Terraforming Mars is not a game that a novice board gamer can easily teach themselves…unless they get the digital version. My husband and I blithely attempted to play the physical board game, thinking that we’d just read the rules then play. [Insert slightly hysterical laughter] Instead we spent a frustrating day googling and attempting to play, and after many hours—and with a very long list of questions still unanswered—we gave up. I laid the game out a number of times after that, watched videos, and attempted to get some grasp of the basics. Inevitably I’d draw a card that raised some question for which there didn’t seem to be any answer available. Then I’d feel a momentary flash of rage for every experienced reviewer who scarcely spent any time on the cards because they were so “simple”, “easy to understand”, and “obvious”. I kind of wanted to slap them. But mostly I felt this sort of sinking despair. I really, really, really wanted to like this game, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to play it, or enjoy what little I did figure out. There were so many things to keep track of—and to do—that playing the game felt more like a chore than something that would ever be fun. (Six resources which you must track changing amounts of both production and amount available for every generation, terraform rating, generations, oceans, oxygen, temperature, victory points—which don’t actually assure you of victory—and I-don’t-know-how-many tags on cards which sometimes need to match up with requirements, and sometimes do other things, plus special actions that are triggered by blue cards, as well as all the other miscellaneous iconography and symbols on cards, and the conversion of resources to tiles which must be placed according to both the layout on the board and the tile placement rules.) To say the game is complex is something of an understatement. If one doesn’t have a lot of experience with contemporary board games and the style of game often called a “eurogame”, then it’s bewildering. Neither my husband nor I had ever seen anything even remotely like this. Even if we weren’t in the pandemic lockdown, we didn’t know anyone who knew how to play, so there was no chance of anyone being able to walk us through it and answer individual questions. It was over our heads and likely to remain so.
So when the digital version turned up on sale for half-price on Steam I hesitated. On one hand, I’d had good luck teaching myself a simpler digital board game on Steam, but on the other hand, it seemed a bit like throwing good money after bad, as the saying goes. I felt like this was both my last and only hope to learn the game…and gameplay seemed like it was so laborious and overwrought that I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it even if I learned how to play. But I got the digital version anyway. I had to try. The tutorial was well-done and reiterated what I’d already dimly grasped, as well as the ten million other things I needed to learn. I wondered if I would be able to remember everything.
I needn’t have worried. The digital board game is in many ways everything the physical board game is not. It’s easy to play, easy to understand, and gameplay is super-smooth and enjoyable. Why the big difference? It’s baked right into the whole idea of making the game digital. All of the things that seem like insurmountable obstacles to a novice board gamer when they look at the sprawling bits of the game spread out all over the dining room table are things that digital games excel at handling. Both production of resources and amount of each resource is automatically tracked and laid out simply. Ditto for all those actions on the blue cards. It tells you how many you have, and which you can use. It shows you where you can place tiles. You can even look at your opponent’s resources, just as you can in a physical game. There’s no figuring out if a play is legal, or accidentally playing a card that you can’t yet play. The game will not prevent you from making stupid mistakes in strategy or gameplay, but it will prevent you from accidentally doing something you aren’t allowed to do. I learned how to play the game by playing it. I picked it up surprisingly fast, within maybe two dozen games. (Your mileage may vary; I’m a novice gamer.) That sounds like a lot if you’re thinking about bringing a physical board game to the table, setting it up, then putting it away, and doing that weekly or maybe twice a week, especially if you’re thinking about spending whole afternoons playing with a gaming group. That many games would take a lot of time on the calendar. But that’s another way that learning the game digitally really shines. There’s no setup. You can start a game and quit and the game will be saved, so you can literally play almost anytime. The AI plays fast; it’s not going to spend minutes pondering its next move the way a human would. My first game against the easiest AI lasted about an hour—and that was with me dithering over what I should do next. Also, there’s no reason you should finish every game if you’re just playing to learn; you can forfeit a game at any time or forfeit a saved game. I said two dozen games…I had already won a couple of games by then even though there were still strategic things I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of yet. Play 2-3 games in a row—and take it from me, that’s very easy to do—and you’ll know everything you need to know in a matter of days, add another week of obsessive play and you’ll be racking up wins more often than not! The digital version of Terraforming Mars is probably the fastest way to learn the game, and it works great even for the totally clueless!
There are three levels of AI one can play against, and you can add AIs and human players besides yourself if you want to play with other people in your household, and there are online games against real people, too. Playing against an AI isn’t the same as playing against real people, but it serves an excellent purpose for learning the game. You are playing with an experienced player. You can observe how they use certain cards, and if you don’t understand exactly what a particular card does, well, just try it and see. If I misunderstood what a card did playing against my husband, who knew no more about the game than I did, then the two of us might be making all kinds of illegal plays without ever being the wiser. Playing against the AI, one can learn how things are actually supposed to work. It was utterly painless to learn and more than a little addictive. There’s a number of variations besides just mixing it up with AIs; there’s a solo version which is a very different experience than playing solo against an AI. You must win in 14 generations against a “neutral player” who passes each turn. You also have all the other options of the board game. You can play as a Beginner Corporation or choose one of two randomly chosen corporations. You can choose to play a standard game or use corporate era rules and cards. You can also turn on the draft variation.
I can’t speak for the digital versions on other platforms but there are achievements on Steam and I’ve gotten them all except the one for winning 10 online games. I haven’t yet played against people yet. (I keep hearing Han Solo in my head saying “Good against remotes is one thing…Good against the living, that’s something else.”) There are both Android and Apple apps if you’re not on Steam. Neither the apps, nor the game on Steam are free. Cheaper than most video games or board games, but some may balk at the price. I wish there was some basic version (maybe Beginner Corporation only, no Corporate Era, no solo version, no draft variation, or higher level AIs) which people could play for free because this is such an excellent way to learn this great game that it would be beneficial for gaming groups to be able to have players who were unfamiliar with the game learn it via the app/digital game before introducing it to the table at a game night. The learning curve for the physical board game might not be that steep for an experienced gamer, but everyone is a novice gamer when they first start playing board games and it’s not friendly or pleasant to be thrown in over your head, not to mention teaching the game takes time. I’ve watched gameplay videos of Terraforming Mars, but none of those really made the game click like playing the digital game did. Binge-playing the digital version for a bit is, in my opinion, a much better way to learn to play the game. It’s got everything the physical board game has, only streamlined, compact, and smooth. It’s such a compelling playing experience that I’d recommend the digital version for that alone, but as a way to learn the physical board game, it is unparalleled.