Terraforming Mars Review - A New World, But Maybe I'll Just Visit On Occasion

Uh oh! I'm going to need my Fortress of Solitude again aren't I? Any time you review a game that's generated more hype than the 2nd coming of Jesus, you need your defenses set up. And that's even if you give it a 9 out of 10 rating. Anything less than perfect is seen as bad in the eyes of the internet, remember all the controversy from fanboys of Mad Max Fury Road? You even so much as point out one flaw in that movie and suddenly in your rear view mirror there's a horde of sand buggies chasing you.

This Euro generated a ton of hype, we're talking near the levels of Scythe here. And I agree with Tom Vasel that "hype" is a huge enemy of gaming. People go nuts over an upcoming release, which then results in wars breaking out over whether it met the hype or not. A friendly debate back and forth is fine, but I've seen things you wouldn't believe on social media and BGG. On paper it sounded pretty good though. Drafting, multiple paths to victory and theme (I'll be the judge of that), all decent parts I like in games.

Now even Scythe despite just hitting my Top Ten of all time, doesn't meet the hype it generated, no game ever can. So even if Terraforming Mars gets a 10 from me, it won't have met the hype.
So retract the drawbridge, raise shields and inform all plumbers in advance that the princess is in another castle, this is Terraforming Mars: The Review.


Designer: Jacob Fryxelius
Publisher: Stronghold Games
Age: 12+
Players: 1-5
Time: 150-210 Minutes
RRP: £59.99


From Board Game Geek

In the 2400s, mankind begins to terraform the planet Mars. Giant corporations, sponsored by the World Government on Earth, initiate huge projects to raise the temperature, the oxygen level, and the ocean coverage until the environment is habitable. In Terraforming Mars, you play one of those corporations and work together in the terraforming process, but compete for getting victory points that are awarded not only for your contribution to the terraforming, but also for advancing human infrastructure throughout the solar system, and doing other commendable things.



NASA'S BUDGET CUTS


This is a common complaint by many so I'm sure I'm not in a minority here, but it has to be said, the component quality is pretty subpar and the artwork varies between average drawings and random stock photos of anything from passing comets to the designers dog. The cubes, as neat an idea as it is to use a universal tracking system for resources, aren't that durable as I'm seeing dents/scratches everywhere and it creates one of the most frustrating player board situations I've encountered. You're tracking a lot on your board on these very small spaces, barely large enough to accomodate everything and one slight nudge of the table or brush of your sleeve and suddenly your income stream becomes a game of "Bluff".

The board itself is the best part though - nothing especially great, but it's clean and easy to read including all the milestones and goals and the basic action table (which you might as well cover with a sheet of paper as you'll practically never use it). Why the artwork on here couldn't have been done for the cards as well though?

Now using stock photos and low quality cards/cubes wouldn't be a problem if the price justified it. But copies of Terraforming Mars are selling for £60 plus. I mentioned Scythe before and look at what you get in that box for the same price. Players have solved the player board issue with 3rd party plastic tray accessories, but they fetch about £10 a piece. So die-hard fans who aren't versed in arts and craft are forking out £110 to bring this up to scratch. Even at base retail value though, I would have hoped for more.

It's not all bad though. Despite the stock photos, I was impressed with the graphic design used in Terraforming Mars. The board is pretty clear on what's what and each card not only has the iconography, which is pretty intuitive already, but also the text explanation of what the card does. Anyone used to Euro's with card abilities should have no trouble picking up the basics of this game or understanding the general jist of a new card discovered during play. And despite this, the cards don't seem cluttered. I didn't find myself having to check the rules much during the first play, which is quite an achievement.



PICK YOUR SCIENCE DIVISION


Terraforming Mars's strongest aspect is the variety in the strategies you can go for. I'm not entirely convinced some aren't better than others (tip: don't focus on comets and meteor's, it won't go well), but you do have a nice mix of styles whether it involves focusing on cards or more on the board itself. The cards themselves are also all unique so you'll never see the same card appear on someone else's tableau once you've taken it. Now again, balance is questionable, but with this many cards, you kinda have to expect that.

I do wish though that maybe there were some more endgame goals. There's only 5 available and that can't cover every type of symbol/resource in the game so you either pigeon hole yourself into going for them or ignore them completely.

The theme is actually interwoven better than I expected. The cards themselves mostly relate to actual scientific methods in the field of terraforming and colonisation whether from real life or pesudo-sci-fi. As the temperature and oxygen level rises, other cards become available and it's cool to watch the planet take shape as you go along.

Now good for some, bad for others (including myself), Terraforming Mars doesn't hold you by the hand. You're basically thrown in the deep end and forced to figure out how to use those cards right and it will not come immediately to you. So anyone who's played before is going to have a significant advantage. There is also no real catch up mechanism in the game either. So if you're falling behind by the half way point, you're going to be staying that way as it does feel very much like a "rich get richer" system - there's very few opportunities in the game to get in the way of the leaders without usually slowing yourself down in the process. Many like that kind of setup, but I prefer there to be some glimmer of hope for the losing players.



TOO LONG TO DRAFT?


You can play Terraforming Mars in two ways. Use basic corporations that are all generic and be dealt your cards without drafting each round, or use one of the special corporation powers and draft cards. Even if you are learning the game, using the basic version is completely the wrong way to do this. For starters, unique player powers and drafting are just more fun in general than being generic.

But there's also the luck factor to consider. Terraforming Mars hinges on the variety of cards and being able to use those cards to carry on your strategy. If you are simply dealt them, then the whole game becomes a luck-fest of who got the best hand. Drafting those cards mitigates that luck, however unfortunately it doesn't eliminate it. Drafting in games always carries an inherent element of luck because even though you are picking cards and choosing what to pass on, the initial distribution of those cards is still based on luck of the draw. If you get dealt or are passed cards you can use, you're in a much better situation and with new players you almost have a Puerto Rico scenario where sitting after the new player is really advantageous because they won't know what cards to not pass over. Some cards can even generate VP's over the course of the game and grabbing one of those will really help if you're fortunate enough to see them.

Now drafting luck is no new thing and even the likes of 7 Wonders, Sushi Go, Among the Stars, Best Treehouse Ever, etc. have the same thing. But here's the catch. Those games are short. We're talking less than an hour for all but Among the Stars and even that is usually capped at 90 minutes without AP players. Terraforming Mars has regularly taken anywhere between 2.5 hours and 3.5 hours to finish a game whether I'm in it or just from observations. It can even take longer, but yes I know some 2-3 player games can do it in 2 hours, but you need to be fast and know the game inside and out. That's already a bit too long for me normally, but when factoring in the luck from drafting combined with the punishing lack of a catch up mechanism, that's too much for me.

I feel this game would have been better capped at 90 minutes at most and if it took less time to meet the end-game conditions that would be probably be easily achievable. It seems to take forever for the planet to heat up and become breathable despite the fact that it begins to steamroll more near the end. But after 60-90 minutes the repetition of "draft 4 cards, pick them, play them, collect income" sets in and you realise that you're doing this A LOT over the course of 3 plus hours assuming you're not in downtime mode waiting for 3-4 other players to do their actions. I don't know why it's so hard these days for games to be capped at a certain length.

But if you do want a shorter experience, you can always try the Solo mode which is actually fairly enjoyable. You get to do something different each time, it doesn't take quite as insanely long as the main game (though it's not a short affair by any means) and you get rid of any downtime.





VERDICT ON TERRAFORMING MARS



It's madness that I can't say this without sitting inside a sealed fortress, but I'm afraid I was very disappointed with Terraforming Mars given all the hype it's received. It has a lot of ingredients I normally crave - drafting, good variety of options and a decent, if not exactly dripping, amount of theme. But a few aspects miss the mark for me. For the price tag, I expected a lot better in component quality. The board is probably the best looking thing in it and even then it's not amazing. But a mix of art/stock photos, thin cards, easily dented cubes and player boards designed to destroy games from a gentle nudge doesn't scream value for money. That being said, the graphic design is really good and makes learning the cards a lot easier to cope with.

It's also very long and gets repetitive as you're basically rinsing and repeating for 3 hours plus. Combined with the inherent luck factor from drafting cards, despite a degree of mitigation if no-one is new to the game, it overstays its welcome and would have been much better suited to a 90 minute time frame. I will never touch this game with more than 3 players again just from downtime alone between turns. But there is a good amount of variety here in strategies and the theme is fairly strong. If you don't mind the lack of a catch up mechanism, i.e. punishing games, then there's something good to find here.

I commend the concept and can see the appeal for many, but this will go down as one of my biggest disappointments and a poster child for why "hype" is a ferocious enemy of gaming.




BROKEN RATING - 6 DEGREES TOO COLD FOR MY HOT TUB





YOU WILL LIKE TERRAFORMING MARS IF:


You enjoy drafting - playing this game without that rule is just madness.


You enjoy having a variety of paths to explore.


You like punishing games.



YOU WILL NOT LIKE TERRAFORMING MARS IF:


You want a short Euro experience - for most people it's around 3 plus hours.


You feel the luck factor is a little too high for the time length invested.


You hate the lacklustre component quality and aren't buying the plastic trays.


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