Dale Yu – Review of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (Target Exclusive Edition)

  • Designers: Jacob Fryxelius, Nick Little and Sydney Engelstein
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 45-60 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by Stronghold Games

terraforming mars ares box

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (TMAE) is a new 2021 release to follow up on the critically acclaimed game Terraforming Mars.  I feel like I am in the minority of OG writers in that I don’t particularly care for Terraforming Mars.  To me, the game plods along well past its expiration date – I don’t care for 3 hour games with a lot of downtime.  This new version promises a similar experience but in a smaller timeframe!

Like the original game, TMAE revolves around a bunch of cards. Lots of cards – 208 project cards to be exact. Players will use these cards to build their engine – with the goal to convert the planet into something habitable for humans.  There are three components to this – raising the temperature, increasing the oxygen supply and adding oceans – and unsurprisingly, you’ll score victory points for contributing to these projects.  When all three of these are complete, the game ends, and the player with the most victory points at that time will win.

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The main game board shows these three aforementioned projects as well as a Terraforming Rating track around the outside.  Ocean tiles are shuffled and placed face down on the central area.  Players each get a player board where they can track their production of MegaCredits (MC), heat, plants, and card drawing power, plus their steel and titanium capabilities,.  There are also areas to store your inventory of MC, heat, and plants.  Interestingly, the game uses generic cubes to denote quantities of 1, 5, and 10 – and their location on your player board defines their identity.  It’s a nice system that saves components, but be careful as a small jostle of your board could suddenly change what you own. 

To start, each player is dealt a hand of eight project cards from the deck.  These cards come in three colors, broadly describing their function – Red cards give immediate effects, blue cards give ongoing effects, and green cards generate stuff.  Each player also gets a corporation card which tells them their starting MC amount as well as a unique special ability.  Finally, each player gets five phase cards in their color…

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As far as gameplay goes, I could start here with this analogy – if you have played Race for the Galaxy; you know how this works; feel free to skip to the comments.  For the rest of you, the game is played in a number of turns, each with some planning to decide what to do, actually doing what was planned, and then cleaning up to prepare to do it all again.

In the planning step, each player will take their hand of phase cards and secretly and simultaneously choose one to play face down.  Each of their 5 phase cards corresponds to one of the phases I will explain below.  Essentially, by choosing a phase card, the player ensures that this chosen phase will occur this turn, and they will also get a small bonus related to that phase.  After the first round, you will always leave your previously played phase card on the table so that you are unable to choose the same phase twice in a row.  Phase markers can be placed next to the main board to remind all players which phases will be done this turn; additionally the color of the tokens match the color of the cards or things which are used in that phase; this is a helpful reminder. 

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The phases are always resolved in this order (but of course, only if someone has chosen that phase this round!):  1) Development, 2) Construction, 3) Action, 4) Production, 5) Research. 

1] Development Phase – Each player can play one green project card; the cost is seen in the upper left of the green card.  Costs can be paid via MC cubes from the player mat. Additionally, players can discard a card from their hand at any time for 3 MC.  Some cards have prerequisites printed on them – these must be met at the time that the phase starts.  Also, some cards can be cheaper due to your Steel or Titanium abilities.  Finally, players who chose this phase card get a reduction in cost of 3MC for their green card.  If the card increases your production, make the appropriate changes on the player board as well.

2] Construction Phase – Each player can play a red or blue card from their hand, paying the appropriate costs.  If you choose this phase, you can either play an extra blue or red card during the phase OR you can draw a card before or after playing your one card this phase.

3] Action Phase – Each player can activate any of their “Action:” abilities on their played cards.  Players who chose this phase can do one of their “Action:” abilities an additional time.  Also, you can use any of the standard actions printed on your player mat:

  • Spend 8 plants to gain 1 forest VP token and raise oxygen one step
  • Spend 20 MC to gain 1 forest VP token and raise oxygen one step
  • Spend 8 heat to raise temperature one step
  • Spend 14 MC to raise temperature one step
  • Spend 15 MC to flip one ocean tile; receive the reward shown on the tile

(Note – if you have plants or heat, you must spend them in this phase to terraform Mars unless the associated track is already at its max)

(Note #2 – any time that you raise oxygen, raise temperature or flip an ocean tile, you gain 1TR for each on the TR track on the board).

4] Production Phase – Each player can collect resources from their played production cards (in the orange box), corporation card, and their place on their TR track (you gain MC equal to your TR on the main board).  When you produce things, you can either look at all your cards, or you can just use your player board as the tracks there should match – for heat, plants and cards.   Finally, if you choose this phase, gain an additional 4MC.

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5] Research Phase – each player draws 2 cards, keeps one and discards the other.  If you choose this phase, instead draw 5 and keep 2, therefore discarding the other three.

After all of the chosen phases are done, players discard down to 10 cards in their hand (gaining 3 MC for each card discarded).  The phase tokens used this turn are flipped back over and then the next round begins (unless the Game End is triggered).

The game ends at the end of a phase when all three of the terraforming criteria are complete (all the ocean tiles turned over, and the heat and oxygen tracks completed as well).  The game ends immediately, and the remaining phases of the current round are not played.  Scores are then tabulated:

1 VP per TR on the scoretrack

VP as shown on Forest VP tokens

VP from project cards

Ties go to the player with the highest sum of MC, heat and plants at the end of the game

The game also has a cooperative mode, but we have not yet tried it that way – mostly because we have liked the competitive version so much, we keep going back to it!  Also, the cooperative game is for only two players, and that’s not a player count that I often have for games.

My thoughts on the game

For me, this is the game that Terraforming Mars wants to be… Turns should be quick, and so long as you A) trust everyone in your group and  B) everyone in your group understands the card interactions – rounds can fly by in a minute or two!   As each phase can happen simultaneously, it doesn’t take long for you to play your development cards, then do your actions, and finally produce your stuff.

Yes, I know, why would I play games with people who I don’t trust?  I don’t usually – but for this game to work, players have to operate on their own, announcing what they do, and doing it correctly.  If you slow down and watch what everyone is doing, the game would take forever, and then honestly, you might as well just play Terraforming Mars!  From what I’ve seen, the bigger issue is unintentional incorrect interpretation of card actions/interactions which may go unchecked for large portions of the game.

It may also be helpful to note that a lot of the game feels like sandbox playing.  I have my own area, and I don’t feel like there is a lot of need to know what my opponents are doing.  Near the end of the game, it might matter as to the timing of terraforming the last spot on any of the three tracks – but for the most part, you draw and play cards on your own.  There’s not really much of a chance to deny someone any cards as they will generally never see your discards.  The biggest interaction is in trying to predict what other players will do so that you can take advantage of their phase selection. 

I think the hidden phase selection (a la Race for the Galaxy) is well implemented here.  To me, this makes the game – trying to read your opponents so that you can get multiple phases that you want in each round – though sometimes you need to choose a specific phase in order to take advantage of the bonus that comes with the selection.

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There are a LOT of cards in the box here, and this means that each game will be different.  Heck, it’ll probably take you two or three games just to see enough cards to realize what sorts of strategies might work.  The game gives you enough time to work on one or two main strategies; and I have found that sometimes it all comes down to whether or not you get enough cards to make it work – especially for the strategies that revolve around animals or microbes…. There can be quite powerful combinations in these strategies, but you have to be lucky enough to draw the cards which deal with those things.

There is a lot to take in your first few games, and the game is set up with starting corporations and project cards to streamline things from the start.  Once you are getting random corporations and random starting hands, I’d strongly recommend taking a minute for a “Turn Zero” to see what you have as far as initial combos to start developing your strategies.  The game moves along quickly, and as you would expect with an engine builder, the pace accelerates as the game progresses – you will be making more and more things, doing more and more actions, etc as the engine grows, and the end of the game will rapidly come up on you!

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It would be remiss not to at least mention the current controversy around the distribution of the game.  The game has been released into the US mass market, exclusively at Target stores.  However, this release came in advance of the Kickstarter backers.  The components are not quite as nice as the KS version – so the KS backers still get a little nice extra. [The KS backers also get 17 or so extra cards not in the Target version – DB]

terraforming mars ares differences

Overall, the game is well done, and one that I really have enjoyed so far.  It definitely fires Terraforming Mars from the game collection, and it might fire Race for the Galaxy too.  The game isn’t elegantly simple, but it also doesn’t suffer from iconography that newbies find overly difficult like RFTG. (Yes, I know that some of the OG will vehemently argue against that, but hey, I can have my opinions on it. Just like they can have their opinions about Dominion!)  There are some complex card interactions that will keep gamers interested, but overall, the cards explain themselves and you rarely have to look stuff up.  This game gives you a lot of the same feel as the base game, but in about a third of the time and half the size.  For me, that’s a win-win.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan Blum (1 play): It’s definitely faster than the original game, which is good. On the other hand, it doesn’t have any of the original game’s interactive aspects, which among other things were key sources of victory points. I could live without those more easily if Ares Expedition had added any other ways to get points, but no: you terraform or you hope you get cards with points on them, which are fairly rare. The one action that lets you dig through the deck doesn’t let you dig very much in comparison to the deck size, and while there are cards which let you draw, generally it’s just one card at a time. I’d play it again since it isn’t that long, really, and it’s certainly much shorter than TM. However, comparisons to Race for the Galaxy do it no favors – it’s much longer, does not handle the deck size nearly as well, and changes the action system (by disallowing selection of the same action two turns in a row) for no readily apparent reason.

Tery N (1 play, 2 player): I wasn’t sure what to expect when I backed the Kickstarter for this game. Terraforming Mars is one of my top 10 games, and I was unsure whether a card game version would be a good thing, or whether it would just dilute the experience and make me wish I was playing the original. I am happy to report that the card games takes the best elements of the game and makes a new, streamlined version with a few twists. I love the card interactions, and as Dale mentions, trying to determine what card your opponent will play so that you can maximize doing all the things you want to do is interesting.  My favorite part of TM is trying to build an engine of synergistic cards, and this allows me to do the same thing in a shorter time frame. Our first game took a while, since we were still figuring things out; enough things are different that it took some getting used to. We didn’t do a lot of simultaneous play while we were still figuring things out, but once all players know the game I can see it being much more fast-paced. 

I do have the Kickstarter version, which has more cards than the Target version and comes with two 3-section trays, which I assume are meant to hold the cubes so all players can easily reach them (it doesn’t specify).  Do I wish my copy came before Target got theirs? Yes, of course I do, and I know people who still haven’t received their copy. Stronghold has apologized, but I think being upfront about this in advance might have prevented some disgruntled customers who may be hesitant to kickstart their games in the future.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y, Tery N
  • I like it.
  • Neutral. Dan Blum
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to Dale Yu – Review of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition

  1. Mark Jackson (2 plays): My KS copy arrived late last week and I’ve had the chance to play a couple of solo games of Ares Expedition. So far, I’d put myself in the “Like” category… similar to Dan, I think I’ll miss the board interaction from TM. OTOH, it’s got a small footprint, which makes it great candidate for setting up a quick solo game or taking it on the road when I’m traveling for work.

  2. Christopher McGowan says:

    Thanks for the review. I truly wish RFTG didn’t have the icon learning curve hurdle. I also wish TM was a bit quicker. Maybe this is the solution, at least with base game comparisons.

    How many “Card Deck” expansions do we anticipate for TMAE? I’ll set the over/under at 3.5.

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