Saturday, 12 November 2016

Terraforming Mars

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Terraforming Mars was one of the hottest games at the 2016 Essen game fair. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to play it soon after the fair. In this game every player is a company tasked to terraform Mars. Each company has different strengths and you should play to your strengths. The terraforming exercise consists of three main aspects - increasing the surface temperature, increasing the oxygen level of the atmosphere, and creating oceans. The progress of all three are all tracked on the game board. Once all three aspects reach their respective targets, the game ends. You count scores to determine who wins.

The temperature track is on the left. The curved track at the bottom is the oxygen track. That stack of blue tiles at the lower left is the oceans. When all of them are placed on Mars, the ocean project completes. The track around the edges is both the income track and the score track. When you contribute towards one of the three main projects, you increase both your income (for each round) and your score (at game end).

This is one of the companies. The company card specifies its starting capital and unique strengths. This particular company starts the game producing more plants (two green squares inside the brown rectangle) and also starts with three extra plants in stock (three green squares). Also it needs seven instead of eight plants to create a forest.

The most important element of the game is the cards. 200+ unique cards. Playing cards let you perform all sorts of actions. Some cards are single-use, some have permanent effects, some are a mix. It costs money to play a card, so you can't play them nilly-willy. Also some have prerequisites, e.g. the temperature must be at most X, or the oxygen level must be at least Y. So some cards can't be played too early, and some must be played before it is too late. You start the game by drawing 10 cards. You need to decide which ones to buy using your starting capital and which to discard. After that, you draw 4 cards every round, and in a similar manner you need to decide which to buy. You can't afford to buy everything, because if you do that you won't have enough money to actually play them, or you will have to wait too long to save enough money to play them. The key is to select a good combination of cards to use, cards that have synergy and match your long-term strategy. Sometimes you will find there are too many cards you like. You may feel like deciding which child to shoot because you know you can't have them all.

The cost and prerequisites are at the top left. On the top right are icons indicating card type. Some of these icons allow you to pay for the card using resources, some affect other cards you have played or will play in future. Cards with a green title banner are single-use, while those with blue banners have permanent effects. The Arctic Algae card lets you gain two plants every time anyone creates an ocean (icons in upper section). This is a permanent effect. You also gain one plant when you play the card (icon in lower section). This is the one-time effect. Once you get familiar with the iconography, you'll be able to tell what a card does at a glance. Before that happens, there is text which describes the card powers. The cards are quite functional.

This is the player board which keeps track of your production capacity and resources on hand. The six resource types, starting from the top left, are money, steel, titanium, plants, energy and heat. The section with the brown background indicates your production capacity, i.e. how much you produce every round. The gold, silver and bronze cubes indicate how much of each resource you have. Gold means ten, silver five and bronze one. So at this moment I have $15 and 4 plants. When playing a card related to steel or titanium, you can pay in steel or titanium respectively, each unit being equivalent to $2 or $3. Every 8 plants can be used to create a forest. Every 8 units of heat can increase the surface temperature once. Any unused energy is converted to heat at the end of a round.

I find the player board rather ugly, albeit functional enough, but I am fond of these metallic coloured cubes.

One round consists of players taking turns to perform up to two actions, until everyone passes. Once you pass, you take no more actions in that round. Other than playing a card, creating a forest and increasing the temperature as mentioned above, one more important action you can do is to activate an end-game bonus. There are many such bonuses, but there is a limited number than can be activated. Activating one costs money, and the cost increases if you do it late. Bonuses victory points come from fulfilling a certain criteria (e.g. having created a certain number of forests), or having the most of something (e.g. having the most steel and titanium). So it is not just a matter of activating a bonus, you also need to work towards the criteria.

Some actions let you place tiles on Mars. These tiles are your properties and are marked with cubes of your colour. The green tiles are forests, grey tiles are cities, brown tiles are special buildings. Spaces on Mars with blue borders are reserved for oceans. There is one capital city space which is reserved specifically for placing the capital city. Other spaces can be used for cities, forests and special buildings. Many spaces have small icons. These are rewards you get when covering the space with a tile. Rewards include plants, steel and cards.

The Play

I did a full 5-player game with Kareem, Jeff, Ainul and Dith. I always prefer playing with green. One of my two starting company options happened to be a forestation company. I gladly selected that. Among the other ten cards I drew, there were some which fit well with the forestation company, even though they were not immediately usable. I feel that the companies are all quite different, and thus don't have very direct competition. Naturally you want to play to your strengths, so companies will generally improve themselves (i.e. "build their engines") in different ways, and will have different strategic directions. In our game, I was the only forestation guy. However, there are still quite a few smaller ways that companies compete in. Tile placement is a source of competition. Sometimes you race to claim the best spots. You want to avoid helping others when you place tiles, and at the same time you try to benefit from tiles others have placed or will place. E.g. you earn money for placing tiles next to oceans, your cities earn 1VP per adjacent forest. The end-game bonuses are also a source of competition, the nature being similar to multiple races which force you to prioritise. There are not many ways you can directly hurt your opponents, but uncharacteristically the one way in which you can do so has no way to defend against. Some cards let you force an opponent to discard a certain amount of one resource type. There is no defense, other than not having said resource in a large amount. I can imagine players disliking such cards. I myself was a victim to them in our game. However overall I think they are fine. I see them as a balancing tool. If players play rationally, these cards will be used to rein in a leading player. When Kareem taught us the game, he explicitly warned us not to stockpile any resource too much, lest we become victims to such cards. Playing such cards is not free. The one doing the hurting has to pay cash to play the card.

The joy I get from Terraforming Mars is similar to that of Race for the Galaxy. It is about creating a combination of cards that work well together. In our game, some of the cards I chose at the start of the game laid the foundation for a big move near the end of the game. With the starting cards I already needed to lay out my strategic plan, and every round as I drew more cards, I needed to see which would fit into my master plan, and whether I needed to make adjustments to my plan. It was very satisfying to see everything fall into place - cards that worked well in the early game, mid game and end game, all being played at the right times. I needed to manage my cash flow to make sure I could play the right cards at the right time. I needed to make difficult decisions when I drew more good cards than I could afford to play in a reasonable amount of time.

I find the game immersive, because the flavour text, the setting and the in-game actions jive. E.g. one card allows me to create two oceans at one go, but the prerequisite is the temperature must not be below zero Celcius. That feels logical and adds a lot to the experience.

Ultimately you want to help progress the three terraforming projects - temperature, oxygen and oceans. Many actions let you augment the ability of your company, but your end goal is still contributing to the terraforming effort. It is not just about VP at game end, it is also your regular income from round to round. You need more money to do more things.

I arrange my hand according to prerequisites, which are at the top left corners. The first card requires three oceans to be on the map. The next three require the surface temperature to be beyond specific levels. The last two require oxygen to be beyond specific levels.

In our game only three players spent more effort on placing tiles on the board - Kareem (red), Jeff (yellow) and I (green). There are benefits in placing tiles. Forests are worth 1VP each. Cities score 1VP per adjacent forest. Owning tiles may help you score bonus points at game end.

This was near game end. All ocean tiles had been placed. The temperature was three steps away from the target. Oxygen was only one step away. Once a terraforming target is achieved, you won't earn VP's or increase your income for performing the corresponding terraforming action anymore. In one particular round, there were only three ocean tiles left to be played, and I had two cards in hand that would let me place three tiles in total. I was worried someone else might beat me to the ocean tiles, and I hurriedly played them. In fact at the time no one else had ocean-making cards. These cards are uncommon. I shouldn't have rushed. At the time there were other players with enough plants to create forests, so I should have been focusing on creating forests. Plants are open information. I should have paid attention to that. It was a confirmed threat, when oceans was an unknown. So others beat me to planting forests, which maxed out the oxygen level, and by the time I planted my forests, I missed out on the VP's and the income increase I could have had.

This was game end. Both oxygen and temperature were at the target levels now. On the right, I (green) had created a bend when I planted my forests, which proved to be poor play. I created a lucrative location for a city, and Kareem (red) grabbed the opportunity to place his city. My forest placement had given him 1VP more, and when the game ended, he won the game, beating me by precisely 1VP. Aaaarrgghh!

The Thoughts

Terraforming Mars is currently very popular. I tend to have reservations when playing popular games, because lately I find that games popular among gamers don't click as well for me, e.g. Mombasa. Terraforming Mars turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I quite enjoyed it. I like the details on the cards. The many actions all feel like they are indeed about terraforming. A lot of this is just flavour text and pictures, but they convince me. This game does not feel like just another Eurogame. I feel I'm playing something unique.

Ivan and Jason had already played quite a few times, and didn't join our game. They were a little overdosed and needed to play something else. One thing they said about the game was it felt like a multiplayer solitaire game. Indeed throughout most of the game you are developing your own company and you rarely directly damage your opponents. There is some competition and manoeuvring in the tile placement, and also in the various races for the bonus points, but there is little direct confrontation. Everyone works on assembling and executing his own combo of cards. This is a development game. It accelerates towards the end because companies will get stronger over time and will be able to do more and more. I like the sense of achievement in eventually completing the terraforming of Mars. It is satisfying to put together all the pieces and time when to play which card to eventually form an effective whole. This is not a game of individually developing your own little kingdom. The capability you build for your company is used for jointly transforming the red planet, together with your competitors.

I think the game will have decent replayability, because there is much variety in the companies and also the cards. Even if playing the same company, your fate and strategy will be different depending on what cards your draw, and when you draw which ones. The map is static, but I think that's a good thing, because that makes the game feel authentic and not generic. Other than the strategic view you need in developing your company and focusing on specific areas to score points, there are also many tactical decisions along the way. The competition on the map is mostly tactical in nature. You should also watch out for opportunities and risks that come up during play. I find Terraforming Mars an immersive and rich game.

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