Terraforming Mars: Disguising a Gem as a Turd
Almost every Kickstarter campaign looks the same. They are flashy, with plenty of components and art pictured. Large, capitalized, and bolded keywords assault your eyes, making sure you know why this game is for you. Youtube is inundated with enough pre-production previews to make you seriously wonder if they have enough stock to release the game to the masses now. Every photo depicts a mountain of plastic in the form of miniatures. But rarely is a game turn or round detailed. And hundreds or even thousands of hours of gameplay are promised. But rarely is gameplay ever a focus for these campaigns.
These are the new heavy hitters on Kickstarter. Board games seem to be king. Many garner millions of dollars, and thousands of pledges, for products that won't see the outside of shipping containers for months or even years. And all of this, often, without the slightest idea of what gameplay will be like.
Epic! Game-Changing! Tight! Immersive! Thematic! These publishers have developed an entirely new approach to marketing board games. Information on gameplay is no longer important. Instead, superficial words are used to thinly describe the game and the publisher's intentions. And, glossy and sexy promotional photos are everywhere, reminiscent of the Lamborghini posters pinned to the wall of every 90's teen. The board game publishers want you to covet these uber-expensive miniatures and fancy poker chips, spending thousands on photos, cinematic commercials and celebrity endorsements. They want you to replace your Cindy Crawford poster with the latest promo poster by CMON, Fantasy Flight, Stonemaier, Chip Theory, etc.
Sure, with this new approach, they are reaching customers that have never been interested in tabletop gaming before, assuring the industries continued success. But, with more games being released with an emphasis on form over function, things begin to fall apart. A publisher may include a large miniature, dual-layer player boards, or a thoughtfully developed insert with their new game. Nevertheless, they are forgetting why most people buy games. To play them!
It doesn't matter how good a specific game looks on your shelf. If the gameplay isn't designed to be engaging, unique, strategic or engrossing, you'll never play it again after your initial disappointment. With every day and each new negative review shaving money off its second-hand market value, you're forced to admit you made a mistake. You are reminded of the say, "You can't polish a turd." Hopefully, you can sell it. Probably it'll never happen again.
I think every hobbyist gamer has had this experience at least once in their life. That feeling of falling for the glitz and glam of a well-produced marketing video, only to find a dud when you actually get to play it. But what does the opposite look like? What does it look like when a publisher focuses on gameplay and experience while putting production on the back burner? What if a gem is disguised as a turd?
Enter Terraforming Mars.
I'm not going to write a review of Terraforming Mars here. Its location on Board Game Geek's Top 100 list speaks volumes, and hundreds of positive reviews are still being created. It's definitely deserving of the "must own," "approved," or "seal of excellence" accolades it's received.
To be fair to my readers, though, that might have been hiding under a rock for 4 years, here is my "Too Long, Didn't Read." Terraforming Mars is a card drafting and hand management game set on Mars. You and your opponents are competing to score the most points by preparing Mars for human life. You do this by planting trees, building swimming pools, recreating global warming, building cities, and completing various corporate projects. These are represented by the cards you play on your turn, which provide immediate benefits, ongoing benefits, end game points, and opportunities to build a light but satisfying engine. The engine starts slow, but like any other engine builder, it ramps up quickly, going from a game where the end is never in sight, to "We're done already?" It's a good game. I love it. I will gladly play it whenever an opportunity arises. And I refuse to buy it.
More than likely, you have some experience with Terraforming Mars and have your own opinions on it. As I've said, its highly praised and still remains a top seller, despite its shortcomings and relatively old age. I'm simply here to answer the shocked looks on people's faces when they see my collection and realize that I don't own this game.
When I first began playing board games, I never thought a game could be considered a status symbol. Yet, with Kickstarter games and day-long gaming experiences becoming more commonplace, a person's status in their game group seems to be determined by their ownership of these games. Still, it surprises me to see Terraforming Mars holding this same cult status. I appreciate a game as old as Terraforming Mars, being able to stand toe to toe with heavy hitters like Tainted Grail and Twilight Imperium. Still, I honestly wonder if it's deserved.
We are living in a time where absolutely beautiful games are commonplace. Parks is a fantastic example. The art is gorgeous, worthy of being framed at an art gallery. The tokens are shaped wood with a stained surface that would make anyone happy to wear plaid and listen to Mumford and Sons. The box insert is one of the best in the business, offering a space for every piece. And, most importantly to me, the gameplay is fantastic, accessible, strategic, and begs for another play as soon as a winner is announced. All of this for $45. Packages like this are slowly becoming the many nails in the coffin of Terraforming Mars.
Terraforming Mars' gameplay definitely stands the test of time. Playing this game is a pleasure. Unfortunately, the components are a different story.
Dented, marred or misshapen resource pieces. Made from cheap plastic, it's no wonder they come damaged in a sealed box. These should have been made of wood, or a more dense plastic. Player boards are thin and prone to bending and creasing. And good luck remembering where your pieces were if you or another player bumps the table. When thick cardboard has become an industry standard, and dual-layer boards are becoming cheaper to produce, there's no excuse for paper-thin card stock. And Stronghold Games should stop teasing their loyal players with upgraded player boards, exclusive to their Kickstarter campaign. Not everyone can afford to spend money on a product they won't see for months. The cardboard tiles and game boards are thinner than the norm and layered on top and bottom with cheap paper. Scratches to these are inevitable, even after a short 3 or so games. Finally, with functional inserts included in many inexpensive games these days, you'll be shocked to find all components in ziplock bags, floating freely in the box. You should be prepared to buy a Plano box or Broken Token insert.
Finally, deserving of its very own section, the questionable art leaves me bewildered. To be honest, when I first saw the boards and cards, I thought I was looking at a pre-production game. The player boards, tiles, and main game board are decorated with the most woeful designs, reminding me of days where kids expressed their creativity in MS Paint. It looks like someone found the included clip art from Microsoft Office and thought, "This will do." There is a complete lack of cohesive art. Lifelike, clip art and 3D renders randomly populate each card's artwork. I'm wondering if three different teams were responsible for the art but didn't communicate with each other to ensure a universal art style throughout?
I'm okay if a game falls short in one area. I recently picked up The Isle of Cats, and immediately fell in love with the art. The production quality was top-notch, with cardboard pieces of a durable thickness. At the same time, the included wooden cat meeples were a nice touch. And, the cards were beautifully finished, making it a joy to handle and shuffle them. But, I must admit I was disappointed to find no insert for the game. Instead, it relied on ziplock bags and the player's ingenuity to fit everything back into the box. But this was one flaw in a game that offered so many positives.
In comparison, Terraforming Mars is bonkers. When I sit down and play it, I enjoy my time. I love the gameplay and the deep strategy it provides to players that are willing to work for it. Yet, it is also accessible and incredibly easy to teach to new gamers. Unfortunately, I don't want to introduce it to anyone. I'm embarrassed by the table presence it provides.
I get it. Terraforming Mars is a product of its time. 4 years ago, production quality wasn't a top priority, and Kickstarter hadn't taken off. But the difference between Terraforming Mars and the other games of its time is its current availability and high price. The insane growth of board games over the last several years has led to a short life cycle for nearly every game. The hottest thing today will be replaced in 6 months and forgotten by everyone except its most avid of fans. Unfortunately, Terraforming Mars' popularity and excellent gameplay have kept it relevant since it was released 4 years ago. But, the years have begun to scratch and wear out the rose-coloured glasses people used to see this game through. More and more people are beginning to see the flaws.
I can see the comments already. I know I should be playing a game for the game, and focus less on the components. But with so many games on the market and so little space in my apartment, I need to be a bit petty and selective. And when it comes down to choosing between a great game with lacklustre components and another great game, but with good components, I will always choose the latter.
Older games usually find their second wind through re-designed reprints or deluxe editions. Most recently, Castles of Burgandy was released in a new 2019 version, offering new art and including all expansions in an attempt to remain relevant. Ghost Stories was recently rehashed with a new theme and beautiful components in the excellent Last Bastion game. And the publishers of Kemet have just announced a new, updated version, fixing issues found in the original game, hoping for a resurgence in its popularity. Terraforming Mars is begging for a similar treatment. In fact, I promise to be the first in line if it's announced. But, in its current state, it feels like fraud to demand over $50 for this game, as it's components suggest a much lower price tag or the moniker "Pre-Production Model."
Terraforming Mars is screaming for mercy from the side stage, where it's been forgotten by Stronghold Games. They are resting on their laurels, believing it's unlikely for Terraforming Mars to lose steam. But, new gamers are beginning to overlook it in favour of younger, sexier, and more well-endowed games. If something doesn't change, I think Terraforming Mars will start to find its joints too arthritic to continue dancing for money. Publishers are beginning to focus on beautiful productions while still emphasizing great gameplay, Like Eagle-Gryphon Games and their Vital Lacerda and Ian O'Toole games. If something doesn't change for Terraforming Mars, I believe it will be digging its own grave sooner than later.
I'm not here to tell you whether you should buy Terraforming Mars or not. The game is fantastic, and if you think for a second that you might enjoy it, I'm sure you will. But with more attention being drawn to its outdated, bland, and inferior components, other games begin to look like a better option. I think Stronghold Games should do something to make sure Terraforming Mars can compete with new games. A second edition with a new design would be fantastic. Even a price drop to move it more in line with the components and art it provides would go a long way. Until then, I'll still enjoy this game while I'm at my friend's house. But, until it goes under the knife, finding a new start with a nip and tuck, it won't be welcome in my collection.