Last weekend I finally got to play a four player game of Terraforming Mars. All I knew about the game before diving into it was that there was lots of cubes and a big hex map of Mars. How did it play? What did I think? Should humans bring puppies to Mars? Read more to find out!
Terraforming Mars has each player choose one corporation out of two and a huge hand of cards right from the start. This already drew me into the game because Race for the Galaxy is my number one favorite game of all time and I love hand management. Each starting corporation gives a variable player bonus, some setup resources and adds some theme to the game. Trying to match the corporation to the starting hand of cards is likely key to being successful at building infrastructure in the early stages, but after playing the game out, players see that the corporation abilities have only a small effect on the game.
(As an example, my corporation was Interplanetary Cinematics! Making movies on Mars? Why not?)
After setup the game is mostly hand management with actions being taken one at a time until somebody passes. Tiles are played on a hex map of Mars to gain end game points and effect three end game triggers. Collectively the players are trying to raise the temperature of Mars, add oxygen to the air and create oceans. Player interaction is fairly low. Mostly players need to pay attention to other people’s actions because they will trigger effects on cards in their tableau.
Victory is gained in a variety of ways, which is known as a point salad. Players gain points on some cards in their tableau, other cards require specific actions to slowly grow points. I personally went with an animal strategy. I got out a card called pets very early and every city played gave me points as I sent a steady stream of puppies to each player (and filmed tons of cute puppies on Mars videos obviously!). Other points are gained for greenery and city tiles and satisfying conditions that will change every game.
While Terraforming Mars doesn’t provide any new mechanics to the board game world, it does offer a fairly intricate refinement of existing mechanics. My favorite mechanic in the game was drawing a bunch of cards and then having to decide which ones to keep as each card kept cost money. The reminded me a bit of the hand management in Race for the Galaxy. Players have to plan carefully for their turn, making sure in advance that they have enough money to keep and play the cards they need.
The tableau and engine building in this game is also very well done. Symbols on cards are called tags, which may trigger card effects or be used as prerequisites to play cards. Some players may find all the card effects and triggers finicky and hard to remember. I personally love the challenge of remembering card triggers and years of playing competitive cards games has trained me to do this well.
Another interesting aspect of the game’s design is that some cards can only be played when a certain global mark is reached on the three tracks of water, air and temperature. This requires players to hold onto these cards until those marks are reached. I held on to an animal that could only survive once Mars was warmer and this caused a fun tension and anticipation in the game.
Also the variable victory conditions that effect each player have to be unlocked by a player during the game. This is a good mechanic because it forces players to decide if they are leading in that condition and if it is worth the risk to unlock the condition.
I enjoyed my first play of Terraforming Mars and look forward to playing it again. There are tons of cards to explore and many combo, chain-reaction paths to victory. I loved the hand management and planning involved in the game. It is a great game for players who like to build an engine and see the engine run.
With all the evolved tableaus that opponents build, I found I lost track of what people where doing half-way through the game. All I worried about were my specific game triggers (ex. getting a pet cube every time a city was built). This may be less of a problem in a three player game, and it only detracted some what from the game experience as a whole.
Also, a small complaint on the theme. The game is very focused on science. It kinda felt like Matt Damon saying “I am going to science the shit out of this.” on steroids. I am sure some players will love this. I personally would have liked to see more cards focused on building up a culture on Mars. What kind of art would be produced? Would people create a new sport to fit the hostile environment?