4 Lessons from Terraforming Mars for Aspiring Board Game Designers

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

I recently had the pleasure of playing Terraforming Mars for the first time. I am pleased to say that it is an absolutely fantastic game that’s worth purchasing. There are some really good qualities as well as some really annoying ones, and we’re going to discuss both. I consider this to really valuable for learning game design simply because there is so much going on.

Terraforming Mars

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Terraforming Mars is a game where each player acts as a corporation trying to, well, terraform Mars. Each of you will do your part to cover the surface in cities, greenery, and water while raising the oxygen level and temperature of the planet. As time passes, Mars will become ever more hospitable and you will receive points based on your contribution to society.

It’s a resource management game, in essence. You’re dealing with money, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat. Beyond the simply trackable resources, you’re also affecting the board through tile placement and determining your destiny through hand management. There are also variable player powers, and… You get the point. There’s a lot going on here.

A quick disclaimer before we go any farther. Terraforming Mars is a great game. It has some incredibly likable qualities to it that I believe will help it endure. However, you need to be very careful about imitating it. It’s a complex game, the rules are not particularly well-presented, and the pieces are fiddly. It makes some basic mistakes when it comes to accessibility that you shouldn’t repeat. Yet even with these problems, I still want to play it again today. That’s how good the underlying engine is!

1. If you go heavy like Terraforming Mars, create variety.

Most people I know would call Terraforming Mars a heavy game. There are a lot of rules. It takes hours to learn, and you won’t understand it on your first game. There are so many resources to manage as well as other decisions that you need to make.

This isn’t necessarily bad, but it can destroy a game if you’re not careful. Weighty games need to bring something special to the table, and Terraforming Mars does. One of the ways Terraforming Mars keeps the game fresh is by an absolutely massive deck of project cards. To be specific, it’s 208 and there are no repeats. Each one has a different impact on the game. Combine this with other situational factors and you have a game which never resolves in the same way twice.

This is so critical. Terraforming Mars is not fast and it’s not cheap. For gamers as consumers to feel like there is real value in the game, this level of variety is very useful!

2. Use theme as a hook.

Terraforming Mars feels academic in its complexity when you learn it for the first time. This is one of the weakest qualities of the game. In fact, if the designers were not careful, it could have made the game a dud. Yet the sci-fi theme and the grand scale of terraforming an entire planet is very appealing to gamers. For that reason, the theme is a sufficient hook to keep gamers engaged even while being beaten down by the rules, the exceptions, and the complex logic of the game.

Look, if your theme can’t keep people engaged for long enough to learn the game, you won’t go very far. The game will be played by a select few and are later forgotten. Terraforming Mars, whether intentionally or on purpose, nailed theme and thus captured lightning in a bottle.

3. Use graphic design to convey weight.

Between the hex spaces, the enormous amount of components, and the complex tracking system, Terraforming Mars looks complex. You can also see this reflected in the iconography of the game as well. The game exudes complexity and intellectualism.

“So it comes across as complex? How is that a good thing, Brandon?” It ultimately comes down to product-market fit. If Terraforming Mars looked lighter than it was, people would be blindsided by the complexity of the game and they would ragequit. Likewise, if the game looked more complicated, people wouldn’t want to try it. Terraforming Mars hits a sweet spot right between looking too easy and looking too complicated. It attracts just the right crowd and that has helped it to succeed in the marketplace.

4. Create opportunities for creative play.

This is the most important lesson from Terraforming Mars. Everything I have said before has been a lesson in how Terraforming Mars pre-emptively addresses its weaknesses as a product or as a game. That’s because Terraforming Mars needs to keep people engaged for long enough to really see the game for what it is. People need to make the decision to buy it, learn it, and muddle through it before they ever see the full extent of this game’s creative play.

And my, is this game creative. There is so much variety in the project deck, the variable player powers add a lot, and even the board can play out in a number of different ways – almost feeling like an abstract strategy sub-game in and of itself. You could play this game 100 times and never reach the conclusion. I could play an isolationist game where I contribute little to enviornment and don’t hurt others. I could work almost entirely on the enviornment, speed up the game, and gain glory doing so. Still, I could play zero-sum and try to injure my opponents to get ahead. There are so many options!

For heavy board gamers, the ability to express their creativity, escape their day-to-day worries, and receive intellectual stimulation are very important. This is what compels heavy board gamers to play heavy board games. Terraforming Mars does all of this because the game is creative and can be played a lot of different ways. All the frustrating aspects of it disappear once this simple truth comes to light.

Terraforming Mars is an engaging game that uses its looks to scare off casuals, its theme and variety to hook the skeptical, and its creative gameplay to engage gamers for years to come. Anybody want to play a game? 🙂

5 thoughts on “4 Lessons from Terraforming Mars for Aspiring Board Game Designers

  1. Great post Brandon! One of my all-time favorite games. I highly recommend the Hellas & Elysium, and Prelude expansions. The former adds 2 more maps, the latter adds more power to the beginning of the game, resulting in a faster start and shorter overall duration. Out of the 21 TM games in my GenCon tournament, all featuring Prelude, only 1 ran over 2 hours.

    Despite the appearance of complexity, I consider TM to be a medium weight game, not as heavy as games like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium. Maybe TM is more like medium-heavy.

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