For me, an expansion can’t be optional. I’m lazy and don’t overly enjoy the micromanagement of organising decks, resources and other oddities to keep core games and their additions separate. All in one is the go to in our house and it’s rare for an integrated expansion to be removed. As such, some games scare me with the number of modules they include – none more so than Terraforming Mars. So how do I get my fix of colonising our red neighbour? Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition. A lighter, shorter but excellently fun card game for 1-4 players that runs in around an hour.
How’s It Compare?
Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition is designed to be a more streamlined and lighter version of the original. It runs phases instead of generations, removes many of the resource types and cuts some other elements. Steel and titanium are no longer physical resources but instead give discounts based into their values on the tracks. However, as I’ve not played Terraforming Mars, I’ll be writing this from a completely clean slate and will avoid making reference to the original. As far as I’ll be writing, this game is one on its own and will be treated accordingly.
How To Play
The aim for players in Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition is to terraform the red planet. This is done by raising the oxygen track to max, the temperature to max and flipping all the ocean tiles. When this happens, the game ends after that phase. The game is still competitive even though players work together to raise these stats and as such whomever has the most victory points is the winner.
To kick off and set players up, they each take all the cubes of a specific and expedition cards of a specific colour. They also take a player board and place one cube on each resource track on zero. Next, players are dealt two company cards to choose from. These give players variable starting resource track values which they should adjust accordingly and also give them a unique effect when specific phases occur. They also determine how many MC players start with – an invaluable resource used to build cards.
Finally, players are dealt eight cards as a starting hand. To set up the shared board, all players place a cube on the terraforming track, the ocean tiles are placed face down and large cubes are placed on the oxygen and temperature tracks. There are also phase markers to help players identify which are being played that round. Players are now ready to play.
The game takes place, round to round, with no players being first player. Most everything is simultaneous apart from identifying the phases played that round, which are chosen by players. To begin a round, players choose one phase which they definitely want to use this round.
Only phases chosen by players are run and are only run once regardless of how many are played. In example, if all folk play the Action phase card you’ll still only get one Action phase. So why would you want to play a round you know someone else is likely to choose? Each round has a main action for players to utilise, but also has a bonus for whomever chose that phase. Some phases allow you to build (play) cards at a cost. Cards always have an MC cost. They sometimes require you to have X of another card symbol, to spend so many of a resource you have or may even have terraforming based requirements. (In the occurrence where MC is an issue, players can discard cards for a value of 3 MC for any reason.)
What You Want To Do
The Development phase allows players to play green cards by spending MC. These generally increase the income values of the different tracks for players and don’t immediately give physical resources. These cards are the main way you’ll produce income in Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition. Main players get a three MC discount.
The Construct cards allows you to play red and blue cards for the cost of MC. Blue cards provide ongoing or action effects (which are utilised in the Action phase). Whereas red cards are instant effects. Main players play a second card or draw a card.
The Action phase allows you to use actions cards you have and then forces you to spend any heat and plant resources you have to improve the planet’s terraforming levels. You can also optionally spend MC to do so, too. These improve your score on the track and help drive the game to its end. Main players activate one action a second time.
The Production phase is where you gain resources according to your current track states. The only exception is MC where you also gain your current track score in MC as well. Main players gain four bonus MC.
The Research phase allows players to draw three cards and keep one. Main players instead draw five and keep two.
Ending the Game
Rounds continue like this until all tracks become full on the main board and all ocean tiles flipped. Then players end the current phase and the game then ends with players scoring their current track score, forest tokens and card scores. Some cards have victory points automatically associated to them and other will provide X points for specific symbols across all other cards or for cubes on them. After that, whomever has the highest score is the winner.
How It Handles
Man oh man am I a fan of this jam. Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition is a streamlined, slick game of resource and hand management. It’s superbly easy to pick up and play and allows players to easily see when the endgame will come and how long they’ll have left.
Ain’t No Stopping This Baby!!
In the early game, things are slow. Slow and steady. The perfect conditions to teach someone the ropes but a deceptive trick produced by a lack of played cards. Like a mine-cart on a gentle slope, this baby gradually increases in speed until you’re hurtling towards the finale with nothing to stop you!
The game’s processes prevent players from doing too much too soon. You can access every phase played, but the early game is very much a poor man’s income. You’ll get a smidgeon of resources, a handful of MC and, if you’re lucky, a card or two. Even so, you can always force gaining credit and such to build the heavy hitting cards… but that’s not encouraged. The entire set up is centred on starting small and gaining little additions in your terraforming efforts that will help build up to something far more impressive!
Finding the I in Team
Inevitably, you’re aiming to gain resources to terraform the planet. That’s the overall goal here. However, to be the best at it you’ll need the best income values. This means being able to planet more trees and breathe more O2s into the atmosphere than everyone else… but that won’t necessarily win you the game. Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition ends when you’ve terraformed the planet, but you’ll win based on that and your card scorers. These won’t always net you tonnes of income or help lots overall, but they look good on paper and that’s what counts here. Looking good.
Your rank in the terraforming rank tracker is what’ll get you the bulk of points, no doubt. But the decider? Bonus points and conditional point values. Those that give X points for each of a symbol can be manipulated to great effect. Games can be own or lost based on the number of Earth symbols you have under the right conditions… however! And this is a big however! How well this is done is centred on you remembering to do it.
Undoubtedly I now sound silly. Of course you’re going to cash in big time – you’re a strong, knowledgeable gamer who don’t need no reminding. And I respect that. But all scoring conditions are hidden under other cards based on the game’s recommended layout. You leave the left exposed for easy view of what a card gives you in terms of production and manipulation and the right is then hidden by the remainder of your track. Getting one early can net you a tonne of points if cashed in on, but neglecting it can be a truly missed opportunity.
Symbology in this game makes sense. There’s not much else to say in the matter. It has straightforward icons for every resource, labels for effect triggers, colour coding for action cards and an easy to understand scaling system for resource cubes. Sure there’s a learning element to it, but two games in and we knew the lingo really well and it sped our games up tenfold. And, if you become linguistically challenged here, the cards do explain everything in clear detail too. For a game of its mechanics and requirements I was more than pleasantly surprised on how it all made sense so nicely.
It’s a Rock, It Can’t Be Pretty… Right?
This is the part where I go against what I originally said and do compare this game to the original. Although I’ve not played the original big boy, I know of its components and aesthetics. I’ve seen it on a table, I’ve flicked through its cards. I know its visuals.. the stuff that matters to me because I’m oh so incredibly shallow when it comes to table presence and aesthetics. Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition is a good looking game. It doesn’t dominate the table and is very reserved in the space it easy up for shared areas, and players controlled aspects only take space for card runs. But it looks good.
Visually, it looks pretty but contains itself nicely to its quarters. Reserved it the word. What’s more is that every card is uniquely illustrated and hosts a lovely vibe of happy colonisation. It doesn’t break new ground, nor does it host dark or mysterious undertones, but is instead a really lovely game to look at when playing it, but not the eye catch at a distance. And it’s made oh so well with those dual layer boards! Which is completely unlike its big brother.
I found that, close uo up, Terraforming Mars was not a pretty game. It ate space, looked a bit slapdash and uncontrolled in terms of player boards and it’s art was incredibly bland and clinical. No passion nor beauty, just graphs and stock photos. However! What the unit does is have table presence. A lot of it. Oodles. If you base game choice on how it looks, which is a dangerous game in itself, it depends on whether you want to have that epic looking game on the table or the one you’ll bask in every cards’ art.
In A Nutshell
Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition is superbly fun, addictive and quick playing game of resource management and very loose cooperation. You’ve got to be the best cooperator, but still work with everyone to terraform Mars. The simultaneous play makes the game so paced that there’s nearly no down time, and alternatively having folk take turns ensures the teaching element can be thorough ready for that simultaneousness. The combos available across cards to get the best out of phases is obvious and and players can really diversify their tactics and still cash in one some mega scores. A game I expected to like but not one I ever imagined I’d love so much it still hasn’t been put on a shelf! I recommend this oh so highly and think it’s such a superb game.