19 March 2023
Richard Scarsbrook, one of the founders of popular gaming café Chance & Counters, tells us why he still wants to terraform Mars
My relationship with board games started in earnest when a friend introduced me to Carcassonne back in 2009. Since then I’ve been hooked, inhaling any game I can get my mittens on. In the first few years after we opened Chance & Counters, every waking hour was spent at the cafe either working or playing a new game one of us was super hyped about. I remember our first play of Terra Mystica after a midnight close, and covertly slipping games into our Asmodee orders because I’d seen them on a recent Shut Up & Sit Down video.
Terraforming Mars was BGG’s ‘hot’ game at the Essen convention in 2016. The theme had struck a chord with the community, the mechanics were neat and it presented a new set of problems for gamers to sink their teeth into. We returned to the UK without a copy because it was sold out within minutes of the convention opening each day.
When we finally got a copy for the café I was impressed by how slick the game felt. It had familiar mechanics; draw cards, spend your resources on infrastructure or points, produce more resources and the cycle (or next generation) starts over, but as familiar the mechanics were, it felt so fresh – the convention hype had been spot on.
Choices mattered – slowly build production or save resources for that big splash in a later generation. These decisions created a great feedback loop, balancing short term sprints for milestones vs the long term marathon for awards. The communal goals changed each game and kept it fresh, forcing you to keep an eye on what your opponents were gunning for in order to keep ahead.
Over the next few years I found myself coming back to Terraforming Mars. I purchased my own copy (no longer borrowing the cafe’s), and played it so much the cards started to show wear and I had to sleeve it. I upgraded the insert - it’s a dream, bought all the expansions, and even sidelined a couple of cards that turned out too strong, too weak or just annoying.
The game came with a ‘beginners’ mode, but we quickly wanted the greater challenge of varied corporations and a longer game. We defaulted to the advanced ‘drafting’ mechanics, and were pleasantly surprised when it worked at all player counts (from two to five). There’s even a really solid solo mode too. The type of game changed depending on the player count: Jovian tag’s were incredibly strong in a two player game, every point you scored in larger counts was vital, and the card ‘psychrophiles’ was never worth the punt, but I’d never fail to draw it.
During lockdown it became a feature on my dining table, my wife and I leading a life of escapism during a time when we couldn’t leave the house. We tried out different combinations, began to memorise cards and it is now my most played game by far. Playing no fewer than 50 times in a culture when most games in a collection are lucky to get played two or three times ever.
Sure, the cards can be unbalanced, the artwork has a certain ‘charm’ and you can win a game with a strong starting hand, but it’s one of the few games I’ve enjoyed with all groups and will almost always play given the chance. Perhaps it is special to me because of its place in my journey, or the people I’ve played it with, or actually… it’s just a really great game.
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