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.

6 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! 🙂

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