Terraforming Mars: It’s fine- FINE!

Terraforming Mars is fine- but like the recent hype-machine Wingspan, for which it is often used as a point of comparison, I just can’t understand the enthusiasm. It has grown on me through a series of totally uncoerced plays. Who doesn’t like building tableaus of cards? I think this game falls through the floor in every aspect other than gameplay, and all it is there is a decent engine builder. This game was taking the hobby over when I first got in, and at first I thought I was having a newb problem, but I just don’t like it. You’re very transparently pushing cubes around to move cubes on tracks to make more cubes to move more cubes to occasionally lay a tile to push more cubes. I mean, if you like cubes, these are actually really poor quality ones whose thin metallic veneer soon starts to wear, but if you like pushing cubes, the player boards are incredibly flimsy and non-functional, finicky and easy to knock out of their proper places, and did I mention that the same cubes represent six different resources depending on where they are on your player board? But people love this game, even people who aren’t accountants. I don’t get it. 

I understand why accountants like it. I can admit that, especially with the expansions, it’s one of the more elaborate engine-builders out there- you have a lot of turns to accumulate a lot of cards. And that the mechanisms are sound and occasionally even clever. For example, their are goals you can buy to activate scoring conditions at the end of the game, but when you buy them you can’t know for sure that you will be the one to achieve that goal! Innovative! For all the cubes it’s a card-driven game, and the stack of cards has become unmanageably huge with all those expansions, making it harder and harder to pull off meaningful combos. You’re pushing the cubes to buy the cards, essentially, and the cards- guess what- help you get more cubes or discounts on the number of cubes you need to perform an action!

I will play this game- you kind of have to. It still gets dragged out to almost every game night in increasingly raggedy boxes crammed with more and more expansions. One of which is interesting- it gives you more interesting asymmetric starting player powers than the base game. The rest are extra content for people who have played the game out- which is weird, because the people who play this game really enjoy playing it out regardless. People have told me this is the only euro they play, knew the cards I was playing, and I still stomped them. There is someone we call terraforming mars guy at my regular game night because he brings it every week and wanders like a ghost looking for a soul to suck into his game. 

I have to address the production explicitly, because it is so bad, especially for the money. As I understand it, the production quality is so poor because the publisher, Stronghold games, makes their products in the US. I work in a factory, I appreciate people manufacturing things in this country, but you still have to make a product worth buying. And I am an advocate for lower production values in games, because I want games to be more accessible. But this is an expensive, poorly produced game, which is harder for me to deal with. Flimsy cards and tiles and cubes whose finish rubs off on your fingers are actually not a big problem for me. But the player boards make the game unplayable. I wish I could take pictures to demostrate this, but I traded my copy for Spirit Island.

As I mentioned, this game is all about pushing cubes. Specifically, cubes on tracks on your player board and cubes under those tracks representing resources- all of which are the same cubes, that is, steel and energy are represented by the same cube, just on different patches of your player board. And the player board is slick, so that any knock on the table will send them sprawling all over your board, impossible to reorder- it’s to the point that I don’t know anyone who plays TM without third party player boards. And games just shouldn’t come in an unplayable form. That I can’t get over. 

The art is horrible. The only defense I ever heard of it that made any sense is that it is faithful to the crappy mismatched illustrations in science textbooks. Which was a ringing endorsement from the person who explained it to me, but even if it was done intentionally for theme, it still looks terrible. 

People can’t even agree how to play the thing. It’s like monopoly; almost no one follows the rules as written, where the cards are just dealt out to you at random, (remember, you’re using these cards to try to build an engine). There are various drafting variants that give you more control over the cards you get, and allow you to see more cards so you have a better chance of seeing synergies that can drive your engines. It also adds some desperately needed player interaction, which is usually pretty incidental board positioning in a card-driven game. But playing this way, especially if even one person doesn’t know the game well, adds so much to the playtime, already pushing past two hours at higher player counts, that some people refuse to play with the variant. So, even if you know the game, you don’t really know what game you’re going to play when you sit down to it with a new group. And it’s vaunted solo variant is just trying to beat a point spread by yourself.

I obviously can’t be objective about this, and I’ll play it, but I don’t know why I have to. Now I feel bad, and know why people don’t do negative reviews; it makes you feel like a jerk. But I put a lot of effort into editing this, so….Terraforming Mars: It’s fine- IT’S FINE!I obviously can’t be objective about this, and I’ll play it, but I don’t know why I have to. Now I feel bad, and know why people don’t do negative reviews; it makes you feel like a jerk. But I put a lot of effort into editing this, so….

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