Why is Terraforming Mars so popular? This was the question I posed to twitter the other day. I was admittedly in a bit of a grumpy mood and trying to bait responses to my hot take. Fortunately the responders were largely gracious and I learned a lot about the appeal of a game like Terraforming Mars. This article will function partially as a review, but also partially as an investigation of my own preferences.
Let me be clear from the top: I do not dislike Terraforming Mars. As you’ll see at the bottom, I’m giving it a 6.5/10, which is a decent score. I think it’s a perfectly pleasant game to play, particularly online where it goes much more quickly than in person. But more than any other game I can think of that has gained a lot of acclaim among hobby gamers, I have had a hard time figuring out why it’s so beloved. I can understand, for instance, why I don’t like Blood Rage as much as many others: it’s a high-carnage, quick-playing game with great minis. Its base priorities are not what I typically value. Terraforming Mars is the kind of game I should adore, but I don’t.
The first time I played Terraforming Mars, I found it very engaging, and the giant stack of cards hinted at strategic possibilities beyond what I’d seen in a tableau-builder before. Every subsequent game my rating dropped. The second play was a miserable experience with five players that dragged close to four hours, and no one was playing slowly. My third and final play was with three other experienced players, and utilized the widely-praised Prelude expansion to quicken the early game. What seemed before like a wide strategic horizon started to feel more like…stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I’m known to enjoy games with a bit of extra fat around the perimeter but Terraforming Mars packs too much paunch.
Yet it remains perhaps the most beloved eurogame of the last few years. Why is that? What am I missing here? Let’s examine my primary criticisms with the game and through that lens consider where others might be finding fun.
I think pretty much everyone agrees that Terraforming Mars is not the most attractive game in the world, and it’s certainly not a good example of quality production. Aftermarket upgrades are a near requirement for people who want to play the game frequently. The biggest offender are the flimsy player boards designed to keep track of many bits of information. One small bump of the table can ruin an entire game as lightweight cubes slide from their places.
Then we get to the art, which seems to be largely sourced from the first few google image results when searching for whatever the card is about. It’s a bizarre mixture of benign photographs and what appears to be first drafts for second rate sci-fi paperback covers. The board itself and the pieces placed on them are much better, with the vibrant greens and blues of the forests and oceans contrasting nicely with Mars’ red hue.
Terraforming Mars’ popularity despite its drab aesthetic actually gives me hope. The cynical narrative in the board game space these days is that flash drives popularity–that only the games with many elaborate miniatures and the POV that the quality of art is a function of its abundance acquire the big bucks. Terraforming Mars is a strong rebuttal. What it lacks in aesthetics it makes up in functionality. As a means of communicating the mechanisms of the game, the graphic design is tidy. Symbols make sense with what they represent, and there’s enough variation to make the games many concepts easy to grasp.
This is an overused term in board game writing, so let me define what I mean. Terraforming Mars is fiddly in two distinct ways. First, it has a lot of moving parts, physically and visually. Each person is tracking no fewer than six different resources on their player board, plus one that laps around the main board, plus all of the passive effects they may have gained via cards. Each of those require moving cubes and cards around regularly, tracking both income and current supply. All of this feels unnecessary and overbloated, something that would fit better in a much heavier game, strategically speaking. But perhaps that’s part of the appeal. What Terraforming Mars communicates best is the idea that it’s only showing you part of what it has to offer. Even though you’ll be going through dozens of cards every game there’s still a giant stack you don’t touch. Even though you’ll be shifting resources around frequently, there are interactions and combinations you haven’t yet seen with those tools.
The second fiddly aspect to Terraforming Mars is computational. You’re constantly counting things in this game. Take, for example, the fact that you have to pay three dollars for every card you choose to take into your hand. You draw some cards, and then you have to pay to keep them, like the game is extorting you. I suppose it plays with psychology and lets people commit sunk cost fallacies, but is it really needed? Because now if I want to feel like I’m playing well I’ve got to factor in an additional +3 to all of the calculations I’m already doing for cards not yet in hand. It’s additional computational complexity seemingly for arbitrary reasons. Plus have you noticed how big the costs get? As a rule games should try to keep numbers as low as possible. Terraforming Mars chucks that advice right out of the window. I’m sure the cost spreadsheet behind all of this is immaculate, but I don’t think it’s worth it.
What about this fiddlyness irks me more than most people? There’s something innately fun about capturing income and tracking your personal progress in a game. I suspect I am less inclined to find that fun past a certain point than most people. Don’t get me wrong, I love engine building and seeing progress, but I also know how a game can be made leaner and sharper through whittling extraneous elements like resources down. Extra chrome needs to be justified, and I don’t think Terraforming Mars does enough justification for it.
As for the computational barriers, I know I dislike arbitrary pre-calculations more than many other people. I find it annoying in Age of Steam also. Of course, to some degree all calculations are arbitrary and the entire point of resource conversion games is to obscure calculation enough to provide uncertainty. But typically that’s provided by either randomizing mechanisms or your opponents.
Take a game like Tzolk’in, for example, that has a similar number of resources and has you trying to optimize how to convert them into points. The challenge with Tzolk’in is trying to read what your opponents will do and optimize within the climate. It even has an extra cost to perform certain actions (when you place a worker in a more valuable space, you have to pay), but the opportunity to utilize those spaces is determined by the actions of the players. The complexity is interactive and in a constant state of flux. If there was a three-corn flat tax on placing workers, that would just make everything slightly more difficult to calculate for no apparent reason.
I suspect this is a peeve I feel more strongly about than others do.
Here is, I suspect, the core issue explaining my divergence with the community. I find Terraforming Mars soft. Again, this isn’t the most precise phrasing in the world, so I’ll try to explain. First, I think the game lasts far too long, both in actual time and in how many actions you get to perform. The general rule of thumb is that an engine building game should end when the winner is clear. If we’re defining “engine building” as a genre in which the players have an increasing growth rate of their production engines, at some point the successes and flaws in everyone’s engines will cause them to separate from each other at increasing rates. The game should end around that point so that players don’t feel like they’re wasting their time with no hope of winning.
Of course this is all a rule of thumb, and not easily calculable or even quantifiable, but Terraforming Mars doesn’t seem to care about it at all. The end of every game I’ve played has been a bit of a slog, finishing up the last requirements for ending the game and trying to squeeze out additional points here and there. It’s like ticking marks off a checklist. The meat of Terraforming Mars is in the middle sections where interesting tradeoffs lie and one attempts to forge a strategy.
My second primary criticism in this section is with the level of interaction in the game. I have nothing against primarily “multiplayer solitaire” games and I have nothing against highly interactive games, but I do like my player interactions to be crisp and meaningful. Terraforming Mars acts like a multiplayer solitaire game with the tableau building except for the smattering of cards where you get to, like, steal stuff from someone. It’s neither meaningful enough to worry much about nor integrated enough to strategize with.
The more successful interactive bits involve the board, as players attempt to capture the best spaces and surround all of their cities with beautiful forests. But this is also the least interesting part of the game, and it’s a shame because from what I understand high-level play is often fought over prime board position and the timing involved to take the right spaces at the right times. But why would you want to spend a bunch of money to place a little tile when there are so many cool cards you could be investing in?! There’s some disconnect between the fun parts and the best decisions.
It’s not uncommon for relatively low interaction games to find their teeth as players get better at them. Once you’ve mastered the efficiency puzzle what else is there to combat other than the other players? But every bit of Terraforming Mars tells players that this is a friendly game of scientific exploration and cooperation (in the terraforming at least). Combined with the massive stack of cards one should become familiar with in order to become competitive I can’t see many people reaching that stage.
I suspect most fans of the game never reach that point. Instead, what I find soft and formless they find freeing and exciting. I want to see the game tightened up, they want to explore its reaches.
The key moment when I started to understand the appeal of Terraforming Mars was when Isaac Shalev replied to my query by saying that it’s accessible. I balked at first. What’s accessible about this fiddly mess of a game where you end up with like 20 cards arranged out in front of you and cubes everywhere? But he had a point. You can show someone some symbols, give them a few cards, and tell them to go hog wild. You can buy one card a turn and it does fun stuff. The game doesn’t judge you. If you suck you’re not really going to find out about it until it’s mostly done. Combined with the inherent appeal of engine building you get a game that looks and acts like a heavy euro but feels like something, well, softer. My criticisms are precisely why it’s taken off. It eases people into its embrace, where they are free to poke and prod at the systems without any immediate negative feedback. Even the arbitrary calculation I find annoying is simple mathematics, something anyone can comprehend, rather than the more game-y tempo calculations you’ll see more often in other games.
Why is Terraforming Mars popular when I see it as one of many merely pleasant games? Because the subtleties that make it unique interact with my preferences in a different way than with many others.
And that’s perfectly fine. I’m not here to judge. Indeed, all the criticism I write (at least so far) isn’t intended to judge anyone for their preferences. Too many people treat criticism as judgement on their tastes, when the best criticism is deeply honest and deeply empathetic. I want to investigate what I find fun and what I find interesting so that I can communicate that to all of you and hopefully provide some insight.
Criticism is the beginning of the conversation, not the end.