Terraforming Mars: One Giant Leap for Stronghold and Fryx

If you have been paying attention to the news in the past few years you may have seen some headlines about space exploration and in particular some information about the unmanned expeditions to Mars. Currently the vehicle providing the photographic and scientific headlines is a small cruiser called the Curiosity Rover. The Curiosity Rover is a remotely controlled vehicle about the size of a Jeep that is roaming the Red Planet gathering information about the makeup of the planet. Many future missions are planned to further explore and research the planet and a large portion of the world seems keen on being involved. Not all missions being planned are void of human explorers. Many in the scientific and “geek” community are talking about something called the Mars One mission. This mission proposes a one way trip to live in a line of pods on the planet and pioneer the first manned existence on a planet not our own. The interesting thing is over 200,000 people applied for this opportunity to be a part of the Mars One mission. Over 200,000 souls voluntarily gave permission to risk life and limb and travel long distances to never return, for the chance to be the first humans to live on a planet that we know so little about.

There are many theories about how to colonize the planet and create the possibility of sustainable life. Most include some form of contained existence and indoor growth. What if instead of hiding away and containing life on the planet, there were a way to alter the atmosphere and composition of the planet’s surface so that the planet itself could contain life? Well we may not be there yet in actuality but we can at least play a game about it! Today I want to discuss Terraforming Mars: a 1-5 player hand management, card drafting, tile placement game from Stronghold Games.

Now if you’ve paid much attention to boardgamegeek lately you’ll know that this game is getting its fair share of press. I want to say right off the bat that if you are wondering how this review is going to pan out: it’s very positive. I like the game quite a bit. If you want to stop reading right now take that away from this post! The game is $70 dollars MSRP and I’m going to spend the rest of this article trying to convince you that it’s worth it. I feel like for this year’s releases this one will have some staying power and is one that people will continue to come back to for a number of reasons. So stick with me as I unpack a few of the reasons that I really enjoy the game and a couple of things that I think could have been done better.

So what are you doing in this game? Up to five players are controlling a corporation that is trying to terraform the planet as the game title suggests. You do this by playing cards from your hand to take actions like placing greenery on the planet’s surface, increasing the water on the planet, raising the temperature, introducing new species of animal life and a host of other interesting projects. The game takes place over a series of rounds that the game refers to as generations (it takes quite a bit of time to raise the surface temperature of a planet after all) and the game doesn’t end until three parameters are met. Nine percent of the planet’s surface has to be covered in water, the oxygen in the atmosphere has to be fourteen percent, and the temperature of the planet has to be at least eight degrees Celsius. Throughout this process of making the planet habitable you also have the opportunity to generate all kinds of interesting card combinations and point producing interactions in front of you.


I love how the cards work in this game. They’re not quite “multi-use” cards in the sense that you can play them in a number of different ways, but it feels like the cards you play can give you a number of different strategies. This is due to what the game calls the tags on the card. There are certain symbols on the card that relate to science or space or Earth or Jovian etc that will give you bonuses if you play other cards that have synergy with that tag. This becomes even more interesting if you play with the drafting variant in the game that allows you to pick a card that you like and then pass the rest to your opponent. After you have done this four times you then have the opportunity to purchase those cards to play during later turns. So it gives you the chance to deny your opponents a card that would further their strategies while possibly keeping a card that furthers yours.

So the basic system of cardplay in the game is that you will have a card in your hand that has a cost in mega credits (space dollars). The cards may also have some minimum or maximum requirements like “the temperature must be -6 or less” or “there must be at least 3 ocean tiles on the board”. If these conditions are met and you have the money to play them you can play the card from your hand and the described effect will take place. There are three types of cards you can play: blue cards, green cards and red cards. Blue cards you will play face up and you will create some type of lasting bonus effect for yourself or an action that you can take once per round. The green cards that you can play will also be played face up and will stay in front of you, but their effects are one time only. They do however provide a lasting tag bonus (so for instance you can count the science tags on green cards in the future if you have a card that says “this card is worth 1 victory point for every two science tags you have”) The red cards are one time event cards that you play face down and they provide a good one time bonus and then they are put in a stack near you for possible end game points. They provide no tag bonuses for you to help create your engine.

There are a lot of cards in the game. I mean…. A LOT of cards. This is not meant as a negative statement. The nice thing about the amount of cards in the game is that you will be hard pressed to have the same game play experience twice. These cards will provide you with an incredible amount of replay value. Think hundreds if not thousands of possible combinations and strategies. Is $70 starting to sound less and less like an issue? Good…stay with me!

Add on top of variability in the basic cards the fact that you will also get to choose from a possible 12 different starting corporations that also give you some type of special power throughout the game. You may have a corporation that lets you place greenery tiles more easily. If that’s the case I’m going to want to draft cards that focus on greenery and increasing oxygen. You may have a card that gives you the ability to ignore card requirements up to two steps away either up or down. This might give you the ability to draft cards that are out of reach for the other players until more board conditions have been met. This was a really fun part of the game for me that keeps gameplay feeling fresh.


There are a number of different actions that you can take on your turn and I don’t want to go into every single action in detail but I do want to highlight some of the tile placement and how it effects that game. So one of the actions that you can take is playing a card. Many times when you play a card it will say something like “increase your energy production by one (more on that later) and place an ocean tile” There are four different types of tiles that can be placed on the board and they all provide a different bonus and a way to increase your points. There are nine ocean tiles that need to be placed on the board. When you place an ocean tile you get to increase your TR (Terraform Rating {AKA points}) by one. There are certain spaces on the board that are reserved for ocean tiles. You can also place a greenery tile, you have to place a greenery tile next to a tile that you control if you are able. When you place a greenery tile the oxygen of the planet increases a step and you get to move your TR up by one. See a theme? Basically when you increase planet’s heat, oxygen or place water on the surface you get instant points. Another type of tile you can place are city tiles. City tiles are nice because at the end of the game they are worth a point for every greenery tile adjacent to them whether that greenery tile is yours or not. So there can be some serious strategy in placing your city tiles at the correct moment to swoop in and gain large chunks of points based on how other people may place greenery tiles. There are also special tiles that can be placed from time to time based on cards that you may draft. They have specific tiles that have symbols on them like a pickaxe or volcano and their cards usually provide some type of cool one time effect. So needless to say there are quite a few ways to generate points from tile placement. Sound interesting? $70 isn’t so bad right? No it’s not bad at all but stay with me! There’s more to discover!


Each player also has a player board that has some different types of production on it. You can produce mega credits, steel, titanium, plants, energy and heat. Each of the produced resource will help you achieve certain goals, or take actions. With each round you are going to gain your TR rating as income. So for instance, if you have gotten 32 points you will get 32 credits. In addition to this you will also get your production level as payment. So if your mega credit production is 6 in the previous example you would get 38 credits. Money is great because it allows you to do any number of actions from your hand or on the board. You can also produce steel. Steel is nice because it allows you to make certain types of cards cheaper by two credits for every steel that you spend. Titanium is similar to steel but it’s worth three credits, and only discounts cards with the space tag. Plants are nice because they give you an extra action. If you spend eight plants from your reserve you get to place a greenery tile on the board. Energy will allow you to take certain actions on cards and will turn into heat at the end of every round. So for instance if you have three energy in your reserves, at the end of the round it will become three heat. Heat allows you to spend eight and raise the temperature by one. Many of these actions will raise your TR rating and give you more credits per generation.


Now…this is just about everything about the components of the game and how play progresses. Whew….that was a lot of typing….I’m a little winded. I’m still excited though because of how much I enjoy this game! I’ve detailed above the specifics about game mechanics and how to play, so let’s get into the nitty gritty about my opinions (which are very important to you…I can tell). As you can tell from the wall of text above there is a lot to this game. A LOT. There are over two hundred cards in the game, there are four hundred resource and player cubes as well as eighty different tiles that can be placed on the board. All of this feels like a lot when you first see the game on the table and look at your hand of cards. What you find out after a few rounds of play is that it doesn’t feel overwhelming, it feels deeply satisfying and meaty.


The cards really make this game shine. There are so many options, there are so many strategies, for me it will never feel dull. The thing that’s really interesting is that if you were to take this game and just keep the tile placement and production, and used a small selection of cards that was tailored to each corporation it would still feel incredibly deep and thinky. You could give each corporation a small selection of unique cards or action cards that everyone could use similar to Mission Red Planet or Cry Havoc and the game would be great. What they did however is take a base of interesting mechanisms and added hundreds of different cards that each offer a unique strategy and bonus. What came about because of this was a game that I believe will stand the test of time and stay in everyone’s collection as a regularly played favorite.

The only thing I wasn’t greatly impressed with was the quality of the box and the artwork. The cards were fine, they were a bit warped when I opened the box but they are holding up well. The tiles feel good, and the player cubes are your standard translucent colored cubes that you have seen in Pandemic and Pandemic Legacy. The resource cubes are very cool and I enjoy them quite a bit. They are injection molded cubes that have a metallic coating. The resource cubes feel great and look great, and even though they have some light flaking that will happen I really enjoy them and think Stronghold made a good decision going with them instead of a standard wooden component or bland cube. The artwork is a bit annoying to me because there are mixes on the cards between drawn art and realistic pictures and the whole feel of the artistic theming is a bit disjointed because of it. I would have gone one way or another instead of mixing the two. Now that feels like kind of small gripe based on how much I’ve enjoyed the experience but it will probably keep the game from getting a 9.5 or 10 from me. I like it that much and feel that it is that deep of an experience.


So my final thoughts after a few plays of this game are that the art gripes are not enough to say that this game isn’t worth every penny of what Stronghold is charging; the game is more than worth the $70 MSRP. If you can find it for cheaper online even better. There is an outrageous amount of replay value and I’ve heard that there is an expansion in the works already. So for the long term this one looks to be a great investment. Add to all of this that there is a very solid solo variant and this game has all the ingredients to be a favorite of mine for years to come. Now I will add the caveat to my above comments that I love the theme and adore crunchy Euros so understand that I am coming from that perspective. I do however consider myself an Omnigamer and this one still captured my interest. So if you get a chance go and buy this game, tell your friends to buy this game, rate it highly on BGG and just in general talk it up! This game is fantastic and it’s just continuing the growing list of incredible games released by Stronghold Games. I’m really excited about this one and very impressed with the quality of game that Mr. Buonocore continues to release. I’ve posted a how to play video at the bottom of this article if you’re curious how the game plays and looks on the table. If you have any questions as always please email thediceyreview@gmail.com and until next time I’ll see you at the table.


If your local game store doesn’t have Terraforming Mars you can get it by clicking the image below!



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