The year is 2315. Earth is overpopulated, and resources are dwindling. Oh no!
On the plus side, global peace and unity have been achieved. The World Government has started funding the terraforming of Mars, attracting corporations to compete to expand their businesses to be the most influential on the soon-to-be habitable planet.
Terraforming Mars has been among the highest-ranked competitive games since its release in 2016. The objective is simple: make the surface of Mars habitable for life to exist for humans.
Each player is sponsored by a corporation. They all work together to make Mars liveable for humans by increasing its oxygen level, surface temperature, and surface water to the required level for life to survive. While they do this, they earn victory points by contributing to the terraforming as well as the human infrastructure on the new planet.
I’m new to Terraforming Mars. In fact, we only purchased it a couple of months ago. However, I’ve delved straight into it, and I hope you find this guide valuable and insightful. It’s always good to hear things from a fellow novice if you’re anything like me!
Things to Know before You Start
Terraforming Mars is a game for 1 to 5 players. I’d say it takes an average of two to three hours, depending on the number of players and experience.
Make sure you allocate a longer time for your first game to get to grips with it – our first attempt took around three and a half hours (with two players).
There are a few terms I needed clarification on when I first played.
- A ‘generation’ is a round. Play moves clockwise from the first player (with the token), and the generation ends when all players pass. At this point, resources are collected, and new cards become available.
- A ‘tag’ is an icon at the top of a card you play.
In summary, I’d like to compare Terraforming Mars with Ark Nova. Lots of people make comparisons between these games. They’re similar in a way but also quite different. While both have a reasonable level of complexity, I personally find Terraforming Mars is much more engaging. It’s also easier to manage your resources and keep track of everything.
The Objective of Terraforming Mars
The game’s objective is to get the three criteria (Ocean, oxygen, and temperature) to the necessary levels while scoring the most victory points.
These victory points are scored by terraforming, building, playing project cards, and achieving awards and milestones.
In essence, it’s a competitive but cooperative game. You’ll win by maximizing your own productivity (or minimizing other players’).
What’s in the Box?
- 1 Rule Booklet
- 1 Large Game Board (Mars)
- 5 individual player boards (to track resource incomes and current resources)
- 17 Corporation cards
- 208 Project cards
- 8 Reference cards
- 200 Player markers (in five colors for each player)
- 200 Resource markers in Gold, Silver, and Copper (respectively worth 10, 5, and 1)
- 9 Ocean tiles
- 60 Reversible Greenery/City tiles
- 11 Special tiles
- 1 First Player marker
How to Play Terraforming Mars
I strongly suggest watching a YouTube walkthrough before playing. This is a great way to learn what does what without getting overwhelmed by the text.
Setting Up Your Initial Terraforming Mars Hand
Everyone starts with a personal board, a Corporation card, and a hand of project cards.
You’ll be dealt two standard Corporation cards, picking one to keep and play with. The other returns to the pile. Each corporation provides different benefits, so you should prioritize the cards in your hand to match these perks, if possible.
If it’s your first time playing, I recommend starting with a beginner corporation. This will give you a nice credit boost and no handicap on hand size at the start of the game – this prevents the awkward moment where you have to ask your opponent what a card does or if it’s worth keeping. I’ve also found it an excellent equalizer if you want a fair game between new players and more experienced people.
Avoid using the cards with the red symbol on the bottom of your first couple of games, as they are for a variant that will complicate the game and result in a longer one.
The game suggests the player that won the previous game should be given the First Player marker. To be honest, we didn’t find this to provide you with a massive advantage – you rotate who goes first around clockwise each generation anyway. (But you get to pick which color you want to be before red gets taken!)
Each player is dealt ten Project cards as a starting hand. You then choose which cards to keep, costing 3 credits per card (unless you start with a beginner corporation).
Discard all unwanted cards face down at the same time as the other Corporation card.
Actions and Playing a Generation
Each generation technically consists of four stages:
- Player Order – pass the First Player token onto the next clockwise person. Easy.
- Research – choose which of the four new cards you want to keep (if any), costing 3 Mega Credits each. In the first generation, you’ll have ten cards to choose from.
- Action – take one or two actions or pass.
- Production – receive income for your resources.
Each player gets up to two actions per turn until they pass. Actions can consist of any of the following:
- Playing a card from your hand
- Using an action (from a played blue project card)
- Converting 8 Plants to place 1 Greenery tile
- Converting 8 Heat to increase the temperature on the Mars board
- Buying a standard project
- Claiming a Milestone
- Funding an Award
For example, you could play a card from your hand, paying the relative amount (Action 1). You might then convert 8 Plants into a Greenery tile, placing it on the board next to a tile you own.
A quick note on blue project cards: playing the card is one action, and using its effect is another. If you choose to do this, it uses the two actions in your turn. We didn’t understand this for our first few games.
Before You Start
On each person’s personal board, there are six different resources to juggle:
- Mega Credits – this will be your main spending power. The amount of money you’ll receive is your Terraforming Rating plus (or subtract!) the income on your personal board. You can go into negative production. These will be used to purchase project cards and standard projects. Try to increase this quickly; otherwise, you won’t be able to afford more expensive projects. You can increase your Mega Credit production on your personal track by building cities as well as with some project cards.
- Steel – this has a brown symbol. Each Steel can be worth 2 Mega Credits when building a project with this icon (‘tag’) in the top right of the card. This can be a valuable bonus if you increase your production early.
- Titanium – this tag has a yellow star on a black background. Titanium can be used for space projects, those with a similar sun icon in the top right corner. They’re worth 3 Mega Credits each, which is very helpful as space cards tend to be more expensive but more powerful.
- Plants – this is the green leaf symbol. You use plants to buy greenery tiles. Greenery tiles are placed onto the Mars board and increase the oxygen level. A Greenery tile costs 8 Plant resources; your Greenery tiles are also worth victory points at the end of the game, so this may be a resource to try to increase early in a game with more players as the spaces may be taken quickly.
- Energy – Energy is the most unique resource here. Only a few cards let you spend Energy directly. However, some cards impact your Energy production negatively. You cannot play these cards if you cannot reduce your Energy production to the corresponding amount, so you must manage this like all the other resources. Energy is the one resource you can increase with a standard project; paying 11 Mega Credits can increase your energy production by 1. All the Energy you have produced at the end of a generation is instantly converted to Heat (see below).
- Heat: Heat is used to increase the temperature on Mars, which has to be raised more than most other criteria. I don’t usually find this to be an issue, with Heat production constantly contributing to your resources, along with Energy production becoming Heat at the end of each generation. It costs 8 Heat resources to raise the temperature once, boosting your Terraforming rating again.
Each Project card has a cost associated with it, and some have requirements that need to be met to be able to play them. These costs may apply to you or even other players.
You cannot play a card if a cost cannot be satisfied.
- Green Project cards are applied once. Once played, you just stack them to the side. Ensure the top is visible so you can see the tags.
- Blue Project cards have other information in a banner under them that is also essential to be aware of throughout the game. For example, one might allow you to spend Mega Credits to increase Energy production. These blue actions can only be used once per generation; you usually place one of your colored cubes on the card to show once it’s been used. This is where it gets tricky to track what you have and haven’t done in each generation.
- Red Project cards are event cards with a downward arrow in the top right corner. Once resolved, flip the card face down. You don’t need to think about it until the end of the game when it scores you extra points.
Here are a couple of notes on Project cards that we only grasped once we’d played a few times.
- You can play a card if the effect would increase the ocean temperature or oxygen if they are at the maximum, but you will not get a Terraform Rating increase.
- If a symbol has a red border, you can apply this adverse effect to another player. However, if you are the only player it can possibly apply to, you must use it on yourself. This is necessary on rare occasions.
Standard Projects are actions you can take in your turn. Each one costs one of your two actions.
Here are your options:
- Sell Patents – discard cards from your hand. These are worth one Mega Credit each – add the respective total to your Mega Credits.
- Power Plant – spend 11 Mega Credits and increase your Energy production by 1 step.
- Asteroid – spend 14 Mega Credits. Raise the temperature by one level and increase your Terraforming Rating by one step.
- Aquifer – spend 18 Mega Credits to place an Ocean tile, adding 1 to your Terraforming Rating and receiving any relevant benefits.
- Greenery – spend 23 Mega Credits to place a Greenery tile. Increase the oxygen level and raise your TR by one step. Place a marker on the tile to show that you own it, remembering to collect any relevant placement bonuses.
- City – spend 25 Mega Credits. Place a City tile on the Mars board. Increase your Mega Credit production by 1 step and collect any placement bonus.
The board lists these, but you’ll also learn them with time.
Remember, the Greenery and City tiles contribute to your victory points at the end, so they’re well worth investing in!
Tile placement in Terraforming Mars was the part I remember as the least clear in the booklet.
Whenever you place a tile on the surface of Mars, you obtain the resources shown by the symbols in that space.
There are four types of tiles:
- 11 special tiles
Ocean tiles must be placed in spaces reserved for Ocean tiles. These have a blue border. This can be done with Project cards or with a Standard Project. Each time you place an Ocean tile, your Terraforming rating goes up. Whenever anyone plays a tile next to an Ocean, you gain 2 Mega Credits per touching Ocean.
Cities may be placed anywhere that isn’t a reserved space except next to another City. When you play one, increase your Mega Credit production by 1. Particular cities may be played with certain Project cards. These come with special rules described on the cards, so be aware of these. The Cities score at the end of the game, being worth 1 point for each adjacent greenery tile (even ones you do not own).
Greenery tiles must be placed next to one of your own tiles if possible. When you play a Greenery tile, increase the oxygen level by 1 (if it’s still possible). If you do raise the oxygen one step, increase your Terraforming Rating one spot too. Remember to collect your Mega Credits for adjacent Ocean tiles too! At the end of the game, each Greenery tile you own is worth 1 victory point.
The special tiles are often cheaper to play. You might think there is little point in playing them, but there are many ways to utilize them to your advantage. These also count toward the Landlord award.
Milestones and Awards in Terraforming Mars
You’ll find Milestones and Awards at the bottom of the board. Between all the players, only three of each can be claimed.
Milestones can be claimed when you have reached the specified criteria. These cost you 8 credits and an action. You then place your marker to show it’s yours.
Note these can only be claimed once, so there’s usually a race to get there first. Milestones are worth 5 points each at the end of the game.
Awards can also be claimed, but they work a little differently. The first costs 8 credits, the second 14, and the final 20.
The Milestones you can claim are:
- Terraformer – having a Terraform rating of at least 35.
- Mayor – owning at least three City tiles.
- Gardener – owning at least three Greenery tiles.
- Builder – having at least 8 Building tags in play.
- Planner – have at least 16 cards in your hand when you claim this card. This is by far the most challenging milestone, in my opinion, and I struggle to see how it’s worthwhile.
Awards are slightly more competitive and can change round by round. Just because you fund one doesn’t mean you’ll win it! (I learned that the hard way!)
- Landlord – owning the most tiles in play on the board.
- Banker – having the highest Mega Credits production.
- Scientist – having the most Science tags in play (these are on your Project cards).
- Thermalist – having the most total Heat resource cubes (not the highest production).
- Miner – having the most Steel and Titanium resource cubes (not the highest production).
Ending a Terraforming Mars Generation
After everyone has passed, the round moves onto the production phase. Everyone does this simultaneously.
- All stored Energy is first converted to Heat.
- Then you gain resources based on production levels on your tracks.
Your Mega Credits are calculated by adding your TR number to the production on your income track. All other resources are directly gain precisely the number on your personal board.
After receiving all your income, remove any of your colored cubes from your blue cards. Pay attention to this step, as it is easy to forget which round or generation you performed your blue action on.
The next generation then starts.
Scoring at the End of Terraforming Mars
The game ends when nine Ocean tiles are placed (notice there are more than nine possible spaces for these!), and the temperature and oxygen levels are at maximum.
- After the game ends, you can spend your Plants to buy and place additional Greenery tiles if you wish.
- The funded Awards and Milestones are then added to your total.
- Green tiles you own are then worth 1 point each.
- Cities score 1 point for each adjacent forest tile – these can be owned by any player.
- Then score your played cards, remembering to flip back over the face-down red cards and receive those points.
The player with the most victory points wins.
If there is a tie, the player with the most credits wins; if this is again even – you’re playing too nicely, and everyone wins… Hurray.
Once you get to grips with the base game, additional variants include a solo version and a corporate era to make the game longer.
On top of this, there are, of course, multiple expansions – because it wouldn’t be an award-winning nerdy board game without ways to make it more complex or ten times longer.
Terraforming Mars Strategies
Of course, with all these sorts of games, your strategies will change depending on the number of players.
Always bear in mind the same three parameters that must be met for the game to end. The Ocean tiles, the temperature, and the oxygen levels.
Five-player games tend to be shorter, with fewer generations and total victory points, as everyone works toward a common objective. In these games, you can’t get away with taking your time and being greedy; you probably have to take points and spend when you can.
You can build a higher income and draw more cards, looking for the best options for your strategy, in two-player games.
You will always need some credit production, but in a larger game, you might push to get a larger Plant and Heat production and go straight for the Terraforming points.
Credits and Income
Income is essential in a longer game, but it’s more critical in two-player games – I strongly suggest prioritizing Mega Credits. You should be spending almost all of your Credits each generation unless you have a good but costly card for future use. (Don’t forget about Steel and Titanium.)
Look at the cost of the card compared to the generation, and think about the payback time. How long will it be before this card is profitable to me? For example, you’re in the money if a card costs 10 credits and increases your production by 3 after four generations. But suppose you average eight or nine generations in a four-player game and draw that same card in Generation 7. In that case, you’re likely wasting your resources.
When you start, you ideally want cards that’ll pay for themselves in five or fewer generations. That’s what I go with, anyway! It’s an excellent way to steamroll into the game.
After playing a couple of games, you may want to add the Corporate Era cards. These have the red circle and white triangle symbol in the bottom left corner and include two new corporations.
When you play Corporate Era, you start with 0 on all your resource production tracks. This variation makes the game longer and more complex – you must focus more on building up resources.
If you want a Seven Wonders vibe, you can play the Draft variant. In this one, each player draws four cards, chooses one to draft, and passes the rest to the next player clockwise. You then do the same again for the three cards you receive from the player on your right. Do this until you have four cards.
You then choose from these cards which you wish to buy at the usual 3 Mega Credits each. Don’t do this in the first generation!
I like this variant because it lets me know which cards players are likely to have, meaning I’m ready to be defensive or attacking based on what I’ve seen. I sometimes also take a card just to make sure someone else doesn’t get it and discard it.
Start on the TR track at 14. Include the cards with the red circles at the bottom and deal a starting hand like in a typical game.
Take the top card from the deck and look at the cost. This is going to help you start your Mars board off. If, for instance, this card costs 5 Mega Credits, count five spaces from the top left non-reserved areas and place a City on this tile. This is a neutral city. Discard the card after.
Do the same again for a city from the bottom right, counting backward this time.
Then, draw another card and, starting in the top left space next to the first City, count this number around it and place a neutral Greenery tile on the next available adjacent space. Do the same again for the second neutral City.
The game will finish after Generation 14, and you must complete all the parameters by yourself by this point to succeed.
You’re now ready to begin. Good luck!
I will warn you, it’s really tough and can be so frustrating – my first experience was a two-hour time sink only to find I lost. On my first attempt, I finished it in 15 generations (one over) with a score of 64.
It took me to my third attempt to succeed in a solo game, finishing terraforming in Generation 13 with a score of 91 (let me know if you can do better).
If I had any tips for you, I’d say focus on Mega Credits and Plants to start with. If you get a relevant Corporation card, even better. Oxygen seems to be the most challenging thing to build up.
Terraforming Mars is one of my favorites. It went straight up there with Here to Slay and Carcassonne.
Of course, it’s long, but it’s extremely different each time you play. This variability stems from corporations, the cards you draw, and the tactics you use accordingly.
There’s a lot to juggle and keep an eye on in each game. Thus, I find it easiest to focus on one path, build my resource production first, and focus on terraforming after a few generations.
In my experience, Terraforming Mars sucks you in – the time seems to fly by as you play. Even in our three-hour-plus games, I never notice the clock ticking away. And that’s the most important thing I want you to know about this game!
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Which project cards are good in Terraforming Mars?
Answer: I think it depends on how many people you are playing with and what corporation you are playing with.
In a solo game, I like action cards that allow me to use Energy to raise oxygen, as Greenery can be so expensive. In a larger game, any card that pays itself off in five turns is a good rule of thumb for me.
Again, look for cards that work together or stack. You might have a card that allows you to put two markers on something else and another that will enable you to remove those two markers for an action. These would have perfect synergy and absolutely obliterate opponents over multiple generations.
Question: What is the optimum number of players for a game of Terraforming Mars?
Answer: I like playing with three or four players, but this is a personal choice. I find a two-player contest can be long, and a five-player game can be too short.
And solo games? Well, I love them, but I’m a sucker for punishment because I don’t usually win.
Question: I covered an Ocean space with another tile. Can the game still finish?
Answer: Yes – you only need nine Ocean tiles on Mars to meet the criteria. It doesn’t matter where they go.
Looking for more interesting readings? Check out: