Terraforming Mars, despite its intimidating name, is a clever, ambitious strategy game that manages to give players a lot of options and decision points without leaning on too many rules. Games run long, but there’s minimal down time and a lot of ‘doing’ for players, and the only real lag is the end-of-round accounting that can slow the game’s progress.
Based on the abysmal trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson that begins with Red Mars—a dry, plotless slog where a bunch of one-dimensional characters form the first human mission to colonize our planetary neighbor—Terraforming Mars pits players as competing companies, working to gradually remake that planet, raising its oxygen level and temperature while developing water sources. The board divides the surface of Mars into a hundred hexes on which players can place ocean tiles, greenery tiles, city tiles, or other special features to generate points and try to raise any of those three core variables (oxygen, temp, water) to advance towards end game.
Within that theme, though, Terraforming Mars is essentially a game of resources and buildings. Players collect income (one resource) and generate five other resources, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat, that they can use to play hand cards representing buildings or events, or to directly raise any of those three core variables. Cash rules everything around Mars, so players can directly buy buildings or certain tile types, but it’s easier as the game progresses to improve your resource generation so you can play those cards without money—building certain cards with one steel unit replacing two coins, or using eight plant resources to place a greenery card.
The TM deck includes 200 cards that are wildly diverse in cost, features, and relative value, from cheap event cards that players can use once per round to 40-coin cards that allow for massive manipulation of their own resources or global variables. This diversity of options is a mixed bag—replay value will be very high, but it’s hard to plan on a specific strategy around a certain card type or category.
Players act in rounds, and when every player in a game has passed for that particular round, the ‘generation’ ends and players receive their income and produce resources. On a turn, a player can take one or two actions, so managing your resources within a generation can give you the chance to take four or more actions while other players might only take one or two to make a large or expensive move.
My main concern heading into my first play was that the game would be smart but dry, pun thoroughly intended, given the name, the books that inspired it, and the use of six resources, but the actual play is quick and lively. We didn’t find ourselves constantly scrambling for resources or frustrated at our inability to play good cards we had, and the downtime between turns is minimal once everyone knows what’s going on. My daughter, who is ten and loves games but has the short of attention span you might expect at her age, immediately asked after our first game if we could play it again, which I’d consider the highest praise given the game type. Full games take close to two hours, although I think that will go down the more we play it. It’s definitely among the best new games of 2016 if you can get past the ungainly title.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.