(Edit: This game is on my Top 25 games played of all time!)
What happens when one of your favourite games gets a bit of a revamp where it’s faster and also uses some mechanisms from other games that you like?
It’s not the same game streamlined, though. It’s an actually different game that uses some of your favourite bits while making it take a shorter amount of time and actually adding some interesting cool shit?
That’s what happens when you try Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, a game that takes a bunch of your favourite Terraforming Mars bits, like dropping a moon on Mars to raise the temperature…
and makes it an action selection game that still is a ton of fun and still (at least kind of) feels like the original game.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition was designed by Sydney Engelstein, Jacob Fryxelius and Nick Little with art by a bunch of different folks. It was published by Stronghold Games and FryxGames in 2021.
It is great fun to play, and this is from someone who has Terraforming Mars in his Top 10 games!
Sometimes a “streamlined” version of a game comes out and maybe you’ll try it once just to see what it’s like, and maybe it will be kind of nice but no patch on the original game.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is none of that. While I still prefer the original overall, this is a game that I will love playing due to the shorter time factor as well as the fun mechanisms that give you some of the feel of the original but still make it distinctive as its own game.
What do I mean by this?
(I’ll refrain from making another Soap joke).
Let’s take a look.
In Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, each player is still going to get their own player board…
and their own corporation that will give them unique abilities compared to everybody else.
You will also be dealt a hand of cards, none of which you will discard and none of which you will have to pay for.
It’s so freeing!
Instead, these are cards that you will be building your initial empire on.
On each turn, each player will choose one of the five Phases to play:
Yes, those are streamlined descriptions, but that’s ok.
The thing is, if you choose a Phase, then you also get the bonus from the card.
If you Develop, you pay 3 megacredits (MC) less for your green card. If you Construct, you get to either draw a card or play an additional blue/red card if you can afford it. Playing Action lets you do one of your blue card actions twice. Production gets you 4 MC in addition to all of your other production. Research lets you draw and keep additional cards.
Thus, you get to do whatever Phases are played on that turn, even if you only get the bonus for the Phase that you played.
What that means is you have to gauge the other players a bit.
Is one of your opponents going to play Development? If so, then maybe you don’t have to. You can play something else.
Sure, there’s a discount if you play it, but if you don’t need the discount, maybe there’s a Phase that you need more.
And then you discover that nobody played Development and messed up all of your plans, not even your opponent Newman.
Each Phase is executed in order from 1-5 and once players know how to play, you can do them simultaneously. The only time that it really matters is near the end of the game when multiple people are wanting to raise Oxygen or Temperature to the maximum, or flipping the final Ocean.
It’s not uncommon for somebody to be done with their turn and ready for the next round while others are still doing all of their stuff.
The other thing to keep in mind is that to pay for something, you can always discard cards to help. Each card you discard is worth 3 MC and it can come in very handy (one or two cards that you can play actually make your cards worth more!)
Once everybody has done their round, they choose a new Phase card. The trick is, you can’t choose the same Phase twice.
Somebody else could choose that Phase, so you may be able to do it again, but you can’t choose it.
Play continues in this fashion until the Mars Temperature is maxed out, the Oxygen is maxed out, and all of the Ocean tiles on the small board have been turned over.
I should probably talk about that a little bit.
Some cards will allow you to turn over an Ocean tile. During the Action Phase, you can also spend MC to do that.
When you do that, you get the bonus shown on the tile. You may get to draw a card. Or maybe you’ll get a plant and 1 MC. Or maybe 2 plants!
The small little board is also where you keep track of the Oxygen level and the Temperature.
It’s all really compact (and one of my major complaints about the game, how small everything is on the board, especially the Terraforming Rating where each player’s cube is).
As with the original Terraforming Mars, each time Oxygen or Temperature is raised, or a player turn’s over an Ocean tile, they add one to their Terraforming Rating. This will add to their MC income during Production as well as be points at the end of the game.
As I said above, the rounds continue until all of the global parameters are maxed out. The thing to remember about this (which is different from most other games I’ve played) is that once everything is maxed out, the game ends immediately (at the end of the current Phase).
If it ends in the Action Phase, then there will be no Production or Research Phase. If it ends in the Development Phase (due to a green card you played flipping the last Ocean, for example), then there will not be a Construction or Action Phase.
What, you were intending on spending MC to get a greenery tile or two?
Nope, you’re out of luck.
I actually really like that about the game.
In addition to each player’s Terraforming Rating, players score points based on the cards they have played.
Whoever has the most points is the winner!
Is Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition a jewel of a planet with glistening oceans and lovely green space? Or is it a nuclear wasteland that nobody would want to live on?
This isn’t quite Terraforming Mars in an hour, but it is closer than I would have thought it would have been.
You have many of the same cards as in the original, but they’re streamlined a bit and work with the new mechanisms.
The artwork is a lot better than the original game, though some may differ because they like the mechanical, technical nature of the almost pseudo “stock art” pictures on the original’s cards.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition has original art on all of the cards and it’s pretty cool. It helps that some of the cards are new too (like Recycled Detritus, which is pretty damned cool).
Many people have compared the game to Race for the Galaxy, where each player chooses a Phase and the only Phases that happen are the ones that somebody has chosen. And almost like San Juan in the fact that whoever chooses the Phase gets a bonus.
But there’s a lot more to the game than that. It’s certainly a baseline, but ultimately you are trying to do the same thing that you are trying to do in regular Terraforming Mars: increase the various parameters to get your Terraforming Rating up and thus end the game at some point.
Thus, the cards you play are ultimately working toward that goal in some way, even if it’s oblique. Energy Subsidies above lets you pay 4 MC less to play a card with an Energy tag and also draw a card. Since cards are currency (unless it’s a card that you actually want to play), that’s a 3 MC bonus right there!
I do like that you are actually keeping resources rather than using cards as your money. That really does remove the “Oh, this is Race for the Galaxy reskinned” feeling.
I also really like that one of the resources (or at least one of your Production areas) is card draw, if you can get them.
The iconography can be a little hard to understand for the uninitiated, but ultimately it’s pretty simple.
Every time something is on an orange background, it’s adding to your production of that one thing.
This can make the Production Phase quite lucrative.
I do have to say that I really hate the main board.
It’s way too small and it’s holding way too much information.
Yes, the Temperature, Oxygen and Oceans are important and easy to keep an eye on (unless it gets bumped, of course, in which case I hope somebody remembers where the Oxygen was).
However, the main problem with it is that this is also where you are keeping track of each player’s Terraforming Rating (TR).
And those spaces are way too small, especially when multiple people have the same TR.
The cubes used to mark TR are liable to get bumped just by somebody trying to adjust their own TR rating.
It’s insane how small those spaces are.
I do like the simultaneous play of the game once people are all familiar with it, other than the fact that it can lead to some downtime.
“Oh, I can’t Develop and I can’t do an Action so I’ll just Produce and oh, I’m ready for next turn but Vicki’s still doing all of her blue card actions so maybe I should just go to the bathroom…”
This hasn’t happened too often, but it is a consideration sometimes, especially if you’re playing badly and don’t have as much to do. (“Shame on you for sucking so much that you have nothing to do while everybody else has a bunch of stuff!”)
One thing I definitely like about this game that’s different from the original is that all of your Event cards stay face up. Thus, their tags are still in play for cards that rely on tags. None of these questions on Boardgame Geek like “Do tags on event still count for this card that counts Jupiter tags?”
In this game, yes they do.
I also really like how the effects of each card clearly state what Phase they happen (unless it’s production, of course). In fact, you don’t even need the player board to track your resource production because you can just add up the production of your cards (though anybody who does that is….INSANE!)
There are two things that gamers will hold Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition up to, both of them kind of unfair.
It uses Race for the Galaxy/San Juan mechanisms. And it’s “parent” game is Terraforming Mars
I think both of them are ultimately unfair comparisons, though the Terraforming Mars one is a bit more legitimate.
While the game uses mechanisms from those other two games, I think it adds its own unique flavour to them. Choosing Phases and getting a bonus if you chose the Phase that’s happening is definitely a nice touch, but what the Phases are really leads to a different game. You are not just tableau-building like in those games. You are trying to affect other things (though yeah, you are also building a tableau of sorts).
As for the Terraforming Mars comparison, that is certainly legitimate and I can safely say that this does feel like Terraforming Mars in compact form.
But there’s nothing wrong with that.
If I have a little over an hour, why wouldn’t I want a bit of that feel by playing Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition?
Our four plays of it have taken about an hour and 15 minutes (with our last game only lasting 48 minutes). It falls just short of “lunch time game” category because of the setup time (which I never include in my gameplay time because so much talking and socializing takes place during setup that you can never accurately gauge how long it will take).
But it definitely doesn’t reach the heights of its parent game, which can take 2-4 hours depending on players and other factors.
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is a great game in its own right (even though it doesn’t top its parent) and any negative comparisons to other games are just people finding an excuse to hate on the game.
There are a lot of cool decisions in the game which make the game good in its own right, and the corporations add the asymmetry that they do in the original game (though maybe not quite as much).
You are a bit more at mercy with the card draw in this one than its parent, which adds a bit to the luck factor.
Like for example, the game I played Credicor (above) and never drew an Event card after the first cards being dealt.
Thus, there is a bit more luck in Ares Expedition than there is in Terraforming Mars.
But even in that game, you can choose a strategy and then never get cards for it. You may be able to mitigate it a bit more in Ares Expedition because you will be drawing cards with abandon (hopefully).
What’s my grade for Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition?
It’s definitely up there in games I’m willing to play (note that I played it 4 times in 2 months, which is almost unheard of).
It’s not up to the heights of its parent game, but if I have a shorter amount of time, I will play this one in a heartbeat.
It’s definitely worth checking out if it’s on offer at your game day.
You may just find yourself being surprised with how much you like it.
(This review was written after 4 plays)