I recently celebrated my birthday, and as part of that celebration I knew I wanted to do something fun with my friends. I found myself inspired by Orphan Black, which we’ve been watching on TV night, and the board gaming theme that’s been prevalent in the last couple of seasons. Nerding out on at least one new game sounded awesome. I reserved a room at a gaming cafe, got some buddies together, and had a fantastic time.
The game I ended up playing with four of my friends was Terraforming Mars. Designed by Swedish game designer Jacob Fryxelius (could that guy have been anything besides a game designer or geek scientist with that name?), Terraforming Mars is inspired by the Mars trilogy written by Kim Stanley Robinson, a series that I greatly enjoy. As such, each player controls a corporation and uses various methods to heat up, oxygenate, and create a hydrological cycle on the red planet over many generations (game rounds) until all objectives are met. Below are my thoughts on our playthrough, and here’s your warning about:
Mars has fascinated me since I was a kid – I’ll gobble up anything having to do with it. Lately there’s been an embarrassment of riches in entertainment with The Martian and The Expanse. I knew that Terraforming Mars was based on the Mars Trilogy so I was excited to see what they did with it, and I wasn’t disappointed. The artwork and cards evoke a lot of the themes and unique technology of the novels. The map looks great and it was fun to see the planet evolve over time with water, forest, and city hex tiles. The tutorial examples in the rule book even include players named Kim, Stanley, and Robinson. 🙂
I also enjoyed the majority of the gameplay once we got going. Terraforming Mars at its core is a resource management game, but with its own unique spin. While every player has their own individual production board, many of the actions you can take affect the other players, with both cooperative and competitive options available. We laughed when one of us crashed a radioactive asteroid right next to another player’s city, and we commiserated when we ran out of ocean tiles. After all, everyone is trying to make Mars livable – it just depends how many victory points you earn on the way there.
Full disclosure: I intentionally didn’t preview the rules of the game because I didn’t want to have any advantage over my friends when we all played it for the first time. All I did was watch a short how to play video which made Terraforming Mars seem like it wouldn’t be too hard to get into. This was a mistake. All of us are veterans of many board games, yet even with multiple copies of the rules in front of us on our phones it took us over an hour to start playing our first few tentative rounds. It’s not even that the rules were that complicated – they were just really, really badly organized. Important information about actions and game progression was sometimes spread across multiple pages and sometimes could only be found in one throwaway sentence in an unexpected location. All of the symbols in the rule book and on the action cards made me feel like I was reading a novel written by IKEA.
I’m sure we made numerous mistakes we still don’t know about, but I realized one minor one during the game (how we were treating the conversion of steel and titanium into money) and one major one afterwards. We read the rules as stating that each round of player turns was a completed generation as soon as we’d all completed 1 or 2 actions. In actuality, each player is supposed to have an unlimited number of actions each generation, taking 1 or 2 actions at a time, until they choose to pass. This mistake is described on boardgamegeek.com by the game designer himself as one of the most “common rules confusions” and yet it hasn’t been clarified in the most recent printing of the game or distributed as an official errata sheet.
The other gameplay issue I had with Terraforming Mars was that the “Beginner Corporation” was too vanilla to actually help me as a beginner. I felt that with my poor draw of initial cards that at least one of the unique corporations would have given me some semblance of a strategy to start with. Instead I was left feeling like I had no good initial actions and that I had to play catch up for the remainder of the game.
I found myself wanting to play Terraforming Mars again, but I also felt like I wouldn’t actually purchase the game unless a few improvements are made beyond a rule book overhaul. Player resource tokens looked nice but could have been made out of actual metal or at least some heavier plastic so that they didn’t move around the player production boards with any slight table jostle. The production boards also could have been printed on better material – they weren’t paper thin but they were flimsy enough that I’d be concerned about them lasting through dozens of plays. An expansion has been announced that will at the very least introduce two new maps, but it won’t improve the overall production quality the way a 2nd edition of the game could. Make those changes and I’ll get right in line.
Have you played Terraforming Mars? Let me know what you think about it!