Science-themed boardgames are a thing. You’ve got games about evolution, chemistry, and coral reef ecosystem management. Space-exploration themed games are well-represented, each with slightly different focus. For instance:
One of the biggest successes of 2016 has managed to pack itself full of science-y goodness while still making for a cracking good game—and that is Terraforming Mars, by designer Jacob Fryxelius and published by his own FryxGames out of Sweden.
The theme is right there in the title. Each player represents a corporation racing to turn Mars from a freezing, arid, and airless planet into a habitat suitable for hew-mans to go and despoil once we’ve used up Old Earth (cue Firefly intro).
Beginners start with generic, faceless corporations (so that’s the historical scenario) but the fun lies in choosing one of the advanced corps, each one of which encourages different play-styles. The game is played in a series of “generations” during which players take actions in turn until everyone passes. These actions will tend to raise oxygen levels, surface temperature, water content, and holy heck (in that order) until BANG Mars is ready for full-on colonization, when the games end and points are tallied.
The richness of the game lies in its Project Cards. There are very many of them and they do very many different things. The trick is to leverage the ones you get as best you can to create an economic and industrial engine which will supply you with the resources you will need to win.
The problem is that Project Cards cost money to obtain as well as to play (although of course there are ways to get discounts if you know who to talk to). Some corps start with tons of money; others with resources of one kind or another. Generally it is impossible to have a lot of everything. You have to use your corp’s strengths and make the most efficient use of the Project Cards you start with to set you on one trajectory to victory. Changing paths mid-game is not impossible but it’s not easy.
So what are these trajectories? Some rely on making direct improvement to Mars itself via increasing oxygen, water, or temperature, or planting forests, or constructing colonies. Others rely on card synergy to create “life” tokens which can be worth VP’s at game-end. Still others require having such an efficient industrial base that you can construct mega-projects turn after turn. Or you can go after milestones and awards.
The game’s physical components are excellent. The map is not only gorgeous but well-organized, with easy-to-read tracks for all important game functions. The resource markers are attractive shiny metallic cubes. The rules are well-laid-out and easy to read with only a couple of ambiguities which can be cleared up by checking BGG.
You can play a shorter version of the game if you are pressed for time, but things really shine when you add the Corporate Era and add the variant where you draft Project Cards every turn instead of blindly drawing from a facedown deck every generation. Naturally this adds a fair bit to the length of the game.
You can also play solitaire—which is a great way to learn the strengths of the different Corporations and Project Cards and learn how to get an engine up-and-running quickly. This is because you have only 14 generations to get Mars up to code, all by your ownsome. You don’t have time to fum-fum around with fancy strategies. Having different Corporations to play, a variable setup, and tons of Project Cards, means there is almost-unlimited replayability.
On top of being a great game, Terraforming Mars doesn’t cut corners on the science. The flavour text on many cards gives background on actual, possible projects that could be actually, possibly done if we ever manage to get Matt Damon and his crew up there.
If you’re looking for a medium-ish weight game with a solid scientific theme and tons of interesting decisions throughout, Terraforming Mars is definitely worth a look.