Full disclosure: A review copy of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition was provided by Indie Game Studios.
I feel a bit weird reviewing this when I never got around to reviewing the original Terraforming Mars, but, you know, I just … only ever played it once? I bought it and Terra Mystica because I felt like I had to in order to fully participate in The Hobby, and then when push came to shove I just never ended up playing them. So they’re in my closet, collecting dust at the bottom of giveaway boxes. Nothing wrong with the games; I’m just not the right person for them. We’ll sort it out at a charity raffle in the near future, I imagine. I’m much happier now playing through games that I think might be better fits for my various groups, and occasionally delving into more complex fare. Maybe we can split the difference with Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition; who knows?
In Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, your goal is to once again make the red planet habitable, but this time without so many of those tiles and such. Now, you’ve got cards and pretty much only cards if you’re gonna make this place livable. So work your magic, get it all together, and get ready to terraform Mars! A game will take place over a series of rounds, each containing five phases: Development, Construction, Action, Production, and Research. Each round, each player can independently choose a phase to force for all players, so that everyone gets access to that phase (and the player(s) that force it get a bonus). As they do so, players will build green, red, and blue cards that will give them a variety of effects, such as flipping ocean tiles, raising the temperature, or adding oxygen to the atmosphere. Different cards combo with other cards, reducing the cost of subsequent plays, allowing you to draw more cards, or letting you place tokens on cards with a variety of effects. Too many cards? You can discard a card at any time for cash. It’s a good system. Once the temperature hits at least 8 degrees Celsius, the oxygen is at 14%, and all nine ocean tiles are revealed, Mars might actually be a pretty nice place to live! Can you be the one to usher us into a bold new age?
Player Count Differences
The interesting thing that you’ll notice with more players is that the game goes a bit faster. There aren’t more tiles or more notches on the scales or anything, so, as players’ engines start to fire up, you’ll find that there’s a lot less runway before you hit the end of the game. This does make the game a bit more unpredictable, however; even if you’re watching everyone’s resources carefully, you may not expect someone to drop a card from their hand or spend the money required to complete a category of terraforming a round before you anticipated, and you can kiss that TR goodbye once that happens. Not ideal. That said, I haven’t noticed any particular drawbacks to player count when I’ve played. At two, granted, it can be annoying when you both pick the same phase, but functionally, there are a lot more rounds in the game for you to make that mistake. With more players, fewer rounds, but odds are, more phases per round. I imagine it mostly averages out with enough games. So I wouldn’t say I have too big of a player count preference for this one! I’d say slight preference for the lower end just because it’s harder to keep track of what everyone’s doing, but honestly, I can’t even do that in a two-player game.
- Your corporation’s ability is worth investing in. I know I say this every time, but if you’re being given a player power of some kind, lean into it. You’re getting an edge over other players in some arena. If you can use heat as money, then lean into heat generation! If you’re starting with steel or titanium, build cards that make good use of that discount! If you get a discount on high-cost cards, then get a taste for the expensive, because you’re going to be buying a lot of high-cost cards. Your ability is what sets you apart, and leaning into it can help put some early distance between you and the other players before they can get cards to emulate your corporation’s ability.
- It’s not a bad idea to burn some of your early-game TR to get cards with good bonuses. You’ll get that TR back later, but keep in mind that burning early-game TR does inhibit your money-making machine during the Production Phase. So lower TR means you’ll make less money. If that’s the case, focus on getting cards as a source of income or something to offset the losses, or pick cards that make that lowered income worth it.
- It’s pretty much always worth reducing the cost of your cards. If you can make your cards cost less money to play, you can play more of them. This isn’t really strategy; it’s just math. Whether it’s by steel, titanium, or various other card effects, decreasing card costs (especially early in the game) will pay back major dividends over time. Plus, it just feels bad to blow a ton of money on cards; you’d much rather play them for free.
- Get a sense of which phases your opponent(s) tend to force. If they’re already going to do that work for you, why bother doing it yourself? Over time, some players fall into patterns (since you cannot force the same phase twice). Some of these patterns are usually “get money” -> “get cards” -> “play cards”, or some combination of the first and second. If you already know that they’re going to give you the opportunity to play cards (maybe via the Construction phase), why not force Development for yourself instead and play some other cards? You might be able to throw them off (or at least derive some additional benefit, should you play your cards right). Either way, if they’re being predictable, try to make their cycles work in your favor, as well.
- That said, the benefit of forcing certain phases is pretty useful, so it’s worth doing it sometimes. Sometimes it’s worth forcing Development for that 3-cost discount, or forcing Action so that you can take one Action twice. Thinking about when you really want the core benefit of forcing a phase to happen is usually the core justification for forcing the phase, when I play. That said, if you’re not paying attention, you and your opponent might force the same phase, which is a bit of a bummer.
- In lieu of a production-focused economy, you can always just develop strategies for milling cards so you can get more money. Forcing Production is always a bit of a sticky situation. On one hand, it’s good, because you can get money, cards, and resources; on the other, your opponents get those benefits, as well. If you’re not going heavily on resource generation, it might be best to just forego that phase altogether and focus on ways to get yourself a lot of cards. You can discard cards for money pretty effectively, so if you have strategies for gaining three to five cards per round, you can very easily make mid-game money pretty early on.
- By the mid-game, you should try to have a few Action cards in place so that you can take full advantage of the Action phase. Don’t sleep on the Action phase! A lot can get done, there, beyond standard Actions. There are a lot of cards that deal with placing tokens on other cards and then spending them for some effect, so try to keep up on the Action phase and throw a few cards of your own down, especially if your opponents start forcing it a lot.
- Keep an eye on the temperature, oxygen, and ocean tiles! If someone’s filling them up this round, make sure you can get a few yourself to boost your TR. Once a category is filled out, you can continue to do that thing but you won’t get any increase in your Terraforming Rating, with one exception. That exception is during the phase that category maxes out. Then (and only then) can players continue to reap the rewards of boosting that category. After that phase, it’s done. So make sure you can capitalize on that if it’s getting close (or try to fill it out early to catch your opponents on their back foot).
- Towards the end of the game, you might as well convert everything to money and see what else you can buy. This is particularly true if the game ends during the Action Phase. If that happens, then just dump all your cards, convert everything to money, and see if you can at least buy a few more forest tiles or something for some free victory points. Extra resources and cards and such are worthless at the end of the game, so try to turn that stuff into points so that you can win.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I actually quite enjoy the whole phase-based simultaneous action selection. One of my returning favorite titles is Roll for the Galaxy, which I’ve been playing a ton of on Board Game Arena, lately. Things work similarly to TM:AE, where you place dice to mandate that certain phases occur. I really like that whole mechanic? It’s fun to have to think beyond just what I want to happen and also try to plan for what my opponents are going to want so that I can capitalize off of that, as well. It’s an interesting planning problem, and managing to successfully thread that needle is incredibly satisfying.
- I also like that players who force a phase to occur get a bonus. That’s a nice change from Roll, for instance, but I like that there’s some incentive to forcing a phase for everyone and players who do get something that sets them apart, a bit. It means that now there’s an interesting tension where you really want to force multiple phases but have to optimize and only choose one.
- The ease with which you can discard cards for money is a real nice point of this game. I love how easy it is to dump cards for money, to the point that I occasionally forget that I shouldn’t just be dumping cards at my leisure. I have to flip some cards upside-down if I want to save them for later so that I don’t forget my plans and just throw them away for cash. It was really bad in my last game because I got a card that boosted the money I got for discarding cards, so I was just churning through them. I definitely threw at least two cards away that I really wanted.
- There are a lot of really interesting combos! Every card is unique, so there are a lot of different roads to success here. You can thread together some really interesting synergies and combos if you know what to look for, but even if you don’t, part of the fun of the game is the sense of discovery you get from finding a card that fits perfectly into the proto-strategy you’re constructing. It’s an adventure! Discovery is definitely part of it.
- The corporations are interesting, here, since you do get pretty useful starting abilities, but you can also get cards that pretty effectively emulate other players’ starting abilities. I like that you can effectively build a player’s corporation using cards, though I frequently will make fun of other players for “copycatting” my starting power if they do that. I figure you have to have a little bit of harmless trash talk during some games, especially headier ones like this.
- The art is a pretty significant step up from the original Terraforming Mars, so there’s that. The cards look a lot nicer than I remember the original Terraforming Mars cards looking. It’s very fun and spacey and futuristic. I’m a big fan.
- I also appreciate that this is a less intense and more streamlined version of Terraforming Mars. I remember being a bit overwhelmed during Terraforming Mars, but this is a surprisingly straightforward and easy to play version. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still a lot going on, and I think part of the “simplicity” of it is that I’ve played a lot more games (and a lot more complex games) since I last played Terraforming Mars. That said, I do appreciate the reduced playtime and more simultaneous play. I think it keeps the game moving at a really good pace, and there’s always something to do, something to plan, something to look at, or something to think about. It’s a version of Terraforming Mars that I’d actually play with some regularity, and that’s a big step up in usability, for me.
- It isn’t as surprising now that the expansions are announced, but they left room in the box for expansions. I think this was going to be a more profound observation if I had published my review maybe a few months ago? Alas, this is what I get for taking my time. Oh well. There are, what, three expansions on the way? It seems like a bunch of them will likely fit in the main game’s box, so that’s nice. I always prefer when games do that.
- I am mildly amused by the last round “discard all your cards and spend the money on Standard Actions” bit that tends to happen when I play. It’s a funny bit of hustle in the final round of the game, where everyone just dumps everything into money and scrambles to get the last few bits of points possible. I’m not sure why I find it so amusing, but it’s very funny.
- I’m kind of dazzled after years and years of feedback that the player boards are still … mediocre. It feels a bit cynical to even note this, but it’s pretty clear that folks have had problems in the past with the Terraforming Mars player boards, given that you need cubes to sit precisely on them so that you can track various quantities. They even have double-layered player boards in the Kickstarter edition; I’m disappointed that those didn’t end up making their way to the retail release. The boards are okay as long as you never jostle them, otherwise you might risk losing track of your income, and it’s hard to recalculate that on the fly without going by hand.
- There’s not a particularly useful way to splay the cards, given some of the cards have descriptive actions on them and it’s helpful to be able to read them. Ideally, the cards would splay such that you can only see the icons on the left side, but a fair number of cards have some activation criteria or action that you’ll want to read, so you end up making a tableau of cards that are sometimes-but-not-always cleanly splayed. It just takes up a bunch of table space, so make sure you’ve planned accordingly for the table usage.
- I was a bit surprised there’s no random phase activation happening at two players, but maybe Roll for the Galaxy has just spoiled me. I think the fact that players still get a benefit for activating a phase kind of tempers the need to have another phase randomly occur, but I do kind of miss the extra random phase activation in Roll for the Galaxy at two players. Sometimes it would really help you out! Sometimes it kind of messes you up! But it’s always a bit interesting. Here, you just have a maximum of two phases per round, which is fine.
- This hits two big areas of being kind of unfriendly for new players. The first is just the combo-heavy nature, which tends to disadvantage new players; the second is the wealth of unique cards, which can make it difficult for new players to fully understand what options and strategies are even available to them. This is probably one of the games that I’ve played lately that’s been most unfriendly to new players (Guild of Merchant Explorers isn’t super new-player-friendly, either, sadly), but I think that’s largely a consequence of combo-heavy play. This means that a player who knows combos to execute has an advantage over a player who doesn’t, and that knowledge of “good” combos comes with time and experience. The problem is, since every card is unique, you need to know more than just good combos; you need to also know the space of cards that do and can exist, so you can start thinking through what combos are even possible within the game. I love that all the cards are unique, but it comes with a cost, and that cost is that an experienced player will generally enjoy a pretty solid advantage over a new player in this game. That said, maybe the expansions will change things up enough that that won’t be true, anymore? Only one way to find out; I’ll keep my eye on them.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I actually was pleasantly surprised by Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition! Special thanks to Maribeth and Andrew for teaching, since boy howdy was I glad to not have to go through that rulebook by myself. That said, it’s not a bad rulebook; there’s just a lot of game here, and I’m used to having to learn games completely on my own, so it’s always nice to not have to. But in all seriousness, I actually think this is a nice repackaging of Terraforming Mars, and I was very pleasantly surprised by it. It takes a two-hour game and keeps it to about an hour, and it offloads a lot of turn-based, combo-heavy play to simultaneous play during a variety of player-selected phases. I like that a lot! I’m told it’s reminiscent of Race for the Galaxy, but I swore an oath long ago to only play Roll for the Galaxy and never choose favorites, so I literally couldn’t tell you if that’s true. For me, there are a lot of advantages offered over the original Terraforming Mars. There’s better portability, there’s the reduced playtime, and I frankly just like the structure of this game. I’m always doing something, or thinking about something, or planning something, and I never feel like I’m experiencing a ton of downtime unless another player is doing something complicated in a phase I’m largely ignoring. And if they are, I start thinking, “should I be doing something during that phase?” and there’s another new strategy blossoming. I think playing this game multiple times with the same group of people will also peel back interesting layers of strategy, as the game will grow with you, to some degree. In the first few plays, you’ll be discovering the cards; as you play more, you’ll learn some basic combo play and how different things intersect. But once you turn those combos into ideas, and you let yourself freely mix and remix existing combos into more complicated, newer forms, the game’s really going to take off. I’d be excited to see how it gets there for some players. But I’m already getting off-track. Maybe I just really like space games. If you’re looking for an interesting, heady, and combo-filled game; you’re a fan of Terraforming Mars but want something that’s a bit speedier; or you’re just like me and you really like space games, you’ll probably enjoy Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition! I had a good time with it.
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