Terraforming Mars (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designers:  Jacob Fryxelius
  • Publisher:  Stronghold Games
  • Artists:  Daniel Fryxelius, Isaac Fryxelius
  • Players:  1 – 5
  • Ages:  12 and Up
  • Time:  90 – 120 Minutes
  • Times Played: 4


Terraforming Mars is one of the hottest games of 2016.  The game sold out quickly at Gen Con and was generally regarded as one of the hits of that convention.  It currently tops many Essen anticipation lists, and with a few hundred reported ratings, its BoardGameGeek averages are excellent.  Several of us Opinionated Gamers have had the chance to play it recently, so our review is below.  

As alluded to above, Terraforming Mars made a limited debut at Gen Con.  It was released in select local game stores on September 14, and a worldwide release planned for September 28.  

Gameplay Walkthrough

Humanity has begun to spread throughout the solar system.  A few colonies have already been built on Mars, but to be able to increase immigration from Earth, the Red Planet must be terraformed.  You and your fellow players each control a corporation, and you will buy and play cards representing different projects.  There are basic corporations for new players just learning Terraforming Mars, but you can also start the game with unique corporations that have varying amounts of money, resources, and abilities.  

To win, you need both a good “terraform rating” and victory points.  The terraforming rating — which eventually calculates into your victory points — is increased each time you increase one of three global parameters — temperature, oxygen, or ocean — and from certain other projects.  The game will end when there is enough oxygen to breathe (14%), enough oceans to allow Earth-like weather (9 oceans), and the average temperature is well above freezing (8 degrees celsius).  


The Game Board

All players start the game at a “terraform rating” of 20, as shown on the outside of the board.  The “oxygen” starts at 0%, as shown on the track above the planet, and the temperature starts at -30 degrees celsius, as shown in the thermometer on the right of the board.  The nine ocean tiles are stacked at the top right of the game board, and they will be placed onto the game board as the game progresses.  

A good portion of the terraforming process is represented by placing tiles.  There are several open spaces on the planet, but some are reserved for the ocean tiles, and three spaces reserved for specific cities.  The following general placement rules apply:

  • Ocean tiles are not owned by any player.  Players earn 2 MegaCredits (the game’s currency) from placing another tile next to ocean tiles (including other ocean tiles).  Playing an ocean tile increases your terraform rating.  
  • Greenery tiles have to be placed next to another tile that you own, and you will own the greenery tile.  When placing a greenery tile, the oxygen level is increased, if possible, and so is your terraform rating.  (The oxygen level does max out, so if you increase it above that level, you won’t get the terraform rating bump.)  These tiles are worth 1 VP at the end of the game, and also provide 1 VP to any adjacent city.  
  • City tiles cannot be placed next to an adjacent city.  You will own the city you place, and each city will be worth 1 VP for each adjacent greenery tile (regardless of owner) at the end of the game.
  • Special tiles.  The game has a few special tiles with special placement rules.  

The Player Board

Each player has a player board, which is divided into six sections: MegaCredits, Steel, Titanium, Plants, Energy, and Heat.  In the center of the board are the player’s production of those resources; production is not limited, so players can use multiple markers if their production crosses above the maximum shown.  Without the Corporate Era cards (see below), players start with one production in everything.  A few notes:

  • MegaCredit income is the sum of your terraform rating and your MegaCredit production.  
  • Steel is used to pay for cards with a building tag.  Steel is worth 2 MegaCredit per cube, and you can pay with both MegaCredits and Steel.
  • Titanium is used to pay for cards with a space tag and is worth 3 MegaCredit per cube, and you can pay with both MegaCredits and Titanium.  
  • Plants may be converted into greenery tiles by using the depicted action.  
  • Energy is used by many cards.  Leftover energy is converted to heat at the beginning of the production phase (see below).
  • Heat may be spent to raise temperature 1 step.

As alluded to above, you can play with a beginner corporation, or you can draw two of the standard corporations and each player keeps one.  Each player also receives 10 cards; they can pay 3 MegaCredits to keep each card, discarding the ones they don’t want.  (Those with beginner corporations keep the 10 cards for free.)

The game then begins.  Each round is called a “generation.”  A generation consists of the following four phases:

  • The first player marker shifts one step clockwise and the generation marker is moved up 1 step.  (Skip this for the first generation.)
  • Each player draws four cards and decides which ones to buy.  They cost 3 MegaCredits each.  (This step is also skipped for the first generation.)  
  • Action phase.  Each player takes one or two actions on their turn, as described below, or they can pass and stay out of the round until it ends.  This goes around the circle until all players have passed consecutively.
  • Production phase.  All energy is converted to heat.  All players produce new resources and get their income.  Any used action cards are now available again for the next round.  The next generation then begins.  

On your turn you may do one or two actions (or pass):

  • Play a card from your hand.  Pay for the card and get any immediate effects, then place the card appropriately.  Some cards have requirements before the card can be played (for example, the oxygen level might need to be at or below a certain level).  Other cards can give you a discount on the card cost.  When placing the cards, event cards are turned face down in a personal pile, automated cards show the state of your operations and have the top showing, and action cards (which have either actions or ongoing effects that can be triggered at any time) have the top panel showing.
  • Use a standard project.  These are six actions available.  You can discard cards to gain MegaCredits, pay 11 MegaCredits to increase energy production, pay 14 MegaCredits to increase temperature 1 step, pay 18 MegaCredits to place an ocean tile, pay 23 MegaCredits to place a greenery tile, or pay 25 MegaCredits to place a city tile (which also increases your MegaCredit production).  
  • Claim a milestone.  Only one player can claim each milestone, and only 3 of the 5 can be claimed.  The milestones are: have a terraform rating of 35; own at least 3 city tiles; own at least 3 greenery tiles; have at least 8 building tags in play, and have at least 16 cards in your hand when you claim the milestone.  
  • Fund an award.  The first player to fund an award pays 8 MegaCredits; the second pays 14 Megacredits, and the last pays 20 MegaCredits.  In the final scoring, each award is checked, and 5 VPs are awarded to the player who wins that category.  The categories are: owning the most tiles in play, having the highest MegaCredit production, having the most science tags in play, having the most heat resource cubes, and having the most steel and titanium resource cubes.  
  • Use an action on a blue card.  Pay any cost, then mark that it has been used for that generation.
  • Convert 8 plants into a greenery tile.  
  • Convert 8 heat resources into 1 temperature step increase.  

Some of the components of Terraforming Mars, including a Beginner Corporation card.

The game ends at the end of the round when all three global parameters have been reached.  At that point, players have one extra chance to convert plants into greenery tiles.  Then the final scoring takes place: players add their terraform rating, points for awards, claimed milestones, points from the tiles on the game board, and points from cards.  The player with the highest score is the winner.

The game comes with a few built-in variants.  There is an extended game called the “Corporate Era.”  There is also a solo variant, which Opinionated Gamer Eric Edens demonstrates in a video on his YouTube channel.  Lastly, there is a drafting variant, in which players draft cards during the “research” phase of each generation.  

My thoughts on the game…

Terraforming Mars was a pleasant surprise for me.  I didn’t expect the game to have such a strong card-driven tableau building mechanic, but that is the game’s dominant feature, mixed with a clever (and thematic) twist on tile laying.  Though it feels like a slow build at first, the game presents fascinating choices at each stage of gameplay, and I always finishes I find myself agonizing over what aspects of production to emphasize.

There’s considerable depth here, plus numerous viable paths to victory, and this is one of the more intellectually challenging games I’ve played this year.  That said, despite Terraforming Mars’ depth, it ultimately isn’t that difficult of a game to learn or play, and some beginning gamers seemed to grasp the game with ease at my local game store last week.  Gameplay feels streamlined and logical, with each aspect being essential to the experience.  

There’s some interactivity here, certainly more than I expected.  Competition on the map is one element of this, and so is competition to claim milestones and awards.  But more importantly, some cards allow you mess with the production/resources of other players, giving the game a “take that” feel at times.  It isn’t a frequent occurrence, nor is it devastating when it happens, so I think most players will enjoy this aspect of the game.  

The artwork is more functional than attractive, but it has its charms: it looks like you’re viewing a computer screen summarizing operations on the planet.  The rulebook is a bit wordy, but it did explain the game well, and some of the flavor text and examples in the rulebook made it an enjoyable read.

Replayability is very high.  In addition to numerous different starting corporations, the large number of cards in the game — and the addition of several variants — mean there are a lot of plays in the box.  I recommend the drafting variant — it doesn’t add that much time to the game — but understand why some players would prefer to go with random draw.  

Our first game lasted over two hours, but it was a learning game with frequent rulebook references.  Subsequent plays have been faster, but I doubt this will be playable for most groups in under 75-90 minutes, even at lower player counts, but overall, I’d still say that is respectably quick for a game of this depth.  

In short, Terraforming Mars deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it.  The game can work with a variety of crowds, and I think it’ll be a hit among both Eurogamers and the more thematically-inclined.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Lorna: (3 plays) I like the theme a lot. It’s a bit longish. Drafting would probably make it a better game but I haven’t tried it yet and not sure that I will play it seriously enough to need it. 2-3 Players seems ideal. Would not want to play with more especially in a teaching game. I’m with Mary P. in that I don’t really like the take that cards but there aren’t too many.

Mary Prasad: I’ve already played three times, although the first game we played as a beginner game (no drafting, basic corporations, keep all 10 cards without paying) and the second we played without the advanced cards… with the regular corporations, you really need the advanced cards. I didn’t like the card randomness. Drafting helps – although I am tempted to draft the first ten as well as the four you get dealt each round (but haven’t tried this). The game is fun to play and keeps your interest all the way through – important for a long game. Our games were all over 3 hours. I would not recommend playing with 5 players; personally I’d prefer 3 max. I haven’t tried the two-player yet. I did not enjoy the cards that messed with other player’s resources but in the game where my two opponents were mostly doing the stealing, I won by 11 points. So there!

Eric Edens:  I love this game. I have played 4 solo and 5 multiplayer games. I have played beginner, with corporate era, drafting all cards, just drafting the 4 cards, and with all player counts but 2.  I feel everyone reading this should play it with corporations, corporate era, and with drafting. The game shines here. Like said before with 200 cards when you play with the era cards, you will only see a fraction of them. With the draft you will see many more. But tell everyone a lot about the cards beforehand. Because they cost money to keep when not playing beginner, you need to know what to keep and when. Be honest with players. The game won’t last 30 rounds, 50 cities won’t be built, oxygen won’t be at 8% in the second round. Information like that is needed to really get the full effect of the game and not risk disappointment when you keep the predators card in your first hand and no one ever plays animals. But this game also is educational at heart. Cards tell you why we would import greenhouse gases. I like that and ask players to read the name of cards when they are played so we get the theme that otherwise might be too dry for some. It is there but you have to pull it out. I love this game and look forward to many more plays always being a new experience.

Michael W: Have only played once, and the beginner game at that, but it did make a good first impression. I look forward to a few more plays, but like so many games it will very likely see those and fade away. It is very well done, and worth playing often, but not so great that it will actually accomplish that feat in my world. But truthfully, so few games do that that’s not really a judgement against it.

Luke H: I thoroughly enjoyed myself….except for the take-that cards. Why? Why do these exist? Something non-targeted, like “Everyone else loses a plant.” instead of “Choose a player to lose 3 plants.” would have been totally fine. Are there any gamers out there who play a game like Terraforming Mars and want this type of king-makery, hold-back-the-leader, targeted interaction?

Larry (2 plays):  This is a mechanically straightforward, nicely thematic, and well designed tableau-building game.  Some have compared it to Imperial Settlers and that seems like an apt comparison.  The game is all about the 200+ cards and they’re nicely varied; consequently, there’s many different approaches to winning.  I’d say it’s 90% multiplayer solitaire; there’s some interaction in the boardplay, but usually, all you’re doing is taking away 1 or 2 VPs.  Like many of the others, I don’t care for the Take That cards.  They feel kind of bolted on, almost as if the designer was responding to complaints about the low player interaction, but they can lead to hard feelings, particularly since you can’t always target the leader.  The draft variant does add some time, but it seems to make for a better game by mitigating the luck of the draw.  Overall, this is one of the better games from 2016 I’ve played; not nearly as good as the sky-high ratings would lead you to believe, but still a good, solid design.

Craig (4 Plays): This is the first game in a while that elicited that “let’s play it again immediately!” response, which is a very good sign. The game is engaging with tough decisions, especially once you get beyond the basic corporations. The advanced corporations allow players to focus and specialize which makes for much more interested play. The “take that cards” are minor and really shouldn’t turn off those who don’t want direct conflict. They also didn’t seem bolted on. Instead they allow for specialization and synergy between the corporations and certain cards  I have to disagree with Larry in that the game is much more interactive than he suggests with his estimate of 90% multiplayer solitaire. This is a very good game. Looking forward to trying the drafting variant.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris Wray, Mary Prasad, Eric Edens, Craig Massey
  • I like it. Lorna Wong, Michael W, Larry
  • Neutral. Luke Hedgren
  • Not for me…
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12 Responses to Terraforming Mars (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  1. Jacob Lee says:

    I love it when my most anticipated game gets reviewed by OG. Thanks!

  2. rprasadusa says:

    I’m 3 games in, and I love it! I think the best way was with the corporations (including advanced cards) and with drafting: you see a lot of cards and can really try to develop some kind of card strategy. As an added bonus, with only 4 cards to draft each round, drafting isn’t the painful annoying exercise it usually is for me! And the “take that” wasn’t bad at all

    There seem to be many paths to victory and I look forward to playing this again and trying yet another one!

  3. frankhamrick says:

    I’m between, “I love it!” and “I like it.” Don’t care for the Take That cards as others have expressed as they seem too random. But I can say, after my second play I found myself constantly thinking about it! Only two other games have done that to me in recent years: Terra Mystica and Scythe

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