When two of the top ten games on BoardGameGeek are launched within six weeks of each other on Steam–by the same company (Asmodee Digital) no less–you know that tabletop is trying hard to cross over.
Those two games, Terraforming Mars (currently #4) and Scythe (currently #7) have a lot going for them in terms of appealing to a broader audience. Both have strong science-fiction type themes, and in Scythe’s case, you have beautiful (but somewhat controversially-derived) artwork which would look just as good onscreen as on the table. Both already come with solo modes of play, so singleplayer mode is taken care of even if you don’t work on an AI. And, of course, because of their popularity, you’ve got a built-in fanbase to either buy them or at least spread the word.
Although both games were published by Asmodee’s digital arm, they have different developers. Scythe was developed by Knights of Unity out of Poland, and it appears to be their first major PC project. Terraforming Mars on the other hand was brought forth by Montreal’s own LuckyHammers, and it is their first major PC release (although they are promising a port of Mansions of Madness7 for 2019).
So how successful are these games as videogames? Should you buy them if you’re new to the game? Already a fan of the game? Should you suggest them to your videogamer friends as introductions to what’s best in tabletop? Read on, readers, and find out what I think.
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A videogame version of a boardgame should duplicate the tabletop experience. It should have intuitive enough of a GUI so that experienced players can jump right in as well as provide a strong enough AI for single-player mode, but it should also have a good enough tutorial/walkthrough so that n00bs can not only learn the rules of the game but also get a sense of the strategy. It should also have as many multiplayer modes of play as possible, from hotseat/pass-and-play to local network to Internet hosting, and have functional lobby and chat capabilities.
The tl;dr on Terraforming Mars for PC is that it is a serviceable adaptation which can help you hone your skills–especially learning the cards, which is crucial to any skillful TM player. But you should wait to buy it for four main reasons. First is that the game lacks the drafting variant which really makes the game come alive. The second is that the game’s AI needs bolstering (I mean, if I can beat it on hard level, you know it could be improved). Third is that while the tutorials are informative enough in terms of learning the game and the interface, novice players get no starting tips whatsoever. Finally and most importantly, the UI has you fighting the gameplay all the way.
I kept a tab open while I played to jot down notes. Here are just a few of the things that had me scratching my head:
That’s a long list and honestly a lot of them are nit-picky, but the cumulative effect is a nagging frustration of Why. Can’t. I. Just. Do. THIS? Nothing breaks the game or makes it unplayable, and if you’re a fan of the game and are willing to overlook these things you will enjoy it. But I would definitely not gift it to others until they work on the UI a bit more. I hate to come down on a Canadian company, but come on mes amis, you can do better.
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Happily, digitial Scythe does a better (but still not perfect) job of bringing the tabletop experience to screen. You have totally free control of the game setup, allowing you to customize which factions play (you have access to all six) and with which strategy boards. Or you can just randomize everything–and there’s even a box to check if you want to disallow the Russviets from Engineering their way to victory.
The tutorial does a slightly better job of introducing new players to some of the tactical and strategic depth of the game (more indirectly than directly), and the GUI is everything you want it to be. Experienced players can pretty well suss out the interface without needing the tutorials at all. Visually, it is as stunning as its analog parent, giving the player a Tabletopia-like view of the board and with complete camera control (zoom, pan, rotate).
The AI’s provided with the game are quite challenging (I had difficulty beating medium level, and got creamed by hard) and are not simply adaptations of the Automa. Why Knights of Unity were able to get more out of their bots than LuckyHammer I don’t pretend to know–or maybe I’m just better at TM than Scythe (though I doubt it).
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I didn’t get a chance to play any online games of either TM or Scythe, so I can’t speak to their multiplayer functionality. But there is no question in my mind that, right now anyway, Scythe is the better buy (especially because it’s on sale on Steam for Halloween). I hope LuckyHammer is working away at adding drafting and improving the UI for Terraforming Mars, because both games deserve a digital footprint and a wider audience. I’m also hopeful that both will be ported to tablets soon, as currently I do most of my gaming on iPad…but that’s another story.