The Games I Play, and the Lessons I Learn: Game 002 Terraforming Mars

I should start this article by saying that I consider myself an avid gamer. Generally, the games I enthuse over are usually abstract, medium-light, or casual. That being said, when someone asks me my favorite game the first one that springs to mind is Terraforming Mars.

I’m not good at Terraforming Mars. This isn’t me being modest and secretly being the person who’ll snatch victory from your unsuspecting hands. No. I genuinely come in last place almost every time I play this game. I can’t even explain how to set up or play it, because there are so many corresponding parts and I can only grasp a few of them. Even so, I’m always happy to sit down for a game and when I’ve lost 3 hours later I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time.

As a designer, I’ve been trying to break down what I do understand of Terraforming Mars and why, despite having most feature I categorically avoid in games, it appeals to me.

A basic summary of the game is that players are companies who are changing the Martian terrain while strategically managing resources and money. Throughout the game players will be raising the temperature and oxygen level of Mars, as well as placing down ocean and city tiles on the planet. Once all the ocean tiles are played and the temperature and air percentage max out, the game ends. The person with the most victory points at the end of the game wins.

When I was taught the game the first thing I latched onto were the cards, which helped do or get anything you wanted in the game. The cards worked as a great sampler of the different strategies I could employ to win the game. Did I want to collect plants and animals, or did I want to concentrate on city building?

Cards also had multiple uses. Cards usually had a one-time or re-occurring ability attached to them. They also had symbols at the top of each card which could be counted for the effects of different cards in-game, or worth points at the end. Some cards were also worth victory points, which made them easy targets for a newbie like me to focus on.

Terraforming Mars has six core resources you collect, on top of the tiles and card resources you build up. That means lots and lots of fiddly bits. Visually it’s intimidating to see but a clean player board and the intuitive use of the game resources made the bits easy to digest.

The game uses currency cubes to translate your dollar amount as well as your resource amounts while using your player color cubes to designate your income from each category at the start of every round. It took a standard game economy concept I was already familiar with to make it easy to learn how this game used it. It is a lot easier to take things in when they already feel familiar.

Another mechanic the game implements are awards. There are several awards you can aim for during the game which give you short term goals to concentrate on during the game. For some, you are racing to be the first to fulfill certain requirements. For others, you strategically bet on yourself for doing the best in a category and hope at the end of the game that your bet paid off. ¬≠What I like about this award system is that it not only gives you goals when you’re lost on what to do next but it also gives you a second chance. If you miss out on winning awards by completing goals first, it’s okay. You can switch gears and concentrate on being the best at one thing and waiting for the right moment to make your move.

Essentially the game lets a beginner have small victories, even if they are losing the overall battle. It allows you to gain satisfaction through almost every mechanic of the game. The opening mechanic, card drafting, lets you digest the cards in small bites as you pick your hand one by one. You get the satisfaction of choosing cards you want or cards that you can at least string together in some kind of a combination that makes you feel like you created a strategy.

Terraforming Mars is also very flexible in what it allows you to do in the game. You have many options, but the game doesn’t force you to take all of them. It doesn’t punish you if you play without understanding the full complexity of the game. That is key to my enjoyment of the game. Each turn, I feel like I’m doing something. I’m working toward small victories, digesting and experimenting with different mechanics of the game each time I play it through. I don’t feel like my time was wasted when I lose a game 3 hours later because the game rewards all achievements, big and small, and it’s satisfying the track my personal progress.

The three lessons I take away from Terraforming Mars are these:

  1. Reward your players. Make them feel good about making choices and taking risks in your game.
  2. Familiarity goes a long way to helping players learn your game. The more complex or unique your game is, the more you want to make sure the core elements of your game are familiar so players don’t have as high a learning curve to enjoy your game.
  3. Allow players to enjoy your game in pieces. Everyone has a different skill level, but if you can help it, don’t punish the player for not understanding the entirety of the game from the start.

Overall, I love Terraforming Mars because even though the learning curve for the game may be higher than I usually enjoy, the potential for reward and fun is on the same level as the lighter games I generally like. For me, that is the beauty of its design.