Doing my best Dr. Carol Marcus impression

Review: Terraforming Mars

PC •

When Terraforming Mars first hit the cardboard scene back in 2016, the hype was up there with the likes of Agricola and Dominion. You couldn’t listen to any game podcast, Twitter feed, or YouTube channel and not be overwhelmed with tales of just how good this game was. I held off as long as I could but, when I finally got Terraforming Mars to the table, I had to agree. It was a keeper. Maybe not the best game I’d ever played, but it came with enough variety and decision points hidden beneath a fairly simple facade that I could see it hanging around and being a family favorite for a long time. That was the cardboard version. Today I’m starting a new Terraforming Mars hype train, but for the digital version. It deserves it. The PC port from LuckyHammers and Asmodee Digital is nearly flawless and is easily one of the best digital board games I’ve ever played.

Digital Terraforming Mars does what it’s supposed to do and does it with panache. The full board game experience is here, both against AI and online opponents, and they even managed to squeeze in the solo variant from the physical version, something many recent ports have relegated to the rubbish bin (can we have the robot in Race for the Galaxy, please?). What makes it special is how LuckyHammers polished this to a nearly blinding sheen, all while keeping the game front-and-center. While the hardcore fans tend to dislike when a digital board game visually differs too much from its cardboard forebear, Terraforming Mars strikes a balance between maintaining the game’s form while making it prettier than autumn in Valles Marineris. Old timers will have no issues jumping right in and playing, ignoring the beauty in front of them at their leisure. New players (or those of us who like a bit of digital tomfoolery in our digital cardboard) will be happy to take the time and bask in the atmospheric glow emanating from their monitors.

Humble beginnings

It’s freaking gorgeous. Not only is Mars itself a piece of art, but the planet, Phobos, and distant Jupiter and Ganymede move along with the mouse via a pseudo-3D effect that I couldn’t get myself to turn off even if I was afraid it might trigger my vertigo (it didn’t). Oceans appear through eggshell-like cracks in the surface, exposing flowing blue waves. Forests erupt from the red soil sounding like 1000 Ents creaking to life. In a cool touch, none of the forest tiles are identical, but instead have distinct tree and rock formations, giving everything a sense of realism you just can’t get with a green cardboard hex. Cities shine under their protective domes and, my favorite aspect, each special tile is completely unique. Gone are the boring brown tiles of the physical game (necessary for the physical game, mind you), replaced with unique tiles that pepper the Martian landscape. My favorite is the Nuclear Zone, created when you detonate nuclear weapons to raise Mars’ temperature. Blinding white light fills the screen leaving behind nothing but a scorched, smoking crater.

PIck a card, any card

Why am I focusing so much on the graphics? I’ve already reviewed Terraforming Mars on the tabletop. It’s a game I admire and play quite a bit and I’m not sure I need to repeat myself here. Instead, I wanted to focus on what makes this version of Terraforming Mars so special. That begins with the game’s look, but doesn’t end there.

Asynchronous play, the reason <insert deity of your choice here> invented digital board games in the first place, is present and done well. You can set up timers for each turn from a couple minutes each, to more time than you’d ever want to take. There is the ability to add friends and play private games as well as quick matches with strangers. Games can be set up using a “karma” level. I’m not sure what that entails, but that usually means you can block players who routinely rage quit or don’t finish their games. Luckily, you can also sub in AI for when one of your human players finds something more interesting to do and abandons you in a lonely online miasma.

What flavor of rich asshole do you want to play today?

All version of the base game are here, including the basic game (all players play as corporations without special abilities) and  the corporate era game (players choose a corporation that will give them an edge in one way or another). The basic game also removes “complex” cards from the deck, making it a much easier game to teach. Corporate era adds all those cards back in and, in my opinion, makes the game much more fun. Don’t play the basic game.

Solo players have the choice to play against three levels of AI or using special solo rules. One variant not included (at least I didn’t see an option for it) is to draft cards between rounds rather than just drawing and buying what you want. I’ve never played that way at the table, so I didn’t miss it, but it would be nice to give it a try.

Hey, Jupiter, you’re next.

All of this would be for naught if Terraforming Mars wasn’t a perfect fit for digital. Turns are short, but not so short that they feel more like an annoyance. I’m playing a few online games of Stockpile from Digidiced now and, while it’s a very well done game, being told it’s your turn only to log in and realize you simply have to push the Next Turn button can be a bit anticlimactic. Not so in Terraforming Mars. Each turn gives you plenty to ponder with 1 or 2 actions, most of them consisting of playing one of the seemingly countless cards. Yes, there will come a turn each generation in which you merely “Pass” and move on, but they’re not as frequent once you move past the first few generations and can start making some real money.

I’m home.

What stuck me most about playing Terraforming Mars on my desktop was just how damn relaxing it was. They out-Tokaido’d Tokaido. This is the zen-game I’ve been looking for, sitting back and relaxing while bending the red planet to my will. The entire game feels movie-like, but you’re making all the decisions and watching the fruit of your labor create something beautiful on screen. There’s really no other digital board game experience quite like it.

Of course, if you aren’t a fan of the tabletop game, making it prettier isn’t going to change your mind. There are also a couple questionable UI choices by LuckyHammers that I would like to see fixed down the road. No Undo button being the biggest. Being able to add names to human players rather than just going by their color would be nice. The weirdest is how longer card text is abbreviated even when zooming in on the cards and, instead of seeing it when hovering, you have to click a small “info” button. Lastly, the game log is a bit on the clunky side.

The biggest hurdle for many players will simply be the current platform. While I enjoy sitting at my desk and playing on my PC, I’d much rather be sitting on the couch playing on my iPad. I can’t even play on my MacBook, which would at least give me some portability. Asmodee tells us that mobile version are in the works (and I saw Terraforming Mars working on a phone at Gen Con), but we don’t know when that will happen. Waiting is going to be tough because I’m dying to challenge the Stately Players via tournament, pronto.

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