Terraforming Mars: Cows in Space!

by Mr. Saint

I always get nervous writing about really popular games.  I sometimes think that if a game is popular enough, the public has made their decision and there is no point in voicing criticism of the game. So here it is: I like Terraforming Mars.  Quite a bit in fact.  But I also have a couple issues with it.  No sacred cows, here we go.


In Terraforming Mars, the Earth has become overpopulated and its natural resources have been mostly depleted.  The World Government has decreed that humanity must create a new home for themselves, and have created a Terraforming Committee to that end.  Players take control of megacorporations who have been invited to join this committee, and set their sights on turning the red planet into a blue and green one.

A game of Terraforming Mars is played over a series of rounds, and because terraforming is such a long process, each round represents the work of an entire generation.  To make Mars habitable for human life, there are three global parameters that must be increased: temperature, oxygen, and oceans.  You’ll have to raise the temperature of Mars from an average of minus thirty degrees to eight degrees celsius.  The nine ocean tiles represent the minimum amount of water Mars needs to stabilize its hydrological cycle and weather patterns (with each tile representing approximately 1% of Mars’ surface).  Finally, you’ll have to cultivate a breathable atmosphere, represented by increasing oxygen on Mars from 0% to 14% (a similar percentage to that found at some of Earth’s highest inhabited altitudes).  

A terraformed Mars, at the completion of one of our games.

Each round of Terraforming Mars is split into four phases: the Player Order phase, the Research phase, the Action phase, and the Production phase.  In the Player Order phase, the first player marker shifts one space to the left and the generation marker is moved up 1 step (from a gameplay perspective, tracking the generations is mostly relevant to Terraforming Mars’ solo mode, but it’s fun to see how many generations it took to completely terraform the planet).  

In the Research phase, each player is dealt four project cards from the deck.  Players have to choose which to keep, if any, by paying three MegaCredits (Terraforming Mars’ currency) per a card.  There is no hand limit, and any cards that a player does not wish to purchase are discarded face down.

The Action Phase occupies that majority of players’ time in the game.  In it, players take turns taking one or two actions each until all players have passed.  Actions can include things like playing a card from hand (paying its costs), using a standard project (such as placing a city on the game’s map), or claiming a milestone for endgame points.  Any time a player’s action increases a global parameter any number of steps, they gain an equal increase in their terraform rating (TR).  This is especially important to note, as TR not only forms the basis of your corporation’s income during the Production phase, but also converts into victory points on a 1-to-1 basis at the end of the game.  The Action phase ends when all players have passed.

Finally, the Production phase is performed simultaneously by all players.  All unused energy is converted to heat.  Then all players receive new resources based on their production (with the exception that players receive MegaCredits equal to their TR plus their MegaCredit production).  Any card actions that were used are refreshed.  Play then proceeds to the next generation, starting again with the Player Order phase.  

A player board after just completing the Production Phase.

A game of Terraforming Mars ends when all three global parameters have been maxed out.  When that occurs, players have one extra chance to convert any plants into greenery tiles, and then final scoring commences.  Players earn victory points for their TR, as well as one point for each greenery tile they control.  If they are the leading player for any funded awards, those are worth five points each (two points to the runner-up).  Any milestones a player claimed are also worth five points.  Each city a player controls is worth one VP for each greenery tile that surrounds it (yours or other players’).  Some cards are also worth VP at the end of the game.  The player with the most VP when Mars is fully terraformed is the winner!


I honestly didn’t expect to like Terraforming Mars as much as I do.  I tend to bounce off most economic resource management games.  It’s not that I can’t appreciate their cleverness or that the puzzle they present is something I don’t engage with.  But I’m a theme-first gamer.  Many of these types of games are set during the industrial revolution, or require engagement with the intricacies of agriculture, two themes that do very little for me.  And if the theme doesn’t resonate, it’s tough to see past the fact that the core gameplay loop of many of these games is spending resources to push cubes up a track, which gets you more resources, to push more cubes.

Divorced of its theme, Terraforming Mars very much falls into the above category of game.  Players use resources to play cards which moves them up tracks to get more resources and play more cards.  Here’s the thing though: Terraforming Mars’ theme is magic.  The game is infused with science and pseudoscience, really showcasing Jacob Fryxelius’s academic background.  

Thematic resonance is at the core of the Terraforming Mars experience.  The game’s design bleeds with attention to theme.  As an example, the different corporations players take control of push your engine in different directions based on their starting resources and abilities, and the direction you are pushed makes thematic sense.  If you’re the Mining Guild, you get to increase your steel production whenever you place a tile on an area with a steel or titanium placement bonus.  You know how best to get the most out of Mars’ natural resources, and will use that knowledge to support a huge infrastructure of construction projects across the planet.  Conversely, Interplanetary Cinematics (my personal favorite corporation, from a thematic standpoint), gets bonuses from playing one-shot events.  Ratings are dipping?  Lets slam another ice asteroid into the planet’s surface.  We need to keep things excited for the viewers back on Earth after all!

Interplanetary Cinematics and the Mining Guild Corporations.

This thematic resonance carries through to the project cards as well.  You didn’t just play a card that lets you convert one energy production to one TR per a turn, you built an equatorial magnetizer to stabilize Mars’ magnetic field!  Every card played tells a story, and much of my enjoyment of Terraforming Mars comes from watching the birdseye view narrative of the planet unfold over the generations.  Thank God we’ve reached 9% oxygen and can finally raise livestock!  I wonder which corporation sponsors the first Martian Mcdonalds?

And if Terraforming Mars’ theme is its alluring exterior facade, its interior is no less impressive.  While Terraforming Mars’ theme is what drew me in, now that I’ve spent some time with it, I readily admire the finely tuned card-driven engine builder that it is.  And keeping with the house construction analogy I’ve forced into this review, players begin with only the foundation provided by the corporation’s starting resources and abilities, but end the game with something altogether more impressive (especially true if playing the Corporate Era variant, which we recommend).  The blending of solid mechanics and commitment to theme allow Terraforming Mars to stand with the best in the engine building genre.

A player’s funded project cards part way through a game.

The only part of Terraforming Mars’ gameplay that feels like it could have used a bit more time in development is the small selection of “take that” cards.  Denoted by red borders around their icons, these cards often steal resources from other players or destroy their plants.  I think I understand why they exist: to attempt to curb a runaway leader and avoid the dreaded multiplayer solitaire label.  

Personally, I think multiplayer solitaire gets a bad rap.  Some nights, I just want to have an enjoyable time with friends, tinkering with my own puzzle while they do the same.  There are other games in my collection if I want a more head-to-head experience.  And even without these cards, Terraforming Mars would still have featured indirect player interaction in the form of placing tiles on the map, blocking other players from using those spaces.  If it’s good enough for most worker placement games, it could also have been enough here.  And there is even more indirect interaction if playing with the Drafting variant from the rulebook.

I’m not actually convinced that these cards are particularly successful at reigning in a runaway leader.  A large portion of each players’ final VP score is obfuscated by the way in which the rule book suggests stacking the project cards so that only their tags are visible (hiding which cards are worth VP and how much a given player has accumulated).  Because of this, it is not easy to determine who is actually in the lead and needs to be targeted.  And because the negative effects of these cards cannot be split, players in our games mostly felt compelled to “get full value” out of their card play, targeting the person who would be most impacted by the card, regardless of whether they were in the lead or not.

These cards also create a bit of a thematic disconnect for me.  Theme being one of Terraforming Mars’ biggest strengths, this is a bit unfortunate.  The presence of a unified World Government, as well as corporations like Teractor and the UNMI, strongly suggests that there are rules and regulations governing the terraforming process.  But you’re telling me a competing corporation can drop an asteroid on my newly planted forest with no repercussions?  Where are my project cards representing injunctions, direct damages, and other responsive legal remedies?  Maybe it’s just my legal background, but with how often giant corporations butt heads over even the smallest of legal matters in the present, I almost expected some sort of legal remedy to be a standard project for Terraforming Mars.

The hobby board game market is incredibly saturated, with thousands of new games released every year.  I think it is a testament to Terraforming Mars as a game that it has received so much attention in such a market with how lackluster the component quality of the game is.  And to Terraforming Mars’ credit, the choice to use black core cardstock is several steps above industry standard.  However, the MSRP of Terraforming Mars is $69.95.  At that price point, I’m expecting a bit more.  Dual layered player boards, a functional insert, component cubes that weren’t pre-chipped when we initially opened our copy.  Something to justify paying a premium price for Terraforming Mars

Resource cubes, pre-chipped for your convenience!

In the interest of transparency, we didn’t pay full retail price for Terraforming Mars.  And at the price we did pay, I’m very happy with our purchase.  So much so, that we have invested in player board upgrades and a couple of expansions (Prelude and Hellas and Elysium, review pending additional plays).  Terraforming Mars is a well balanced card driven engine builder with a compelling theme that it nails.  We definitely recommend it as a great midweight Euro.  Just, maybe try to get it on sale?  Trust me, you’re going to want an upgrade to those player boards. 

Check out more Terraforming Mars reviews and information at the below links:

Board Game Atlas or BoardGameGeek – See what everyone is saying and get the latest price information.

Jon Gets Games – Check out what Jon has to say about Terraforming Mars in his video review.

Stronghold Games – If you are interested in Terraforming Mars, check out the publisher’s website to see what other great games they’ve made.

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