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Subject: An erstwhile astronomer's review of Terraforming Mars rss

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Alex Treacher
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Whenever I’ve done a review in the past it’s tended to be quite a while after the release of any given game, however I’ve an urge to break with tradition on this one. Let's jump on the bandwagon...

I read about the upcoming release of Terraforming Mars about six months or so ago, and after reading more about it, it became one of those rare things for me; a game that I wanted to buy without seeing it ‘in the flesh’ or trying it out first. The theme, the concept and the amount of research into the science behind the theory of terraforming sold me on it. In my youth, I was a very keen and active astronomer, and although I’m nowhere near as active now it’s a field that I still am fascinated by and keep moderately up to date with. So when I learned about this and read the early releases of the rules; a game that was about terraforming that clearly had a lot of thought put into the theme to try to accurately incorporate the theoretical science of terraforming, it’s no wonder that I was excited to see it.

So, the big question: What’s it like?

Well, it’s like Suburbia. But on Mars. With science, and with asteroids sometimes dropping out of the sky.

OK, that’s the glib answer, but still useful enough that it’s how I explain it to friends to give them a bit of an initial feel for it. Of course, it does a lot of things different to Suburbia, but I do feel that little undercurrent of similarity throughout the game.

At its heart, Terraforming Mars is an engine-building game where you (representing a big corporation) are taking part in the long process of terraforming Mars, with your aim to have made the biggest contributions to the cause by the time that the thresholds for viable human habitation have been reached (and thus getting the biggest slice of that lucrative Martian pie!). In the basic (i.e. beginner’s) game all corporations are identical, but in the extended game each player chooses (from two randomly dealt) their unique corporation, each with different starting stats and a specific ability. The game ends when all three global parameters have reached the top of their scales (surface temperature, ocean coverage and atmospheric oxygen); increasing any of these grants VPs to the player that did so, and sometimes other bonuses, as well as pushing the game clock forward.

The resources that you have to juggle are, of course, very pertinent to the theme; cash income (M€ in this game), steel and titanium production, plant life, energy and heat. Each player has their own player board on which is recorded their stocks of these resources and their production levels.

Each generation (terraforming is a slow process, each round is a generation) every player takes their actions to play cards, place tiles on the map or take other actions. Interestingly, unlike most other games of this type, the number of actions one can take is not arbitrarily limited; play passes around the table with each player taking one or two actions (their choice), going around until everyone has decided to pass (often as they’ve used up all their available cash or resources or playable cards).

The tiles on the map represent bodies of water (their locations restricted, accurately, to the lowest lying areas of the Martian surface), greenery tiles, city tiles and some special tiles that result from specific cards being played.

There’s a big deck of cards in this game, and they’re really important. Each represents a project that will – in some way – aid in a player’s quest to terraform the red planet. Some increase production, some give resources as a ‘one off’, some award VPs, and many have unique actions or effects (the ‘blue cards’). Actions and effects work differently; effects are always applied (a discount, a rebate or bonus for example) while actions are more powerful unique abilities which may be used only once per generation.

New cards are drawn each generation; each player receives four cards from the deck and must pay (3M€ each) to keep the ones that they want. These cards are then played later during the action phases, and cost cash or resources to play. The effects of most of them are a positive influence on the player placing the card; several however will affect other players – dropping an asteroid onto the planet’s surface will certainly raise the temperature for example, but should it ‘accidentally’ land on another player’s plants then their greenhouse is going to need more than a bit of duct tape to get it back into good shape!

At the end of the game VPs are scored for each players’ base level of Terraforming Rating, plus points they’ve claimed for claiming awards and milestones, the various tiles they’ve placed on the map and for the VP cards that they’ve played (which could be just a basic 1 or 2VP, or 1 VP per type of card, or for a few special card-specific resources like animals).



Component quality
This seems to be dividing opinions, from the comments I’ve seen on here. The board is well made, and well laid out. The plastic cubes for the player markers are fine. The shiny gold, silver and bronze resource markers aren’t so good. Metallic plating doesn’t stick well to plastic and after a very few games some of the cubes are wearing and the colour is coming off.

The player mats are clearly laid out. Some comments I’ve seen complain they’re too thin, although I don’t agree. It’s a bit of cardboard in front of you for pushing cubes around on; it doesn’t need to be thick cardboard.

The cards feel a touch thin, but not so thin that it’s a problem. I imagine a lot of people will be sleeving the cards, although I won’t be.

Most of the artwork is very good and atmospheric. A few cards have photographs instead of art which I suspect are probably the result of ‘inside jokes’ and feature the designer and friends.


Rulebook
This is a bit of a disappointment. It’s mostly very good, except where it manages to be very poor, and those parts manage to be very annoying. Some of the phrasing is ambiguous (this may have been a result of translation) and the layout of the book isn’t as clear as it could be. The information for the various confusions we’ve had are mostly in the rulebook. Somewhere. Finding them and interpreting them was just harder than it needed to be. Had the book had a proofreading and editing, it could have been very good.


Ease of learning
Mostly very easy. My partner felt a player aid would have helped her remember which actions triggered which effects. The files section on BGG has a variety of these, but it would have been nice to include one or two in the box for new players.


Luck-to-skill ratio
I’m not quite sure yet about this. While I was initially concerned that the luck of the cards you draw each turn could have a big impact on your game, the games we’ve played so far haven’t really demonstrated this as a problem. You start the game with your choice of cards from a starting deal of ten (though you still have to pay 3M€ each), and you don’t have to buy any of the cards you draw each turn should you not want to. There is no hand limit so it is easy to retain cards for mid- or late-game strategies. There are ways to obtain extra project cards; several blue cards give this ability in different ways.

The rulebook includes a ‘drafting variant’ which may reduce the luck factor at the cost of slowing down the game. We haven’t tried this yet.


Theme integration
One of the most thematically integrated games that I’ve played. You can see the point in everything that you do; it all makes intuitive sense. Some games suffer from actions where you get a game effect from doing something, but can’t really figure out why or how. That certainly isn’t happening here.


Screwage factor
This isn’t a huge part of the game, but certainly is a part that can’t be overlooked. The most desirable areas on the Mars map can fill quite quickly and placing your tile to your benefit while inconveniencing your opponent is important. The cards that directly affect other players' resources or their production ability can be very painful when played at the right time; a stockpile of eight plant cubes is needed to convert into a greenery tile on the map, so destroying the plants of a player about to ‘spend’ them in this way is highly effective and will cost them VPs.


Replayability
Too early to tell yet. The deck includes a sub-set of cards referred to as Corporate Era cards. These mainly affect player’s economies rather than the actual ‘nuts and bolts’ actions needed to terraform the planet. We included these in the game after our first learning game. Such a large deck means that one needs to be adaptable and opportunistic while pursuing an overall strategy.



Conclusion
I like it. A lot. But you’d already guessed that hadn’t you?

While the rulebook does let it down, it’s a very good and very fun game. The fact that it’s a subject that I’m enthusiastic about obviously makes me prone to being well disposed towards it, yet at the same time I’m going to be more critical about it should it have dreadful flaws. It works, and playing it feels like it’s about terraforming the red planet, and not just another game where you build an economy or resource engine.

The rulebook needs improving (and as a proofreader, I really wouldn’t mind the task of doing so!) and I have concern about the longevity of the plated plastic cubes. The game itself is excellent, and lived up to the hopes I had when I first learned about it.
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Jonathan Fryxelius
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Thank you for the review! The game comes with a few sets of player aids in the form of cards, maybe you didn't notice?
If you're still into the astronomy part, there are some nice details to discover. I hope you'll continue to enjoy the theme after many many plays. Cheers!
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Alex Treacher
United Kingdom
Moorlinch
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Very welcome, Jonathan, and thank you for putting out such an enjoyable game,

Yes, we have the player aid cards. I am fine with them, but my partner would have preferred a more conventional player aid; perhaps an A5 card with the main core of the rules and some graphics that relate to them. An extra component of course to have printed and thus would have needed factoring into the cost!

Should you consider updating the rulebook for a re-release, don't hesitate to drop me a line if I can assist with proofreading!
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Jack
United States
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Nice review. Looking forward to getting this to the table tonight!
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Dennis Ku
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I'm surprised there is so much disappointment over the rulebook. I often can't learn a game to save my life from rulebooks, but I got it fairly easily. Maybe I'm playing some things wrong and don't know it!
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Ken Chaney

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futhee wrote:
I'm surprised there is so much disappointment over the rulebook. I often can't learn a game to save my life from rulebooks, but I got it fairly easily. Maybe I'm playing some things wrong and don't know it!


I really enjoyed the rule book (and for the most part interpreted it correctly) ... but there are many different learning styles, experiences, and biases in people's minds so we all see through different lenses.

It is impossible to stylize for all different flavors of learning at once. The style used seems targeted for "reasonable" people. Some people (not that they are unreasonable) look for exceptions and tiny nuance that can be taken advantage of, etc. Other games are built on that nuance or rely on very careful wording to allow correct interpretation in highly varied circumstances.

Far in the past, most game rules were written in the former style. In the wayback time we'd get a game, and the rules were clear enough. With the rise of technology, more people are thinking with more formal logical biases, which leads to more issues with things not being specifically prohibited and ordinary phrases being taken to mean things they were not intended to mean.

Perhaps a joke illustrates this - not the best joke but it makes the point:
A logician/computer scientist/whatever is going to the market. His wife says "get a gallon of milk, and if they have eggs, get a dozen." He soon returns from the store with 12 gallons of milk.
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Jack
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And with any game, there has to be the expectation that there will be a few mistakes made, no matter how clear the rules...or the stellar 3rd party game aids. CHEAP PLUG!
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