Terraforming Mars Review
Terraforming Mars Review

Terraforming Mars Review

👈🏻 Back to Reviewed Games

Designed by Jacob Fryxelius

Release Year: 2016 Complexity: Medium-High

  👥  1-5 Players   ⏰  120-150 min   💸 ~$60   🔗  Buy


In Terraforming Mars, you are a giant corporation in the 2400s that is contributing to a worldwide effort to make Mars habitable by raising its temperature, oxygen level, and ocean coverage. You will scale your production to allow you to take on more and more projects that not only further this mission but establish yourself as the most impactful corporation in this new scientific era.

Each generation, you will have the opportunity to pay to acquire new project cards, and then put your resources to work as you pay for projects and reap benefits that range from increased production for yourself to direct impact to the vital metrics for life on Mars. Various projects will also allow you to establish cities, greeneries, oceans, and other tiles on the surface of Mars, as players compete over the most lucrative positioning on the planet. Once all players have finished their actions in a generation, your production engine will generate more resources, you will research new project cards to add to your hand, and a new generation will begin. Generations continue until the temperature, oxygen, and ocean coverage have all met the minimum requirements for life on Mars.


Game Feel

Terraforming Mars is all about building an engine that will give you the power to make the most impact over the course of the game. Projects that provide resource production are very attractive in the early game as you work to scale up your efforts. However, impacting the requirements for habitation is also profitable as it raises your Terraforming Rating, which not only determines the winner at the end of the game, but also increases your money production which is the primary resource for playing project cards.

You will also want to keep a close eye on the Milestones and Awards, as they provide big opportunities for end-game points, but are in direct competition with the other players. Milestones are a race to a certain condition, such as having three cities or eight building tags on cards, and only three of the five milestones can be claimed. Awards are player-funded end-game scoring conditions, where the first and second highest-performing players will gain points at the end of the game. Funding an award allows you to ensure the scoring is aligned with your strengths, and while doing it earlier is cheaper, it also gives your opponents more information on what to pursue during the game.

With so many project cards and standard actions available, the game is filled with tough tradeoffs. This is especially evident during the research phase when you have the opportunity to acquire new cards. For each card you decide to keep, you must pay three credits, decreasing your funds that are available to actually play the project cards later. Many of the cards also have specific requirements, such as the oxygen having reached a certain level, which makes it tough to decide if it is worth holding onto a card, even though it may not be playable for several generations.

And given that the game length is largely dictated by the players’ collective progress on the three metrics for habitability, there is an element of knowing when to push the pace more when you think you are ahead, and keeping an eye on how each metric is progressing as it impacts which cards are playable and puts an expiration date on some benefits. For example, you may have some huge asteroid event card that would raise the temperature by three levels, which equates to three points on the Terraforming Rating track. However, if the temperature has already maxed out, this card is way less attractive as you lose out on all the temperature-raising benefit. It is important that you balance the development of your own engine with the unique dynamics of your opponents’ actions.



Player Counts - We feel that 3-4 players is the sweet spot for Terraforming Mars. Five players starts to introduce a lot of downtime and you don’t get to do as much since there are now five players contributing to the same habitable requirements. Two players can suffer from the opposite problem, where the game can really drag if players are pursuing strategies that aren’t pushing those metrics forward, and it makes the interactive parts of the game less interesting. And while I haven’t been drawn back to the solo mode after using it once to learn the game, it is worth a look if you’re interested in solo play.

Abstract vs. Thematic - One of the strengths of Terraforming Mars is how the compelling theme drives a lot of the mechanisms and flavor in the game. Cards have effects and prerequisites that make sense, and it is cool to see the surface of Mars transform over the course of the game.

Luck vs. Skill - The efficiency puzzle of Terraforming Mars is one that greatly favors skill, with the caveat that there is a ton of randomness in the cards you draw throughout the game. We enjoy playing with the drafting variant that reduces this luck factor with some added playtime, but, especially with the standard rules, the luck of the draw can drastically benefit some players over others.

Multiplayer Solitaire vs. Highly Interactive - While a lot of your strategy is focusing on your own production engine, there are also a lot of areas where you are affected by other players, such as competition for spaces on the surface of Mars, racing for Milestones, timing of funding awards, and how player strategies will affect the pace of the core habitable metrics. Besides the steady flow of cards, the actions of other players require you to remain tactical and ready to react.

Short Setup vs. Long Setup - Setting up the game is reasonable for a game of this complexity. It’s mostly getting the various supply piles set up, shuffling all the cards, and dealing each player their initial options.

Easy to Teach vs. Hard to Teach - There is a lot going on here for a new player, but is somewhat alleviated by the simplicity of all project cards requiring credits — it is logical that producing more money will let you play more cards. But it can be difficult for new players to grasp a lot of the tangential considerations such as when to use standard projects, how to pursue milestones and awards effectively, the tradeoffs between buying or passing on cards in the research phase, etc.

Low Setup Variability vs. High Setup Variability - The variability in Terraforming Mars is huge, primarily driven by the giant deck of unique cards. The beginning of the game has each player picking from two corporations and paying to keep projects from a selection of ten cards. And if players happen to be itching for more variety, expansions like Prelude, which adds additional randomized start-game options, and Hellas & Elysium, which adds two more unique maps, will be sure to satisfy.

Things to Like

✅  Very Satisfying Engine-Building - So much of what you do in Terraforming Mars is about increasing your production each round. As the game progresses, it is exciting to have more and more resources at your disposal to strategically deploy to keep the snowball rolling. And besides raw production, playing blue active cards will give you ongoing abilities or once-per-generation actions that can be foundational to your strategic direction.

✅  Great Game-to-Game Variability - And part of the reason building that engine is so fun is because there is such variety in the project cards that your production can be used for. With a steady flow of four new cards you could acquire each research phase, every game plays out differently and the strategy remains fluid as you process new opportunities. This also leads to great diversity in strategies — one game you might be hammering the surface of Mars with cities and greeneries, but another game you might have some crazy microbe engine that is mostly about generating points on your own cards.

✅  Tension in Hand Management - That core decision in the research phase, do I pay 3 credits to keep this card or not, is always grueling because you are spending the same resource that you ultimately need to play the project cards. Sometimes, you may need to pass on a card you love simply because it is more important that you keep the 3 credits to ensure you can complete certain actions this round. The decision is made even more interesting as you weigh the value of production cards based on how many generations you think are left in the game, as well as strong cards that have prerequisites, such as “10% oxygen,” that won’t be playable for a while.

✅  Player Interaction Meaningfully Affects Strategy - And if the steady flow of cards was not enough to keep you on your strategic toes, the actions of other players can be very impactful as well. In the early game, you want to be very aware of milestones as each can only be claimed by one player, and only three milestones can be claimed in total. But there are other times that an opportunity presents itself that you weren’t considering. For example, a player builds a second greenery that leaves an empty space with two adjacent greeneries. Cities score for every adjacent greenery at the end of the game, so maybe it is worth completely pivoting to grab that attractive spot before someone else can build a city there. The game strikes a great balance between the satisfaction of working on your own thing while still interacting meaningfully with other players.


Things to Dislike

❌  Direct Attacks Can Feel Out of Place - That said, not all of the interaction feels great. Specifically, there are a number of cards (often asteroids or some other kind of catastrophic event) that allow you to destroy the plants of another player. The impact can range from insignificant to quite brutal, but it is more the fact that 95% of the game doesn’t have that kind of negative interaction that makes it feel out of place. While it can be a mechanism for targeting the leader to even the playing field, oftentimes it boils down to which player just happens to have the resource that is being targeted, and in our experience, both the attacking player and the targeted player end up feeling bad. While we can see some of the design justification for these attacks (both mechanically and thematically), we can’t help feeling the game might just be more fun without them.

❌  Punished by Random Card Draw - The giant deck of unique cards in Terraforming Mars is a double-edged sword. It is what powers the variability and dynamic strategic decisions that we have praised, but the side effect is that players can find themselves at the mercy of randomness. You might have great titanium production, and never draw space cards that let you utilize it. You might be close to the building tag milestone, only to not draw a building tag for several generations. You could draw cards that are literally unplayable because their minimum environmental thresholds have already been passed. It is inevitable with this kind of card variety, but that doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t feel awesome when that randomness clearly impacts the outcome of the game.


Our Ratings

Ryan (29 Plays) - 9.5 Daniel (27 Plays) - 9.5

🎬 Watch Extended Final Thoughts

Is It For You?

If you are bothered by card randomness, don’t enjoy doing a lot of mental math to allocate resources, or really prefer there to be no direct attacks in games where you are building up your own thing, then Terraforming Mars might not be for you. 👎

But if you want an engine-building game that has a steady flow of tough decisions, huge variety in card effects, and a meaningful level of player interaction, then Terraforming Mars is one of our personal favorites, and one that we can definitely recommend. 👍

🛒  Check Out Terraforming Mars on Amazon