You deserve better, Terraforming Mars.
Terraforming Mars is an engine building game from Asmodee Digital, with the physical game published by Stronghold Games. The game features a mixture of mechanics from tile placement to card drafting, engine building, and set collection, among others. Players each take control over a corporation attempting to help make Mars habitable over the course of hundreds of years. Players must earn their own points along the way while also pushing towards the overall goal of meeting habitability requirements. Once all three of these requirements are met, the game ends and the player with the most points wins. This typically takes about 40 minutes, but that will vary by player count.
The game begins with each player selecting a corporation. There are a variety to choose from and they each have different abilities and starting conditions. Some will provide more or less currency, with corresponding benefits (or lack thereof) to balance things out, they also have their own special effect. There is a Beginner Corporation which keeps things simple by setting you up with a decent stack of currency and a full hand of cards.
Once corporations are chosen, play begins. Each turn allows players two actions. The primary actions include playing a card from their hand, choosing from one of a handful of constant Standard Project actions, or trading resources for some effect. Other actions include purchasing Milestones or Awards which will reward players with VP at the end of the game. Most actions come at a cost, each card has a cost associated with it while the Standard Projects all have fixed costs. Building a city, for example, costs 25 while calling in an asteroid costs 14. Players make take as many turns as they want/are able to in a generation. A generation ends once all players have decided to stop taking actions.
The game pushes players in two directions. Each player must attempt to gain as many VP as possible, which is done in a variety of ways. At the same time, the players will be working towards terraforming the planet by increasing three global attributes: Oxygen level, temperature, and the number of oceans on the planet. The game continues until each of these three values hit their specified levels, at which point that generation ends and final scoring takes place. Raising these levels provides some benefit to the player doing so, but it also acts as a bit of a race element where a frontrunner might be able to push the game closer to ending than other players would prefer.
There are six resources in the game and each has a production rating which you can increase to produce more for you at the end of each generation. Each resource has its own use. One will allow you to trade them for a greenery tile, for example. Others are used to reduce the cost of playing certain cards, and so on.
That’s a rough overview. For how much there is going on, the basics of Terraforming Mars are surprisingly simple. You get two actions per turn, and there are only a few distinct types of actions you can take. You work towards building your engine so you can produce more currency and other resources so you can do more, better things as the game progresses. You also work towards the global terraforming goals which provide you VP and therefore increased currency production.
I’ve probably not made it clear enough thus far, so let me spell it out directly; Terraforming Mars is a card-driven game. During the research phase at the beginning of each generation you purchase cards into your hand and then must pay their cost to play them later. These cards will drive your production levels and other actions. The Standard Projects are the other primary way to take actions, but those take a backseat to the cards you are able to play. At the end of the game you will find yourself having played an outrageous number of cards which lead to your success or failure in becoming the most powerful corporation on Mars.
Terraforming Mars is very much open-ended. Making players purchase cards so that they can later purchase the right to play them ensures that everything a player does is in their own hands. This gives new players an overwhelming sense of dread trying to figure out what a decent strategy might be, and gives experienced players a lot to look forward to from one game to the next. The game comes off surprisingly tactical for such a long affair, as you will likely need to change directions based on available cards a few times along the way.
Once things start to click into place, you can see why the game is so beloved. It has a fun theme, some cool mechanics, a huge amount of replay variety with the massive card count, the open-endedness of the whole thing leaves players feeling completely in control of their destinies. It simply *feels* like what a capital ‘B’ Big Game should.
Barrier to Entry
Terraforming Mars is a difficult game to teach not because of complex rules, but because of complex strategies. The basic rules can be explained quickly, at least relative to the weight of the game. The tough part isn’t explaining how to play a card, it’s trying to convey why you would play Card A over Card B at a given point. There is a fair amount of minutiae along the way that needs to be explained, but the basics are fairly straightforward.
The game contains a series of tutorials and a text set of rules which are indexed so you can skip around as you’d like. There are five tutorials, each of which takes a few minutes and walks through a basic aspect of the game. From the standard projects to the project cards to the scoring, and so on. The tutorials are well done, but the complexity of how to know when to use various cards or actions is something that really can’t be taught in a tutorial situation. The game needs to be played to get a feel for these aspects. The tutorials here are good, and the added text reference is a great touch, but if you haven’t played the physical game, you will certainly be scratching your head a bit the first time you start a game.
Reading the rules
Choosing a corporation
Early in the game, Mars not Terraformed.
Look and Feel
Control-wise, the first notable issues is the lack of undo button. Developers: always give players an undo button, thanks. All actions are done via clicks, no drag-and-drops here, and it all works well. You can generally zoom in on anything with a click. One related minor annoyance is trying to read all of the text on a particular card. The UI will cut off the text after a certain length and you have to find a small “info” icon to press, this brings up a rather crude text visual explaining the card. It works, but it’s a bit awkward.
Visually, the app looks good but is quite cramped even on large phones. There is a lot going on, and all of the information is there, but I simply wouldn’t want to play this on a small phone. The graphics are nice, the text is readable when you are zoomed in, and the iconography is handled well, but it all feels overly cramped on a phone screen. To be clear, I commend what they were able to do with limited real estate, as there is a LOT going on in this game, but if you’ve had issues with cramped games before, I suggest taking a closer look before diving into this game.
Terraforming Mars offers cross-platform online play with real time and asynchronous timeout options. You can create a game for others to join or look for joinable games in the lobby. There is a chat as well if you want to discuss things with potential playing partners first. The game features a karma system which rewards players who don’t timeout, and also ranked matches. The timeout options range from 30 minutes to 45 days, with the option to sub in AI players should someone timeout.
We’ve ranted about this before and we promise not to stop anytime soon, but a very annoying online feature is back: being forced to wait in your empty game with the app open until the game fills up and begins. Even if you are playing an async game. Arrrrg!!!! Why? Such a bad design, and it keeps getting repeated over and over… On the plus side, you can send private game invites and then leave the app and system notifications do work. Back to the negative side, when you launch the app and check your running games, there is no indication as to which game it is your turn to play.
Once online games start, they work well, notifications aside. You can invite friends to a private match or play locally with the pass-and-play option, you may mix AI players into either of these modes. Problems appear again, however, when a private game ends. You can't actually see the final score or the board state unless you were the one to play the last turn. This is an issue we've seen before in Asmodee apps, it is shocking that it hasn't been fixed here.
Single player can be against up to four AI opponents rated easy, medium, or hard. The AI is bad, plain and simple. I’m not great at the game but can beat it on Hard, and there are many screenshots floating around online of experienced players absolutely mauling the poor AI.
When starting a game you get to choose a standard game or to use corporate era rules, and also whether to use the draft variant. These both add some extra levels of strategy to the game and are go-tos for experiences players.
The game also features the Solo Challenge mode which is included in the physical game. Rather than playing against AI, the game has you play 14 generations with slightly different setup rules. Your goal is to complete terraforming in those 14 generations. This is a nice addition to the app, many apps fail to include true solo rules if they have AI opponents. The game allows you to start and save multiple offline games which is a great feature for such a long playing game.
The biggest downside in this category is that the game will, seemingly at random, drop your saved local AI games. I haven’t seen this with Solo Challenge games, but in local games against AI I can leave the app and return later to find it removed from my games list. So I hope you have 40 minutes to play a full game.
No word on digital versions of the various expansions at this point. The game has received a slew of expansions and they have been generally well received and would be great to see hit the digital version.
The Wrap Up
Simply put; the #3 overall game on Board Game Geek deserves better than this. This port is one of the most incomplete efforts we’ve seen from a AAA board game port. We’ve seen some bad ports, but usually the bad is from top to bottom. Here, the app looks good, the option list is deep, everything seems to be setup for success. Then you start playing and realize you can’t play solo games against AI unless you have a full 40 minutes at a time because there’s a good chance the game will lose your save. And if you do have those 40 minutes, hopefully you are bad at the game because the AI has been repeatedly thrashed by human players.
Online play works better, at least against friends in private games. Despite the massive game that this is, the online lobbies have been mostly empty since the mobile version dropped, not a good sign. Forcing you sit around in a game until random opponents join is bad design and the online game suffers tremendously because of it.
The glimmer of hope for this app is that it does get the basics mostly correct, there is a strong base to work from here. If the app gets supported over the coming weeks/months with an avalanche of bug fixes, it is very easy to see this climbing up the list of best board game ports quite quickly. It should be noted that a big patch was released about a week after the initial app release which fixed a bunch of things, so there is hope for continued support.
As it stands today, I would recommend this for anybody who has been curious about the game but not gotten the chance to try the physical version or for anybody who wants to play Solo Challenge, local pass-and-play, or keep one online game against friends going at a time.