Quick Look: TERRAFORMING MARS: ARES EXPEDITION
Designer: Sydney Engelstein, Jacob Fryxelius, Nick Little (I)
Artists: William Bricker, Garrett Kaida, Nio Mendoza, Justine Nortjé
Publisher: Stronghold Games
Year Published: 2021
Is it dumbed down or streamlined? As a board gamer, I fancy the pretty pictures (Art Work) and table presence of every game I play.
Most games of strict analytics, worker replacement strategies, and card text reading immediately form that glaze one’s eyes get when forced to read Great Expectations novel in 9th grade. Terraforming Mars – Ares Expedition arrived this week from FryxGames and Stronghold Games via their Kickstarter campaign. My thoughts on this one are as vast in topics as there are microbial genome sequences! (Is that a lot? Sounded like a lot.) Lets organize it:
I, as most when a new game arrives via the gaming store, peel the ever thinning shrink wrapping and begin my expedition into this one as soon as it hit my porch. Originally published, the differences that were touted by the publisher over the mass retail version at the box store seemed underwhelming. That is not the case when you realize the importance of the double layered cube riddled game boards that are included and how valuable still this upgrade is to the game. (If you do not own or can’t get a copy of this version – seek the aftermarket folks that will ensure one bump of your forearm won’t trigger an anxiety fit that lasts the entire game.) The inclusion of trays for the credit cubes and card separators also ensures an easy game-after-game setup in just a few minutes.
Playing the full version of Terraforming Mars, I found the number of items to remember and symbols to associate with a bit cumbersome and always leading to something missed on a turn before that you should have caught to help in the subsequent rounds. This as well, lead me to the stressful eye twitching less than 5 rounds in. Not something leisure time spent should be doing.
Speaking of time – Playtime:
This heavier card version of the game gave me the feel that all the fun, colored cube metrics, and Corporation variety remained while removing a few mechanics that bogged down the game. I am completely in tune with the designers direction on this and give immense kudos to Sydney, Jacob, and Nick for exploring and creating this version of the game. One major removal is the large board and tile placement requirements with its own set of pages in the rulebook. Ares expedition no longer requires placement but rather revealing of tiles to fulfill one of the 3 required goals to win the game. Those still remain: Formation of oceans (9 Tiles total), raising the temperature in Celsius, and generating oxygen through forestation to a habitable level.
This streamlines the process of focusing on your corporation’s combinations to achieve the aforementioned 3 requirements to ending the game. These strategic combinations come through a very generous supply of project cards (208!) broken out in the same original Green/ Automated, Blue/Active, and Red/Event. I am not quite sure how automated and active was the descriptors that best described their play features but each provide means of maxing a strategy associated with one of the “tags” or resources within the game. (Note: this version also has the same symbols and descriptives as the original)
They include: Mega Credits (MC), Heat, and Plants as the main with animal, with microbes, science, earth, and other planets as supporting roles in achieving victory.
The mechanics of card pay-and-play is the main focus now of the game given that it has shifted most of its play around the researching, developing, constructing and putting into action the effects of your combinations on the table. This along with production represents your options in each round that differs a bit from its Big Brother game of the past. (The use of Steel and Titanium continue to play a role in leveraging cards and minimizing credit (MC) costs of a card to play and are also kept track of on the player boards as before.)
The big difference in round play comes in 2 specific areas: 1. Phases are chosen each round and each play secretly picks ONE of them within a set of Phase cards they hold dearly to their chest until all ceremoniously reveal them to each other. Development (Phase 1) allows for green card play, Construction (Phase 2) allows for blue and/or red card play, Action (Phase 3) triggers resource and credit spending to move the needle in one of the two temp and oxygen meters or establishes an ocean from the remainder of the unflipped 9 ocean tiles on the board. Production (Phase 4) helps you replenish those resources collecting your totals from your player board counters. Lastly, Research (Phase 5) gives players the way to replenish their card inventory to continue to strategize and combined like resources together to build the strongest Corporation that will pick up key victory points along the way to completing the 3 required goals subsequently ending the game. No longer do you have to go through each phase to see if a player can or wants to partake in that segmented task of the game.
This leads to the second difference of streamlining the game and creating a much faster pace once you learn how the game is played. The new rule is “simultaneous” play by all players. This makes each phase chosen by the players, which can be all the same, go much faster with generally all players taking actions. If your attention span is that of a squirrel or you easily loose interest the moment your turn is over then this IS the game for you. You are constantly working your company and the mechanics and only if you can not do anything during a phase do you stand down for a short moment while the others partake. This change definitely speeds up the game play and gives the game more table play for those with less than a full days worth of game time to finish like you will find again with the original Terraforming Mars base game. Its the difference of roadrunner and the coyote except ACME Corporation is NOT one of your options!
I do however, find this new component of the game holds a strategic flaw when you come close to the end of those meters and the person who throws the cubes from their board to the reservoirs of the MC cube holder and gets to finish off the temp meeter procuring the remaining victory point. This is often not due to some form of strategy but rather for have Michael Jordan like dexterity to fingernail pluck those cubes from their resting spot onto the game board while shouting It’s MINE, MINE, MINE, MINE! (We are considering setting a house rule that the last 2 slots and 2 tiles have to go in order of who chose the phase that round and then rotate clockwise in the action phase. If you have a better way – leave it in the comment section below after you give it a go.) EDIT: A Clarification was pointed out in the rules that allows all to take actions on the last phase that the meters reach the top or the last tile is flipped so it removes this misplayed issue. If you have a better way – leave it in the comments section below after you give it a go.) A quick note that there are variants in play for a two person coop. However to win seems to be a feat achievable only by a Beth Harmon from Queens Gambit level forward thinking strategist or the luckiest of Lottery winners. It is that hard! Also, there is a solo mode that plays to a similar maximum number of rounds to complete the three goals and pitch your victory flag atop the precipice of a Martian mountain range for all to admire.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition landed as well as one of NASA’s Rovers in real life and is often providing a picturesque moment in time at our family’s game table. This is a great example of a strong idea that was well thought through to help introduce NEW players to the game that doesn’t require them to have a PHD in Analytics for it to be enjoyable. It’s the David of the Goliath story that easily tackles the space on the shelf that was once held by its predecessor collection dust like the atmosphere of MARS. No longer awaiting that fateful day where you might have 8 hrs available and the patience to teach players resource management on an expert level. Now you can suit up, launch this one, and terraform your gaming table into a fun filled evening with family and friends.