Terraforming Mars might be board game perfection — but does too many expansions ruin the broth?

I’m going to tell you why Terraforming Mars — in its base form — is the best board game that almost any of us will ever play.

Sometimes, the stars just don’t align; life doesn’t dish up the opportunities that you want it to and as a result, you end up posting a Best 50 Games We’ve Ever Reviewed that doesn’t feature the best game we’ve actually played. But hey, every cloud has a silver lining. This isn’t a review of Terraforming Mars, really, it’s a review for all of the current expansions — Hellas & Elysium, Venus Next, Colonies and Prelude.

Firstly, let’s cover some basics. Anyone who is already deeply invested in the tabletop hobby will be well aware of what Terraforming Mars is and who it appeals to. For everyone else though, it must look like an absolute shambles at first glance. Terraforming Mars is a game that has such a low production quality out of the box that it becomes almost impossible to justify.

The board itself is fine, albeit a little unattractive — how would you expect to jazz up the Red Planet, after all? The player aids, however, are pieces of thin card covered in various tracks that serve a functional purpose and nothing else. Onto these tracks, players will place coloured cubes to show their production capability, whilst held resources will be placed into adjacent boxes. The problem with this is that if someone knocks the table, these cubes scatter everywhere, which can spoil the game entirely.

As you’ll see in some of my photographs, Terraforming Mars is well-loved by many — to the extent that a number of companies now provide three-dimensional overlays for these player aids. Other companies replace certain components entirely, which leads to some incredibly “well pimped” editions of the game being in circulation. Such products simply could not exist, were it not for the popularity of the game.

So why, despite being of a particularly lacklustre construction, has Terraforming Mars gained such a large following? Well, that’s a simple question to answer. This is an incredible game. It offers a design that has such a low barrier to entry that anyone can pick it up within about fifteen minutes, but the range of strategies available and the stories that are created over the course of two hours are probably more varied than in any other game out there.

Each and every time you play Terraforming Mars, you will remember what you did, the moment your plan came together (or didn’t) and how each of the starting corporations that define your early strategy evolved over time. Did you begin as a multinational megacorporation and end up as an ecological force of nature? Maybe you began as a mining corporation and your control of minerals proved to be crucial in your offworld expansion. Terraforming Mars allows players to create plotlines in a way that no other game that I can think of does.

Terraforming Mars

But what about all these expansions? Well, with four already out in the wild and at least one more planned, Terraforming Mars has been well supported by both designer and publisher to date.With so many ways to expand the game though, it can be hard to know where to begin. Each expansion brings its own nuances and, much like almost every other board game expansion, can be categorised in two ways; more of the same or something extra. Let me tell you all about each of them, as well as how it feels to play Terraforming Mars with everything included.

The currently available expansions for Terraforming Mars are:

  • Hellas & Elysium — This first expansion is a simple one and it adds nothing but a double sided board to the equation. Whilst I am sure that it won’t be a surprise to anyone — the two sides of the board depict new regions of Mars for the players to terraform, which means that they offer a different visual feel, as well as a number of different focus areas. Each board also has different milestones to aim for, so those tried and tested strategies from the base game will be put to the test in new and interesting ways.
  • Prelude — The second expansion for Terraforming Mars includes a number of new corporations and a handful of project cards that can be dropped directly into the base game to simply fill out the experience, but that’s not the main draw. Prelude is all about the, erm, prelude cards, which are dealt prior to the start of the game. These cards allow the players to kickstart their work on Mars by introducing bonus production, more resources or access to additional project cards. The idea here is to get players into the more exciting aspects of Terraforming Mars as quickly as possible. A new set of solo rules and a relatively low RRP make Prelude the best value among all these expansions.
  • Venus Next — In Venus Next, the players are invited to begin the process of transforming the deadly atmosphere of Venus into something a little more palatable. This is achieved through an additional board that sits along the main board, as well as a load of project cards and a number of new projects. The key difference here is that Venus has its own set of tags (a fundamental principle Terraforming Mars) that enable the players to score milestones and drive different strategies, as well as increase their Terraforming Rating (victory points) by directly affecting Venus in the normal way.
  • Colonies — With the Colonies expansion in play, players will have the opportunity to draw random planets and moons to add alongside the main board. Each potential colony offers its own benefits (such as money, titanium, steel, floaters for use on Venus and many more) that can be accessed by those who settle there. Perhaps more importantly, it introduces the ability for players to send trade ships to obtain resources that they might otherwise not have access to, adding a layer of decisions that was simply not present without Colonies.

Played in isolation, each Terraforming Mars expansion offers changes to the base game that make sense, either because they subtly enhance the core experience — more corporations, more projects — or because they expand and change it slightly. The Hellas & Elysium maps, and the Prelude expansion, for example, are quite subtle, tweaking the base game and introducing new strategies rather than changing anything fundamental.

Terraforming Mars

Venus Next and Colonies, however, radically affect the player strategies from the outset. In some games, a player might ignore Venus altogether and still win, whilst in other games, if one player runs rampant on Venus, then they will almost certainly steal an unopposed victory. Colonies introduces a number of mechanisms that change how players execute their strategy, although it’s fair to say that there isn’t really a “Colonies” strategy as such.

With all of these expansions in play, Terraforming Mars is simply too much to take in. The main board (or the alternate main board) alongside the Venus board is one thing, but then adding in a load of colony boards is such a table hog. It also creates a situation where whole swathes of one or more expansions will be ignored. The sheer number of project cards with all expansions in play is also close to unmanageable, and it can be mean that entire strategies (like colonies, or Venus) are swallowed up entirely.

Despite the fact that I don’t think it’s sensible to play with all of these expansions at once, I do think that each of them is a superb addition in its own right and I love to combine them in different pairings. I don’t think that I’d ever play the game without Prelude now,  and the additional maps from Hellas & Elysium add much needed variety when you’re into your hundredth play of the game.

Colonies and Venus Next are probably the two that should be considered carefully and I have to say, perhaps surprisingly, my preference is Colonies because it doesn’t detract the players attention away from Mars itself. Whilst the marketplace style interface that  it introduces is a bit elaborate and overly complex, I find that it offers a way for players to expand their strategy in a wide variety of ways.

When all is said and done and despite the crappy production, Terraforming Mars must be considered one of the best, if not the best, modern board game. A lot of people will tell you that title belongs to Gloomhaven, but they are just wrong. You can’t ask a complete novice to spend two hours with Gloomhaven and expect them to walk away with the kind of satisfaction that they would get from Terraforming Mars.

Equally, it’s rare that the same game that can delight a gaming newcomer can also appeal to high strategy power gamers intent on min-maxing at the very highest level. Terraforming Mars deserves to be on your shelf and if it’s not already there — go fix that before you do anything else, or at least see if you can borrow it from a friend. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

Terraforming Mars

You can grab Terraforming Mars and it’s expansions from your friendly local game store or on Amazon. You can read more about the base game here

Love board games? Check out our list of the top board games we’ve reviewed.

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