Terraforming Mars: Prelude ★★★

I had very low expectations for Terraforming Mars: Prelude. So low, in fact, that I almost expected to dump the namesake cards and keep it around only for the handful extra corporations and projects included in the package. After all, what’s the point of playing an engine-building game if half the engine is already built for you? But it’s not quite like that.

It’s something much more interesting.

Prelude is a simple expansion. It adds a fairly large deck of the namesake cards, which give some sort of bonus and are given out at the beginning of the game alongside your initial hand and your corporation. They are picked in twos from a total of four and are worth about 21 credits each, so you may start the game with high levels of energy production, by placing several oceans or with one city already on the table.


This is a huge boost, comparable to skipping the first generation or generation and a half of the game and getting all that money in bulk. Those early turns in which you tried to kickstart your economy are gone and replaced by a more powerful turn.

As one might expect, this does have the effect of making the game faster. But it’s not quite like starting mid-way through. When you have already played a few rounds, you have had several cards on the table for a couple turns, you have had the opportunity to see how the board develops and to hoard cards for later. Here you are forced to hit the ground running and keep the accelerated peace of the start.

The beauty of it is that, by making the game shorter, engine-building also becomes worse. There are less turns to make money out of each card, there’s more pressure on the board and competition for terraforming becomes more fierce. So you have a far bigger ability to create an engine, but the game demands more of it in order to win. In other words, you have more options, more decisions and more choices to make, but they are all more difficult. It is completely paradoxical, but money is actually tighter with the expansion. Cards make less money on the long run and you are forced to play more of them, which makes the game more expensive on relative terms. The snowball effect gets smaller, you just have the possibility of adding more snowballs.

Prelude also has a bunch of minor benefits that aren’t apparent at first glance. Less trodden paths, like Science or Rushing, become more viable. Corporations like Inventrix or Phoblog become more consistent and the silly Government Terraforming Phase forced by Venus Next can be done away entirely.

The weak link of the expansion are the included project cards, which are significantly overpriced. Terraforming Mars has a small balance issue in that blind card draws are priced as if they were always useful and victory points on cards are paid at full cost, resulting in them being worse off that if they didn’t have these benefits. Well, about half of the included project cards in this expansion have one of those, resulting in terrible designs such as “Monument to Science Fiction” that provide a single card and a single victory point for 10 credits. Still, if there’s an issue with Prelude is that, like the other expansions, it’s not necessary. It improves the game and injects a very welcome amount of variability in it, but it does not push it to a higher echelon of play. It’s still Terraforming Mars, just a little bit better, a little bit meaner and, now, also a little bit faster.

GAME DESIGN Jacob Fryxelius
ARTIsaac Fryxelius
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 1-4 (Best with 1-4)LENGTH90 Minutes

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