Pixelated Cardboard Discord Learns: Terraforming Mars

By Chris / March 23, 2023
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A few regulars on our Pixelated Cardboard Discord Server (free! come join us!)  have taken on the task of working on their digital shelf of shame by learning new apps together.


The Shelf of Shame is not only a physical board game reality, it also very much exists in the digital tabletop world. See an app on sale for a good price, why now drop $3 on it, you'll eventually get around to learning it at some point, right? Much like physical games, the answer is often 'maybe.'

A few of our regular on the Pixelated Cardboard Discord server (link again) have decided to band together and clean some games off of their digital shelf of shame by learning them. While their individual lists may be different, they do include overlaps from time to time. In such cases, they have graciously decided to chronicle their experiences learning the game through the app and playing it for a bit. 

This is the first in our series about these digital tabletop learning adventures, and it is about none other than Terraforming Mars, one of the biggest games in the space. Thanks to Aaron Bolner and Pete McDonald for taking the time to answer some questions about their experience, see the full interview below.

What was your experience with this game, if any, before January 2023?

Absolutely none, physically or digitally. The overwhelming amount of my tabletop game time has a one hour time limit, so Terraforming Mars has never been an option.

Bar about 10 minutes playing through the tutorial when I first downloaded it in 2018, none. At that point in time the tutorial alone seemed too complicated for what I was looking for so I dropped it like a hot brick and moved on to something easier.
How long have you had this game in your backlog?

Nearly three years. I picked it up on its first major sale in the spring of 2020, but by that point in the year, my family was already deep into our 2020 goal of playing a tabletop game each night, in order to better use and curate our collection. Taking more time to learn something brand-new of this weight was never very appealing.

Yeah, as I said I guess nearly 5 years… I was looking for a turn based strategy game similar to the Civilization games for my phone - not a board game specifically - so I guess I thought Terraforming Mars might have an Alpha Centauri kind of vibe. Which in many ways it absolutely does. But it didn't click (in the slightly unfair 10 minute window I gave it to prove itself!)
How did you learn the rules of the game? If you used the in-app tutorial, did you feel it was an effective way to learn?

I used the tutorials in the app. They were largely very effective in teaching me the game, though this one is meaty enough that I didn't absorb all the rules right away. Had to get a couple of games in before I fully understood how some of the basics worked, partially due to the large amount of mechanics and partially because there are SO MANY CARDS in this game. I don't think I saw an effective energy card or microbe card in either of my first two plays.

The app tutorial for me as well. I tend to find reading rule books a pain - my eyes glaze over andmy brain switches off - and I'm definitely the kind of person who learns better with someone explaining the rules to me. So for me I consider an essential part of a good board game app.
The Terraforming Mars app is great. Four 'chapters' that don't patronize, explain important parts of the game succinctly and then leave the rest for the player to work out by playing out things to see what happens, or chatting with other players.
How many plays of the game were you able to complete?

Between ten and twenty, no thanks to a forced app update stopping our first attempt at an online game in its tracks. I played about five games vs. the AI, four games in solo mode, and a handful of online games against Pixelated Cardboard community members.

Hahaha, 1? Speaking before having completed our first multiplayer game which was cancelled after an update to the app… I managed to get through an AI game travelling back and forth on my commute to work which was not the ideal way of doing it I know because you lose that sense of immersion. But I tend not to have time to play a full game that takes around 40 minutes to play start to finish in the evenings. So playing that way loses something.

Playing asynch against real players I always find is enjoyable though because you can have the chat on Discord about turns, game progression and so it adds something. I'm not really sure of the psychology behind that really…
Is there a feature of the app you feel particularly strongly about?

Despite the online functionality having improved marginally since early reviews, I still found it pretty frustrating. Adding friends was not as simple as it should have been. I was the only person in my online games who had notifications for turns, so games were usually very slow. Several times, I got logged out of the online system for reasons that remain unclear. It all added up to an experience that pales in comparison to my more commonly used online multiplayer apps (Patchwork, Ascension, Shards of Infinity, Morels).

I think there's certainly a lot of features lacking in the app and I don't know if that's because it's older or because it's from Asmodee. Figuring out how to set up our first game took up the best part of an hour and that's time I'm not going to get back… I mean it's difficult. On the one hand I think the game itself is nicely presented and everything you need is there without too many menus which is always welcome.

But it's the quality of life, practical details such as a lack of undo button, the fact it's hard to press the 'Pass' and 'Skip' buttons on a phone screen, no Android notifications - all that bothered me fairly quickly. Logging in to take your turn only to press 'Pass' and then inform someone on Discord playing on Android it is their turn to log in and pass towards the end of a round (a 'Generation' in Terraforming Mars speak) is also a bit silly. Well, more than a bit silly, it's very poor design. The update I mentioned did nothing to rectify any of that, it seemed to be mainly cosmetic things like a card index which is nice I suppose but sightly pointless.
Do you think you will play this game more in the future, or are you going to set it aside?

I might play it here and there with the Pixelated Cardboard crew, but with online turn notifications not working for everyone, it's a real chore to get through a game. It feels especially slow when going a day between turns only to log in and see that all you can do is pass to the next round.

I kind of agree with Aaron here. I'm glad I've learnt the game and seen what the fuss is about. In many ways it is a great adaptation of a great game but I wouldn't say enough thought has been put into multiplayer. I think it probably is a great solo game - but I tend to have other games I prefer to play solo. There's a lot of other games I prefer to play online, but that if people really wanted to play I'd be up for it. Certainly it could be a case that it could grow on me more. But I don't have as much time as I used to to let things grow, which is unfortunate.
Did you enjoy it? If so, how long did it take you to enjoy it?

It took three plays to click with me. My first two plays, both against a single medium AI in the app, were both 10-generation greenery rushes that made me fear the game was always going to play out the same way. My third play was more interesting; I got a combination of energy cards going and the progression unfolded much differently.

Yes, I did enjoy it, probably more than I was expecting to in some ways. Space themes don't always do it for me without a healthy dose of humour (thinking here of Galaxy Trucker and The Captain Is Dead, both of which I love); and Terraforming Mars takes its subject matter very seriously.

But after the slow moving first few rounds I did find things a lot more interesting. Like a lot of Euro style games there's not a great deal of interaction but it can provoke discussion about the current state of play which is just as welcome for me. Yes, I think 'interesting' sums up how I felt about the game slightly more than 'enjoy' so make of that what you will!
Did the game function better for solo or multiplayer?

I definitely enjoyed it more in multiplayer. The solo mode sounds interesting in theory, and I've enjoyed similar time-limited solo modes in tabletop games such as Flip City, but so many of the cards are absolutely irrelevant to success in solo mode! The solo mode thus feels a bit tacked on because the deck isn't really built for it.

I only really had time for multiplayer. I bow to Aaron's expert judgement in this area. All I can say is I rarely enjoy Solo modules of games and would much prefer to play multiplayer against AI even if if the AI is mediocre.
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