Terraforming Mars: Six commonly overrated cards

Evaluating cards and knowing when to play them is the most important skill in Terraforming Mars. Depending on the situation, some cards get better and worse and it’s our job to decide by how much. In this article, I’ll cover six cards that are often thought to be better than they actually are and why they are not as impressive as they seem at first glance.

ELECTRO CATAPULT

As a one-card solution to our economic woes Electro Catapult is certainly worth playing, but its requirements are high. It’s an expensive card that requires both energy and a source of iron every turn. Furthermore, it needs to be played early. The situations in which it’s great are less common than those in which it’s a trap or middling.

Consider the following: Since steel is worth 2 credits, the income gain from Electro Catapult is +5. How much better is that compared to playing Acquired Company for +3 and then raising temperature or playing an ocean? If you manage to jump through all the hoops your reward is one extra income and one point. Which is good, but hardly groundbreaking.

Electro Catapult is situational and, in fact, that’s what I like about it. I enjoy the challenge of squeezing value out of the card and trying to fuel it with iron from the board. It’s a good design, just not as powerful as commonly believed.

LAKE MARINERIS

Don’t expect to play Lake Marineris. It looks great at a glance, it’s four points in one card! But ,as players get better, oceans start to hit the table faster and faster. By the time the temperature track reaches 0ºC it’s unlikely there are any left and the entire value of Lake Marineris vanishes.

Some players like to keep it around, hoping to play it for two points. Sadly, it’s not worth it. For a similar cost you can sneak in another forest or city, which is bound to give you those points or deny them to someone else. The situations in which 21 credits cannot get you 2 points are rare, making the card moot. I only buy the card if there are oceans left and I can play it on that very turn.

AI CENTRAL

Drawing cards is one the strongest effect in games but Terraforming Mars seems to be an exception. Random projects are unlikely to be useful but they are priced by the game as if they would all be. AI Central suffers heavily from this fact, resulting in an onerous project that is hard to make the most of.

At 21 credits plus 3 for the purchase, AI Central is expensive before even taking the three science tags and the energy source into account. And unlike Io Mining and other behemoths it doesn’t give you resources, only more opportunities to spend them. It’s huge investment that will take a long time to pay off.

The last nail in AI Central’s coffin is the fact that it needs to be played as soon as possible. The more we delay it, the less cards we’ll draw. The earlier we play it, the less resources we’ll have to play our cards. It’s a powerful card in the right hands, but rarely the best play.

ROBOTIC WORKFORCE

Robotic Workforce looks strong but it has a surprisingly small number of targets. Copying Fusion Power, Mohole Area or Open Pit Mine is strong, but they are the exception. Most buildings are cheaper, less flexible or otherwise not as good targets and hence not worth copying.

The biggest limitation is energy. Many of the cards you could think of copying require you to have energy available, which makes Robotic Workforce less profitable and weaker. While it’s a solid card, I normally only draft it if I have a clear target. Do keep in mind that not being able to use it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t deny it to your opponents!

RESEARCH OUTPOST

Research Outpost is often listed alongside Earth Catapult but it’s a much worse card. A discount of one is much less exploitable than two and the free city doesn’t make up for it. Most of the time, it proves comparable to one income per turn, which most people wouldn’t rave about.

Run the numbers. How often will Research Outpost be better than the three credits per turn provided by Acquired Company? And like AI Central, it’s one of those cards that must be played as early as possible but don’t do anything until we spend more money. Our best hope is to play it in the early mid game through iron.

The city itself is surprisingly mediocre. Not being able to place it near oceans will often prevent us from getting the best tile. In the mid-game, when we are best suited to play it, we might be forced to the corners of the map. It doesn’t allow us to steal or protect forests. I’ve always been a bit disappointed by it.

IMMIGRANT CITY

Immigrant City looks like a money-maker but isn’t. Its energy cost makes it as expensive as a standard city project but won’t match its small economic bonus until two more cities are placed. After all, cities are meant to score points, not to produce money. Building cities with the goal of making cash is barking up the wrong tree.

I believe Immigrant City should be played only when we already have plans to build a large number of cities. It’s the payoff, not the enabler, for that kind of strategy. Focus on getting iron and plants and, if everything works out, then play it. But don’t go thinking it will pay for itself or that it will raise your economy to stratospheric levels. Leave the city-building to Tharsis.

21 Comments

  • I think the fact that four of these cards can be paid for with steel should raise their esteem somewhat, especially the two that are cities (can’t use steel on the standard city project). I’ve played several games where I’ve ended with large steel or titanium reserves for lack of the right cards, so being able to use my steel on these cards is a plus in my eyes.

    Additionally, Research Outpost is cheaper than the city SP. Playing it early gives you the benefit of many card discounts (and the placement restriction is less of an issue), and playing it late means you’re not missing the 1MC production granted by the SP, so I think this is a better card than you’re giving it credit. 🙂

    • Hey Gregg, thanks for the comment!

      I agree a good amount of steel makes some of these cards better. If you get a good source early on or are playing as the Mining Guild, I would be more willing to give these cards a look. After all, they are not bad cards, just overrated.

      Regarding Research Outpost I just think it’s too expensive for an early play and too awkard to get forests later on. At 18+3 credits I need to follow it up with a lot of cards to feel happy about my purchase. After all, a game is about 10 generations long, sinking your whole economy on the very first ones is not very appealing. Still, like you mention, if you do have the steel it can be much cheaper than a normal city project would.

      One of the nice things about Terraforming Mars is that even weaker, more conditional cards are playable if the situation is right. So one should always keep the idea in mind

  • If you write this to make other (new) players to pass you this cards in draft and win – then good job.
    All of those cards are great and with correct cost (agreed that Lake Marineris is a gambit if you want to but it early – but u usually don’t by it at first hands), Immigrant City is always great city:
    early – cheap and bump money production if used correctly;
    late – just cheap city :D.

    Omg, others – no comment :).
    How many players do you usually play? 5? 6? 8? 😀 Maybe then those cards are over priced, but then – all of producing cards are.

    You have to change opponents and your meta :).

    • Yes, my blog is an all elaborate ruse so I win more often, you got me.

      Like I say in the article, they are good cards. I just don’t think they are as great as commonly thought, no matter the player count. The point is to help other players evaluate them better, not trick them.

  • do u play on steam version? what is your ranking elo? how many games have u played?

  • On most comments on the cards I agree. Some of these cards are situational and require you to do extra stuff to make it work out.

    However, I would like to comment on what you stated for Research Outpost. I think in your description, you’re not giving it enough credit.

    First of all, one income per turn? This suggests that you play one card each generation, and that you do not play another card the generation that you play Research Outpost. This might be true for you, but certainly not anyone I play with. It might have to do with the meta of course. We play with all expansions, except for turmoil most of the time. For me, at the end of a game, I have played around 30 to 40 cards. This makes it a way better investment than a city giving 3mcr for 1 energy production.

    Then your comment about the placement. It’s true that leeching from greeneries is not possible due to the placement restrictions, just like next to an ocean. This makes the card not that fit as an end game card. At the beginning of the game, however, cities are mainly put down to reserve the area next to it for future greeneries. For that use, the restrictions don’t matter.

    The city tile placement, together with the discount on every card AND the science tag thrown in there, makes this card one of the most perfect early game cards for me. Later in the game, the value slowly falls towards being nearly useless at the end, but which cards that does not provide points doesn’t?

    • Hello Ace, thanks for the comment!

      I agree comparing it to one income per turn is too conservative. It will eventually provide more, so it’s not accurate. That said, I’ve found it pretty comparable when the game starts. Early turns tend to see few cards played and Research Outpost isn’t great if you must follow with other expensive cards or standard projects. Also, as I’ve played more Terraforming Mars I’ve found it less necessary to play that many cards. Colonies, particularly, allows for a very card -light playstyle. For example, I’ve found that placing an Ocean will give you more money than Research Outpost will until several generations have passed. That’s quite noticiable!

      Still, I just don’t like placing cities too early in the game. Each turn you wait is one less turn for your economic cards to pay off and I like to invest in milestones and awards from pretty early on. Still, I don’t think Research Outpost is a bad card! It’s a good one and I’ll go for it if I have some combo potential, iron or if the placement is great. But for me, it’s just a good card not a truly great one.

      I really appreciate reading your thoughts on the card. The more perspective and discussion on it, the better!

  • Paul M Griffin

    There’s one other combo to Robotic Workforce not mentioned. If you happen to be playing as the Mining Guild and get a lot of Building tags out, you’ll definitely go for the Builder Milestone. Now, if luck favors you and you get Medical Lab, then the Robotic Workforce copying the Medical Lab can give you an incredible Mega Credit boost.

  • It’s all situational I guess, but at least when playing with an experienced group of players AI Central belongs into the A tier of project cards. Due to the sheer number of decent cards with science tags (and the science tag value itself), it’s usually not a big investment or hurdle to get 3 of these cards by Gen 3-4. Admittedly, the energy production can be a bit of a pain without card luck. Of course there might be games where you’d cripple your production too much to play it that early, but more often than not it will be an absolute game changer. The value of opportunity is really high in TM. And especially late game, it’s much more common to lack cards rather than the resources to pay for them. Also, don’t forget that you can just sell shitty cards, not only getting you some financial return out of AIC, but also extending your turns (which can be valuable in itself).

    • I couldn’t agree more.

      From what I can tell from my own games, AI Central may be the best card in the game.

      Some group think may be in play, but in our group the ability to draw lots of cards tends to be the deciding factor. Such players tend to have the most tactical flexibility, tend to have stronger engines, and then the stronger engines then produce games with massive points.

      Cards you draw tend to be more efficient draws, and the more cards you see the more likely you are to find the effects that work together. And those draws have a habit of giving you more draws. It is fairly common in our 3 and 4 player games to have 1 person with 3-4 draw, 1 or 2 players with 1 draw, and 1 player with no draws. That player with no draws almost never wins. A player with no draws is lucky to see 3 good cards in a round, and often has to make do with 2 or even 1. And those cards are much less likely to connect together. Compare that to a player seeing 6-8 cards and your best hope with no draws is to run the game out before they get their engines going. And that runs into a problem that pushing TR as a primary activity runs into the high cost of TR improvements. Such a player tends to get more and more behind as they see less good cards, their engine stalls, and they have to pay higher prices to get the same amount of VP. It is a death cycle compared to the players drawing cards.

  • I don’t disagree with most of the choices, but are you really trying to argue that Research Outpost is worse than Acquired Company? That’s simply ludicrous.

    Research Outpost is one of the best cards in the game, and probably not inferior to Earth Catapult. It will likely score better (you want to surround it with at least 4 greeneries at the end of the game), it also gives you board presence, a placement bonus and access to other placement bonuses as well as the opportunity to teleport. On top of that, it can be paid with steel and has a science tag.

    Unlike Acquired Company which is a strong economy card in the first 2 generations or so and then rapidly loses its viability, Research Outpost can even be played in the midgame and still be really good.

    All this is proven by data from high-elo players, where Research Outpost has one of the highest winrates in the game.

    • No, it’s simply a comparison because people tend to overvalue how much money it gives, particularly early on.

      Note that the data you mention can be misleading. First, card winrates are impacted by popularity, the more a card is played, the closer it will be to the mean. Research Outpost should have a high winrate because you just don’t play when it’s not great!

      Second those players are a small group and mostly play with 2 players. I don’t think that’s where Terraforming Mars shines and it plays very differently from other player counts.

      Most notably, Research Outpost’s drawbacks become much smaller because the game goes on for longer, there’s fewer people taking up space on the board and support strategies like science and going into iron are more viable.

  • I’m in disagreement about all of these cards, situationally. TM requires flexibility on early cards. There are situations where every single one of these ‘overrated’ cards are excellent: As long as you know which other cards make it worthwhile. Just today, I played an online game with Prelude, where I started the game with a science tag from Prelude and the ? tag in my original 10, along with another science tag, along with AI Central in the 10. Had AI Central played in round 2. Average of 12 rounds in most games I play, so basically 22 cards expected from it. While some are always going to be duds, each ‘dud’ is still a MC for sale back to the standard projects. And quite a few of those 22 were most definitely not duds.

    I always try to get Robotic Workforce and Medical Lab (not always successful, but when I get them, I will play 25+ building tags. If I get one or the other early on, I horde it till I get the other one. If I get Medical Lab (or one of the other ones with MC per tag) early, I buy the award for most MC production early, then take every. single. card I can with that tag type. It’s not uncommon for me to end a game with 60-70 MC production with 2-3 of those cards played in the last third of the game.

    I’m also partial to the Jovian Tag strategy (all 3 1 pt/Jovians, plus as many Jovians as I can scrounge). My record on just Jovian tags (including the actual points on the Jovian cards) is 44. Again, it’s only worth going for that strategy if you start out with at least 1 of the 3 and 2-3 other Jovian tag cards. I’m famous for accumulating cards early (I get planner milestone a lot with that board), trying to get a set of 5-8 cards that work well as a set. I don’t spend all my money each turn for rounds 1-3, then once I’ve got that nice set, and the planner milestone, I play those cards that work together. I’m pretty ruthless about not spending the ‘junk’ cards from my set unless it’s late in the game and the card is worth VP.

    Of course, I once won a tournament against a really arrogant, misogynistic man (woman here) who assumed because he was ahead prior to counting the points on cards. Dude started picking up ‘his’ prizes while I was counting my card points. ‘Nobody gets 30 points on cards’ – said to tournament organizer, who was part of my regular gaming group and ignored him. After I finished totaling my 60+ points on cards, he demanded a recount. He still lost.

    • Oh yeah, none of these are terrible cards, I just think they are more situally or weaker than they are commonly believed. I would have also been very happy to play AI central in your situation! And good on you for schooling that dude 😉

  • I find your ratings interesting (I have about 150+ games at this point, so I have played a great deal too).

    I get your point on AI Central, but I simply don’t agree. The requirements are high, but not particularly high, particularly since it is often possible to get the Steel to play it, particularly if Ceres is in play. The biggest problem with TM is that so much of your success depends on your card draws, and AI Central gives you a bunch (and the card is almost game breaking with Viron). AI Central isn’t great if you draw it late, but as an early game draw it jumpstarts many strategies. (And if you are lucky enough to get Mars University you can start cycling that trash). My group may be having some group think problems, but in most of our games the AI Central drawing player wins most of the time if they get it before Round 5. This is slightly less true in 4-player, but is pretty consistent in 3 or 2-player games where it is harder to rush terraforming against it. If this card is overrated, it is simply because it is so essentially powerful that it might seem better than it truly is.

    The thing about AI Central in my experience is that it has several very useful components (if you get it reasonably early). One, the base map has some the slowest Milestones, and AI Central opens up Planner. Two, the cards you draw are better priced than normal, so they tend to have high efficiency. Three, it greatly increases your chance of drawing a true behemoth card. Four, it gives you more cards look at to develop a winning strategy. By itself it is nothing, but it makes everything else happen.

    Lake Marineris is not that good a card, so I agree with this one. Sometimes it works very nicely, most of the time it doesn’t.

    Robotic Workforce is a strange one. In two games I have been able to copy Gyropolis when I had an Earth/Venus game going, resulting in huge income gains. Then again, this happened once in the most bizarre game I have played, where all 3-players went very slow (just one of those games) and I had 3rd place on Banker with 100 income. Sometimes it isn’t that great, but when it kicks, it can kick hard. I don’t rate it that highly, but when I see it I start thinking about what I might do with it.

    Electro-Catapult is one of those fine cards but mostly it is annoying to see your opponent grab extra MC, so I get your point.

    I disagree slightly on your statement about cities ‘not producing money’. Cities are basically ‘convert your power and steel into MC and points’. The weakness of Immigrant City is that it takes time to really grow unless other players are pushing cities, and that depends on a lot of factors. I have seen plenty of games with lots of early cities, and plenty with none. But it is relatively cheap card for the potential gain, has no special city requirements, and weakens the advantage of cities for other players. But it isn’t amazing.

    Research Outpost is pretty awesome if you get it early, and pretty ‘okay’ otherwise. The real benefit is actually that Science tag. The other stuff is good, but that tag is gold. So many other cards depend on having enough Science, and this card gives you a city that will generate points, gives you a push towards Mayor, makes every card cheaper, and jumpstarts Science.

    I read your guide, and in my opinion it is silly not to put AI Central in the Top 10 cards. I agree that Strip Mine, Large Convoy, Advanced Alloys, Standard Technology all deserve Top 10 rankings. But it is odd to me that you don’t put AI Central in and keep in Self-Replicating Robots. (I am not a big fan of microbe strategies in general, so Extreme-Cold Fungus is just a fine but not amazing card to me, and Pets is a good but not amazing card since it is good points for the cost, an Arctic Algae is a fine card if you can get in before all the Oceans come down).

    Some group think may be in play here. It is rare in our games for nobody to make an early Ocean play (grabbing a card draw to start the engine and getting some TR). So Artic Algae tends to only get 12-14 plants, and often gets to enjoy a fun an exciting game of ‘drop the rock’, getting bled dry before you get the full benefit.

    What is interesting to me is you celebrate one of my least favorite cards (Self-Replicating Robots) and consider AI Central overrated. AI Central will give you in the course of many games 10+ cards, and it is very likely you will draw into 1-2 really great cards doing so. It requires 1 more Science tag and 14 MC more (but can use Steel).

    SRR is a slow card, requiring 2-science tags, and taking half the game to payoff. I get your thinking, but in a game where engines build multiplicatively having 4-5 MC and a few more cards now is usually better than more cards and more MC later, and the MC you save later is inflexible and can’t be allocated situationally to something else. You have made me rethink the card slighty, but I have no idea why it would be a Top 10 card.

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