RogerBW's Blog

Thirsty Meeples December 2018 11 December 2018

Back to the boardgame café. With images; cc-by-sa on everything.

We started the evening with the wildly popular game Terraforming Mars: each turn, you choose cards to play, and gain their various effects as you work to increase temperature, water coverage and atmospheric oxygen on Mars over multiple generations.

In thematic terms, this ought to be exactly the sort of game I enjoy: crashing asteroids onto Mars! Flooding Valles Marineris! Turning a barren rock into somewhere with life on it! And yet I found it a bit of a let-down.

Although "too random" is a cliché of game commentary, I really do think the problem is the randomness. There's one huge deck of cards from which everyone draws (and you then decide whether to pay to keep a card or let it go out of the game), but some of those cards have prerequisites (for example you can't have birds until the oxygen percentage is high enough). So if you draw the Birds card early in the game, you have the choice between spending money for it and holding onto the card until later (and money can be a bit scarce in the early game), or discarding it and abandoning any likelihood of seeing that development at all.

That sort of thing is fair enough as a decision to have to make, but it happens by chance. Maybe the Birds card will come up late, in which case you don't have that choice to make; maybe (probably) it will come up in someone else's hand, in which case you can't play it at all. Perversely, it's the theme which makes this frustrating: why can't I introduce birds, or crash a comet on the pole? Because I didn't get the right card to let me do it.

In this particular game, I happened to draw and play some cards which boosted my ability to do space developments. Great! Except that, after that, I saw just one more space development card for the entire rest of the game.

In other words, you can't pick a strategy; you can't say "I will concentrate on space" or "this time it's all about animal life", because that's consigning your fate to the vagaries of shuffling. Instead, all you can do is plan to be moderately good at everything, and if there's only one strategy there aren't hard choices to make.

Yes, I did end up winning (on the money tiebreaker), but I didn't feel I'd earned it by making good decisions.

I suspect it might work better with a different way of getting cards: perhaps drafting, so that you have the chance to buy cards your opponents have rejected thus increasing the likelihood of getting cards to match a strategy, and/or having cards sorted into eras in the manner of 7 Wonders (or something simpler, such as a deck that gets shuffled into the main pile only when its prerequisites are met).

Many people love this game. I don't seem to be one of them.

We were a bit weary after that, and finished off with a couple of games of Timeline: British History. The first time we all played perfectly.

So we left all those cards on the table and dealt out a new set for us to fit between them, which was a bit more of a challenge. Something to do again, I think.

[Buy Terraforming Mars at Amazon] [Buy Timeline: British History at Amazon] and help support the blog.

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