Friday, February 03, 2017

Terraforming an Opinion

The recent board game Terraforming Mars has been incredibly well received among enthusiasts, and has shot to the top of the rankings at BoardGameGeek. I had a chance to try it out myself not long ago, and while I can see some of the appeal, my own reaction was a bit more cautious.

The on-the-nose title tells you exactly what this game is about. Players manage and deploy resources in an effort to make Mars habitable by raising the temperature, increasing the percentage of oxygen, and introducing large quantities of water. Each turn, players are dealt a number of cards which they must choose to buy into their hands (or discard). Those cards are then paid for and played to manipulate the planet and earn victory points.

There's plenty of good flavor throughout, and a generally satisfying resource system with a few neat quirks -- energy converting into heat, cards being limited by temperature/oxygen requirements, and the like. Each player also gets a starting power that nudges them toward a particular strategy that varies from game to game. It all fits together fairly well, and strikes a good balance of allowing satisfying decisions without making them cripplingly difficult to make.

But I am a bit worried about a snowball effect at work here. Though there are multiple resources in the game, one particular form of "money" rules them all -- it's how you're able to choose which cards to keep each turn, and it's required to play them all too. (Some other resources can discount that cost, but will rarely eliminate it entirely.) This "money" growth does seem to be equal opportunity -- what I do won't generally stop you from what you want to do. But since it's also generated largely from new cards you play, it's literally luck of the draw.

I've seen games in which the "he who gets ahead stays ahead" problem is quite pronounced. Terraforming Mars is not at that level. But I do think there may be a problem here, and it gives me pause. Add in a few other cosmetic shortcomings, and I question whether the game would have staying power for me. (The art on the cards, for example, is quite inconsistent -- a mix of photos, photo-realism, and art, and all of it not that great.)

I want to love the game, and I would definitely try it again. But it would take a back seat to a lot of other current game favorites. I'd give Terraforming Mars a B.

No comments: