Best Game of 2016: Terraforming Mars Review

Gotta tell you, I’ve been excited to write this one for a while now, because of all the dozens of titles we’ve played recently, this one is the best.

Terraforming Mars has a strong theme, sound mechanics, great components and it just pulls off what it’s trying to do as well as any game I’ve seen in a while.  It’s steeped in science and near-term science fiction technology like building a Space Elevator or creating a Protected Valley.  This one has high do-something-ability for me, as I’ve found few board game constructs more fun than terraforming a planet with cities, forests, oceans and more.

Overall Feeling

Terraforming Mars puts you right on the surface of a cold, bleak, oxygen-starved planet and lets you heat, enrich it and shape it as yours — well, yours and the other players, that is.  You each control competing corporations in the 25th century, but this isn’t Buck Rodgers with star fighters and genetically engineered humans, you’re going to use near-term technology to heat the planet and fill the atmosphere with oxygen.  As the planet heats and the atmosphere enriches, you populate the surface with plants, animals and fungus.  So you’re looking at these cards in your hand and you have a chance to put down animals and there’s enough oxygen in the air but it’s still too cold.  So you put down some plants instead, but you’re like, hey guys, can we turn up the heat on this planet so I can put down these cows?

In short, if the concept of near-term settlement of Mars is interesting to you, this game is great.

Setup Highlights

Mostly, you’re just going to open a nice, large but not gigantic, board of Mars broken into hexagons.  You will have to deal with the annoying, 200-card deck but the rest of the setup is fairly quick and easy.


Interesting Mechanics and Game Play

Most of the mechanics are fairly straightforward but the most interesting part is the interaction of the temperature and oxygen level, and how their progression determines which cards you can play.  You start at -30C average planetary temperature, 0% oxygen in the atmosphere, and no oceans, cities or forests.  The game ends when you reach +8C average temperature (Earth is +14C), Oxygen level is 14% (earth is 21%) and there are 9 oceans.

 

Each player controls a separate corporation, each with its own special ability, for example Thorgate specializes in energy while Ecoline specializes in plants.  You start each turn drawing, keeping, and paying for cards.  Then you take your actions, which consists of putting down cards by paying their cost, or taking actions based on cards you already have down in your tableau.  All of this is done in a pretty typical fashion, with money plus 5 other resources you can gather and use to either pay for cards, to place forests on the planet, or to raise the temperature.  In that sense, this game is fairly simple, there aren’t a lot of different game phases you need to play through or learn about, there’s really just getting cards and playing them.

There are mountains you can terraform to gain minerals and/or cards, but mostly, you’re going to be drawing cards, paying to keep the ones you want, then paying for them again to play them.  Early on, it’s too cold and oxygen-deprived for animals and most plants, but fungus and some plants like Arctic Algae get a foothold on the planet and get you going.  You’ll put down Search for Life robots, create Hidden Valleys and pop up new Immigrant Cities, all to advance your corporation’s agenda.  Then when the temperate raises, the oxygen level increases, and oceans start to form, you can put more and more cards down.  By then, your strategy has taken hold and you’re getting really good at doing the things you’ve invested in doing.  Then you finish up the game by funding the awards that you think you’ll win, and investing in cards that give you the most points.

Theme and Components

It’s as good as it gets and where the game stands out.  The board is very nice, the resource components are metal with a nice feel to them, and the card art is outstanding.  Furthermore, the game is steeped in science, and all the things you can do are near-term and science-based enough that you can imagine them, but still far enough out to be science fiction.  They really struck the right chord with this one, for me.

 
Do-Something-Ability

This is the standard we go by from now on.  You take a hostile, barren, cold, deprived planet and when you’re done, it’s warm, oxygen-rich and populated with oceans, forests, cities, plants, animals, fungus, buildings, and more!  You get it ready for a future population to settle in and produce in a future game.  Whether I won or lost, we definitely did something this game.  I only regret not having a picture to show the finished product, but I’ll get it for you.  Oh wait, here it is.

Replay Ability

Because there are 200 cards in the deck and endless combinations, every game is going to be different.  At the same time, Mars is Mars and it never changes, and there are a limited number of corporate entities to control so at some point, you’ve controlled them all.  Furthermore, even with 200 cards, the big plays and combinations persist, it’s just a matter of which particular one(s) come out in the game you’re playing.  Finally, unlike most games that Geektopia prefers, this one takes a couple of hours to complete, even with experienced players, so we’re not likely to play multiple games in a night, unlike, say, Epic Duels or Glory to Rome.  We’ll play it again and again because it’s good and fun, but this isn’t the kind of game that I see us playing several times in a marathon session, much as I love it.

Verdict

For my own taste, liking theme and do-something-ability, Terraforming Mars is the best game I’ve played from 2016 and one of the best I’ve played in years.  It reminds me of when we first got into Eclipse back in the day or even Last Night on Earth the year before that which is to say, I can’t get enough.  I want to play it again and again.  It’s on back order right now, but I will eventually get it and play it solo.

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