Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition review: faster, but awkward

Terraforming Mars is one of those sprawling board games that fans adore, but which novice players find intimidating. That’s why Stronghold Games launched a crowdfunding campaign for Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition. We put the final retail product — now a Target exclusive — through its paces, and it works all right. But the game is sadly limited by some of the very same problems that plague the original.

In Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, players take on the role of mega corporations trying to turn the Red Planet into a second Earth. They do so by playing cards from their hand that represent infrastructure on or around the planet, or major events in the life cycle of the terraforming process. Once you’ve planted a field of heather, for instance, in a bid to raise the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, you might want to introduce breathing filters to make walking around on the surface possible without an environmental suit.

It’s a competitive game, not a cooperative one, so the race is on to be the first to introduce those filters; to be the first to fill in an ocean; to be the first to open up a lava flow, venting heat and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. In typical Euro fashion, players track their progress with a victory point tracker around the edge of the board.

What makes Ares Expedition so interesting is that play is broken up into multiple phases, but not all of those phases pop off every round. Players secretly choose which phase they personally want to play in each round, which opens that phase up to everyone at the table. That creates a bit of tension as you look around trying to guess what’s going to happen next. Will your opponent trigger a production phase, allowing you to profit from your investments in high-end infrastructure? If they do, you could pick the research phase instead to add more cards to your hand next round. If they don’t, you had better trigger a production round yourself or get left behind.

Unfortunately, the process of condensing the larger Terraforming Mars experience into a smaller, mostly card-based game leaves behind a few vestigial remnants from the original. For instance, there’s little reason to have icons representing both space and titanium production. The two concepts are effectively the same in gameplay terms, and abstracting them out into a single icon across the multiple game components would make it easier for new players to get their head around it. On the flip side, there are other redundant icons and concepts that could have been disambiguated to avoid confusion. The result is a cluttered game board and a cluttered manual, which requires a bit more jumping around between sections than I’d like.

A cramped player board with tiny colored markers all over it.

A player board, showing how colored cubes are used to track production and stockpiles of key resources.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Stock Market Pioneer

All of this is just nuance, however. Find someone who knows what they’re doing, or who has played and loved the original game, and your first session of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition will go quickly. But for someone browsing the aisles at a big-box retailer, I could see some real consternation cropping up when they get home and try to play the game.

My biggest pet peeve is the playing pieces. Just like in the original, players are expected to precisely position tiny plastic bits on a perfectly flat playing surface. If someone so much as nudges the table, it can invalidate a lot of painstaking accounting. Bumping someone’s sideboard is more easily fixed in this smaller version than in the original, but it would be better still if you didn’t have to worry about it. Look for dual-layer boards, with little sockets to hold plastic markers firmly in place, to crop up on the secondary market — just like they did with the original game.

Terraforming Mars is available at your friendly local game store and online at places like Amazon for about $70. Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition costs $39.99 and is available at Target.

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