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Subject: A View Through Mars-Tinted Glasses rss

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Jacob Walker
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Idaho
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I’m almost certainly guilty of the label “cult of the new”. I buy new games frequently, don’t play any one game nearly as much as I probably should, and move on to the next big thing readily. I say all this not out of embarrassment, but as preface to a review of a new game that I find myself quite enamored of. The way in which I consume games is part of the reason I rarely write reviews. I don’t have the experience with most games to write a compelling review, and by the time I do, the game has been in the collective gaming ethos long enough that I don’t feel like I have much to add. Enter Terraforming Mars…

I read very little about Terraforming Mars leading up to its GenCon release. I have only a vague recollection of reading a designer diary and thinking, “I’d like to try that.” And then the owner of my FLGS came back from GenCon and Terraforming Mars was one of only two games he brought home. He had no idea how to play, so I offered to borrow it, learn the rules, and then return the next week to teach it to him. What followed was a torrid affair in which I played the game nine times solo, three times one-on-one with my wife, and once with my wife and the actual owner of the game. It’s rare for me to get so many plays of one game so quickly, and worth noting that this was the end of my summer break. Dreading the start of the school year and the thought of actually working again, I was probably looking to make the last of my vacation. But this can only be part of the picture. I own plenty of games, and plenty of excellent solo games. Why play this one so much over any of those? I would like to contend that it is because Terraforming Mars is just that good…

The Concept (or “What You’ll Be Doing, In Brief”)


In Terraforming Mars, the players each control a corporation attempting to contribute the most to the effort to terraform a new home for humanity. In a given round, the players draw a set of four cards, purchasing any they would like to keep, and then play proceeds in turns until all players have passed. A turn consists of one or two actions from a wide list of options, but primarily players will be playing cards, activating played cards, or completing one of a few standard projects which are always available. Eventually, all three terraforming objectives will be completed, triggering the end of the game, at which point the players will take their current score (a fairly direct measure of how much they contributed to terraforming) and add on additional points for cards played, board position, and certain milestones and awards determined throughout the course of play. Unsurprisingly, the player with the most points is declared the winner, and partakes in whatever victory celebrations are deemed appropriate by your particular group (might I suggest, astronaut ice cream?)

The Execution (or “What Makes it so Good”)


The value of a dollar earned…

Terraforming Mars opens each round in a similar fashion to many games; it asks “which of these things would you like to keep?” But perhaps the game’s greatest genius is that you may keep all of them. Instead of asking which cards you want most, Terraforming Mars asks how much the cards are worth to you. The $3 fee per card - a number that I’m sure was adjusted during the design and playtesting process – is perfect. It’s just small enough to seem innocuous, but just large enough that if you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself without the capital to accomplish anything meaningful on your turns. This choice of which cards to purchase has the effect of making some decisions easier (a “mediocre” card becomes an instant throwaway) and others agonizing (am I willing to pay for that exceptional card if I then can’t afford to play it for several rounds?). Some cards will seem obviously better than others, and any card will seem perfect in the right circumstances, but in general, more powerful cards will cost a lot when you get around to playing them. Three bucks here and three bucks there starts to add up fast, and pretty soon you’re sitting on a hand of cards you can’t play and the game is almost over. The balance between liquidity and long term investment necessitates smart decision making from the get go.

Mitigating the effects of quantum uncertainty…

In any game that relies so heavily on cards, you will inevitably hear complaints of randomness. Such complaints are almost always overstated, but are at least based on some kernel of truth. I can lose a game of Race for the Galaxy to a less skilled player. It won’t happen every time, but it will happen. In a shorter game, such randomness is more forgivable, but in a two-hour slog like Terraforming Mars, it’s hard to imagine a bigger flaw than “the player that won drew better cards.” Luckily, Terraforming Mars doesn’t have that problem, because it has standard projects.

Don’t like any of the four cards you have to choose from? Fine. DON’T BUY THEM. Save your $12 and use it on a standard project instead. They are more expensive and less efficient on average, but importantly, THEY ARE ALWAYS AVAILABLE. Furthermore, they aren’t subject to the same terraforming, tag, or placement restrictions that the best cards in the game force players to negotiate. These projects are your safety net when you can’t seem to get the cards you need. They won’t do everything, but they will do enough to keep you competitive.

Adapting to the Martian environment…

Terraforming Mars isn’t just cards. It has a board, and that board is an important component of end-game scoring. During each game the Martian surface will develop in a unique (if still somewhat predictable) way as players lay claim to forests, cities, and other tiles. Each tile you place is subject to certain restrictions, which creates difficult choices as you go. Forests are worth a point, but must be placed next to other tiles you control. Cities are worth no points on their own, but can be placed largely anywhere (except next to other cities). Additionally, cities are worth a point for every adjacent forest, which sounds great! That is until another player cuts off all other placement options for your forest except next to their city. Certain locations on the board provide additional placement bonuses, forcing you to choose between an optimum placement for end-game scoring and an immediate benefit which may enable the play of more cards. And it is again worth noting that the three main tile types can all be placed via standard action. There’s no need to wait for the perfect card; you can set your own pace.

Showered with accolades…

It has been noted elsewhere that for such an economically driven game, it seems a bit odd that the goal of Terraforming Mars is not to be the corporation that makes the most money, but to end the game with the best “Terraforming Reputation”. Ultimately, this approach works, and leads to one of the most interesting parts of the game: milestones and awards.

Milestones are bragging rights. If you are the first to do accomplish one of five in-game tasks, you can spend an action to pay 8-credits and brag about it. There is no immediate benefit, but at the end of the game each claimed Milestone is worth five points, which is no paltry sum. However, only three milestones can be awarded each game, so there is a race not only for specific milestones, but to claim yours before it’s too late. I feel the power of random luck of the draw here more than anywhere else in the game, BUT two of the milestones can be claimed with judicious use of standard projects.

Awards are the counterpart to milestones, but are a bit more of a gamble. For an action, your corporation can fund an award, making it a consideration for end-game scoring. Funding the award and winning the award are different things. Again, of the five available awards, only three can be funded each game, creating a tension to fund the awards that will serve you best. Additionally, each successive award requires more money to fund, so you want to get in early. But get in too early, and you might find someone snake the award out of your hands (there’s something fantastic about the image of a corporation funding an award for the purposes of PR only to be forced to give it away to a competitor).

Bending the space time continuum…

One of Terraforming Mars most clever design choices is also one of its easiest to miss. On each turn, you may perform one or two actions. I’m confident that most people play two actions almost every turn. But the ability to complete just one action to delay another turn is hugely important. Think the other players will push the temperature up to striking distance of a production bonus? DELAY! Can’t play that card till there is more water on Mars? DELAY! But be careful, delay too much and you’ll watch another player beat you to a milestone or a key tile placement.

The Verdict (or “Will I Still Be Playing This Game in Five Years?”)


I could go on and on about the things that make this game so great (the relationship between points and income, the varied resources you manage, the variable yet largely consistent playtime at all player counts, etc.), but I should probably stop and at least note a few potential shortcomings:

EYou might not find my above argument on luck mitigation compelling. There is a drafting variant that I tried once; I don’t think it really did that much to affect luck of the draw. Ultimately, you’re going to be ok with a 200+ deck of unique cards or you aren’t.
ESome of the cards are mean, particularly the ones from the advanced game (and as a side note, I have only every played the advanced game). I don’t think it’s that bad. About my worst experience with mean cards has been a few games where I was the repeated victim of asteroids cards, dashing my hopes to build cheap forests. Notably, I still won those games.
EThe components have received some criticism. Aside from wishing the player mats were a little thicker, I think it’s all great. However, I strongly recommend you not mark zero income for any resources. Just leave your cubes off those tracks until you’re actually producing that resource.
EThere’s been some criticism of some art. Personally, I had no complaints, but some shabby art here or there would never affect my opinion of a game. If it was all bad, that might another story, but the game is by and large attractive, with clear symbology (and text on all the cards just in case).

Ultimately it all boils down to this: I adore this game. I am confident that Terraforming Mars is one of the best games I’ve ever played. I’m certain I’ll still be playing it years down the road, and I think you should play it too. The game will be releasing very soon, and I will be buying a copy…

…eventually. One of the shocking side effects of having children is a sudden lack of disposable income. cry
But if you have the money to spare, I can’t recommend this game highly enough.


P.S. Despite my best efforts, and thinking I was finally knowledgeable on a game before most other people, I still couldn't get a review in anywhere close to before the fantastic

Milena Guberinic
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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Go read her reviews. Everybody should just always be reading all of her reviews.
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Frank Hamrick
United States
Rocky Mount
North Carolina
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You definitely need to do more reviews! I seldom read reviews of a game I've already played a few times. But, from the beginning, your review drew me in and KEPT me in all the way to the end! Your writing style, and your thoughtful analysis were spot on - exceptional.

It didn't hurt that I have a high opinion of this game and see things much as you - though I have only played the basic game thus far, as I've always played it with first time players! (Lots of people want to learn it.)

I did find your emphasis on the Standard Projects. It was only towards the end of my second game that I began to see their true importance. They will receive higher consideration in my strategy/tactics in future games.

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Matt Tucker
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Great review! I'm excited to try it.
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noah caldwell
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California
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Great , great , great !!!!!!review !!! Please do more reviews ! It was fantastic . Leaving some geek gold !!
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Mark Hunter
Canada
Red Deer
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Fantastic review. Exceptional stuff!!

Could you possibly expand on your solo game experience as that, should I end up buying this one, will be the way I'll be playing.

Thanks
 
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Alex G
Canada
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I don't see how presence of Standard Projects protects from randomness. Sure, you aren't stuck with playing bad cards ... you just have to play expensive, inefficient projects while your opponent is playing amazing projects from his hand. You are still shafted.
 
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