02 February 2022
A change of space?
This article originally appeared in issue 63 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
Roll up your sleeves, fire up your breathing filters, form an asteroid mining consortium and embrace the tardigrades… It’s time to terraform Mars again, but (slightly) more quickly.
For die hard Terraforming fans (like myself) playing Ares Expedition feels like greeting an old friend that’s had a bit of an odd haircut. There’s much that is familiar: Mars is considered terraformed when the temperature, oxygen and ocean cover have reached viable levels; you produce and use mega credits, plants and heat; and many of the cards are almost identical to the original.
But there’s been some major streamlining. Energy has been abandoned, cities are a thing of the past and there’s no tile placement. But most significant is the change in structure and the shift to simultaneous play. Rounds are split into five phases, but not all occur every round. Instead, each player selects one phase each round and just these chosen phases are played by all players, simultaneously.
As in the classic game, cards drive the engine building, enabling you to gain resources, trigger ongoing actions, increase production and raise global parameters. Mega credits are required to play cards, but with low income (other than your starting balance) money is very hard to come by early on, and it’s almost impossible to play an expensive card in the first few rounds. In fact, as cards are free to take into your hand, binning them to gain money is an important income-generator. But as the game progresses your access to cash will change dramatically. Cards can only be played in the development and construction phases and usually just one at a time. So in the mid to late game you may end up with a huge hand of cards and no way to play them, even if you’re swimming in mega credits. You’ll have to be very discerning about which cards make the table while you splash your cash on standard projects.
I find the restrictions imposed by the format strategically annoying. In classic Terraforming Mars, there are multiple different strategies that could be equally effective: board domination, big space, card draw scientist, energy king… But Ares Expedition wipes out some of these options, or makes them less interesting, which seems to force everyone to generalise and play a little more tactically.
Gone is the downtime – the simultaneous play keeps the game moving. However, this format prevents players from keeping track of one another. Even in the turn-by-turn main game, it’s hard to get a sense of how well your opponents are doing because of information overload, but here it’s impossible. Players are solely focussed on their own cards and play. There’s virtually no player interaction and playing feels like a solo pursuit, even when surrounded by others. With no Mars board and no milestones or awards you may not even be aware of others’ corporations, let alone their scores.
Of course, the hope was that Ares Expedition would provide a more straightforward alternative for new players and to a certain degree it does that. There isn’t quite so much to think about and there are only three physical resources to track rather than six. Steel and titanium production reduce the cost of each tagged card without the need for more cubes, which feels satisfying and pretty powerful. Your timing in raising global parameters is more flexible and mistakes are slightly less punishing. But there’s still a massive learning curve for new players who may be overwhelmed by the sea of tags, the variety of cards and the implications of playing them. I’d ditch this version and go for its big brother.
This is still a good game, but it’s got an awful lot to live up to. If you have a Terraforming itch and less than two hours to scratch, Ares Expedition will give you some relief, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.
The phase selection mechanism and simultaneous play format is almost identical … and then of course, there’s the theme.
Designer: Sydney Englestein, Jacob Fryxelius, Nick Little
Publisher: Fryx Games, Stronghold Games
What’s in the box?
- Game board
- 4 Player boards
- 20 Phase cards
- 12 Corporation cards
- 208 Project cards
- 52 Player cubes
- 9 Ocean tiles
- 24 Forest VP tokens
- 148 Resource cubes
- 2 Clear cubes
- 5 Phase tracking tokens
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