Terraforming Mars Colonies

Terraforming Mars Colonies Preorders (U.S./Can/Mex) Open At Stronghold Games

Stronghold Games has opened preorders on their website for Terraforming Mars: Colonies. Preorder purchasers enjoy a free shipping coupon code (U.S.) or a discounted shipping code (CAN/MEX), listed in the description of the item.

Here’s the link:

While you’re on Board of Life, check out my Terraforming Mars posts.

Great Western Trail

Great Western Trail: Play and Strategy Notes, Part I

Great Western Trail: The Overture

Having become ensconced in a group of hardcore Eurogamers, you’ve arrived for your first play of Alexander Pfister’s Great Western Trail. Bragging a strong Board Game Geek rating (currently #10), and enthusiastic players who not only love to play this game, but see how many different ways they can deconstruct the gameplay, you’re curious about how well Great Western Trail could possibly hold up. Surely, with so many games co-opting the medieval or fantasy theme, a tabletop Euro with a Wild West backdrop can’t be all that, can it?

You’ve seen bigger boards; heck, you’ve assembled bigger Catan worlds in Seafarers and Explorers and Pirates. Nonetheless, it’s a majestic sheet of cardboard covered with cryptic iconography that looks like it might have been recovered by Colonel O’Neill through the Stargate. An experienced Euro player, your mesmerization disintegrates as you absorb the game’s language, and become hungry to play.

While much of Great Western Trail is very fresh, you can’t help but notice traces of other tabletop games. And the comparisons aren’t always flattering. While your first trip to Kansas City is uphill Chutes & Ladders, with a deckbuilding twist from Dominion, by your second trip, players have unloaded their toll properties, and your second trip reminds you a bit of Monopoly, albeit with the added possibility of choosing to throw yourself in river rapids, deserts, or sharp, vulture-covered rocks to avoid paying rent to other players.

Then the Great Western Trail veteran, after a few slow crawls to Kansas City, starts pounding discs down in rodeo-worthy gallops across the board, skipping so many cash and point generating opportunities that you wonder at the game’s end less how they won than what in tarnation did you just play?

Movement, the Cattle Economy, and Skydiving Cowboy Meeples

Great Western Train opens with two to four players receiving fourteen (14) monochrome discs, one (1) choo-choo meeple of the same color, one (1) cowboy meeple, one (1) starting objective, 14 (14) cattle cards, one (1) player sheet encoded with sufficient iconography that one could either a) reverse engineer the game or b) summon Cthulhu. If a player can do anything not encoded on this sheet, it’s encoded on a building tile or the board.

Having placed their discs on their spots on the player sheet, shuffled their cattle cards, then drawn four, each player takes their initial turn by placing their cowboy meeple on any building tile and performing the action allowed by the tile. While this will usually be the first tile, as you start the game resource-poor, and it’s good not to miss any opportunities initially, your cowboy meeple is a skydiving cowboy meeple (my term, not Alexander Pfister’s), able to choose any building tile at all for your opening move. So if your opening cattle card hand is a perfect hand of four different cows (more on that later), you could start right next to Kansas City, and be the first one to have a crack at the second row of workers (a good strategy if you want Cowboys and they’re all in the second worker row). So–never, never forget that you start with a skydiving cowboy meeple; like the pawn’s en passant in chess, it may rarely be used, but every now and then that ability to jump forward in your opening move should be enjoyed.

For their second turn, each player moves their cowboy a certain number of tiles. While all cowboys can move at least three tiles if they choose, often a player will only move their cowboy only one tile, because skipped tiles equal skipped opportunities; that said, it should be obvious that in any timed game the winner’s speed controls the available opportunities for all players. No, there is no timer in the box; Great Western Trail‘s timer is concealed in the Job Market on the left side of the board. Every trip to Kansas City pumps out more workers, and every dip in the worker row moves the game closer to its conclusion. While it’s fun to play Great Western Trail as Slowpoke Rodriguez, hitting every stop, Speedy Gonzales can win this game if you let him, as while you’re taking every available opportunity, he’s eliminating the stops that don’t feed into his strategy. While Slowpoke is selling that cow for $2, Speedy has the first crack of the $5 workers, and Slowpoke’s extra $2 are counter-productive when they arrive at the worker row and find nothing cheaper than $8.

As Great Western Trail progresses, and more building tiles enter the game, your move becomes less powerful, because you don’t count board spaces, you count building tiles. Moreover, many of these tiles cost a toll to pass, paid directly to the owning player. Unlike Monopoly, there are alternate routes in Great Western Trail. Not only are there diverse city routes that might be more or less hospitable to you, but there are hazard routes, which charge a toll payable to the bank, so that you can at least not enrich your competitors with your hard-earned play money. Also, it is possible to improve your movement rate as the game progresses.

To make money, you discard a cattle card of the right color, which pays in dollars indicated on the building tile. So if the building tile says “discard a green cow and gain $2,” and you have no green cows, you don’t get income on that tile. If you do, you discard it, and at the end of your turn, you draw up from your cattle card deck until you have a full hand. If all of your cattle cards are in your personal discard pile, then you shuffle them and draw up. In such a way, the contents of your hand are always changing. At the start of the game, you have access to four of your fourteen cattle cards, each one of which has a variable value when trading at building tiles, and when arriving at Kansas City. As the game progresses, you can expand your cattle hand to five or six cards by moving discs from your player sheet, and you can buy new cows with not only victory points but higher dollar values, so that you can hit more valuable deliveries, thus scoring even more victory points. Once you’ve played Great Western Trail a few times, it should be obvious that one of the primary keys to victory is buying tons of cattle cards, not only for their victory points, but for the additional victory points unlocked by powerful deliveries, as well as the objective cards contingent on cattle cards. Not that it’s the only powerful strategy, but it’s a good one, and probably the easiest for a newbie to latch onto: hire cowboys, buy cattle cards, make deliveries, get cattle card objectives, then toss that point salad ad infinitum.

What’s a delivery, you ask? When you arrive at Kansas City, you count the numerical value of each different colored cattle card in your hand to determine your breeding strength, select a city with a numerical value equal to or less than that, drop a disc from your player board on that city (also uncovering a new ability on your player sheet) if you have not delivered to it before (with the exception of Kansas City and San Francisco, which can be delivered to an unlimited number of times), then receive cash equal to your breeding strength minus the distance between your train and that city. (Breeding strength can also be modified by certificates, which I’ll more or less ignore today, except to say that you should grab these when you can).

Oh yes, trains. Some building tiles allow you to move not your cowboy meeple, but your train. As your train advances on the track, it allows you to unload additional discs from your player sheet, thus unlocking more covered abilities, plus adding points to your point salad at game end. Most importantly, there are five bonus tiles on the train track, and these go first come, first serve. While three of these are so-so, two are very strong: one which gives you a bonus point for each worker on your sheet, and another which gives you three points for each pair of certificates, temporary or permanent. While the others usually score from three to six bonus points, these two can easily be worth ten or more points each, plus the associated points from the disc drop.

A Word on “Weight”

Some tabletop gamers might get scared off by the weight (complexity) assigned by Board Game Geek, and I’d like to stress here that while Great Western Trail does have a new iconographic language for you to learn, it’s only a little harder to assimilate than the language of 7 Wonders, and, in my opinion, more intuitive than the symbology of Castles of Burgundy. Learning the language of Great Western Trail will take you about ten minutes if you’re familiar with eurogames, and about twenty minutes if you’re not, but have a good teacher that’s less interested in an easy victory than in creating new Great Western Trail players. If your introducer is of the “sink or swim” variety, that snickers and tells you that you’ll learn it as you go, you will still learn it by the end of the game, although this is probably the worst way to learn Great Western Trail.

While Terraforming Mars and Caverna have BGG weights similar to Great Western Trail, the latter is by far the easiest to pick up. Don’t be intimidated by this great game.

That said, if you insist on learning Great Western Trail from its hermetic rulebook, heaven help you. While this is the way that I learned the game, I would never recommend it, as the rules were compiled not by grammar and logic, but by fashion sense, as if the writer inserted paragraphs where they would bling the best. You’re best off having Great Western Trail taught to you, or using online resources.

Texan Point Salad

Great Western Trail is a point salad game, which means that, like 7 Wonders and many other euros, it comes with a score sheet you use to count up all the generated points. You get points not only for deliveries, but for cattle cards, stations, station bonus tiles, building tiles, hazard tiles, dollars, and objectives.

With this dynamic, you would expect that there are many paths to victory in Great Western Trail. While this is theoretically true, the game’s bias leans toward a few basic strategies, which I will call Cattle Bandit, Boxcar Tycoon, and Rail Baron.

With Cattle Bandit, you’re mainly hoarding Cowboys and Cattle Cards, and getting whatever incidental victory points that will round out that beefy sandwich. While this is a great strategy for newbies, it’s limited by the relatively few high point cows in the deck, unless you’re extremely good at disciplining yourself not to sightsee along the trail, and always moving your maximum move, so as to rush the game. Cattle Bandit must rush the game to win, and it’s extremely desirable to have four or more Cowboys.

With Boxcar Tycoon, you’re also buying Cattle Cards, but only until you have a great deck that will allow you to cram as many discs as you can into San Francisco (9 victory points each). Trimming your deck, by the ability unlocked in the bottom left of your player sheet, often goes hand in hand with this strategy. If you also pick up all of the San Francisco objective cards, that makes each of those deliveries worth a total of fourteen points each (9 for the disc, and 5 for the card).

With Rail Baron, you’re hiring all of the Engineers that you can and dashing for the station master bonus tiles and the big victory points just past the kink in the tracks. Rail Baron may be better off leaving the three mediocre station master bonus tiles for the other players, grabbing the two that count for the most, and heading for those big points on the right-hand side. If you’re lucky enough to get a lot of engineers, note that the first five stations are only worth 9 VP total, while the next five are worth 35 VP. You won’t have time to stop at all of them in a typical game of Great Western Trail, so it’s better to get the bonus tiles you want, race for the right-hand side, then use the “teleportation” ability unlocked at the end of the track to get a few of the cheap ones you missed. It’s easy to grasp that the Rail Baron has the potential to be the best strategy, as they’re not also enjoying the largest point salad, they’re also unlocking more of their player sheet with their grind on both the train and delivery tracks. That said, this strategy is vulnerable; just as Cattle Bandit must rush the game, Rail Baron usually only has time to deliver to six of the ten stations, at most, and they must pick which ones they want the most. Also, if Rail Baron gets greedy, and goes for all the bonus tiles, they play the rest of their game relatively worker-poor compared to the other players. (Every time you take a station master bonus tile, you must permanently station one of your workers on that spot.) It’s better to grab the two strategic ones and head for the right hand side, where the big VP don’t require the loss of a worker to acquire.

Note that all of these strategies are actually strategic foci, so that Cattle Bandit and Boxcar Tycoon are also moving their train and Rail Baron is also buying cows and making deliveries. You can’t be a Great Western Trail Rail Baron without playing Great Western Trail. But these strategic thrusts are so distinguishable that you can soon differentiate between each of these play styles.

Great Western Trail Board GameGreat Western Trail: Rails to the North (Erweiterung)

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The Tabletop Bestiary: The Monsters and The Cheaters

The Monsters

The Terrorist

Given a choice between scoring five points, or one point for themselves and making every opponent lose two, the Terrorist will always choose the latter, and as there is no logical reason for this behavior, we can only conclude that the Terrorist feeds on these negative energy blasts. At some point in the Terrorist’s gaming career, their victory wires were crossed, so that they either 1) truly believe that creating a one point deficit across the board compared to a five point deficit is better for them, or 2) are nourished not by a victory dance but by sinister chuckles.

The Tiptoe Terrorist

Like the terrorist, the Tiptoe Terrorist prefers attacking opponents to scoring points for themselves, but due to a greater timidity, will look for a weaker attack, or better yet, make a play that inconveniences their opponents more than sabotages them, such as blocking, or strategically depleting a resource to undermine an opponent’s following play.

Showboater

The showboater prefers the tactical to the strategic, and will sacrifice long term gains in order to score quick points. If the showboater has a choice between playing Physics Complex (2 VP / turn, potentially, and science resources are less vulnerable than animals and microbes) along with Pets (invulnerable animal VP), or placing a city, they will pick the latter, because it looks cooler to tile the board, and adds some theater to their turn. The showboater detests endgame scoring, and as they will pour all their energy into the visible VP track and game board scoring, eschewing any covert or postmortem VP opportunities, you can easily win against Showboater by dogging their tracks in terms of visible VP scoring and latching onto all the endgame opportunities that will swing the score in your favor.

Packrat

Because the packrat is a poor planner, they hoard things more accidentally than intentionally, such as the Splendor player who often has four green chips without a single bit of green on the tiers of available cards. Packrat wonders why they lose when they always have resources, when other players can see that the Packrat saved lugnuts when they should have been saving nuts.

Packdragon

Unlike the packrat, the packdragon is an intentional miser that sees hoarding as a way to cripple their opponents; said player in Splendor sees green everywhere on the available tiers, starts by saving two green, then adds a green to this fund every round, and never spends green if they can help it, so that the rest of the table has to make do without green for most of the game.

The Cheaters

The Cardsquatter

Cardsquatters are not only the most common monster in the tabletop bestiary, but it appears to be a kind of lycanthropy contracted by playing Settlers of Catan.

If you have ever sat on a portion of your resource cards to save them from the robber, you are unfortunately a victim of the Cardsquatter curse. That it is an irrational disease that attacks the wits can be seen in that Cardsquatting is rarely necessary behavior when there are four diverse projects upon which to spend your resources.

Cardsquatters are rarely seen outside of Settlers of Catan, so the best way to avoid them is to put different games on your table.

The Moneydiver

No matter how much space you allocate between the bank and The Moneydiver, they are adroit at making McDuck-worthy leaps into the coin stash.

Both the Moneydiver’s tendency towards impatience and their ability to bank-hover leads them to dash in 22 MCR for a 23 MCR tree. As The Moneydiver thinks that speed equals concealment, once you have spotted a Moneydiver, you can rest assured that any quick motions towards the bank are hustles one way or the other.

Moneydivers also like to lean back in their deck chair and forget to pay for things.

Stickyfingers

Like the Moneydiver, only with a Gollum-like tenacity, Stickyfingers makes gradual, tiny withdrawls throughout the game.

Stickyfingers also likes to exchange cards in play with cards in draft when they think no one’s paying attention. To Stickyfingers, all game materials are fair game at any time, making any game a very different beast.

When playing against Stickyfingers, due to Stickyfingers’s compulsive cheating, you only ever win playing Stickyfingers’s game. As the game on the table is so obscured by Stickyfingers’s deception, that game is never won or lost when Stickyfingers’s manipulations are in play. Settlers of Catan played with Stickyfingers becomes Stickyfingers Settlers of Catan at best, or, at worst, simply Stickyfingers.

While you don’t need a Ring of Power or Sting to defeat Stickyfingers, you do need a subtle mind capable of threading a way to victory through the many posers caused by adjusting your strategy to the ever-adjusting riddle of how to win against Stickyfingers. The temptation to cheat yourself should be resisted, as we know very well how hobbits can easily slide into gollumses with the temptation of an easy win.

Level Ten Stickyfingers, on the way back from a bathroom break, makes a withdrawal from a spare copy of the game, or another game with similar resources.

Cardswapper

The cardswapper seems harmless at first glance, and is difficult to detect, as their powers are activated by your trust. In any game where new cards are dealt, the Cardswapper sees the new cards not only as new point-scoring opportunities, but as a chance to rid themselves of uncompleteable and unplayable cards while you’re paying attention not to them, but to your own cards and your own strategies. Cardswappers are hence very common in games like Ticket to Ride, in which the Cardswapper wants not so much new routes to complete, but a screen by which he can pass back the two blocked routes he claimed earlier. Due to rising global requirements, Cardswappers are also common in Terraforming Mars. A variant of Cardswapper also likes to double dip in 7 Wonders by mingling the hand they’re passing with the hand they’re receiving, whenever you afford them the opportunity by taking a few extra moments to select a card.

Meeplemitt

The Meeplemitt can’t keep their hands off of the Meeples, or the wooden discs used on score tracks. When the Meeplemitt earns two points, they like to move the Meeple four spaces, or even more depending on how audacious their Meeplemittery. In endgame scoring, the Meeplemitt’s hands keep fidgeting and darting toward the markers, so that you’re wondering how a player moved from 36 to 50 with nine points of Milestones and Awards.

Co-Op Cardswapper

The Co-Op Cardswapper is an unusual two-headed beast that sees no problem in playing all games cooperatively. Usually a codependent couple, one of the heads in the Co-Op Cardswapper will pass points, coins, cards, or other point-scoring opportunities under the table to their spouse, which is the other head, once it becomes clear that there is no longer any way they can achieve victory by themselves, but might arbitrarily confer it on their spouse by a sneaky pooling of resources.

Co-Op Cardswappers are, suprisingly, the most troublesome Cheater on the list, for they have rationalized this behavior and feel unconflicted about it. “These are my points, cards, and coins to play, so why shouldn’t I pass them to my better half?” It never enters their minds, or at least never triggers an ethical response, that allowing one player access to the resources of two players not only puts the hard-fought victory into the lap of any player, no matter how poorly planned their strategy, making the time invested in the game meaningless (and makes the Co-Op Cardswappers feel or look really, really dumb if they still manage to get beat while giving themselves such a ridiculous advantage), but also distorts the game into something unrecognizable by the game designer.

Conclusion

If you recognize yourself in more than one Tabletop Monster, or feel yourself to be a different Monster depending on the game, this is normal, as gamers have a touch of lycanthropy and have learned to change their roles and adapt their strategies due to the fluidity that comes from playing so many games. So you can be a Showboater in Terraforming Mars and a Tiptoe Terrorist in Settlers of Catan and that is perfectly normal. Some games, like wildlife preserves, nuture different breeds of Tabletop Monsters, so that when a player says they prefer this or that game to another, what they’re really saying is that it is a prefrrable habitat for their preferred Monstrous behavior. Alternatively, a Terrorist may dislike a game like Munchkin, for instance, because said game is a habitat that brings out the Terrorist in everybody and reduces the value of Terrorist behaviors, as everyone is doing it.

However, if you recognize yourself in more than one Cheater, it may be your inferiority complex that you’re pushing around these games, not a Meeple. Despite their slightly more inocuous name, the cheaters are more destructive and parasitic than the Monsters. While the Monsters are killer strategists, the Cheaters are time parasites that see no problem in making a one, two or three hour game meaningless by adding or subtracting to the score as they see fit. Even if you win, playing games of any length with a cheater feels like time you will never get back. While defeating Monsters will make you a better player, defeating Cheaters results in a conflicted victory, as the cheating player was stealing resources and opportunities that your honest competitiors deserved. Even if you get a rush from knowing that your skill was able to surmount the point cushion stolen by a cheater, your win is undermined by the knowledge that things would have played out differently withiout the arbitrary advantages awarded to themselves by the cheater. (With cheaters that lurk until endgame scoring, the cheater devalues the efforts of all the players by levelling their game arbitrarily.)

Monsters are also only in-game behavioral sets, while Cheaters are real-world monsters, for cheating signifies bad character in the real world. They who are faithful in little are faithful in much, and someone who can’t be trusted to play a board game without cheating can’t be trusted.

Never Nerf, Never Buff

Imagine that you’re twelve years old, and invited to your friend’s house to play your favorite video game in the world. You arrive to discover that your friend has hacked the video game to deliver the game in the way that supports their personal style of play, or to buttress their arbitrary vision for “balancing” the game. While you’re in admiration of your friend’s hacking skills, you can’t play your favorite video game in the way that it was created.

Imagine that you’re invited over to a friend’s house, only to find that there are plastic bag dispensers taped above every doorknob and drawer handle with the expectation that you use them to prevent the transmission of your cooties. Moreover, all the sharp corners in the house are covered with Nerf foam, and, to put a cork in it, your friend asks you to cut a bag of artichokes, or a mango, or some other particularly resilient fruit or vegetable, and presents you with a butter knife. You ask for a sharp knife only to be told that there are no sharp instruments in the house for safety reasons.Then, when you get particularly flustered, you go to the bathroom to check yourself, or reapply, only to discover no mirror. While you’re pondering the reason for this, you sit down to take a well-deserved crap for this crapfest, reach for the toilet paper, and touch air. There’s a bidet! WTF? This isn’t France!

Imagine that you are reading Harry Potter for the first time. Having finished the sixth book, you head to one library and bookstore after another for the seventh, only to discover that some well-meaning critic/fanfic writer has sliced out the last forty pages of all copies of the book to insert their “better” ending.

Homebrew versions of board games and nerfed and buffed cards or rules are just as ludicrous.

(If you’re unfamiliar with the words nerf and buff as they’re applied to gaming, you can find a basic definition through this link.)

Trophy Games

Like most tabletop gamers on a budget, I research my acquisitions thoroughly. When the best board games are $40 and up, with most as much as a PS4 or Switch game, I over-research my purchases. I read reviews, study rankings and best-of lists, and, when I’m honing in on a game to purchase, dive in to the Board Game Geek Forums to see what kind of fans this game has, what kind of thoughts this game produces, and whether the general tenor of conversation is shock and awe at the game’s spectacle–the prettiness of it, the resultant pride of ownership, and the game snobbery–or of devoted and dedicated players tackling their game in so many dimensions that Cthulhu himself might be staggered by the depth of their penetration into the heart of a boardgame.

Regardless of how well I research my games, I have acquired what I call trophy games. That is, they’re really good at sitting pretty on my shelf, accumulating dust, and repelling game play, or any thought of it.

The distinction between a trophy game and one that isn’t one, for current lack of a better term for the opposite pole, is not lack of playability but lack of play. That is, for some or many reasons, which may or may not vary, as I haven’t yet pooled the four trophy games on my shelf to determine their common denominators, these games do not get played. At best, they received one, maybe two, plays.

The current cute trolls in my trophy game collection are Stuffed Fables, Time Stories, Spirit Island, and Above and Below. While some of these are or were in the top 100 BGG list, now that I’m acquainted with them, they seem more made to be admired than to be played.

To be fair, we were tipsy the first time we played Time Stories, and sloshed the second time we played it. However, I remember nothing but madcap laughter, so why haven’t I wanted to play it since?

For Spirit Island we had a degree of masochistic absorption which has since dissipated, so that we are able to get some perspective on the opaque, decompressed rulebook which takes eight times as many pages as necessary, as if the intention is not to elucidate, but to obfuscate and conceal, so that you learn the game by a hermetic study that would send Dan Brown or Tom Hanks running.

Above and Below is well-made, but has neither magnetism nor gravity, so that I’m not attracted to it. Do I enjoy it? Yes. I also enjoy The Big Bang Theory, but would rather do a thousand other things.

Stuffed Fables? Not sure.

Thankfully, we have a good number of games that we like to play. However, even these eminently playable games lack some luster compared to a handful of games that really shine. So I’m looking not only for fewer trophy games, but fewer mediocrities, and more games that not only consume time but enrich it.

Games like Terraforming Mars. For about two years, I’ve wanted both Scythe and Caverna, and have held off numerous times, not only due to the expense of these tabletop monsters, but due to the fear of adding a trophy to the shelf–a pretty game that gives me some pride of ownership but not the drive to see it continuously enacted and reenacted which I find at the heart of Terraforming Mars.

In the beginning, Catan had it, and 7 Wonders, Castles of Burgundy, and Splendor still have it now. Forbidden Desert had it for a while this summer when another player’s interest in the game infected me. Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Lords of Waterdeep, Azul, Puerto Rico, and Pandemic are very near this edge, and I could see any one of these games seizing this level of interest.

I suppose the bottom line is that I’m looking for games that want to be played. Yes, yes, there’s a fallacy in that statement, but it nonetheless seems to be the truest way to say it, though I would prefer to have an analytical and logical definition than a poetic one. “Games that I want to play” is tainted with too much solipsism and tautology. And fans of Terraforming Mars will know what I mean when I say that at a certain point in the game, Terraforming Mars seems to be heading somewhere all on its own. Not that I’m saying the game is possessed, a new form of Ouija board, but that the dynamics in Terraforming Mars are so strong that the game incorporates the players into its components, and would pack them away in the box after the final generation if it could. While the players think that they’re playing the game pieces, the reverse is equally true, that this cardboard computer moves through its players.

And yes, I want more games like that. Fewer shelf-posers, and more games that want to be played.

Thoughts on Four Player Terraforming Mars, Part I

In no particular order, here are some observations from about fifteen plays of four player Terraforming Mars. While I call this installment “Part I,” this is only because I am leaving it open-ended, and there are no other observations currently behind the curtain.

1) Border hexes are more valuable in four player games. Specifically, placing your city tiles one hex away from the border is awesome, as you can put two greenery tiles side by side behind them without creating an opening for another player to drop a city and score points off of your hard-produced greenery tiles.

While in two-player you get to divvy up the board between you, in four player, you have fewer generations to stake your claim, which means staking yours near the outside, where on the Tharsis board you get steel and titanium reserves to fuel card plays, and where you can place two greenery tiles behind a city without creating an opening for another player to drop a city, are very strategic placements.

While you’re building on the Tharsis border, you can watch the other players go for the treeline in the center, and wait for opportunities to open to drop your own cities.

In two-player, with only one player to watch, this becomes less true, but it is still nice to have a few spots to place greeneries side by side without creating a scoring opportunity for other players, and you can only do this when placing a city one hex away from the perimeter.

On Elysium and Hellas, where the border hexes may actually have some plants, heat, or other resources, these become even more valuable spots. On Hellas, you may want to avoid placing a tile on the hex with a bonus ocean, preferring instead to place a city right above it so that you can throw a greenery tile later. Someone may still put a Nuclear Zone down or something like that, but the odds are that no one will want to go there.

2) Martian Rails, and other cards that provide alternative income opportunities, are a huge benefit with high player counts.

While MCR boosts are nice, I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about Martian Rails, and other cards like it, that let you earn money after production phase, while you’re taking your turn. The reason why this card is so important is that MCR income is a prime driver for your scoring opportunities, and in a four player game, which lasts ten generations on average, or nine with Prelude and World Government in play, you only collect income so many times. Having Martian Rails, or Space Elevator, or one of the other cards that produces MCR, steel, or titanium, can give you a significant edge in 4P Terraforming Mars. The best one, however, is definitely Martian Rails, as it has minimal energy requirements and an increasing yield as the game progresses.

If you’re able to play Martian Rails in the first turn, and there are thirteen cities on the board in the final generation, the arithmetical value of Martian Rails is quite high. Even if only one city is placed every generation in a ten generation game, that’s still 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10, or 55 MCR additional for a 12 MCR investment. Generally, Martian Rails makes a lot more than that.

Martian Rails should be played the instant you get it. Even if only one city is one the board. Even if you get it in later generations, it will probably pay off if you play it before the final generation. In some of our games, we have sixteen or more cities on the board, in which case playing it even in the final generation will net a small profit.

Let’s say you get it in generation nine, when there are eleven cities on the board, and the game ends in generation ten, when there are fourteen cities on the board. You paid 3 MCR in research phase, 10 MCR to play it, and received 11 MCR in generation nine and 14 MCR in generation ten, netting 12 MCR. Obviously it is better to play it earlier, but there are cards with VP on them that are 12 or less MCR.

Once you get this card in play, I recommend extending your moves as long as possible to allow other players to play cities before you use it. This means short of anything competitive you have to do (such as throwing down a greenery and an ocean before the prime spots you want are taken), you should take one action per turn, not two, until you can see that no one has any money left for placing cities or playing city cards. Then get your bonus income.

The reason for doing this is obvious, especially in the midgame, when rising income and increasing global parameters means that more and more city cards will be played, and standard project cities placed as a competitive response to that. In generation six or seven, three or more cities might be placed in one generation in a four player game. Playing Martian Rails first thing means you might get four MCR instead of eight MCR.

Unless you’re already making lots of energy, the cards that turn energy into steel and titanium are generally not as nice as Martian Rails. Spending 4 energy for 2 Steel and an oxygen boost is pretty nice though, as is spending one steel for 7 MCR. The value of these forms of alternative income varies from game to game, and from player to player. If you have no builder tags, and you’re not getting them, paying 4 energy for 2 steel is only helping you win some of the Awards, and shorting your heat and temperature TR production. Even though roughly 25% of the deck is builder tags, you still can’t bank on getting them, especially in a 4P game.

3) Always buy animals.

While you should always buy animals period, no matter the player count, saving animal cards–and event cards that accumulate animals–in 4P or more is extremely important. Not only animals, but any kind of time-based VP generator, such as VP scoring microbe cards–especially in conjunction with microbe aggregating cards–and Security Fleet, as well as Event cards that hurl Animals and/or Microbes onto these VP factories.

You may think, “I don’t want to buy Birds now and hold it for eight generations. That’s expensive.” Even if it comes out in generation 9 of a 10 generation game, that’s 2VP, and possibly more if you remembered to save an event card that throws 4 animals on it. If you’re buying animals, and your opponents are not, that’s a big VP differential that will pay off at game end as a victory. Moreover, you can possibly make a strategic attack on someone’s plant production, thus affecting their postgame greenery production.

In our games, O2 is usually the first global parameter to go, as everyone is excited to play greenery tiles, and/or animal cards. But if you have a heat-hungry TM crew, you should still save your Animals cards.

And don’t fear the Predators. The best defense against Predators is playing your Animals as soon as you can, playing your animal producing events as often as possible, and having as many animal cards as you can. This also holds true for Ants and your microbe cards. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “well, I’m not going to put any more animals on that card. I’ll just be feeding him or her VP.” You can produce animal/microbe VP faster than it can be chomped if you saved the right animal cards and animal-producing event cards. Moreover, if you stop producing your animal VP, you’ll be losing VP every round while they’re gaining, thus exaggerating the impact of the Predators card.

Thoughts On Two Player Terraforming Mars, Part I

In no particular order, here are some observations from about thirty plays of two player Terraforming Mars. While I call this installment “Part I,” this is only because I am leaving it open-ended, and there are no other observations currently behind the curtain.

1) In 2P games, plant production and Ecoline are much more powerful.

While in larger player counts, Ecoline is a very powerful corporation, in two player, Ecoline is OP to the point that you may feel the need to remove this corporation from two-player play. While you should resist this philistine impulse in order to preserve the intoxicating asymetry in Terraforming Mars, this is an understandable desire, and I sympathize with your pain. Going against Ecoline in 2P Terraforming Mars is very tough. If it helps, you should think of your 2P battle with Ecoline as a very challenging variant that will make you a better Terraforming Mars player–that which does not kill you makes you stronger, and so forth–and give you a situation of enhanced focus, so that you will have better tactics vs. Ecoline in games with a higher player count.

The difference between Ecoline going every third, fourth, or fifth time around the board, compared to going every other turn, means that they have fewer opportunities to be targeted by event cards. Also, as they acquire plants from tile bonuses and card plays, they have more opportunities to use their greenery production ability.

As you will not usually win a land war with Ecoline, you are better off going after multiple scoring opportunities.

As a side note, in two-player play, all project cards that increase plant production also become incredibly valuable, and they should never ever be discarded from your hand. In 2P Terraforming Mars, plant production cards should be seen as sticky cards that get glued to your hand as soon as they’re drawn in research phase. While in 3P, 4P, and 5P, you have two, three, or four competitors eyeing your plant silos, in 2P you only have to wait one or two actions before you get to marshal them onto the board in the form of greenery tiles.

Even a card that gives a single plant production should be saved. To reverse paraphrase the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch’s FAQ, you can’t proceed to four without first going to three, and you can’t proceed to two without first going to one.

2) Protected Habitats is obnoxious in two player Terraforming Mars.

Since Two Player Terraforming Mars isn’t any quicker than four player, as it takes just as many bumps of oxygen, temperature, and oceans to complete the terraforming process, this means just as many cards are dealt out, but only two players are splitting those cards. In the case of Protected Habitats, this means that one of two players is more than likely going to get this card, not only making them invulnerable to any attack, but frustrating all attacks from their only opponent, for the remainder of the game.

Even in three players, Protected Habitats covering one player means that both other players still have a target for their event cards, their Predators, and their Ants.

When Julz gets Protected Habitats in two-player Terraforming Mars, sometimes I have the interesting problem of making my Predators (1:1 VP) attack my own Small Animals (1:2) due to the higher VP value, or having my Ants (1:2) attack my own Tardigrades (1:4).

I’m generally for anything that results in aggravating the asymmetry of Terraforming Mars, so we still play with Protected Habitats despite the obvious problems that the card presents in two-player play. Removing cards from play is a slippery slope that will eventually leave you ill-prepared to play a game except with other players of the same negative mindset. (For instance, It’s no wonder that so many players in the BGG forums have the idea that Inventrix is a weak corporation when they want to ban the cards that have “OP” and “unfair” synergy with Inventrix.) When you can only play a game one way, it becomes another kind of Protected Habitat. A game preserve for whiny gamers that got spanked with an “OP combo” when they thought they had a guaranteed and invulnerable win as Tharsis Republic.

That said, if anyone is compiling a Two-Player Terraforming Mars rule advisory, or if Fryx is considering a two-player model of Terraforming Mars a la 7 Wonders Duel, Protected Habitats is extremely obnoxious in two-player play.

And, to return to the point of this post, if you get dealt this card in research phase during 2P Terraforming Mars, be very, very glad.

3) Evening the Odds

Much of Two-Player Terraforming Mars is keeping things even.

Whereas in higher player counts, one player having a MCR production 10-20 higher is offset by a longer rhythm between their actions, in two-player Terraforming Mars, an exaggerated difference in income creates a large disparity both in the players’ respective played cards and their presence on the board.

Hence, much of two-player Terraforming Mars is keeping things even, if you are having difficulty being the income aggressor. If your opponent lucks into a lot of income boosts, from playing Immigrant City, Capitol, and Zeppelins, then you have to somehow match this income either by pulling far ahead on the TR track, playing cards with alternative income such as Martian Rails, or hoarding your own MCR production boost cards.

If you have any MCR boost cards, even those with late global requirements, you should save them for later.

If you can’t even out the income gap, you may want to pass on cards in research phase. Not Pets or Strip Mine, obviously, but Windmills and other cards with low pay-off that at any price cost too much when you’re in a cash war.

If P1 has TR 24 and MCR production of 20, and buys 3 cards, they’re getting 35 MCR. If you have TR of 22 and MCR production of 8, and pass on all your cards, you’re geting 30 MCR. It still doesn’t even things out, but it will help you get some cards out of your hand, hopefully MCR and TR boosts that will make it easier to buy things in the following research phase.

You can also decide to ignore your opponent’s superior economy. In this case, you want to be VP focused, raising global parameters strategically to trigger VP scoring cards, and keeping your nose to the Milestones and Awards. No matter how much cash production your opponent has, if you have 25 points in Milestones and Awards, 18 points on Animals and Microbes, Immigration Shuttles, Phobos Space Station, and 9 points on Security Fleet, that will be a hard advantage to surpass. A VP-based strategy works very well with shorting yourself in research phase, so long as you’re not shorting yourself of high-scoring cards.

You can also decide to diversify your economy. While MCR production is more generally useful, your opponent’s MCR production advantage is diminished when you outproduce him or her in Steel and Titanium. These alternative incomes can help to even out the cash war. Titanium especially, as Space cards are rich sources of VP. While Steel production for Builder tags does not generate as many VP on average, it can even out the MCR discrepancy over time.