Despite its flaws, Terraforming Mars is still one of the best engine-building games you can play on a table top.
Expansive card deck
Clever mix of gameplay elements
Minimal player conflict
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Recommended age: 12+
Time per game: 3 hours+
Terraforming Mars is widely beloved by the board game community, partly because of its extraterrestrial theme but also because of its brilliant mix of gameplay elements.
You play as a money-driven corporation, desperate to cash in on the terraforming project being completed on Mars. Collectively, players try to make the planet habitable by increasing the temperature, oxygen levels, and ocean coverage. Once each of these parameters hits its final target, the game is over – the winning player is the one who has accumulated the most victory points by contributing to the terraforming project and completing other achievements.
It’s without a doubt one the best space board games you can play right now. It has some neat attention to detail (parts of the map feature real landmarks from Mars) and its extensive card deck means that each replay will reveal new elements.
Here’s what we made of the game, after playing it for several months.
Terraforming Mars: What’s in the box and set up
- Quick and easy set up
- Straightforward, functional design
- Resource cubes sometimes need replacing
Inside the box you’ll find a board, some tiles, player sheets, a huge card deck, some player markers, and resource cubes. It’s relatively easy to set all this up – we managed to lay it out in less than five minutes.
The design adheres to the ‘form follows function’ principle. Different sections of the board allow you to track your turns and monitor terraforming progress. The cards are adorned with miniature symbols which make it easy to understand the cost, requirement, and category of each one. The artwork isn’t the most innovative, but that doesn’t detract from the gameplay. If anything, we find the straightforward design makes it easier to play.
We did stumble across some issues with the resource cubes. These shiny little markers are incredibly smooth and slippy; several times when we were playing, a careless nudge of the table sent them flying. Annoyingly, they can also run out during a game, which meant we had to find substitutes to represent our resources. They chip easily too – ours looked fairly battered after our very first play through.
We were also slightly disappointed that the cards didn’t come with any kind of deck holder, so they rattle around in the box once you put them away. The game manages to rise above these (largely aesthetic) issues, but they are irritating when the rest of the game feels so polished.
While the rulebook and scoring system is fairly extensive, it’s not exactly complicated. We didn’t find ourselves scratching our heads or arguing over the correct way to play a card. However, we did need to revisit the rule book to look carefully at the scoring system to establish who had really won.
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Terraforming Mars: Playing a game
- Brilliant mix of gameplay elements
- Light on player interaction
- Slower pace in the final rounds
As mentioned above, all of the players contribute to the terraforming process by raising temperatures, increasing ocean coverage, and pumping up oxygen levels. Once these parameters hit the sweet spot, Mars has been officially terraformed and it’s game over. So, before then you need to do a lot of groundwork to get yourself the most victory points.
You get points by contributing to the terraforming processes – usually by laying down ocean or forest tiles, or by using heat resources to lift the temperature – but you can also earn them in a myriad of other ways. Building cities will get you points, as will playing certain cards. There are also special awards and milestones that can give you a boost, but you’ll have to invest some of your resources into these awards if you want to establish them, which can backfire occasionally.
For example, if you’re dominating the board, you might pay to fund the ‘landlord’ award, which will grant victory points to the player with the most tiles on the board. However, if someone increases their tile coverage in the final rounds, you could well lose out.
In brief, there are a lot of ways to win. It’s the kind of game that rewards strategic planning, but occasionally requires you to completely revise your tactics.
The cards provide most of the fun in this game; you can use them to improve your resource harvesting, bag victory points, or nudge up those all-important terraforming parameters. And because the deck is so extensive you’re unlikely to find yourself playing with similar hands in subsequent games.
You can purchase cards each round, which means that sometimes you’ll find yourself with a card that seemed incredibly useful in the first generation now lingering in your hand at the endgame. Our top tip is to make sure you don’t get too attached to cards that haven’t proved useful and sell them on if necessary.
There’s not a lot of opportunity for player interaction in the game; there’s no bartering or bullying. Occasionally, a card will let you swipe a couple of resources from someone else, but in general everyone is busy building their own engine and making sure they have a hearty harvest of resources. We like this kind of peaceful play, although aggressive players might miss the action of battle-style games.
One pattern that did come up frequently in our games is a sudden slow-down in the final rounds. It’s easy to see why this happens. If you’re not confident that you have a good number of victory points, then you’ll stop contributing to the terraforming parameters to delay the end of the game. If everyone is on fairly equal footing, then you might find quite a few players suddenly don’t want to nudge up the temperature or oxygen levels.
We didn’t mind this, mostly because we were still enjoying the complexities of the game in these stages. Some other players weren’t keen on the sluggish pace after a solid three hours of play, which is understandable.
There’s also a solo version of the game you can play, if you can’t gather enough friends and feel like some terrestrial sculpting. This definitely misses out on some of the more interesting elements of the game, but it’s a novel little extra to enjoy with a board game.
Should you buy Terraforming Mars?
Seasoned board game fans will enjoy the challenge of balancing resource management against regular spending. Casual players, however, may find the number of rules overwhelming. And on some playthroughs, you’ll need a saintly amount of patience to get through the final rounds.
With that being said, Terraforming Mars is overall a really satisfying game to play and the gameplay is exceptional – the extensive card deck means each playthrough will be unique. It’s also nice to find a game that you can play with friends or solo, so you’ll really get your money’s worth with this one. Terraforming Mars is one board game we definitely recommend adding to your collection.
If this product isn’t for you
Three hours not long enough for you? Why not try your hand at Twilight Imperium, the epic strategy game that takes half a day (minimum) to complete. You play as an alien species, looking to take the Imperial Throne. There’s a lot more bartering and bullying in this one, if you like player interaction.
Or – if you’re looking for something short and sweet – try Race for the Galaxy, which takes 30-60 minutes to finish. The card-based game tasks you with building a galactic civilization. It’s small enough to pack up for a trip and has deceptively simple mechanics, which tactical players will enjoy.
Ruth has worked across both print and online media for five years, contributing to national newspaper titles and popular tech sites. She has held a number of journalist roles alongside more senior editorial positions, and was formerly acting as a commissioning editor for Space.com until 2022.