Review: Terraforming Mars

By Matt Thrower 24 Oct 2018 0

Review: Terraforming Mars

Released 17 Oct 2018

Developer: Asmodee Digital
Genre: Boardgame
Available from:

Games in which you manage a bunch of different resources to score points from various different sources are ten a penny. Terraforming Mars is another such a game, yet it stands out amongst its competitors thanks to two clever innovations.

The first is that it's a co-operative game of sorts. Not in the sense that there's a shared win: only one player gets to walk away with the glory. And while it's not actively aggressive, there's plenty of ways to get in other player's faces. You're competing for space on Mars, for one thing, and there are few cards that let you stymie someone else's resources. 

No, the co-operative element is the game end. All the players can increase the temperature, oxygen and water levels on Mars as part of their actions. And when all three reach Earth-like levels the game ends. Along the way there are bonuses for the player who reaches certain milestones, resulting in a fascinating mini-game of "chicken". Trying to arrange things so you can snaffle these perks and end proceedings when you want is just one piece in the vast jigsaw of the game's strategy.

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The other smart thing that elevates Terraforming Mars above its competitors is that it feels like an epic feat of engineering. In mechanical terms, you'll be building an engine to crank one or more of the various sources of points. But in the physical sense, you get to watch Mars blossom with greenery and flourish with cities. In this digital version some fine graphical flourishes enhance that feeling. You can watch water flow and glisten onto the planet's surface, see new builds literally erupt from the red earth.

Enhanced visuals are one plank of the appeal of board to digital adaptations such as this. Another is online play, which Terraforming Mars does tolerably well. There's an odd decision where you can't start a game and leave it to fill up when you're offline. There are also other minor technical issues and a problem with folk leaving games but it essentially works. Unfortunately, other aspects of the move to screen are far more clunky.

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For starters, while we're on the subject of multiplayer, the game also has a solo challenge mode which is faithfully replicated here. Sadly, that might be the best way to play solitaire. You can play against AI opponents in difficulty levels from easy to hard, but the reality is that none of them is any good. Even newcomers to the game will quickly learn to crush them all.

If you are new, you might be expecting to enjoy the ease of introduction that digital adaptations offer. There's a tutorial which will teach you the rules, although it's very basic. You'll be blissfully unaware that this version lacks the drafting variant that's popular among the game's fans, although it's coming in an update. There are already updates addressing the myriad of small gameplay bugs, but plenty remain to confuse new players. And they'll likely be further baffled by the obtuse interface behind those lovely graphics.

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However nice they look, they have the unfortunate side effect of hiding important play information. Getting a full game state requires clicking through a variety of bars and menus, and it's very frustrating. There are occasional mystifying decisions, such as showing you when opponents have taken cards, but not what. The oxygen and temperature meters show a reading between numbers, making it very hard to know what they're actually on. 

All this is a shame because Terraforming Mars is popular for good reason. It's a cracking game with colossal replay value. Each turn you get a bunch of resources depending on your production value in that resource. You can then spend them taking either basic actions, like raising the various meters and building cities, or playing cards. Some of these mimic the basic actions on the cheap. Others raise production, erupt volcanoes, stymie other players or add new resources such as microbes or animals.

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Many cards demand minimum or maximum conditions on the terraforming scale, adding depth and timing to the strategy. But the cards are just the brink of the well of variety to explore. Players start by picking a corporation, each with a special ability you can build around. There are bonus points for being the first to reach certain milestones, like three plant tiles places. And you can take a calculated gamble, paying to unlock extra points for having the most of something at game end: tiles, or science cards for example.

All these levers to pull ensure no two games are the same and the sense of building and achievement is addictive. The ease with which you can start and play a game with this adaptation makes it doubly so. So maybe we should be thankful it doesn't feel entirely like a finished product. The core is in place and the solo game is a fascinating challenge. But as a premium product, players have the right to expect better than this. Let's hope Asmodee live up to their promise and put the pieces in place soon. Terraforming Mars deserves nothing less.

Terraforming Mars is a great strategy challenge with huge replay value. But, while pretty and convenient, this adaptation currently has too many rough edges to recommend.

Review: Terraforming Mars

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