Before Matt Damon’s role as a lone survivor, there was a classic trilogy of science fiction books that explored the colonization of Mars. Written by Kim Stanley Robinson, the Mars Trilogy sparked imaginations around the idea of terraforming Mars by deliberately changing the surface and climate to make the planet more habitable for humans.
Jacob Fryxelius–the designer of the board game Terraforming Mars–was clearly deeply influenced by the Mars Trilogy, going as far as naming the sample characters in the rulebook Kim, Stanley, and Robinson. But the name drop wasn’t all: there may not be another board game out there that drips and exudes its theme better than the Terraforming Mars board game.
I’m not saying I started to magically look like Matt Damon as I was playing through the game, but maybe I did start to feel like Edwin Hubble or Johannes Kepler or something. Better, I became deeply immersed and enthralled by the theme of transforming the red planet into a home for humans. Maybe that’s the sci-fi nerd in me, but the theme absolutely is a feather in the cap for the board game.
Review of Terraforming Mars
What else did I discover in my playthroughs of Terraforming Mars? First, the game play of Terraforming Mars is smooth. There are at least a couple hundred project cards that introduce Arctic Algae, Ore Processors, Deep Well Heating, Cloud Seeding, Space Elevators, Adapted Lichen, and more.
The cards might have bonuses, requirements, or resource management elements that impact the win conditions of the game, which is a tracked rise in temperature, oxygen, or ocean coverage. But there is a cost to buying cards and that presents the balancing nature of the game. Should I or shouldn’t I buy a particular card, in other words?
Each player tracks their production and resources (Credits, Steel, Titanium, Plants, Energy, and Heat) on player boards they sit in front of them. Then on the main game board, you compete for the best places for your city, ocean, and greenery tiles. It all goes down as smooth as Billy Dee Williams drinking an ice cold Colt .45.
Second, Terraforming Mars is great solo. I only played it once this way, but it left me eager to give it another try. In fact, based upon that one play alone, had I had my list of top 7 solo games to do over again, I’d likely put terraforming Mars on the list.
Third, there isn’t much player interaction…until there is. Most folks aren’t getting Terraforming Mars to play by themselves. But during long stretches of the game, there really isn’t a ton of player interaction. You kind of bore down on your cards, place your tiles, etc, then wait as the other players take their turns.
What’s worse is that the vast number of cards options can force some players into analysis paralysis, where they simply get stuck weighing every option, yet never actually toking their turn. You are left thinking, “Will you take your turn already?” This can sometimes make an already 2+ hour game feel looooong.
Then there are occasions that seem almost out of the blue where another player gets into the way of what you are trying to do (like using the “Hired Raiser” card for example), and you curse them under your breath for destroying your precious greenhouses or whatever. But I don’t want to overstate that point as the edges of this aren’t really that rough.
Finally, there is one thing about Terraforming Mars that was an utter disappointment to me. Everything about the pieces and components feels really cheap. The cards are flimsy, the player boards are super flimsy, and heck, even the game box is flimsy.
One of the big reasons for the amazing renaissance of board gaming, I believe, is the fact that modern board games have set such a high bar for being well made and beautiful. Terraforming Mars has a MSRP of $50 and it feels like they spent a nickel on it.
Review of Terraforming Mars: Final Thoughts
So you might think after I complained about the poor quality of the game pieces and the fact that the game can feel long, that I didn’t enjoy the game and that I wouldn’t recommend it. But I really enjoyed Terraforming Mars.
Terraforming Mars might be built like a Yugo, but it drives like a Ferrari. It truly is fun to play. Indeed, the overall gameplay well outshines any times where it might be frustrating that another player isn’t acting quickly.
And the theme…nerds, the theme is great on this game. Terraforming Mars really does pay a great homage to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Alive books, truly immersing you in the idea of transforming Mars into a habitable place. Too bad it couldn’t make me look like Matt Damon.