Not to be confused with Terra Mystica, as my wife Cheryl would have it (“Don’t we already own that game…?”), Terraforming Mars is a near-future hard sci-fi game about making the red planet a cozier place, over several generations of effort by self-interested corporations. Sounds about right!
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Terraforming Mars, an economic resource management game for 1-5 players. Let me show you how to play.
In the relatively near future, Earth has a serious overcrowding problem – humankind has to spread out to another planet, or perish. You and your friends play corporations that are competing to… terraform Mars (as it says on the tin) There are three main metrics involved in making Mars habitable: raising the planet’s temperature, increasing its atmosphere’s oxygen, and creating enough oceans on the planet’s surface. You’ll tweak these dials by investing in a variety of different projects with your space money. Once those three conditions are met, the end of the game is triggered. Whichever player has contributed the most to making Mars more livable wins the game.
HOW TO PLAY
Terraforming Mars is mostly an economic, resource management game. There are six main currencies in the game, which you track on this game board: MegaCredits, which are represented by a capital M and the Euro symbol, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat. The numbered areas on the board represent your corporation’s output, or production, of these different currencies. You can think of them as the potential salary you earn every generation. The actual amount of these different currencies you own is tracked with bronze, silver, and gold cubes, which represent values of 1, 5, and 10. So this arrangement means you have 2 MegaCredits, and every round, you’ll earn 3 more.
Your marker starts on this spot on what looks like a score tracker, and it is, but for most of the game it represents your Terraforming Rating, or TR. That tracks how much you’ve contributed to terraforming Mars which boosts your MegaCredits income. Every time you raise the temperature on Mars, increase its oxygen, or build an ocean, your marker moves ahead on this track. And every round, your actual MegaCredits income is this number… plus this number. So you would earn 26 MegaCredits each round if this was the situation.
You’ll start the game with a choice of two corporation cards, which get you your starting resources and income, and some sort of special power.
Central to the game are these cards, which represent different projects you can undertake to make Mars more habitable. Off the top of the game, you get dealt 10 of these, and every round, you’ll get 4 more. They’re not free, though – every card you want to keep will cost you 3 MegaCredits.
The cards come in 3 flavours: red, green, and blue. The red cards are usually expensive one-off events that you pay to trigger, and they go face-down next to your board. The green ones are similar one-off projects, but they stay face-up, stacked so that you can still see the top of each card. This is important, because other cards may interact with or rely on the tags at the top right of the cards. The tags on the red cards only count as you’re playing the card, and turning the red cards over signifies that those tags are no longer accessible or relevant. And finally, the blue cards have either a passive effect that gets triggered when something else happens, or an action that you can trigger on your turn, once per round. You play your blue cards face-up and spread out, so that you can see all of the text on them. When you want to fire off an action, you put one of your cubes on the card to remind yourself that you’ve used that card’s action this round.
It cost you 3 bucks to buy the card into your hand, but the cost to actually play the card is up here. Many cards have some sort of prerequisite to them; you can’t play this one until the temperature on Mars is at least 4 degrees, and this one’s no good until there are at least 3 oceans on the planet. Needless to say, you can’t play a card unless its prerequisites are met. And you can’t play a card if you can’t do what it tells you to do; so if a card gives you a perk for reducing your energy production, but your energy production is already at zero, you can’t play that card quite yet.
Cards with this brown building tag can be paid for with any combination of MegaCredits and Steel cubes, and each Steel cube you spend is worth 2 MegaCredits. If you overpay for a card with steel, you can’t make change. Similarly, cards with this Space tag can be paid for with a combination of MegaCredits and Titanium, and each Titanium cube is worth 3 MegaCredits. And you can’t make change with Titanium either.
Whenever you see one of the currency symbols on its own, it refers to an actual unit of that currency. If you see the symbol surrounded by this thick cork border, it’s referring to production of that currency. So this means you increase your plant production… and this means you get two actual plants.
Whenever you see a red border around something, it means that thing can happen to anyone you choose, even yourself. So cards with red-bordered elements usually let you attack your opponents by stealing from them, or by making them lose stuff. You choose one opponent to affect. If the card reduces someone’s production, and none of your opponents’ production levels can be lowered, then that negative effect has to happen to you instead, or you can’t play the card. If a red-border surrounds a tile or tag, the effect happens to everyone’s matching tiles or cards with that tag, evrn yours.
PLAYING A ROUND
A round represents a whole generation of people living on the red planet. You track generations from the bottom of the board, but they really have no bearing on gameplay – this is more for your interest, to see how many generations it took to terraform Mars. There are four phases in a round: You pass the First player token clockwise, you draw and buy up to 4 new cards, everyone takes turns taking actions, and then you collect your income. The first two phases – passing the marker and buying new cards – are skipped in the first generation, since they’re part of the game’s initial setup steps.
ACTIONS – PLAY A CARD
Let’s look at the meatiest phase of a round: taking actions. In player order, each player takes 1 or 2 of the available actions, or passes. Once you’ve passed, you’re out of the round until everyone has passed. And once everyone has passed, the actions phase is over.
There are 7 possible actions you can take. You can take either one or 2 actions, and if you take 2, they can be same action twice, or two different actions. Here are the 7 actions:
You can pay to play a card, as we’ve seen. This is what you’ll probably be doing most of the time. But there are other options.
ACTIONS – STANDARD PROJECTS
You can take an action to pay for one of these standard projects listed on the board. These are all projects that you can pull off using certain cards, but sometimes you just don’t get the cards you need, so you have to pay through the nose to complete one of these ones. This one is called “Sell patents” – it lets you sell any number of your cards for 1 buck apiece, which hurts, because you probably bought those cards for three bucks apiece. So why would you ever sell them that cheap? Well, sometimes you’ve been able to draw a card for free. Sometimes you bought a card thinking it would fit your strategy, but it didn’t. Sometimes you can’t play a card any more, because it says something like “the temperature has to be less than negative-14,” and the temperature’s already past that point, so the card is useless. And sometimes you just really, really need the money.
This one lets you pay 11 bucks to increase your energy output.
Buying an asteroid for 14 bucks lets you increase the planet’s temperature by 1 step.
The Aquifier lets you pay 18 bucks to build an ocean. You take an ocean tile from the stack of 9, and you can only build an ocean on one of these blue spaces. No one can own an ocean once it’s built.
For 23 bucks, you can place a greenery tile somewhere on the planet. You can’t place it on any of these spots reserved for an ocean, or on this spot that’s reserved for a particular city. You put a marker on it to lay claim. If it’s your first greenery tile, it can go in any legal spot, but every successive greenery tile you place has to be adjacent to one of your existing tiles, if at all possible. If not at all possible, you can break that rule. If there are some goodies mentioned on that particular spot, you take them when you place the tile – so extra plants, extra steel, a free card, and so on. Building a greenery tile raises the oxygen level of Mars.
Remember that whenever you increase temperature… or oxygen, or build an ocean, your marker goes up on the Terraforming Rating track. If all the oceans are built, or if temperature… or oxygen are already at max, you don’t get that boost on the TR track. And if you hit these thresholds, you get a perk – extra heat production here and here, a free ocean here (while supplies last), or a free temperature increase if you move the marker to 8% oxygen.
The last standard project you can undertake is to buy a city for 25 bucks. Unlike greenery tiles, you can place a city anywhere that isn’t reserved for an ocean or some other special tile, and as long as it’s not adjacent to another city… except if you have a card that lets you build the special city of Noctis, which has to go in this spot, regardless of whether there’s a city next to it or not. At the end of the game, cities are worth a point for every greenery tile that surrounds them, no matter who owns those greenery tiles. The standard project of building a city also increases your MegaCredits production by 1 step.
Any time you place a tile next to an ocean tile – even another ocean tile – you get 2 bucks per adjacent ocean tile. So placing this ocean here is worth 2 bucks, and placing this greenery tile here is worth 4 bucks.
ACTIONS – MILESTONES
Those are all the standard projects you can complete as one of the two actions you take on your turn. Another available action is to pay 8 bucks to claim a milestone. There are 5 milestones listed here along the bottom of the board.
You can claim the Terraformer milestone if your Terraforming Rating is 35 or more.
You can become the Mayor of Mars if you own at least 3 cities.
Claim the Gardener milestone if you’ve built at least 3 greenery tiles.
The Builder milestone is available if you have at least 8 brown building tags in play.
And to claim the Planner milestone, you need to have 16 or more cards in your hand.
Even though there are 5 available milestones, only a total of 3 of them can be claimed in a single game, and only one player can claim a given milestone.
ACTIONS – AWARDS
You can take an action to fund one of these 5 awards without having to meet any prerequisite. Once you do, you’ll have unlocked a scoring contest that’s judged at the end of the game. The player who wins each activated award contest by the end of the game gets 5 points, and the runner-up gets 2 points. Tied players each get full points for their placement. The winner may or may not be you, even though you were the one to fund the award! Each award can only be activated once, and only three total awards can be activated in a game. The cost of sponsoring an award goes up with each award that gets sponsored: the first one costs 8 bucks, the second one is 14 bucks, and the third one costs 20.
These are the five award contests that you or your opponents can potentially unlock:
Win the Landlord award for owning the most tiles on the map.Win the Banker award… for having the highest MegaCredits production. Note, that’s production, not actual money.Win the Scientist award.. by having the most Science tags in play.Win the Thermalist award… for having the most Heat resource cubes. Note, that’s cubes, not production.And you can win the Miner award… by having the most steel and titanium resource cubes. Obviously, “most cubes” means highest total cube value. This guy… technically has more individual cubes than this guy, but a value of 40… still beats a value of 9.
ACTIONS – BLUE CARDS
Another action you can potentially take on your turn is to fire off an action on one of the blue cards that you’ve already built. If a blue card says “effect,” that’s a passive thing, and you get some benefit in response to another game event – say, whenever a city gets built, you get something. But if the card has an Action on it – look for a red arrow – then provided you meet the action’s requirements, you can put one of your player tokens on the card and use that action. Actions can be used once per generation, so the cube reminds you that you’ve already used it.
If six separate currencies weren’t enough for you, some of the cards create additional currencies, like microbes or animals. Pile up bronze tokens on those cards to keep track of the extra stuff you get. Some are worth points at the end of the game, and others may get you discounts when buying certain cards.
Remember that the corporation you’re playing may have a blue action that you can use by placing a cube on that card, too.
ACTIONS – PLANTS & HEAT
The final two actions you can potentially take on your turn are to spend either 8 plant cubes, or 8 heat cubes. 8 plants buys you a greenery tile, which you place on the map by following the rules we’ve already looked at. 8 heat cubes lets you raise the planet’s temperature one notch. In either of these cases, you gain 1 TR.
When everyone has passed, the Actions phase is over, and you enter the Production phase. All of the energy cubes you’ve collected but haven’t spent get turned into Heat cubes. Energy is sort of a use-it-or-lose-it currency. Next, you add your MegaCredits production number… to your TR number… and take that amount in income. Then you collect more steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat according to your production values. Remove any player cubes that you used to activate your blue cards’ actions, or your corporation’s ability. All of this can happen simultaneously, as long as you trust each other. DODGY LOOK
PHASES 1 AND 2
With production over, you perform the two phases you skipped the first time around. In phase 1, move the generation marker up one tick, and pass the start player marker on clockwise. Phase 2 is the research phase where, in turn order, everyone draws 4 cards and buys 0-4 of them into their hand for 3 MegaCredits apiece. Once that’s done, you launch into Phase 3: Taking Actions, starting with the first player.
There’s also a drafting variant, where everyone draws 4 cards, picks one, and passes the remaining cards clockwise during even-numbered generations, and counter-clockwise during odd ones. You keep passing the dwindling decks until everyone has four new cards to choose from – to either buy or discard. This draft variation could help you keep certain cards out of your opponents’ hands, so it makes for a more strategic, but longer, game.
Once all nine ocean tiles have been placed on Mars… and the temperature has been raised to 8 degrees… and the oxygen level is 14%… that triggers the end of the game.
You have successfully… terraformed Mars. You finish out the round, and then the production phase happens one last time. In turn order, everyone gets the chance to spend their last batch of plants adding greenery tiles to Mars. You finish out the round, and then the TR track turns into a points track. Keep your player markers where they are, and then count up the remaining points in this order:
Dole out 5 points to the winner of each of the Awards that got activated, if applicable. The runner-up gets 2 VPs, except in a 2-player game, and tied players get the full award for the placement they achieve.
Next, award 5 points for each Milestone that a player claimed.
Each greenery tile you own gets you 1 point. Each city tile that you own is worth 1 point for every greenery tile adjacent to it, whether the greenery tile is yours or someone else’s. Then, count up all the VPs that your cards may give you, along with the value of any special resources you may have piled up on them. Whoever has the highest score wins, and MegaCredits break ties!
WEIRD STUFF The Rules Gremlin is here to help me with a quick round-up of curb cases and weird stuff that may trip you up in your first few plays.
Some cards refer to “Jovian tags.” The back pages of the rulebook list all the available tags in the game. There should be a small, handy player guide that does this, but there isn’t. This is the Jovian tag. It may help you leverage some metascoring opportunities at the end of the game.
This white city tile may look like it’s only supposed to go on this Noctis City space, but then, you wonder, what do you build up here on Ganymede and Phobos? Once you build one, are the others off-limits since you’ve only got one white tile? No – Ganymede, Phobos, and Noctis city all use the normal grey city tiles. The white tile is reserved for this Capital City card, which is a special case that gets you VPs for surrounding oceans as well as surrounding greenery tiles.
A couple of the cards reference volcanoes, and on at least one card, there’s no indication of what a volcano is, and the rulebook is no help. The volcanoes are these four tiles with bolded text on them: Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, Ascraeus Mons, and Tharsis Tholus.
Although the production numbers only go up to 10 on your mat, it IS possible to go beyond that. The rulebook recommends just piling cubes on top of cubes to represent bigger numbers, and – i guess – pray that you don’t live in an earthquake zone. None of the production counts can fall below zero, except for MegaCredits, which bottoms out at -5, so 5 gets subtracted from your TR income during the production phase. The player cubes aren’t limited, so if they run out, you can use coins, lint, or p…potatoes in their place.
To set up the game, put the board on the table, and place a white marker on generation 1, 0% oxygen, and -30 degrees celsius, otherwise known as Basically Canada. Stack up 9 ocean tiles here. Everyone places their marker on 20 TR to start. If you want a more meaty game, shuffle these Corporation Era cards with the little red arrow into the deck – otherwise, take them out. They make the game longer and more complex. Everyone grabs a player mat, and resource cubes in their colour, and starts at 1 progress in each of the different currencies. If you’re playing with Corporation Era cards though, everything starts at 0 production.
New players get dealt a baby corporation card and 10 project cards. Everyone else gets 2 non-baby corporation cards, and 10 project cards. The baby beginners start with 42 bucks, and they get all of their 10 cards for free. Non-baby players choose one corporation from the two they’re dealt, and have to pay 3 bucks per project card they want to keep. The first player is whoever won the last game of Terraforming Mars which, if you’re new to the game, presents sort of a chicken-egg issue. In turn order, everyone reveals their corporation card and takes whatever starting resources are listed on that card. The unchosen corporation card goes back in the box, and the cards you didn’t decide to buy get discarded face-down. Then, you launch straight into the Actions phase, beginning with the starting player.
And now, you’re ready to play Terraforming Mars!
Did you just watch that whole thing? Oh – hey! To 100% this video, click the badge to subscribe, then click the bell to get notifications when i’ve got new stuff![Music – Board Game Boogie by Ryan Henson Creighton]
At 8:59, i mispronounce “aquifer”! My friend Andrew S gleefully pointed this out.
At 18:39, i talk about your greenery tiles earning you victory points, but i use the symbol for MegaCredits. Hopefully nobody’s led astray by my slightly misleading icon usage. Thanks to YouTube viewer Örjan Almén for noticing!
Get Your Own Copy of Terraforming Mars
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