Thursday when I was out, I bought a couple of games. One of them was "Terraforming Mars", which I hadn't heard of, but which looked interesting. From reading the back of the box, the idea is that the different players are different corporations, contributing to the terraforming of Mars (for money and power and fame, of course, not altruism). The game ends when Mars is deemed to be terraformed. The player with the most victory points wins.
Yesterday I unpacked it and read the rules and discovered at the back of the rule book that one of the given variations is a solo game. So I set it up for that, and played one game, to help me get a feel for the rules and the play. I lost, of course. The way the solo game goes, rather than counting your victory points, you have to complete the terraforming within 14 rounds (called "generations" because terraforming has to be done over multiple lifetimes). Of course I kept going after the 14th generation, and managed to complete the terraforming four generations later, so it wasn't too bad.
It has a similar feel to Puerto Rico, I think. With some touches that remind me of Seven Wonders.
- It is a long player like Puerto Rico (set aside a few hours).
- It has multiple sources of victory points which you're adding up at the end.
- There are both money and resources, which are used in various ways to get more money, resources, and victory points.
- Like Seven Wonders, there are cards which cost money and/or resources to play, and which have different effects depending on the card.
- Like Puerto Rico, each round has a few different phases to it, and the person who goes first in the round changes with each round.
- You'll be looking up the rules frequently when you start.
Unfortunately, there are a few spots where the rules of Terraforming Mars are silent or ambiguous, so the players will have to agree on some house rules before they start. That's okay. The game definitely lends itself to variations. Indeed, bucking the trend in modern games in offering the variations only in "expansion packs", this includes one set of "expansion" cards in the game itself, and has at least four different variations listed at the back of the rule book (one of which, as I said above, is a solo game).
So, to speak of the actual setup and play...
There are three conditions that have to be met before Mars is deemed to be terraformed:
- The average temperature has to be at least 8C; at the beginning of the game the average temperature is -30C.
- There has to be 9% of the surface covered with liquid water (oceans); at the start there is none.
- There has to be at least 14% oxygen in the atmosphere (similar to the amount of oxygen at higher altitudes on Earth); at the start there is no oxygen at all.
There is a main board, and player boards. The main board shows a map of Mars with hexes on it, a few charts, the "oxygen" track, the "temperature" track, the spot to stack the unused ocean hexes, and all around the edge there is a track with numbers from 1 to 100. The player boards keep track of a player's means of production and resources produced. There are player tokens and counter tokens. The counter tokens are, cleverly, used to count all sorts of things, rather than having separate tokens for money, other tokens for resources, etc. The downside of this is that if someone bumps or brushes against a player board, it can be impossible to set it to rights unless you have a photographic memory.
So, how does one increase the temperature, increase the water, and increase the oxygen?
- Temperature is increased by spending Heat resources, or by using a card which increases the temperature (more on the cards later).
- Water is increased by placing Ocean hexes on the main board. One can either buy an Ocean hex, or one can use a card which enables one to place an Ocean hex.
- Oxygen is increased either by placing a Greenery hex on the main board, or by using a card which increases the oxygen. Greenery hexes can be created with Plant resources, or bought with money; I'm not sure if there are cards which can enable one to place Greenery hexes (as opposed to increasing oxygen in other ways).
When a player causes the temperature, water, or oxygen to be increased, their "Terraforming Rating" (TR) is also increased. This is recorded on the outside track on the main board, with a coloured player token representing each player's current rating. The TR is used for two things: first, during the game it determines the base amount of money (MegaCredits) one gets per round (this is funding from the World Government for the terraforming effort); second, at the end of the game, it is one of the sources of victory points.
I've touched on some of the Resources above, but I'll explain a bit more. There are five types of resource: steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat.
- Steel can be used instead of money for cards which are "building" cards: one steel is worth two MegaCredits. Steel can also be required specifically for using certain cards, or may be produced by certain cards.
- Titanium can be used instead of money for cards which are "space" cards: one titanium is worth three MegaCredits. Titanium can also be required specifically for using certain cards, or may be produced by certain cards.
- Plants can be used to create Greenery hexes: eight plant tokens are required. Plants can also be required specifically for using certain cards, or may be produced by certain cards. Plants also have a tendency to be destroyed by card actions.
- Energy is required for using specific cards, or may be produced by certain cards. Also, at the end of a round, any leftover energy tokens are converted into heat tokens.
- Heat is used to increase the temperature: eight heat tokens are required to increase the global temperature by one step. Heat can also be required specifically for using certain cards, or may be produced by certain cards.
So, what are these cards I've mentioned? They are pretty much the heart of the game. Cards are acquired in the "Research" phase of a round, and spent in the "Action" phase of a round. Unlike other games I've seen, cards aren't just dealt out, they have to be bought. The way this is done is that you pick up a number of cards from the stack, look at them, and decide which ones you want to keep, discard the ones you don't, and pay three MegaCredits each for the ones you are keeping. That's just the fee for putting them in your hand; you also have to pay a fee for playing them in the Action phase, and then for some cards you also have to pay money (or resources) to activate the effect that the card has. It would be interesting to see what changes it had on the game if one varied the card-acquisition rules.
Some cards have preconditions which have to be met before they can be played; for example, a certain amount of Oxygen or Ocean must be present, the temperature must be above (or below) a certain level, or the preconditions may depend on your own resources or other cards which you have previously played.
The cards are nicely geeky. There are heaps of them, which make them rather difficult to shuffle. A few examples: Space Mirrors, Nitrite Reducing Bacteria, Lichen, Magnetic Field Generators, Worms, Tundra Farming, Beam From A Thorium Asteroid, Ganymede Colony, Mangrove Swamp, Mining Rights, Insects, Flooding, Eos Chasma National Park...
- Demios Down: the description says "We don't need that moon anyway" -- yes, this card crashes the moon Demios into Mars! An example of a card with a mixed effect, because while it increases temperature and gives you steel, it also destroys a whole bunch of plants.
- Nuclear Zone: blow up some of your leftover nuclear arsenal on Mars to increase the temperature - that's efficient, isn't it? It also renders one hex unusable, and gives you -2 victory points, so maybe not... Yes, one thing I like is that while some cards can give you victory points, some of the nasty cards can give you negative victory points. Penalties for bad behaviour, I like that.
- Search For Life: gain victory points for finding native microbes on Mars! This card is one of the ones which has preconditions which may prevent it being played; in this case, the Oxygen levels have to be 6% or less (presumably because once they are higher, there will be enough Terran microbes in the soil that you won't be able to tell whether they are native or not).
- Zeppelins: yeah, travel around Mars in Zeppelins! The precondition for this is that there has to be 5% oxygen (to provide sufficient air pressure); the result is that you make more money because people are paying you for using your Zeppelins.
Some cards have effects on other cards, or have side-effects when cards of a certain type are played, or certain actions are done. If you have a lot of them, it can be hard keeping track of the effects.
Playing cards isn't the only action you can take in the Action phase; there are other things you can do such as: buy hexes with money, increase temperature with heat, "sell patents" (discard one card in your hand and get one MegaCredit in return. Not advised unless you are desperate, considering that the card cost three MegaCredits to put into your hand in the first place).
I think I'm going to stop here with the details, for there are quite a few more details -- I did say that one needs to consult the rule book quite a bit.
In conclusion, I would say that I definitely want to try this out with my gaming friends and family - though I expect Certain People will have unholy glee in playing the nasty cards...