Over at the Board Game Quest bunker, we communicate over a Discord channel. It helps us maximize our time during the day to efficiently gather our thoughts. I’m kidding. It’s more of an echo chamber for the writers to criticize and bemoan the wacky workings of the board game industry. We also have philosophical debates about which candy is the best (hint, it’s Reese’s).
The other purpose of our private channel is to complain about each other. One recurring theme in our elevated discourse is the review score I gave to Terraforming Mars. Some readers might look at this as old news, but it’s a recurring private meme of sorts for us. To be told, this is a title which generates a lot of mixed opinions and just to make my point of view clear (and spite one of our other writers) I’d like to take a moment to discuss some insights into my rating, why Terraforming Mars succeeds in the gaming world, and also how it’s a product of popular culture.
Terraforming Mars is all about theme.
One thing is really clear in playing Terraforming Mars, if players don’t embrace the theme, they’re really not going to enjoy the game. On one hand, I think the theme is intriguing from a science perspective. However, my wife, who loves science, couldn’t care less about the theme in this game. From a pure diegetic standpoint, if you’re not enjoying climate change on Mars, you’re just wading through the plain mechanisms. While climate change is a catastrophe on Earth, from a Martian standpoint, actions in the game are helpful. The irony is undeniable and enticing to a lot of players.
Terraforming Mars doesn’t care that much about how it looks.
For the most part, the artwork in Terraforming Mars is fine. Just that. Fine. When my mom asked me how was my day at school, she’s getting the same response as my response to the art in the game. It’s fine. It did its job but didn’t really show an effort gamers would have loved to see. The truth is, most gamers don’t care THAT much about art. If your art is ok, that’s good enough to push that discussion to the side and focus on what is really good about the game. What Terraforming Mars primarily gets noticed for is the huge global map of Mars. However, once the art and components get seriously and critically examined, the deficiencies are hard to ignore. This is easily a title that could use a second edition visual revamp.
Terraforming Mars gameplay feeds two distinctive needs.
Lots of gamers want to feel that their actions matter and that the scope of the gameplay is a big deal. Well, it’s hard to get away from a bigger deal than aiding climate change with tableau-building to form combos between cards. This mechanism has been a ubiquitous gamer thing since Wizards of the Coast slapped “Magic: The Gathering” on a box. There is no mystical formula here. The gameplay is elementary. Look at some cards and decide what ability will aid your engine building more. I’m not criticizing it. Race for the Galaxy, a game I love, does it. There are many, many games with basic decisions that are good. But undeniably, apart from managing resources and buying cards for a compounding machine, there are really no complex mechanisms at work. Just mechanisms that really turn gamers on.
Given the above, it’s not shocking that some publishers (as I have read) passed on Terraforming Mars. The gameplay is not rocket science. It’s just enough discovery and purpose to engage armchair science fans. It’s also just the right mechanisms to feed a combo-loving audience. However, except for the Mars theme, these elements won’t draw players in as much as publishers might want. For a guaranteed hit, they’re expecting something more, and yours truly still doesn’t believe that Terraforming Mars delivers to that level.