies the possibility that this could be the first in a series of games). I for one would love to see the designer experiment with different martian maps (I can think of at least 3 options off the top of my head) and maybe even expanding the terraforming parameters to include the Martian electromagnetic field (which most stuff I've read appears to be the greatest barrier to colonizing Mars). If you are a fan of euro tableau builders (51st State, IS, Race for the Galaxy, San Juan, and so on) this is pretty much a must buy. It takes many of the best ideas those games offer and adds a neat board element. If you aren't a fan of those types of games, I would encourage you to find a store with a demo copy of the game to try out. I think Tom Vasel said that this was his favorite game from Stronghold, period. It doesn't quite bump off my much beloved Core Worlds, but it does stand out as one of the best titles they've released in years. For those who are interested, buy with confidence. BGG rating - 8.0
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Hahaha I'm glad I'm not the only one who was struck by how bizarre the theme of the game truly is. Thanks for the great review. You can probably judge from my username that I would have an interest in this title.
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Paul Newsham
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This is a really excellent review. I appreciate the confidence that it takes to go for almost 100% critique and leave the rules overview to a video recommendation. It also helps that we like the same movies.
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Great review, its in our game group (one of the Krewe bought it at Gen Con), but I have not yet played. Your review has me itching to try it.

I am glad you say the "bad" artwork is only about 10%. Twitter reviews make it sound like half the artwork is schoolhouse junk.
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airlarry wrote:
Great review, its in our game group (one of the Krewe bought it at Gen Con), but I have not yet played. Your review has me itching to try it.

I am glad you say the "bad" artwork is only about 10%. Twitter reviews make it sound like half the artwork is schoolhouse junk.


Thanks for a great review, bringing some really interesting thoughts on the background story as well.

To make artwork to 200+ cards is an enormous task, and we choose to go with a mix of self-made images and artwork/photos borrowed from NASA and other sources. In a few cases, we had other artwork in mind, but didn't get permission by the copyright owners. And we did have a deadline so we had to come up with something ourselves. The result wasn't perfect. But we hope it's good enough...

This is the first reviewer I read that actually digs a little deeper into the background story, which is important to get a grasp of the core mechanics of the Terraform Rating. In our scenario the World Government (WG) is thought to be something like the European Union, a union of independent nations with a common federal legislation and elected leadership.
This WG makes their own terraforming projects through UNMI (one of the "corporations" in the game) but realize they need to create incentive for other corporations to join the task if it's ever to be completed. So they instate a tax and a commitee to reward the corporations for terraforming Mars. This is reflected in the terraform rating track, where players get TR every time they raise temperature, oxygen, or ocean on the planet. TR is your basic VP as well as your income.

So yes, the game is about taking advantage of the generous funding from the WG and use it as trampoline for your corporation to (literally!) reach for the stars.

But the cause is indeed noble - to create a new living home for humanity! And therefore your TR is also your basic score in this game. But you also get additional VPs for other things you do for humanity: Building cities and forests, pushing science forward, exploring the outer solar system and much more. You also get -VPs for morally questionable things like stealing, bribing and more.

Ultimately, you don't get your VPs for using up WG funds, but for your contribution to mankind... :-)

Thanks again for a very interesting review!



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Scott Sexton
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EagleEye80 wrote:


Ultimately, you don't get your VPs for using up WG funds, but for your contribution to mankind... :-)

Thanks again for a very interesting review!



I applaud you for making a euro where the story was given serious thought and consideration. Something I find very interesting is the difference in cultural views of the topics you discuss. For example, I think a good portion of the US population would be deeply hostile towards the idea of a world government (especially one that favored a universal Mars tax). Ironically, that same segment of the US political sphere would probably be highly in favor of the privatization of terraforming projects (minus subsidies). I don't mean to steer the discussion into the area of politics, but I am always interested in diverse cultural perspectives, and I feel like Terraforming Mars is especially interesting for what I would describe as its "Euro-Centric Futurism".
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scottatlaw wrote:
EagleEye80 wrote:


Ultimately, you don't get your VPs for using up WG funds, but for your contribution to mankind... :-)

Thanks again for a very interesting review!



I applaud you for making a euro where the story was given serious thought and consideration. Something I find very interesting is the difference in cultural views of the topics you discuss. For example, I think a good portion of the US population would be deeply hostile towards the idea of a world government (especially one that favored a universal Mars tax). Ironically, that same segment of the US political sphere would probably be highly in favor of the privatization of terraforming projects (minus subsidies). I don't mean to steer the discussion into the area of politics, but I am always interested in diverse cultural perspectives, and I feel like Terraforming Mars is especially interesting for what I would describe as its "Euro-Centric Futurism".


Thanks a lot! :-)

Because we have developed several space games (TM, Fleets, Space Station and more to come!) we decided long ago that we wanted to really sit down and work out a storyline that would knit everything together. For example, the corporations you play in Fleets you will recognize from TM and so on. In our story corporations have grown to a point where they transcend nations in terms of funds and influence. As a counter-reaction, the nations draw closer together to the point where UN transforms into a World Government.

But we didn't want another dark dystopian story of WG dictatorship but rather a hopeful vision of mankind working together. Here in Europe we are more used to the idea of paying taxes for common welfare, and personally I wouldn't mind paying a Martian tax... ;-)

I am myself an economist with a keen interest in politics. I believe NASA needs competition from private enterprise if we are ever to set our feet on Mars at all. If anything, NASA is a good example of an organization sucking up government funds without any impressive results. They could have landed on Mars with technology they possessed in the 80's!!
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EagleEye80 wrote:

Because we have developed several space games (TM, Fleets, Space Station and more to come!) we decided long ago that we wanted to really sit down and work out a storyline that would knit everything together.


That sounds exciting!

I'm all for developing new games, but I want to throw out my 2 cents ...

TM is a great game system, and I HOPE we get to see more content in this system (both expansions to TM and whole new terraforming games). Terraforming Venus, various moons in our solar system, and even interstellar worlds are possible, but obviously would require completely different maps, terraforming parameters, and cards. Why stop at terraforming? For Venus, it may be interesting to explore setting up floating mining colonies (ala Bespin). I really hope we haven't seen the last of the TM game system. You have a gem of game and the beginnings of what I would think could be a solid series for you!
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airlarry wrote:
Great review, its in our game group (one of the Krewe bought it at Gen Con), but I have not yet played. Your review has me itching to try it.

I am glad you say the "bad" artwork is only about 10%. Twitter reviews make it sound like half the artwork is schoolhouse junk.


Rest assured that the "bad" art isn't as prevalent as some say. I've gone entire games without running into any of the awkward cards.
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Tarnop wrote:
This is a really excellent review. I appreciate the confidence that it takes to go for almost 100% critique and leave the rules overview to a video recommendation. It also helps that we like the same movies.


Thanks!

I always find game play & rules break downs in written reviews to be dull at best. If I want to read how the game plays, I can always download the rules PDF. Worse yet, I hate writing them, so a while back I just decided to always point people to the videos I felt gave the best FEELING of the game play. Right now, Tom's video gives folks (IMHO) the best sense of how the game plays.
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scottatlaw wrote:
EagleEye80 wrote:

Because we have developed several space games (TM, Fleets, Space Station and more to come!) we decided long ago that we wanted to really sit down and work out a storyline that would knit everything together.


That sounds exciting!

I'm all for developing new games, but I want to throw out my 2 cents ...

TM is a great game system, and I HOPE we get to see more content in this system (both expansions to TM and whole new terraforming games). Terraforming Venus, various moons in our solar system, and even interstellar worlds are possible, but obviously would require completely different maps, terraforming parameters, and cards. Why stop at terraforming? For Venus, it may be interesting to explore setting up floating mining colonies (ala Bespin). I really hope we haven't seen the last of the TM game system. You have a gem of game and the beginnings of what I would think could be a solid series for you!


Expansions covering several of the ideas you mention are already in beta-testing. I cannot spoil the surprise but there is coming more for sure. It depends, of course, on how the game is received. It looks good so far...
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EagleEye80 wrote:


Expansions covering several of the ideas you mention are already in beta-testing. I cannot spoil the surprise but there is coming more for sure. It depends, of course, on how the game is received. It looks good so far...


That is excellent news! I see no reason why the sales shouldn't be solid. Good luck!
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A number of OLGS sold out of their preorders so I doubt sales won't be solid.
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scottatlaw wrote:

The game designer and the production team have a large number of cameos in the art. Like A LOT. So many in fact that I think it puts "Bottom of the Ninth" to shame.


This kinda kills it for me. I thought "Bottom of the Ninth" way overdid it, to the point of becoming a distraction. I am sure it's all meant to be in fun, and it's great to have your pals on cards in a game. I'm probably alone in this gripe.
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gashlycrumb wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:

The game designer and the production team have a large number of cameos in the art. Like A LOT. So many in fact that I think it puts "Bottom of the Ninth" to shame.


This kinda kills it for me. I thought "Bottom of the Ninth" way overdid it, to the point of becoming a distraction. I am sure it's all meant to be in fun, and it's great to have your pals on cards in a game. I'm probably alone in this gripe.


I'm not happy about it either. A little can be fun but the real reason here is that some projects are hard to come up with good illustrations for. When we need to put people in the pictures it's easier to take help from friends and family. We didn't have the time or the budget to hire models for these images...
Some people compare the art and components to Scythe - but they made soo much money from their Kickstarter that they could afford anything for the production!
We are talking about images for 200+ unique cards here, and I hope that players will enjoy 95% of it, and overlook the last 5%...
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EagleEye80 wrote:
gashlycrumb wrote:
scottatlaw wrote:

The game designer and the production team have a large number of cameos in the art. Like A LOT. So many in fact that I think it puts "Bottom of the Ninth" to shame.


This kinda kills it for me. I thought "Bottom of the Ninth" way overdid it, to the point of becoming a distraction. I am sure it's all meant to be in fun, and it's great to have your pals on cards in a game. I'm probably alone in this gripe.


I'm not happy about it either. A little can be fun but the real reason here is that some projects are hard to come up with good illustrations for. When we need to put people in the pictures it's easier to take help from friends and family. We didn't have the time or the budget to hire models for these images...
Some people compare the art and components to Scythe - but they made soo much money from their Kickstarter that they could afford anything for the production!
We are talking about images for 200+ unique cards here, and I hope that players will enjoy 95% of it, and overlook the last 5%...


What I love most about Terraforming Mars is the overwhelming humility of the Fryxelius family. You have to love a responsive post like this. You guys are great.

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Good review. I cannot wait to play my first game.
A few points, though (that have little to do with the game itself):
Quote:
Who is the winner of the game? It isn't the player who has the most money (which is what you would expect from a game where you are running a mega corp.) but rather VP are an abstraction of how happy the World Government is with your terraforming efforts. Now when you put all of this together, its VERY important to understand that your VP in this game doubles as your government funding (it isn't your business income, which is abstracted as one of the resources on your player sheet). Effectively, the winner of the game is the player who gobbles up the most government subsidies.

Making the winner the one who makes most profit is just as much an abstraction as this goal. In real life, when you found a hundred million dollar company, are you a loser because your neighbour founded a hundred and one million dollar company? Most people would not think so. To really determine who is the loser and who isn't, you should play until everyone but one player is bankrupt - but nobody wants to play Monopoly anymore.

This game is called 'Terraforming Mars', the goal is to terrarium Mars, and - as far as I understand it - the winner of the game is the one who contributed most toward that goal. I have no problem with that.

Quote:
Unlike Race (for the Galaxy - Whymme), which just gives you a wall of icons, TM gives you the icons that tell you how the card works AND also gives you a brief little text block that tells you how the card works.

Errm, you mean that you have never seen that little text block in the lower right side of the RftG cards that explains clearly what the card does? Even though the icons are really clear most of the time?
I never understood why people have all this trouble with the icons in RftG. To me they were very intuitive. While there are lots of different icons, most are clearly related. If you know what an icon with a '+1' does, it is not so hard to find out what a similar icon, but with a '+2' does. If you have an icon with a blue card, you'll know what a similar icon with a brown or a multicoloured card does.
There are some esoteric icons, but they are explained in that text block on the card which you have apparently never noticed.

Quote:
Overall, I find the components quite acceptable. None of the flaws are big enough for me to be truly upset about. It is a euro game after all.

OK, this has to do with the game itself. I'm happy that you're content with the components' quality. Me, I opened the box and found the insert torn and warped. The player boards and the cards felt flimsy to me, and the cardboard of the box itself was thinner than that of boxes of other games in this price category. For a €50 game I expect materials of better quality.

Edit: I'm not talking about Scythe levels of production - I don't know that game. But there are enough games that are not at those production levels that still don't have torn inserts. That have better cardboard boxes.
 
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