Terraforming Mars: Beginner strategy guide

Doing well at Terraforming Mars seems daunting at first. While not a terribly complex game, the amount of cards and resources can overwhelm a beginner. In this guide, I’ll explain how to tackle the different aspects of the game, from terraforming to which cards to buy.

YOU MUST TERRAFORM

Most newbies don’t terraform enough. Terraforming is both the easiest source of points and the most important. In a typical game, it’s what sets apart those in contention and those left behind. Other factors may lead to victory but, to be in the running, you must terraform.

Terraforming is important for three reasons. It provides income, it gets points and, most importantly, denies both to your opponents. There are 43 points between oxygen, oceans and temperature and the game won’t be over until they are all given out. Hence, any point you get is a point you deny to your opponents.

It’s hard to go wrong terraforming. While it may not always be the best choice, it’s invariably a good one. It makes your future plays easier, it rewards you for being aggressive and may even grant you a little bonus.

Terraforming also has the benefit of making your game shorter. If your games have been taking three or four hours, terraforming more will get your game closer to a typical playtime. It’s not just the best move, strategically, it’s also the most fun!

GET MONEY FIRST

Like most games, going straight for points is a losing proposition. Rather, it’s better to build an economy first. Prioritize cards that increase your income, metal production or terraform and avoid cards with large requirements.

After all, a point does nothing until the end, while credits can be put to use. More importantly, the earlier you raise your income, the more turns you’ll have to profit. It makes no difference when you get your points, but it does for your money.

Typical mistakes include building cities, large science setups and VP-engines. Generally speaking, I’ve found it better to wait or keep them in hand before plopping them down the board. You’ll end up with the same result, but with the income to back it up.

FILTER DOWN THE CARDS

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the different cards. Each turn you see from four to ten and which ones you should take is not immediately apparent. But there are two rules of thumb that come handy.

First, any card that has distant requirements can be instantly tossed in the bin. 12% Oxygen when the count is at 3%? Dismiss it. Requires 3 science and you don’t have any? Don’t even bother to look at it. These kind of cards are rarely worth keeping, especially as a new player.

Second, feel free to ignore cards that only give victory points. Spending your starting capital on cards that don’t produce resources will make you lose. As you learn, you can incorporate them to your strategy but, at first, it’s better to avoid them.

USE STANDARD PROJECTS

You won’t always get what you need. Thankfully, Terraforming Mars allows you to perform actions without cards. Standard Projects are overpriced by about 3M€, but they provide you with options when you need them.

I use Standard Projects in every game. I use them on the first turns, when I have nothing else to do and fancy an ocean. I use them to get card bonuses from the board when my hand is empty. Later in the game, I use them to build cities in key spots of the map.

The only standard project I try to avoid is the power plant. While occasionally useful, I’m much more likely to not take cards that demand energy than I am to take them and use standard projects to get them. I think it’s better to wait and nab a card that provides it.

FIRST GOAL: MILESTONES

Once you have gotten your economy going, it’s time to think about milestones. Milestones are extremely cheap for the points they provide. A victory point is worth about 5 credits under normal circumstances. So for the low price of 8 credits, you can get 25 worth of points. That’s a serious discount!

Unfortunately, they are limited. Most of the time, you’ll only get one. So focus on getting it while getting your options open. Some corporations lend themselves to a particular milestone. Check your hand and try to see which ones are available to you.

If everyone does well, milestones and awards will be evenly split. So, while they matter, they don’t tend to be overly decisive. They are more of a speedbump than an advantage.

FORESTS WIN

Terraforming Mars is won on the planet’s surface. While it is possible to do well without it, forests are strong enough to make it unlikely. A forest gives you two points at the end of the game, raises your income and awards you an extra point if placed next to a friendly city.

What pushes forest over the top is that they “pay for themselves”. If you place them on a hex with two plants, that’s 25% of their cost for free. Add to that proximity bonuses from being next to an ocean and you start seeing discounts in the 30 to 40% range.

Forests are kept in check by the need to build cities. Unlike them, cities are on the expensive side. Moreover, they often need to be placed earlier than one would like to in order to prevent others from taking the spots you need.

Try to keep this in mind when playing. Aim for a small corner of your own starting with the mid game, and try to end the game with a notable board presence. You don’t need to aggressively pursue plants, but you’ll need several cities and more than a handful of forests to win.

This advice has helped me improve and I hope it does the same to you. What have you struggled with as a beginner? Let me know in the comments.

12 Comments

  • Great idea of providing a beginner’s guide and introducing some strategy concepts. No mention of heat/energy and that temperature has the most TR steps?

    • Thank you!

      Regarding heat, energy and the number of steps of each gauge, I think that’s a bit too much detail for a beginner guide like this. One of the challenges of writing strategy articles is not to overwhelm the reader with information. I think it’s better to provide some guidance and let them notice the finer details (and exceptions!) as they play 🙂

  • You may want to clarify some of your scoring:

    – “2 vps for forests at end of game”…..nope….just one
    – “1 vp for each forest if next to a city at end of game”…..other way around : For the city tile owners, 1 VP for each adjacent forest.

    • Hello Stu! Thanks for the comment.

      I took into account the oxygen raise in the 2VPs per forest thing. It’s not always right, as it might be maxed out, but it’s a very good rule of thumb. I’ll see if I can clarify it.

      I also clarified that it has to be your city.

      Thank you! 🙂

  • Very well written! I would also add that a typical score at the end of the game is around 70 to 90 points. It gives you an idea about how valuable each card is.

  • Appriciate this guide. I only have the digital version from Asmodee. But i guess it is very close to the boardgame…
    So far i’ve played 5 games (only single mpde), and couldn’t win one of it. I was always missing ocean tiles, or oxygen steps, or tempreture steps.
    In my last game i was close to fulfill all three main goals. My tactics: in the first 6 rounds i simply tried to gain credits and terraforming levels. So i got more and more credits for spending cards or standard projects. I avoided buying cards that only spent vps. In round 7 i started buying ocean tiles or oxygen tiles via standard projects. In the meantime my plant and heat production was high enough for creating plants and heat at least every second round.
    In the last three rounds my income was high enough (around 60 to 70 credits) to get 2 or 3 standard ocean tiles in one round.

    I guess the tactics was ok as i just missed the goal by one plant tile. Would be interesting to know which tactics other players choose ?!

    regards from germany
    whynotwi

  • Jesse Buchler

    I struggle with winning i don’t understand i do well thru out the game and at the end i lose. Nvr won a game of tm…plz help me.

    • If success in TM is about anything, it’s about getting your priorities straight. Otherwise, a solid economy early is what sets you up for a much easier time late game. Here is my advice – a good general strategy, if you can manage a bit of arithmetic on the fly, is to look at projects in terms of pure income/cost in the early-mid game, then points/cost in the late game.

      For example acquired company is 10 cost to 3 income, 3:1 is an excellent ratio. Immigrant shuttles is 6:1 (still a good play, incidentally, at the right time and especially with titanium).

      What I do is every turn before drawing projects, I work out my total potential wealth including all abilities and metals and other earners. I figure out what combination of projects I could play which would give the biggest boost to my economy, and then I see what I have left over. Remember, you may well be able to play some projects that give you points or power for example, but if they aren’t actually serving a purpose then just hold on to them and save your money for investing in things which improve your economy.

      When drafting projects, if you know you are limited to only one pick in order to play what you want to, then that means you can focus on picking projects that would otherwise be very good for your opponents. Deprive them. And most of all – do not get tempted by a new game plan! Stick to your plan and be shrewd with your money. Get a good economy going and you’ll find plenty of other things to play later. Take too many cards and you’ll have too many plans and none of those things you were tempted to buy will get played anyway.

      Obviously there are exceptions to prioritize but initially practice being responsible in your buying. The only hard exception to this is card draw – you ideally need at least one means of card draw, and it is generally just really powerful so it’s worth taking off your opponents at almost any cost even if you can’t use it yourself, but if you can you should! Having said that, don’t prioritize playing card draw if you already have something to invest in that could boost your economy.

      In the final rounds, those who have the strongest economies can just steam ahead, especially if they have some means of aforementioned card-draw. Metals are great early on but late game cash is king, because you can buy basic projects to fill up the map and pay for awards. Never underestimate the value of 2 credits, every single credit should be put to use if it possibly can, when it can, providing it boosts economy in some way.

      Lastly, a more advanced tactic to then try is to pay attention to turn order. When you are first player it puts you in a very powerful position. The turn before you become first player, try to hold off and delay to see what everyone else is doing, then execute your plans and use your two moved as first player to do something important, like claim milestones, build cities at good map positions, and especially – play an asteroid on a player who has 8 plants before they get to put down their greenery tile! 😀 sometimes you want to stall, taking one action a turn with bacterias or selling patents one at a time. Other turns you want to rush and out other players under pressure.

      And don’t forget about selling patents, it can sometimes let you execute that important plan a turn early or stall to see what other players do.

      Well, that’s some advice… hope it helps you win your first game! 🙂

  • Logan Grayson

    I must say, I find a lot of this to be false. Perhaps for an absolute new player game. But with experienced players its pretty clear that actually “terraforming” aspect of the game is a near guaranteed way to lose, which is an unfortunate part of the game, since its a game about terraforming. Alot of the time draw card mechanics are the most important thing, and knowing when to go out is even more powerful. There are many games where I will go out while still having 30+ MC not including titanium and steel. Sure there are cards that I could play, but is the net return worth it? Usually not. Its always best to have extra MC in reserve incase you get a good card or have a strong opening for a large set of points. I have played many games where I might not even take any actions the first or second action phase, because going into the third action phase with nearly 100 MC or more and 5+ more cards than you had in the first action phase can be a HUGE benefit. especially if the other players are spending as much as they can every generation. Patience is a virtue in this game. Let your oppenents help set you up for a strong turn.

    • Keep in mind this is a strategy guide for beginners, not for experts. Like I mention, much of the strategy will become more nuanced as you learn the game. For example, while I mantain card draw is generally overpriced, they can allow players to achieve higher scores if you can compensate elsewhere.

      I’ve argued this elsewhere, but I do not agree that terraforming being a “losing strategy”. It’s a strong, early source of points and income and it’s very difficult to match the gains from forests through cards. Terraforming also makes the game shorter and hence worse for focused engine-builders. Either way, the best engines are those that allow you to terraform. If terraforming remains strong after the hundreds of plays I’ve put into the game, I feel comfortable recommending it to beginners.

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