Reviewed by Chris Wray
TERRAFORMING MARS: ARES EXPEDITION (Stronghold Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 45-60 minutes; $40)
After its 2016 release, Terraforming Mars (Summer 2017 Gamers Alliance Report) instantly became a modern classic. But as it rose through the BGG ranks (where it is currently perched at #4), it did not receive a spinoff or sequel game as is the fashion with wildly popular games these days. But then, earlier this year, that changed with the Kickstarter debut of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, a project that raked in $1.2 million.
Ares Expedition has itself been gaining in popularity since its release this summer. There was a hiccup at launch: Target was able to get an exclusive (and less expensive) version before Kickstarter backers received their copy, leading to mass anger and a campaign to rate the game poorly on BGG. But quality usually comes through in the BGG ratings and this card game version of Terraforming Mars has been slowly building acclaim for distilling down some of the core elements of its oh-so-popular predecessor.
At first glance, there’s a lot in common with Terraforming Mars. The theme is the same, with you taking on the role of a specialized corporation trying to terraform the red planet. You’re still raising the same global parameters (temperature, oxygen level, and ocean coverage). The resources are mostly the same, even if they work slightly differently. Your Terraform Rating (“TR”) still forms the base of your victory points, and earns you MegaCredits (“MC”) each round The resources are mostly the same, even if they work slightly differently. Your Terraform Rating still forms the base of your victory points. And most importantly, there’s still a heavy dose of engine building.
But Ares Expedition is much more card driven than Terraforming Mars. There is a central board, but it just tracks the global parameters. The only thing players own is on their own tracking board and in their own tableau.
The game proceeds in three steps over as many rounds as it takes to raise the necessary global parameters. The game is very much driven by an action selection mechanic — which naturally and fairly invites comparisons to Race for the Galaxy (Winter 2008 GA Report) or San Juan (Spring 2004 GAR)
Only the phases chosen that round by the players are played, and the player(s) choosing each phase get an advantage. For instance, the development phase lets players play a green project card, and the player(s) choosing that phase pay 3 MC less for the project they build. The construction phase lets players build red or blue project cards, and the player(s) choosing the phase can play a second card or draw a card. The action phase lets players use the standard actions (which are similar to the base game), or use their action cards, with the player(s) selecting that phase being allowed to use one of their action cards twice. In this version, building an ocean lets you flip over a tile on the board, taking the small bonus shown on the other side. Raising oxygen gives you a forest tile, which will be worth a victory point at the end of the game. The production phase allows production of resources, with the player(s) choosing that phase getting an extra 4 MC. Lastly, the research phase lets players draw more cards, with the player(s) choosing that phase drawing and keeping extra cards.
Once everybody reveals the phase they’ve chosen, the phases proceed in the order above. After that, the round ends, and players must discard down to 10 cards in hand, receiving 3 MC for each card they discard. Players can also discard cards at any point in the game for 3 MC each.
The game ends when the global parameters are all at the goal levels. Players get 1 VP per TR, 1 VP for each forest tile, and VP from their project cards in their tableau. The player with the most points wins.
Ares Expedition feels like its predecessor game, and in fact, if you know Terraforming Mars, you can learn Ares Expedition in just minutes from a quickstart guide for experienced players. But this feels remarkably different.
Using the action selection mechanic is a game changer (pun intended), because not everybody gets to do all of the actions that round, leading to much more interactivity than in Terraforming Mars. Do you see that your opponent is ready to plant some forests and raise the temperature? Then don’t pick the action phase: count on them to do it!
Ares Expedition has the better written rulebook. And better art. And better iconography. Simply put, this game feels remarkably well-developed. So in many ways, you can tell that the designer and publisher learned from their prior experience, and put more resources into this project.
That said, Ares Expedition does lack many of the charms of its predecessor. I miss the central board and the tension it creates as players compete for the geography of Mars. I also miss how epic the prior game felt: since Ares Expedition only lasts 45 minutes to an hour, this feels like a streamlined — but also less epic — version of its Terraforming Mars. I also really miss the milestones and awards from the previous game: they always added a level of in-game tension that is missing here.
The result is a game that, even if I’ve enjoyed my plays, is unlikely to remain in my collection. It is too similar to — but not as good as — Terraforming Mars. I tried the two-player coop mode, hoping that would be a reason to keep this, but that version of the game felt repetitive and ill-conceived. But this is still a great game, and it keeps the best parts of the game that came before it. My only criticism is that it fails to rise to the high bar Terraforming Mars set.
But if you like Terraforming Mars, this is worth trying. With shorter and more accessible gameplay and a lower price point, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition would even make an excellent introduction to the series. – – – – – – – – Chris Wray
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