21 May 2019
Like many greats before it and to come, Terraforming Mars is both a hybrid of existing archetypes and something fresh all its own. The digital app stays true to that ground-breaking (pioneering, geoforming) spirit. It features robust AI, a thorough tutorial, and generally well-organized menus and interface, as well a pretty sophisticated online multiplayer. If the beta is any indication, the final release is going to be spectacular, launching an already popular game into the stratosphere. Accessible and quick, the game’s app is about as good as it can (and should) be.
Just like with older, established Eurogames like Castles of Burgundy or Princes of Florence, Terraforming Mars comes down to cold, hard Victory Points. It scrambles the path to acquire them, making players undertake the seminal work of, you know, actually terraforming Mars. There are a host of resources, card types, and effects to cross-reference, the sort of thing that produces grand strategy through a million cogs and gears. Featuring a great level of competition and finesse, the game is also about ecological creation as much as it is economic competition, and it is this push-and-pull between the two which animates the core gameplay.
The tabletop game is excellent, but full of borderline busywork as everyone trundles through the phases of a turn. Not for nothing does it call its’ turns ‘Generations’. It takes time because the decisions are agonizing, and there are so many to fuss with. Map layout is crucial, card management & memorizing the deck are almost must-haves for build planning. The bean-counting of resource generation, not to mention cost-benefit analysis, are all important and mentally taxing. Dozens of hotspots of activity and intel need to be on the player’s radar more or less constantly to allow peak performance.
Fortunately, the app organizes these multiple variables into a single screen, with the map dead centre, an individual player’s attributes along the bottom row, and the full player roster on the left-hand side. Details of how many effects, tags or cards someone has are behind tabs, which work like drop-down menus would. In short, the information is logically nested and more easily researched here than on a sprawling table. (For five player, anyways). Another benefit of the layout is that each player can separately spend their time between turns parsing the information most relevant to their aims discreetly and with a minimum of fuss. Terraforming Mars has a little bit of disruption and player interaction, more-so in the (superior) drafting variant, so the fact the app makes opposition research a breeze is no trifling matter.
The multiplayer lobby and experience is equally polished, though it does require an active Asmodee account (to be fair, that one account will cover any of their digital properties, so you get your mileage). In lieu of matchmaking, players host and join each other’s games, with ranking determined by the existing ELO scores of the participants. There’s a chat lobby, which was relatively lively and handy despite only being in beta. Games are ‘asynchronous’ in the sense that they are disconnect-friendly; each player can be replaced by a bot or will auto-forfeit if they are away for too long; otherwise the game preserves a snapshot of the last stage. Because a game will last between one to two hours, the soft asynch option will prove a great fit for those craving regular play amidst the micro-interruptions of everyday life.
This tired broken record of a pre-re-viewer must dutifully report that the game, which I hadn’t played in ages, has aged excellently. Moreover, its digital incarnation is fast displacing the bulky physical predecessor. Some games (Can’t Stop, Targi, a host of others) are simple enough in gameplay and small enough in shelf-space to keep around, but for complicated, intense games a good app breathes second life into the original’s excellence and lets those Kondo-ing their collections a way to say goodbye without excising the game from their repertoire entirely.
Terraforming Mars has been ‘almost out’ for over a year now, so it’s hard to say how much longer the wait will be (or the price of the app), but before the end of 2019 is a safe bet.