Misunderstanding Terraforming Mars

, | Game reviews

Terraforming Mars is a great boardgame about an economic engine that traffics in money, metals, and energy, which are then funneled into projects to gradually turn Mars from a barren red board into a host for scientific marvels, lush forests, teeming cities, and sparkling oceans. It’s one of those lovely marriages of theme and mechanics that most boardgames aspire to.

Sadly, it’s a terrible videogame.

At least the videogame port of Terraforming Mars is mostly faithful to the tabletop game. All the components are here: the special projects, their card art, their myriad finicky rules interactions, the awards and milestones, the board you know and love. But what’s missing is something arguably more important than the pieces and their interactions. What’s missing is an understanding of the tabletop game. In two fundamental ways, the folks who made this adaptation fail to understand their source material.

The first failure is one of presentation. When playing Terraforming Mars on a tabletop, everyone gradually builds up a set of cards while making the planet warmer, wetter, and more oxygenated. The game clock is a countdown, one generation at a time, to a fully survivable habitat. You start with a corporation, newly arrived on Mars, fresh-faced, uniquely advantaged, and flush with cash. You then buy and play projects that represent an imaginative pas de deux of hard science and speculative science, favoring gravity over whimsy. You’ll find plausible-ish ways to extract power, to build infrastructure, to study the planet, to tap it for riches. Maybe you’ll breed life in forests and oceans, or set up a media empire piping information back to Earth, or springboard farther into the solar system. Harness sunlight, fusion, passing asteroids, and eventually maybe even wind. Found cities and connect them by rail or airship. Breed poodles to make your colonists happy. Maybe set off a nuke next to another corporation’s city just to ruin their view.

It’s all very specifically detailed on cards that emerge and accumulate. They have the obligatory artwork, but more importantly they have evocative names, suggesting special projects that range from microscopic tweaks to celestial impacts. Industrial Microbes. Extreme-Cold Fungus. Bio-Mass Combustors. Grass. Bushes. Heather. Ants. Lava Flows. Strip Mines. Greenhouse Gas Factories. A Tropical Resort. Water Import from Europa. Methane from Titan. Deimos Down, where you have actually dragged one of Mars’ moons onto the planet to harvest its ore and heat up the freezing atmosphere. Oh, you might have also ruined one of your competitors farms. Deimos happens.

The appeal of these cards isn’t just theming. They form a narrative. They are the story of how Mars got those cities, forests, and oceans, how it warmed and wrapped itself in a breathable atmosphere to support an Open City, a Nature Preserve, Livestock, and Birds. When the game is over, each player’s side of the table is a mosaic of humanity’s first step out into the solar system. It’s civilization slipping the surly bonds of Earth and reaching into the stars.

And it’s completely missing in the videogame. When you play a card in the videogame, it disappears, leaving behind only math and maybe a couple of symbols. It has vanished into the digital ether. Is it to make everything easier to read? Is it because it’s hard to implement the cards as cards once they’re played? Or is it because the developers don’t understand that Terraforming Mars is a storytelling game as much as it’s an economic engine builder? Whatever the case, the fact is that this videogame version sacrifices character for convenience. For what shall it profit a game if it shall gain easier at-a-glance information, and lose its own soul?

An even more damning indication that the developers don’t understand Terraforming Mars is that their port is missing one of the most important foundations for playing the game. When you’re first learning Terraforming Mars, you can play by drawing cards and then playing the hand you’re dealt. Just let Lady Luck drive. It’s an easy way to suss out the interplay of various bits and pieces that go into the Mars narrative, that drive its imaginative ecosystem and economy.

But more often than not, a random drawing of cards won’t let you set up the synergies that are at the heart of playing well and telling an interesting story. When you’re at the mercy of whatever cards you draw, you’re going to see about a quarter of the 208 unique cards in the game. You start with ten. Each turn you draw four. A game lasts about ten turns. That’s 50 cards out of 208. Did you get cards that help your corporation? Did you get cards that fit whatever strategy emerges? Did you even get cards necessary to kickstart an economy? Or were you stuck with a mishmash of bits and pieces? Did you sit back and watch someone else win because he got lucky and drew more cards that worked with his economy? Or maybe you were the lucky one? Whatever the case, leaving Terraforming Mars to the luck of the draw is a terrible thing to do to this finely tuned set of ways to terraform Mars.

That’s why drafting when you draw cards is an important part of the game. You draw cards, you keep one, you pass the others to the person next to you. You then keep one of those, and pass the others on. This means at some point, you’ll see a majority of the 208 cards in the game. With a greater range of choices, you’ll have more of the game at your fingertips. You’ll also have to make hard choices about what to keep, and what to let other players have. Terraforming Mars is far more interactive than the average economic engine game, and not just because you’re all terraforming the same map. With drafting, you can decide which cards the other players get. Do you want to give Deimos Down to a corporation with the orbital infrastructure to cheaply pull down the Martian moon, especially when your farms will be at risk? Because that’s what you’ll have to do if you keep the Livestock that benefit from your Viral Enhancers.

But without drafting, the Deimos Down card will just be something expensive that you discard because you can’t afford it. And you’ll most likely never even see the Livestock card or the Viral Enhancers that would have boosted it. You’ll discard most of the 50 cards you draw, making do with whichever ones you keep. Even then, you’re liable to draw cards when you have no idea that you might want them later, because you’ll have no idea what kind of economy you might build later. Why bother setting up an orbital infrastructure if you might never draw the cards that take advantage of it? Drafting is the difference between playing Terraforming Mars, and playing blindly with an incomplete deck of cards. It’s like the difference between playing chess with 16 pieces, and playing chess with four randomly drawn pieces. In other words, the difference between playing chess and playing something inane that isn’t chess.

There is no drafting in the videogame version of Terraforming Mars.

Drafting is supposedly being patched in at some point, apparently in response to complaints from people who bought the game and understand how it works. But it speaks volumes the developers didn’t understand what a difference drafting makes. I guess given how readily they bury the narrative, it shouldn’t be too surprising they also miss the point of the gameplay.

There are also the usual issues that plague boardgame ports. You’re locked out of information at a time you’re asked to make important choices. Information that’s clear on the tabletop is replaced by supposedly fancy graphics in the videogame. The AI is questionable. There are also some anomalies in terms of how certain cards interact with the game, but the scoring hurries along so quickly that you might not even notice. And in the end, you can’t even look at the Mars you’ve terraformed because you’re staring at a few not very helpful numbers indicating everyone’s score. That’s this boardgame port in a nutshell: an incomplete effort stripped of personality and then a door slammed shut before you can admire your work.


If you’re interested in a more detailed and realtime critique of Terraforming Mars, here’s a livestream of me playing through a full game:


  • Terraforming Mars

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Imagine a videogame adaptation of chess in which you can only play with four randomly drawn pieces.