Guest Writer: Ernie Laurence
Creator: Jacob Fryxelius
I found out recently that I’m a board game snob. With three younger children, the past few years of playing board games has been intellectually…underwhelming. Thankfully, my twins (8 year olds), are pretty sharp and have started getting into big kids games – and by big kids I mean adult kids like me – like Magic the Gathering, Apples to Apples, and the like.
Enter Terraforming Mars. Again, let me say, “Wow!” This game really fed all the things I was hungering for these past few years. It is is complex without being complicated, competitive without incorporating violence, and most importantly, it’s about Mars.
I’ve always wanted to go to Mars.
In this game, you and up to four other people, start as a corporation attempting to turn Mars into a livable environment. In this sense, the game is actually very cooperative as all players are working together toward the same excellent goal. To win, Mars itself must have enough oxygen, water, and heat for people to live on the surface without technological assistance. The corporations are in charge of building up to these conditions by their economic and technological efforts, not over years, but over generations of time.
Players must manage a number of resources: money, steel, titanium, plant life, electricity, and heat. They must also handle investments in technology in the form of cards that allow them to do everything from research new biological organisms, to harvest asteroids, to build cities, and much much more. Everything you do awards a certain number of victory points that you count at the end when all three criteria are met. The person with the highest number of points wins.
When you first open the box and see all the parts and cards that come with the game, it can be daunting. It took me and my twins only one game to figure out how to play. It took us two to really understand enough to start adapting tactics. By the third game, my daughter (the 8 year old, not the 4 year old) smoked me like a big ol’e beef brisket. She had so much income that she could afford a serious amount of research – keeping cards she drew during the research phase – and purchasing new activities – playing cards during the main phase. I got fancy and paid the price.
As I mentioned above, the game is complex, but not so complicated my kids couldn’t learn it at the age of 8. The complexity has a draw to older players, but it also lends itself to a lot of replayability. The only drawback to the game is that it takes a while to play through in order to meet the goals of the game. It is definitely not a thirty minute party game or an hour long family night game. We typically played for about four hours from start to finish once we learned how to play.
One of the things that I found really cool about the game is when I took it up to school where I teach Physics and introduced it to my top class. I’ve had five students playing for a couple of months now. They are in their second game. It’s practically a race as soon as I finish the lecture or practical portion of the class to the secondary room where the game is set up. At this point, they practically beg for a sub so they can play during the whole class period.
Terraforming Mars is perfect for a Physics class because it teaches about thermodynamics, technology, economics related to science, and a host of other things we study in class in a simulated practical setting. The students get to see what it would really take to do something as extended as terraforming a planet and they get to see how concepts we discuss in class are incorporated into both Mars and even Earth – which already has these norms in place.
A huge part of this education comes from the cards themselves as they offer “flavor text” at the bottom that instructs on the real world science behind the technology or activity represented by the card. The creator of the game, Jacob Fryxelius, did a wonderful job of researching and connecting his game to modern and near-future science through a kind of story-line found in all of the paraphernalia of the game.
There is an expansion for Venus, which is not large as far as expansions go. There is one more “condition” to meet, but it is not necessary as it’s not on Mars. It only provides additional victory points. Story-wise, this bit part reality is addressed because living on the surface of Venus is far more problematic than Mars in the same time period. Game-wise, though, this makes the expansion something players will tend to ignore even when the expansion parts are present during the game. It comes off as a novelty, but more of an aside that distracts players from winning the game through the primary goals on Mars.
I will not say that the Venus expansion is bad. It is certainly educational and even fun if that’s what you want to focus on. However, I might have gone in a different direction, making Venus chronologically an additional goal to be met after Mars had been terraformed before the game could end. Doing this would allow for more substance to the expansion and more relevance to its presence.
I wanted to provide a bit of context for the pictures. These were taken from the current game being played by my 5th period Physics students. I have included one shot of the board game, one shot of each player, and then one shot of the whole game. There is also an official promotional picture from the game’s website.
Do it. Get the game. It’s an amazing game to play with the family and friends. It’s educational, complex, competitive, cooperative, and just intellectually a lot of fun.
With this game, Candy Land and Guess Who will soon be a thing of the past for me.