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Terraforming Mars

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According to Board Game Geek’s ratings, Terraforming Mars is the fourth-best board game of all time, right now! That’s high praise indeed for Jacob Fryxelius’ pride and joy. It balances a blend of hand management and card-drafting that’s all driven by economic resource-management, and it culminates in territory-building on the red planet. Yes, Mars is the setting here (oh, y…
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  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You Might Like

  • Great game mechanics.
  • Tons of replay-ability.
  • Very little downtime maximising engagement.

Might Not Like

  • Questionable component quality.
  • Long playing time may put some players off.
  • Layers of complexity may prove too much for some.
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According to Board Game Geek’s ratings, Terraforming Mars is the fourth-best board game of all time, right now! That’s high praise indeed for Jacob Fryxelius’ pride and joy. It balances a blend of hand management and card-drafting that’s all driven by economic resource-management, and it culminates in territory-building on the red planet.

Yes, Mars is the setting here (oh, you’d already guessed?), and, much like Elon Musk’s plans at the time of writing, you’re a corporation looking to make the fourth planet habitable for the human race in the futuristic 25th century.

Mars begins the game in its current state: it’s an inhospitable host, with the temperature being far too cold for life to thrive, there’s a severe lack of oxygen and there are not enough oceans. It’s your job to contribute towards fixing these three factors, transforming Mars into a planet that more resembles Earth. When these three characteristics have met their goals, the game will end, and whoever has amassed the most points will be the winner. Hopefully by this point you will have built various technologies, earned set collection rewards and you’ll have a healthy bank balance (terraforming ain’t cheap, you know).

Over 200 different Project Cards drive Terraforming Mars. A round begins by players being dealt cards, and then they decide if they want to pay 'megacredits' to keep some or all of them. It will also cost you 'megacredits' to play the card (think of it as ‘funding’ the project, itself), so money-management is always tight. At the start of each round, players will receive 'megacredits' equal to their current Terraform Rating (which count towards your points at the end), so you’ll want to increase this as soon as possible.

Some projects offer game-long benefits, while others can count towards achieving certain immediate goals. Others also produce resources such as steel, or plants. Players each have player boards to manage their own resources, to further improve their ever-growing tableau of projects.

The brilliant thing about all of these Project Cards is that some of them cannot be completed until certain factors have been triggered, such as Mars’ temperature reaching a certain degrees, or a particular oxygen percentage is met. Other cards have to occur before certain landmarks are hit, making it quite the efficient race. Should you pay the 'megacredits' now, even though you can’t use the card at the moment? Will you even get to complete the project in time?

Asymmetrical starting powers are available, too (recommended for those with a few plays under their belt). These also add further cards into the mix. Players might want to also consider acquiring separate expansions – Hellas & Elysium, and Venus Next.

One thing’s for sure: Terraforming Mars provides a truly absorbing theme. It’s so satisfying when a game’s theme is logical and married with its mechanics in such a superb manner. It’s easy to see why this is rated so highly.

Player Count: 1-5
Time: 120+ Minutes
Age: 12+


Mars is searing in popularity at the moment. Not only on the table with Terraforming Mars (one of many tabletop games based around the planet); but also through films, TV, and not forgetting actual projects to physically get us there. Whilst most of us would not have been around to witness the first man on the moon, there is a real possibility that we will get to see the first person on Mars, so it’s no surprise it has become so relevant in the media.

In Terraforming Mars, the premise is relatively simple. You play as one of several corporations, seeking to play a pivotal role in the terraforming of the planet. You’ll be turning the red waste into a green and blue wonderland with Forests, Oceans, Cities, wildlife, and various other spectacles.

The game itself is designed by Jacob Fryxelius and published by Stronghold Games. It is for 1-5 players; however, this review will not include the solo play. The game takes approximately 120-180 minutes to play. The reason for the large disparity in playtime is due to a couple of factors. There are variations in some of the rules which can extend/shorten the game time (we will come to these later), and the game ends when three shared goals are achieved – which every player will at some point contribute towards. Therefore there can be a reluctance to end the game if you feel you are falling behind, or you just want to play that one more card, which can cause the game to be stretched out longer than necessary.

However, if you’re like me, you will want the game to take as long as possible. As once you finish playing, you won’t be able to stop thinking about getting it back on the table.

Terraforming Mars – Components

Now, I want to address this before going into the spectacular gameplay. The components of this game will more than likely leave you feeling deflated.

Whilst the cubes used to track your resources are nice, shiny, and feel solid, after just a couple of plays the metallic paint was already starting to chip off the corners.

The player mats are thin with a shiny surface, which is far from ideal when placing your cubes on them as a small knock can send everything flying, and remembering where you were on each of the six tracks is far from easy if you have a memory like mine.

The board itself is small but it contains everything you need. Unfortunately, the markers on the board and the hexagonal cardboard tiles you place on it are required but nothing more. Thankfully, you’ll spend at least half of your time looking at the cards, which are of better quality – even if the artwork is inconsistent at best.

As I said, it will leave you feeling underwhelmed. After a few games, you will be yearning for a special edition with upgraded components. However, in spite of this, you can’t help but love this game.

Terraforming Mars Review – Game Components (Credit: Stronghold Games)

Terraforming Mars – Gameplay

Now, this is where the game grabs you and doesn’t let go. As mentioned previously, the objective of the game is to achieve three key milestones in terraforming the planet. Raise the mean temperature to eight degrees Celsius, increase the oxygen to 14%, and place nine ocean tiles. Whilst you all work towards these shared goals, this is by no means a cooperative game. Think of it as a race to be the biggest contributor to the colonisation of Mars. Each round (referred to in-game as a ‘Generation’) has three distinct phases – Research, Action, and Production.

During the Research Phase, each player draws four cards. They can then purchase these cards for 3M€ each (that’s three Mega Credits, not Euros!). These will add to any cards the player already owns and form their hand, ranging from importing hydrogen to laying an ocean tile, building a nuclear power plant, or even introducing pets to cities.

The main phase follows in the Action Phase. Each player takes it in turns to perform one or two actions until every player has passed or can no longer perform an action. These actions include playing a card, undertaking a standard project, converting plants into forest tiles, converting heat to raise the temperature, and claiming milestones or awards.

Whilst there is no limit to how many actions someone can perform each generation, you will be restrained by the number of resources at your disposal. This is where the core strategy of the game comes into play.

How you manage your resources, and which projects you undertake and when, will be pivotal in how well you score at the end of the game. However, if you are too rigid in your approach and can’t be flexible on strategy, you can easily fall short when it counts.

You can play the long game, build up your resource creation and save up for those big hitters. Only to find your plans ruined when someone triggers the end game by advancing several steps of the terraforming objectives in one generation.

Likewise, you can find yourself backing an award you feel certain to obtain, only for someone to be hiding that killer card and waiting for the opportunity to steal the points away from you.

The final stage of a Generation is the Production Phase. It’s no surprise that this is where you produce materials to use for future generations. There are six unit types to produce: MegaCredits, Steel, Titanium, Plants, Power, and Heat. We’ve already touched on our Mars currency, as well as both heat and plants. As for the others, Steel is worth 2M€ when playing a card in which buildings are constructed. Titanium is worth 3M€ for space cards. Power is used to either pay for an action on a card, or the production of it can be reduced to permanently power a construct – such as a city of power plants. At the start of each production phase, all unused power is converted into heat to be used in the following generations.

Whilst I don’t want to go into every intricacy of the game here, I do want to mention the Awards and Milestones. The latter is rather straightforward. If at any time you have fulfilled the requirements of one of the five Milestones, you can spend an action and 8M€ to claim the milestone. These range from owning at least three cities to having 16 cards in your hand. At the end of the game, these are worth five victory points each. But only three of the five can be claimed.

The Awards are a much more tricky affair. They can be funded at any time by any player, but only pay at the end of the game to the person who wins the category. This may not be the person who funded the award in the first place. These range from owning the most tiles in play to having the most Heat Resource cubes. In addition, the first award to be funded only costs 8M€, while the second rises to 14M€, and the third and final one to 20M€. Rewarding those brave enough to fund an award early, but increasing the risk of another player reaping the benefits.

Final Thoughts On Terraforming Mars

Terraforming Mars is a brilliant game, with hidden and not so hidden depths. There is so much to talk about. I haven’t even touched on several of the game’s parts, like the Corporations each player acts on behalf of having a special ability to help you decide on potential strategies. The Corporate Era expansion is also included in the base game, which introduces around 50% more cards to the game and two extra corporations. The draft variant adds some fun to the Research Phase and the Solo variant, which at the time of writing I am yet to venture into.

There is no hiding that this game has its flaws. The components are steeped in mediocrity, the play length can be an issue, and the game is complex. Not your average Euro complexity, but at a level which some players will find too much.

With cards having prerequisites to play, and knock-on effects often in the late game, playing one card will result in five or six other things having to happen.

Our record to date is a single card that either was affected by or had an effect on nine other cards, points, resources or requirements. As you can imagine, this can be hard to keep track of. It is not suited for those who enjoy the lighter side of Tabletop Gaming.

The complexity is what will bring you back to the game time after time, and will get you excited about the next time you play before you’ve even finished counting the scores. I like my games long, but if you don’t then you can strip it back to the base rules to keep the game time to under two hours.

Overall, Terraforming Mars is one of my favourites games ever. I would highly recommend it!

Editors note: This blog was originally published on November 8th, 2018. Updated on April 13th, 2022 to improve the information available.

Terraforming Mars is an economic engine, victory-based game where each player takes control of a corporation involved in bringing life to the red planet. Victory points are earned through increasing the terraforming rating for that corporation, which happens every time one of the three global parameters are raised, these being temperature, oxygen level and ocean. Victory points can also be earned in a number of different ways such as founding cities, protecting the environment and so on.

The key to this is operating the corporation in an efficient way, raising its economic ability and performance, simply put; the better the corporation is performing in an economic sense the more credit will be available to carry out terraforming activity.

Since Terraforming Mars, published by Stronghold Games, comes with Corporate Era included, I’m going to include this expansion in this guide – to be honest it makes the game even better and takes nothing away. Ultimately, as I said, the game is about taking charge of a corporation so why take anything away from those corporations? Similarly, and for the same reason, I’m going to put the beginner corporations to one side in favour of the regular corporations.

Each of these corporations have different abilities, it makes the game slightly asymmetrical, giving each player a potential different focus and means to develop, and the Corporate Era adds a great deal to the game. It probably also makes the game slightly longer, but by the time Hilary and I were on our third game and using the optional drafting we were still finishing in around two hours.

Ultimately, Terraforming Mars is not a difficult game, the rules are pretty simply, but there can be a lot of choices to make. Sometimes the choices are pretty obvious, but not always, and through play there is always the need to balance between developing the economic engine of the corporation and spending the production of that engine on terraforming activity.

Early on it is best to focus on developing the engine, later on terraforming activities and anything else that gets victory points will become priority.

Terraforming Mars Set-Up

At the beginning Mars is dead. Oxygen levels are at zero so place the oxygen level marker in the zero slot. The temperature is a chilly -30C so place the temperature marker at this base point. The planet is arid, so place nine ocean tiles in the space on the board reserved for the ocean tiles. Place the generation marker on the terraform rating track at one, this represents the first generation (turn one), with each full turn played move this up one.

Finally, on the board place one marker for each player, using their coloured cubes at point 20 on the terraforming rating track, this represents their initial corporate income in MegaCredits (income) henceforth M€.

Next we come to the player boards, these are where you record and manage the economic activity of your corporation. Like the surface of Mars these start pretty much empty, so place a coloured player cube on the zero point of M€, and also on the zero point for steel, titanium, plants, energy and heat.

Note, if not playing Corporate Era, the above parameters all start at one.

Now we move on to the corporations and projects. Shuffle the 12 corporation cards and deal two to each player. Then shuffle that huge pile of project cards, there are 208 in total, a lot less if you remove the Corporate Era ones, and maybe a few more if you have any of the promotional cards. Deal each player 10 project cards and then put the remaining deck of many project cards to one side.

Players then get to select one corporation to play, discarding the other, and to apply the profile of that corporation to their player board. For example, if player one selected Ecoline he would give himself 36 M€, two plant production and three plants.  If player two selected Saturn Systems he would start with 42 M€ and titanium production at one. Players then select to keep as many of the 10 project cards they were dealt as they want, paying three M€ per card. Corporations not selected and projects not selected are discarded from the game.

Finally, though this can be done at any stage, select who is first player to start the game. You can use any method you want to do this though the rules suggest that the player who last won a game of Terraforming Mars should be first player.

That’s it, set-up is done, now you are and ready to play.

Here are some thoughts on set-up. corporations and projects:

  • From the two Corporations and 10 projects there are likely to be some combinations that fit very well. Give serious thought to selecting these.
  • Initially you will want to develop an economic engine, look for cheap projects that ideally fit your corporation to kick-start your economy.
  • Whilst M€s are not everything and cannot solve every problem, having a huge pile will certainly help, as will flexibility and having access to numerous different resources.
  • Try to plan and play to the abilities and strengths of the corporation you have selected.


So you have your corporation, some project cards, some resources including some M€ and as matters stand an income next turn of 20 M€. What next? Okay, at the start you are probably not going to be crashing giant ice asteroids into Mars or building space elevators, these come later when the M€ supply is far more healthy.

There are options, hopefully you have some cheap project cards, cards which increase income, or steel production, or production of something else, because at the start the key is to get the economy moving and that is all about producing resources.

So how does this play out?

A turn, known as a generation, is broken down into four steps:

  1. Player Order Phase – The first player token moves one player clockwise each generation. This phase is skipped in the first turn because it is covered in set-up.
  2. Research Phase – Draw four cards and decide how many to keep, paying three M€ per card. This phase is also skipped in the first turn because players have already selected from 10 Project cards in set-up.

Note – There is an optional drafting rule which can be used, this increases player interaction but can make the game slightly longer. It is actually a good optional rule because not only does it increase interaction, but that it allows players to see more cards so getting a better feel for the game and what cards are in play.

  1. Action Phase – Possible actions are:
  • Play a Project Card.
  • Use a Standard Project.
  • Claim a Milestone.
  • Fund an Award.
  • Use the action of a blue Project Card.
  • Convert Plants into Greenery.
  • Convert Heat into Temperature.

In turn order players may take one or two actions, or pass. Play continues until all players have passed. In theory, the number of actions is only limited by the resources available to fund them, but as said, only two per player before giving other players an opportunity to take actions.

  1. Production Phase – Performed by all players simultaneously. Convert Energy into Heat. Players get M€ equivalent to the terraform rating and in addition any income from their player board. No note income from this board can be negative. Players get other resources according to the production. Place all generated resources in the appropriate box on the board.

Project Cards

The Project Cards are pretty much the heart of Terraforming Mars, so let’s take a closer look. The cards come with a requirement or condition, an effect, and a cost. In order to play a card the requirements must be met, for example, if a card says it can only be played if Oxygen is at 8% or above then it cannot normally be played in currently oxygen is 6%.  Similarly, if the effect of a card is to place an ocean and there are no oceans left to play then the card cannot be played. Finally, the card can only be played if the corporation playing it can afford the cost.

The cards come in three flavours; Event cards – red, Automated cards – green and Active cards – blue.  Event cards are one-off things, once used they are placed face down in front of the player, they really do have no further function. Automated cards are placed face up when played, they have no further effect, but they represent the current extent of operations and their tags remain active. Active cards have on-going effects that may be triggered at any time, though normally only once per generation and any activation costs must be paid for.

There is always a balance in playing any card, its cost and the benefits, and if you are fortunate or have planned carefully then cards you have in play may well make future cards less expensive to play. Look for these connections between your corporation, the cards you have in play and the cards in hand that can be played.


Thoughts on Corporations

Each corporation in Terraforming Mars has different abilities. Some pretty much push play in certain directions but try to keep some flexibility, putting all one’s eggs in a single basket might work, then again, it is rarely a great plan.

The corporations are, along with the cards, the heart of Terraforming Mars. It is a vibrant heart that will spring to life. You should play to the strengths of the corporation.

On paper some Corporations might look better than others, don’t fall into this trap, Phoblog for example might look really weak because of the low income, but that titanium reserve is awesome and if you have a few space cards you’re on a roll.

Generations and Placing Tiles 

Early on I’m pretty much only going to be bothering with cheap projects that create resources especially if they also pick up the odd victory point, or maybe if stuck for options then standard projects. When your corporation has sufficient M€s give more consideration to Standard Projects, Milestones and Awards, and always, when possible, convert plants into Greenery and heat into Temperature.

Remember, every time you raise temperature, place an ocean, or raise the oxygen level by placing greenery,  your terraforming rating goes up by one and so does your income in M€s. As the game progresses through generations the terraforming progress can accelerate, watch this carefully and don’t get left behind. Do note that at certain points as temperature and oxygen increases there are additional rewards.

You need to consider carefully where to play your tiles. The water spaces, marked pale blue, are exclusively for oceans. When you place a tile on the board you may receive resources as a placement bonus, consider what resources are most needed and remember that placing next to an ocean tile is worth bonus M€’s.

Don’t lose sight of the benefits of Awards and Milestones, especially if you have a corporation that lends to significant progress in these areas. Also, remember to place a marker designating ownership whenever playing a city, greenery tile or anything else on Mars other than oceans.

Don’t forget to claim your M€s every time you place a tile next to one or more ocean tiles, and make the most of such placements, any and all means of obtaining M€s is very worthwhile.

Game End

The game ends when all three global parameters have reached their maximum, oxygen is at 14%, the temperature is +8C and there are nine ocean tiles on the board, at this point finish the current generation. After the production phase players have one last opportunity to convert plants to greenery which may trigger other placement effects, and then final scoring takes place.

Final scoring is fairly simple. For each player take their terraform rating, add in any scores for milestones or awards, add bonuses from the game board which are one point for each greenery tile and each city tile is worth one point for each greenery tile adjacent to it no matter who owns the greenery tile. Then add any victory points from cards. The player with the highest total is the winner, M€s are a tie breaker.

Closing Tips

Remember that Terraforming Mars is a card driven game about creating an economic engine to generate victory points. Simply put, the economy of the Corporation is developed so it can finance the terraforming effort and through this terraforming victory points are obtained. There are a few different routes to victory, but ideally play to the special abilities and strengths of you corporation because this is likely to be the most efficient strategy.

Don’t be wary of corporate era and drafting, these add far more than might appear and in my experience do not add greatly to complexity or duration.

Terraforming Mars Solo Mode Review

When looking into whether Terraforming Mars was for me or not, the thing that swung the balance was the fact that it had a solo mode. I intended to play the game with others at my games group as I knew it would be a bit too heavyweight for my family, but the thought that I could also play it at home on my own persuaded me to make the purchase.

Terraforming Mars is an awesome game that I didn’t think would live up to the hype… But it does! As a multi-player experience it ranks up there amongst the very best, but how does it rate from a solo perspective?…

In space no one can hear you terraform

The solo game uses the Corporate Era expansion cards, which are included in the base game, and you start with zero production and a lowly Terraform Rating (TR) of 14 (rather than the usual 20). The board is pre-populated with two randomly placed neutral city tiles, each with an adjacent neutral greenery tile, and you can also steal resources from this benignneutral opponent. Milestones and Awards are not used in the solo game.

To win the game, you need to complete terraforming before the end of the generation 14 by raising the three global parameters to their required levels (oxygen to 14%, heat to +8˚c and adding nine oceans to the planet surface). After the final generation, you get one last chance to convert your remaining plants into greenery tiles as per the regular game, and then you score your victory points with the aim of getting as high a score as possible. There is no second place here – if you have not completed terraforming by the end of generation 14, you simply lose.

Terraforming Mars Solo Review

Roving Solo on Mars

Perhaps the biggest thing from the multi-player game that is absent in the solo mode is the Milestones and Awards, which both provide inventive ways for players to earn bonus points for reaching certain achievements before their opponents. It is a standout aspect of the multiplayer game but wouldn’t work in a solo mode. The solo mode is rather simplified by not including these, but it doesn’t hurt it as much as I expected because you’ll be concentrating on the race against time to get the planet terraformed and that’s the slight change in focus from the multiplayer game.

In the multiplayer game you can sometimes win despite ignoring certain aspects of the terraforming process, letting others take care of it for you, but in the solo mode you need to raise all parameters yourself – this involves taking a more holistic approach and focusing mainly on cards that will contribute to that aim and sometimes ignoring others that would distract or take resources away from the end goal.

In later generations I have found that my engine is often big enough that I am fairly sure that I will be able to meet the global parameters and can focus some of my resources on improving my point score.

I also have the Hellas & Elysium map expansion and in terms of the solo experience I really like the variety and different spatial challenges they offer. I rotate between the different maps each time I play, but that’s not saying the base “Tharsis” map gets boring – I’m sure it could withstand over a hundred plays before I’d be bored of it.

Playing Terraforming Mars Solo Mode

Final thoughts on Terraforming Mars Solo

Terraforming Mars really stands tall in comparison with other solo games. Yes, the game time is a lot longer than smaller/lighter solo games such as Onirim or Friday, but it’s Terraforming Mars and you know what you’re getting into. Plus it’s so good that you’ll probably be sad when the experience ends. It is one of my favourite solo gaming experiences.

The big (hypothetical) question is would I buy it if I could only play it solo? The simple answer is yes. Granted, I’d be missing out on the interaction and the Milestones and Awards, but the solo mode is a solid epic experience in its own right and I think it justifies the cost.

Zatu Score


  • Artwork
  • Complexity
  • Replayability
  • Player Interaction
  • Component Quality

You might like

  • Great game mechanics.
  • Tons of replay-ability.
  • Very little downtime maximising engagement.

Might not like

  • Questionable component quality.
  • Long playing time may put some players off.
  • Layers of complexity may prove too much for some.