Game Review: Terraforming Mars
Updated: Mar 12
We are War Games, and we make games worth fighting over.
However, we recognize that there are plenty of other great games out there not made by us. So in an effort to spread the love, we decided to also start reviewing other games worth fighting over.
As we all wait the last couple of weeks for Proliferation: The Game of Nuclear Strategy to arrive, here is one game we think you will enjoy.
Game: Terraforming Mars
Game Night: March 4, 2023
Play Time: 90-120 minutes
Description: “In Terraforming Mars, you control a corporation with a certain profile. Play project cards, build up protection, place your cities and green areas on the map, and race for milestones and awards! Will your corporation lead the way into humanity’s new era?”
Date Published: 2016
For this review, we chose Terraforming Mars because, truthfully, we’ve been anticipating playing it for months. In the process of designing Proliferation, our team did a fair amount of what we dubbed “market research” (if you can call countless nights of playing tabletop games “market research”). We got really excited about a short list of games, and Terraforming Mars was on that list.
First Impressions/Unboxing: Our copy was a little bit damaged, but since our team wanted to play so badly, and there was only one copy at Barnes and Nobles, we decided to grab it anyway. We definitely aren’t faulting FryxGames for this one; if anything, it just shows how excited we were to finally play!
Besides the minimal box damage, the game gave a very commanding and classic first impression. The artwork catches the eye, and gives a good feel for some of the themes at play. Reading the back of the box got us especially excited to play, diving deeper into a future world where humans play their part terraforming the fourth planet from the Sun.
After taking off the shrink wrap from the box and taking off the lid, the first thing we noticed was the amount of game pieces included in the copy. There also wasn’t much in the way of organization, minus baggies provided to store pieces in.
Written by Digital Media Manager Lila Brissette
As someone who tends to choose games based on how pretty the boxes are (that’s why I bought the original edition of Gale Force Nine’s Dune), I didn’t consider Terraforming Mars’ overall look to be its strongest feature. After playing, though, I’ve come to love the commitment to bright and bold design choices, as well as the fantastic art on the project cards. Though there are more artistically cohesive game designs out there, Fryxgames created a positive and lively atmosphere with the art and graphic design of Terraforming Mars.
Though the design world was beginning to move towards more minimalistic and “flat” graphic design when Terraforming Mars was being developed, Fryxgames stuck with the 2000s-era skeuomorphic design approach. Certain elements of the game’s print features imitate metal textures, and the surface of Mars looks almost like a satellite photo. Although I thought the game’s boards looked too cluttered for my taste at first, once I learned the game, I understood that maximalism was an intentional feature of the game. There’s a lot to keep track of while you’re playing — and if there’s going to be that much information on the board, a more minimalist or “flat” approach would have made this game far more unfriendly to new players, and therefore less enjoyable.
Fryxgames did not shy away from using color, either. Many of my favorite games have simple color schemes, or they stick to colors of the same temperature. Terraforming Mars’ vibrant color scheme runs the spectrum of the rainbow — it reminds me of the kids’ science magazines that I used to love reading every week as a kindergartener in Las Vegas. They give the game a bright and optimistic feel, which is very appropriate considering that the game mechanics reward players for rapid development, rather than for offensive plays.
Rulebook: Terraforming Mars is a complex game, and comes with a 16-page, 8” x 10” rulebook, full of long columns of text. It can be sort of intimidating to stumble upon this much content, but the rulebook does a good job of briefly describing the game mechanics, and doesn’t go into unnecessary detail. There were a few topics that felt hazy by the end, however, such as all the situations to use the Resource Markers in. Overall, the rulebook is better than most.
Materials: The materials in our copy were sort of a mixed bag. The Player Markers and Resource Markers were excellent examples of everything the game did right, while the quality of the Player Boards and game board itself were slightly on the disappointing side. The Player Boards, for example, are flimsy and low-quality, and have already taken slight damage on the edges from our limited amount of gameplay.
The Player and Resource Markers are definitely a highlight of the game, making strategy and wealth in the game visual as well as mental. Be careful, though: There is a true cornucopia of things for a cat (or small child) to choke on, so keep all the materials on top of the table at all times!
The greenery and city tiles were also high-quality and satisfying to engage with. With Terraforming Mars being a more complex tabletop game with a higher price range, we were satisfied with the quality of the materials in the game, even if a few of them could have been improved.
Gameplay: The gameplay for Terraforming Mars is definitely a key strength of the game. One of the most notable features is how players take their turns each generation, each player taking one to two actions in succession until each player has accomplished what they wanted to that generation. This kept all players maximally engaged.
One of our team member’s favorite aspects of the game were the Project Cards, hands down. With nearly 200 project cards in the game, each project played still feels fresh and exciting, and makes it hard to keep the same strategy twice. The quality and time that seemingly has gone into each Project Card stands out, and reading the auxiliary texts at the bottom of each card help paint an even more vivid picture of what terraforming Mars would really be like.
The Production Phase of each generation is also exciting. Collecting resources at the end of each generation, including currency, steel, titanium, greenery, energy, and heat, activates some squirrel-like apparatus hidden deep inside the human brain: The need to collect trinkets! The Production Phase also made it feel like there was a new slate each generation, helping players more behind in the game to still feel like there was a path toward victory.
Terraforming Mars is definitely a Eurogame, or German-style tabletop game, where players are indirectly competing against each other for a total of points at the end. The game’s Terraform Rating (a partial measure of how much currency you are collecting each Production Phase and your general standing in the Terraforming community) keeps players generally informed about power players, while points on Project Cards are generally added up at the end, making for some last-minute surprises. Finally, the way that Awards and Milestones are declared during the gameplay can end up being so random and decisive that they shift the balance of power completely.
Victory points contained on Project Cards can also make for an end-of-game upheaval. Remember that some Project Cards can actually have negative victory points, which really messed with one of our team members who came in close second.
Out of all these positive aspects of gameplay, there remains one we just couldn’t understand: The Generation Tracker. Our team has not personally encountered a situation where the amount of generations played mattered, and we often forgot to move the Generation Tracker when gameplay was passed to the next player. We will most likely be excluding it from future play.
Overall, the gameplay definitely succeeded in keeping players engaged and entertained throughout.
Replayability. The Project Cards, differing types of resources, different categories of Victory Points, and various paths to ending the game all made Terraforming Mars very replayable. While our official game night was this March, we’ve played the game around a dozen times since purchasing it earlier this year, and the game seems to actually get more enjoyable the better we understand it.
Markers: Every person we have introduced to Terraforming Mars has commented on how much they love the Player and Resource Markers. Again, we think it’s the base human desire to hoard trinkets, but it could also be the deep Capitalist in us.
Project Cards: The Project Cards are expansive and well-designed. The amount of things you can do in Terraforming Mars make the game as entertaining and engaging as it is.
Setting: Terraforming Mars also does well with its subject matter and setting, especially at a time where humanity’s eyes are so fixed on interplanetary travel. The game does a good job of using setting to its advantage, creating an immersive world for players to dive into.
One Drawback: The box organization is basically nonexistent. For as many pieces as there are in Terraforming Mars, we would have expected a vac tray of some sort, or at least cardboard dividers.
Game Night Winner: Connor Wooten, our Communications Director!