The Complete Terraforming Mars Buyer’s Guide

I grew up as a dedicated Magic: the Gathering player, which means I love nothing more than cards with cool, comborific text on them. Drafting games like 7 Wonders, deckbuilders like Dominion and Star Realms — these are my bread and butter.
Very few board games give me that same satisfaction, but Terraforming Mars pulls it off. A card-driven board game if there ever was one, Terraforming Mars has you managing resources and board position to pull off some truly epic card combos, for the sake of… you know… terraforming Mars. The game has been so popular that it’s now rated as the fourth best board game of all time on BoardGameGeek. Given the positive reception, it’s no surprise that the game has spawned five expansions and some expensive, fancy accessories. But which things should you get? Well, that’s why we’re here! 

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The Terraforming Mars Base Game ($69.95 MSRP)

We have no dedicated review for Terraforming Mars on the site, so let’s get to it right here. Perhaps you’re reading this just to see if Terraforming Mars is for you in the first place?
The general concept of the game is that players are drawing and playing cards (Projects) that help turn the central board (Mars) into a liveable place, by adding greeneries, cities, and the like, while improving the temperature, oxygen level, and number of oceans on the planet. The main mechanism is card play driven by management of several different resources, allowing for a complex system full of crazy cards with different effects, some instantaneous, some permanent. Playing an expensive card with a cool name and a boatload of text on it is one of the things I enjoy the most about gaming in general, and Terraforming Mars delivers. Another unique aspect of the card system is that new cards always have to be bought before they can played (which costs even more money), making this a game full of angst-filled decisions from start to finish (another sign of a good strategy game in my book).
I could go on for a while about the greatness of Terraforming Mars, but there are already many reviews out there that cover the game’s strengths. Yes, it’s great. The mix of cool card combos with board position and resource management really is unique among board games, and the theme is well-handled. Instead, I think it’s better to describe more explicitly the characters that might push you towards this great game, or away from it. 
I have to admit, my first impression of Terraforming Mars was not positive. I was learning the game for the first time with two others and didn’t know what I was doing; the game was too long, and the components were not great (more on that later). It was several years later that I fell in love with Terraforming Mars, once I learned it properly under the right conditions. 
First, I would really encourage you to learn from an experienced player. Even though you’ll likely be crushed (the game has a high skill ceiling), you will understand the game far more. Be open to asking that player about strategies and standard moves, and so on. Second, play with at most three players (always really, but especially to start). This game can easily go for 2 hours with only two experienced players, and it’s a very cerebral task from start to finish. And really, that’s one of the key factors as to whether this game is for you. Do you have the time and interest to play a deep strategy game for 2 hours? If you’re middle-aged with small children like me, that could very well be a “No”!
The third thing I would tell you to do is to do as the rulebook suggests and use the beginner corporations. These are less interesting than the standard game, but you start with some production and you keep all 10 of your original cards, instead of having to make a tough decision about a game you barely yet understand. One of the most difficult parts about learning Terraforming Mars as a new player is the following situation: you buy lots of cool cards, and then find you can’t play them, or do much of anything, while your opponent is steamrolling.    Fourth and last, I encourage you to always use the Drafting variant rules listed in the rulebook, even when you first learn. You might ask the experienced player to lay the cards out and explain their choices as you learn and make yours, but it makes the game far more interactive and interesting.
The main strikes against Terraforming Mars are its complexity and its length. If you are a board gamer who frequently has long game gatherings, then those could be blessings intead of curses. For those with tighter schedules, the game might not be worth it. I’ve also heard some of friends who are deep into strategy games feel like the game is too long for the amount of depth the game offers; I think this opinion comes from playing with more than three players (don’t do this), and the need for the most important expansion in the game… 

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Terraforming Mars: Prelude ($19.95 MSRP)

Prelude was actually the third expansion released for Terraforming Mars, but I am listing it next because it is absolutely essential. In additon to providing new starting corporations, Prelude offers aptly-named Prelude cards that give players unique bonuses for the start of the game. Each player is dealt 4 of these cards and picks 2 of them, and they give some combination of resources, cards, and abilities for players to add to their corporation and their starting hand of cards.
On the surface, this expansion reminds me of something like 7 Wonders: Leaders, which forces players down certain paths, defeating the purpose of drafting. And Prelude certainly can encourage players to make certain moves, which I’m usually against. But look: Terraforming Mars is a complex game if there ever was one, and at the beginning of it, you are staring at ten cards and two corporations and trying to find some sort of path to make it all into a cohesive strategy, before anyone makes a move. Counter-intuitively, adding four more cards to pick two from actually makes this easier, because the Prelude cards so interesting and powerful.
They also are really well designed, to the point where I don’t feel they necesarily force a one-dimensional game plan for the rest of the game, though they will certanily give you a nudge. You still have to adapt plenty to your opponent and to the cards you draw, but this makes the beginning of the game far easier to consider, and it speeds up the game simply by giving everybody more toys at the start. Since it’s also an inexpensive expansion, it’s an absolute necessity, and I would use it with new players as well. More toys means more options, which means they’re less likely to work themselves into a corner. 
Conclusion: Add it to your cart when you buy the base game. 

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Terraforming Mars: Hellas & Elysium ($19.95 MSRP)

Now that we’ve discussed the most essential expansion, let’s tackle the rest in order. One thing that I always value from an expansion is when it can add variability without adding complexity. Hellas & Elysium is a perfect example of this. 
This small expansion is simply… a board. A double-sided board, with its very few rules on the sleeve around it. Changing the map is brilliant, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it requires no real rules changes but mixes up how you play considerably. On each of these two boards, the Awards and Milestones are also considerably different from the original board, which again shakes things up with minimal effort. It’s also a great thematic change: now we’re terraforming a different part of Mars!  Lastly, for players who are experienced with the base set, playing with a new map would also be a good way to introduce new players while giving a small handicap to the experienced player, who also has to learn the intricacies of the new map as well.
The rumor is that there are no new Terraforming Mars expansions “planned,” but if there were more, I would love to see another alternate map. It is a simple, easy swap, allowing for lots and lots of new experiences without making the game more complex. 
Conclusion: When you’re ready to mix it up, start here! 

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Terraforming Mars: Venus Next ($29.95 MSRP)

Venus Next is probably the first “typical” expansion for Terraforming Mars. It adds more Project cards, a new board with a new parameter, and some new rules, including a new type of “Tag” and a new resource (Floaters), in addition to a new Award and a new Milestone.
While a new rule about advancing parameters attempts to speed things up, overall adding the complexity of Venus Next is going to slow game time down some. (It is also easy forgot to adjust the parameter every turn in accordance with the new rule!) That’s a minor issue, and Venus Next adds a lot of cool new effects. However, I really dislike the new resource and how it integrates with the expansion and the rest of the game. Many cards from the expansion require “Floaters” to be played, but first you have to find the cards that actually provide “Floaters” (you can’t acquire them like standard resources — only through specific cards). You could also play cards that provide Floaters and then never find a good enough use for them. If the overall deck was smaller, or if the Venus Next project cards replaced some cards from the main deck, it would be okay, but the standard Terraforming Mars project deck  is already 208 cards (!) and this adds 49 more. That’s too much variance for me personally. While it would smooth out over many games, we’re talking about a 2+ hour behemoth here; I don’t get to play “many” games of it. Overall, the expansion is fine, but hardly essential. 
Conclusion: It’s fine, but it’s not great. For completionists.  

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Terraforming Mars: Colonies ($29.95 MSRP)

Colonies is similar in scope to Venus Next: there are lots of new project cards, as well as a new dimension to the gameplay. This time, players have trade fleets (ship figures) that they can send to different areas (colonies) to gain resources and bonuses. There are also many new project cards, many of which reference the colonies and trade fleets. 
Right here is a great improvement of design over Venus Next: I am perfectly fine with having so many cards reference these new game elements, because colonies and trade fleets are always in play, unlike Floaters and cards that require them. It actually works flawlessly. Unfortunately, several project cards in Colonies continue the references to Floaters, and there is a colony for them as well (that’s actually a good thing, if you’re going to use them, since they become more readily available). I realize this is anathema to many, but for me, if you simply remove all the cards that require or give Floaters (and the associated colony), Colonies works fine. And given that the Project deck is pretty dang huge at this point, if it eases your cosncience,  just pretend the cards all sank to the bottom of the deck. 🙂 
With my annoyance about Floaters out of the way, I have to say that Colonies integrates very well. Yes, it does add some time and complexity, but the most important part is that it makes it easier to do what you want to do, which is to play cool cards and have fun. Specific resources are now easier to access, which makes the game more fun for everyone. It also adds another strategic dimension, and it also fixes a “perceived flaw” in the base game, which was that the Energy resource was pretty useless before it gets converted to Heat. Overall, not essential, but a great expansion for those that want more.
Conclusion: Are you somehow still unsatisfied after the base game, Hellas & Elysium, and Prelude? Then get this next. 

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Terraforming Mars: Turmoil ($34.95 MSRP)

The most recent expansion for Terraforming Mars is billed as an “expert expansion” for good reason. Reading the rules alone to this one is a huge headache. In addition to all the new rules, the game has some added phases, and… it’s just too much.
For someone like me, Terraforming Mars is already a scheduled time commitment with a few specific friends, and a long, cerebral experience. Yes, a satisfying one too, but a commitment. With Colonies, Prelude, and occasionally a different map, I’m already at my mental limit, especially since games are usually at night when the kids are asleep. And my games are rare enough that committing the time to slogging through this guy on top of all the other rules led to games of Terraforming Mars I wish I could do over. 
There are people who love Terraforming Mars who may say that this expansion is amazing, but I have a hard time justifying it as necessary for any but the biggest fanatics and completionists. I have a Ph.D in mathematics, yet somehow I don’t have the brainpower for this one. If you are someone that enjoys playing board games solo and have the time carved out, I could see it, but a key point of this expansion is to add some interaction, which Terraforming Mars often lacks. 
Conclusion: Too complex; too long; not worth it unless you’re a fanatic or completionist. 

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Accessories

Why did I finally get around to writing this buyer’s guide today? Because Stronghold Games has launched a Kickstarter for…. a box. For Terraforming Mars. And it’s 99 dollars. For a box. Okay, to be fair, there’s a lot in the box. It stores everything, but more importantly, it comes with 3D printed tiles that replace the cardboard tiles that come with the game. They really do look gorgeous. There are also several add-ons, some of which can also be found on the BoardGameGeek Store
Is the big box essential? Well, certainly not for new players. However, I can’t fit everything in the original box and it’s driving me crazy. I did also mention that the game is not all that pretty; it does have some nice art but the components are a bit drab. So, yes, I backed the Kickstarter…
Regarding accessories, it’s hard to say they’re essential at all, since they’re, you know, accessories. However, one accessory I do find essential is the dual layer player boards, which are an add-on in the Kickstarter, and also available on the BoardGameGeek Store. The player boards that come with the game are abysmal — thin pieces of paper that are meant to hold cubes in certain places as trackers, but are easily bumped or moved. The upgraded player boards are fantastic, but a tough extra $20 to swallow. Really, they should be included in the base game nad have the base game’s price adjusted appropriately, but the base game is already quite expensive for the components you receive.
You’ll find some other items on the BoardGameGeek store as well, including several promo cards. One thing you might note about the Turmoil promo pack is that the cards require different expansions: some require Turmoil; some Colonies; some Venus Next; some none. Of course, by “definition” promo cards are not essential, and the Project card deck is plenty big enough as it is.
Conclusion: The dual layer player boards are essential; time will tell how gratuitous of a purchase the Big Box is…

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The App

There are many great board game apps out there; I play Star Realms daily and often play Ticket to Ride, Race for the Galaxy, and others. I have to say that overall, I did not enjoy the Terraforming Mars app. It seems to be built for PC and then poorly moved to Android and iOS. Too many important aspects of the game (such as Milestones and Awards, for example) are hidden within complex submenus.
The game is also so difficult to learn that I don’t think the app can replace being taught by an experienced player. Lastly, the $8.99 price tag seems to be fairly high for board game apps, but if you’re over here dumping $99 on a box, that may be an unjust criticism. Players who know the game well may find the app an enjoyable way to scratch the itch between game nights, but then you might start crushing your game group and find yourself with an expensive, dusty box. 🙂 If you’re someone who prefers to play board game apps on PC, it also may be more enjoyable that way. 
Conclusion: Not a great implemenetation for phones, kind of pricey… 

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Conclusion

To summarize:
  • Decide if Terraforming Mars is the kind of game you enjoy.
  • Get and learn Prelude alongside the base game, from a veteran – Prelude will actually make the game easier to pick up. 
  • Are you already going nuts about cubes flying everywhere? Get the dual layer player boards from the Kickstarter or the BoardGameGeek Store
  • Do you want more? Get Hellas & Elysium, then Colonies. 
  • Are you a fanatic? Get Venus Next… next, then Turmoil, or maybe the app. 
  • Are you OCD about storage, or vain about your board games’ prettiness? Check out the ongoing Kickstarter
  • Have fun!

Derek Thompson

I've been a board game reviewer since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.

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