Like so many others I have a hard time discerning between good games and games that are all hype. It's hard to tell when BGG fads are fads, or when you can feel confident buying a game. That's why I was excited to play Terraforming Mars at Trashfest East this year. Besides meeting a bunch of awesome people, and drinking the coldest cheapest draught in Vernon, CT, I got to see if this new game from Stronghold was as good as the internet says. Now I hope to pass on a bit of my good fortune by writing this review, which should, at least in part, help you decide what you think about Terraforming Mars.
A couple of weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending Fortress Ameritrash’s Trashfest East 2016, at an Elk’s Lodge in Vernon, CT. This was my first time attending a small con, and I really wish more of them would pop up. If any of you have the chance to attend a smaller con, I suggest grabbing a ticket, because the lax atmosphere translates to hours of nonstop gaming. Plus the beer on tap was $3.50 a half liter, and not half bad.
Throughout this gaming extravaganza I got the chance to play a lot of hyped titles, one of which was Jacob Fryxelius’ Terraforming Mars. For those of you unfamiliar, the game is a euro-leaning pallet-builder, in which players take the role of mega-corporations that are terraforming mars for human use.
Thematically, the game takes course over generations, represented by rounds. Each round begins with some card drafting, followed by players using those cards in turn, until all players pass on the round. As players play cards, they raise the temperature of mars, irrigate the planet, and build cities and forests on the surface. Successfully terraforming in these ways gains players victory points, which win them the game.
Despite its science fiction theme, Terraforming Mars plays primarily like a euro. Action cards you play are placed into a pallet in front of you, imparting victory points based on card type and the like at game’s end. Many action cards also have a sustained effect, usually increasing resource production, and often including drawbacks to balance a player’s power.
Its these moments where one chooses to hinder themselves in one area, to grow in another, which I found to be the most interesting element of the game. These trade-offs are common enough that they are not just required to play extremely powerful cards. Instead, the decrease in production required to play a card increases with that card’s power level – Want to increase your steel production by three? Decrease your plant production by 1; Want to increase your energy production by five? Decrease your monetary production by three; Need some titanium fast? Better be willing to sac some energy production.
Constantly players are required to play cards with these production drawbacks, often making the most effective path to victory a focused investment in one field of production. That way you can turn the massive amount of plants (or whatever) you have cultivated, into any other necessary resources.
This may seem like a simple path to victory, but the card drafting mechanic that begins each round of play, adds a healthy dose of chance to the mix, requiring your strategy to be flexible, as well as defined. The four cards you draft from each round define a significant portion of play, and each card you choose to draft costs three gold. This sum is not insignificant, especially when drafting multiple cards. So while you begin to become a titanium powerhouse, you also risk not drawing more titanium production cards, and must weigh whether the titanium cards that do come your way are worth paying for, just to get in you hand. You may even end up paying for cards that you don’t really want, just to have cards to play, a further stretching of precious resources.
Because the drafting portion of the game holds so much weight, it is this portion of gameplay that really defines Terraforming Mars for me. If you’re not skilled at drafting, or just get bad draws, or didn’t change your strategy at a pivotal moment revealed by a good card draw, you won’t fare well, regardless of how well you play otherwise. On the surface, Terraforming Mars appeared to me to be map-focused. But as you can see, the card drafting mechanic is innocuous, a central portion of gameplay. I think anyone thinking about buying Terraforming Mars should consider this, as it really colors how the game feels.
And that was my experience with Terraforming Mars. A game that requires the mind of a euro-player, but constantly provides moments of tension, head scratching, and frustrating hindsight. A design which incorporates the randomness of card drafting into an 80% euro build. Paired with a science fiction theme, I think this is a great euro style game for ameritrash players. And a great ameritrash-flavored game for euro players at that. Its theme is fairly well integrated, not feeling completely pasted on, and although the card art leaves something to be desired, the subject of Terraforming Mars is a refreshing departure from the “cowboys with lasers” feel of many science fiction games.
Now I’ve heard people talking about this being their favorite game of 2016. And while I don’t feel quite that strongly about my experience, this is not one to miss if you get the chance to play it. I don’t think it is a must-buy for everyone, but I do think that for some, this will be a permanent game in their collection. It’s design is on the cusp of greatness, and I’ll certainly have my eyes peeled for new games designed by Jacob Fryxelius, as well as new Stronghold Games productions.