Terraforming Mars: My experience with the GIGA expansion
Last week I played the most gruelling match of Terraforming Mars I’ve ever had. It took seven hours, used thousands of cards and had a massive board that covered the whole table. It was the GIGA variant, a fan-made expansion combining a deluge of unofficial content. This is the kind of experience made for fanatics like myself. How did it go?
The GIGA expansion doesn’t play differently from a normal game of Terraforming Mars. It just has more stuff. Tiles in Mars go to the board like they normally would; tiles in the Moon and Venus go there if a card or standard project tells you to. Radiation and Data are other resources, like animals and microbes.
Still, most new cards are mixed with the old deck. A handful can be bought in other ways, like a series of space projects that can be bought with titanium. Others are given as a reward for funding awards. Erosion tiles punish those who build near them but can also be terraformed for an extra point.
Since we were playing with fan-made content I couldn’t help but add some of my own. Prototek was a card I submitted to the “Create a Corporation” contest sponsored by the creators of the game. It gives you a free use of any action on the blue cards you play, changing how you evaluate them.
Rejected under fears of being too “swingy”, it remained dormant until Steve Clark, a fellow geek, made this illustration for it:
This game represented a chance to play it against real opponents. I knew it was not as scary as it seems – it’s actually on the weaker end of corporations- so I wasn’t giving myself an unfair advantage. My rivals agreed to let me start with it and drafted their corporations: The science-based Valley Trust and the Venus-focused Ambient.
My initial hand was not great. It didn’t have any cards that boosted my economy, though it did have a couple microbes and a city card. Fortunately, we drafted some Preludes to compensate. I grabbed one that gave me energy and iron to build my city and another, fan-made one that gave me a second corporation power.
Yes, I was playing with two powers at once. I took two cards from the unused corporation deck and picked up Lakefront Resorts which gave me an increase of income every time an ocean was placed. With a total of 21 oceans, it seemed a great choice and it ended up outperforming my own design in a few generations.
After all, I needed the money. In my initial hand there was a card that cost 70 credits and I wanted to play it. What it did was irrelevant. It was BIG and that was enough. Even though I was short on cash, I paid my three credits to keep it. I now had a goal: To amass a fortune and spend it all on just one card.
Like all games with Turmoil, the start was slow. Losing one income per turn, every turn is brutal. Having more options and newer cards doesn’t change that fact. Still, I placed my initial city in a spot that gave me an ocean so it wasn’t all bad. However, my opponents were doing much better. My Venusian rival had a great hand for the Corporation while Valley Trust found a bunch of science cards to use her discounts on.
They also started working on cooperation treaties. A new type of card allowed them to cooperate and get bonuses by fulfilling goals. They didn’t pique my interest – they relied on political influence not card play – but they were giving them a leg-up.
Stuck with little to do, I decided to fund some awards. Normally, it would be too early but I felt pretty confident about a couple. More importantly, they gave me a special “Postlude” card. Intrigued, I grabbed one. It seemed pretty good! Then I bought a second and realized my luck was going to turn.
Here’s the thing about fan cards: No one bothers to make a bad one. If your job isn’t on the line you are going to create cards that are cool, balance be damned. The cards I drew were not broken but they were powerful.
The first was a scoring card. It gave me points at the end of the game equal to my titanium production. Nice, but I didn’t have any. The interesting part is that it gave me one titanium for each space symbol I had. Since the card itself had that symbol, it was pretty easy to recoup its cost and get some free titanium.
And I was going to get that titanium. My second card was called Mineral Refinery. It was expensive and required a city to place itself in. But it gave me one titanium every turn for each empty hex around it. Needless to say, I made a killing. Thanks to Prototek it paid for itself the turn it came into play. My opponents were quick to take notice.
In order to stop me they started playing industries, a new type of tile. Fortunately for me, they require energy symbols so I still managed to get a good load of titanium before production dropped massively. They might still be ahead but at least I was starting to do unfair things.
Not willing to give any space to my opponents I played my next broken card: Abandoned Shipyard. Another expensive card that could be cheated into play with titanium, it takes 8 credits from an opponent and gives them to you, every turn. Sure, it got me one negative point each time I used it but that’s nothing compared to its benefits.
However, I decided to compensate them. Another card let me give them money to raise my terraforming rating once if they did so as well. It seemed so dumb: Taking money to give it back, losing points to gain them. But I had a plan. That 70 credit card had a 40 TR requirement and I was going to achieve it.
But not all was good. All my riches were spent on questionable cards that did not report a benefit. A research center that discounted science cards was pointless when my Valley Trust opponent grabbed them all. Media Group, one of the best cards in the game, never made a profit with no events to feed it with. I had to go back to the drawing board.
With my income still low thanks to turns of Turmoil, I decided to focus on terraforming. I used colonies to make my microbes work overtime and terraform twice a turn. A expansion themed around space structures brought in a couple support cards, like Hydroponics, which turned energy into plants.
I manipulated the council to let me place the ocean below my city yet again, a questionable feature that I ended up abusing three times. With my opponents focused on temperature, I played cards to raise my terraforming rating. Finally, in generation 8, I achieved my goal: I had the 70 credits and the 40 terraforming requirement to play that card I had saved from the beginning of the game.
Action: Place a city and increase your income by 1. In other words, I could place one card per turn, every turn for the remainder of the game. And I didn’t stop there. I used standard projects to take over the board. I built a Theme Park, a Casino, dabbled in the black market and played so many cards I ran out of pieces of my colour.
All that power got to my head. I had so many cards in play and we had been playing for so long I got a headache. The number of options was overwhelming. The initial 10 cards became 15, then 20. Turns got longer and the other people at the club packed up and went home. The main table was no longer enough and we had to expand to another.
With everything said and done, I decided to close the game. I had done everything I wanted. I had my cities, my forests and dozens of points in awards and milestones. Seven hours later, I closed the game with 173 points, 69 more than my next opponent. My pain was worth it: I had won.
What surprised me the most about GIGA is that it didn’t go off the rails. It finished in 11 generations, not much more than a normal game. Money was tight, even when we were playing massive cards. The map felt as restrictive as the base game and I did not play an absurd amount of cities.
There was so much stuff I liked I got this impulse to go and polish everything: Rebalance the cards, do away with the bad parts, keep those powerful projects I loved. Building an engine up to a hundred credits away was a great experience, even if I had to burn half my brain to get there.
Let’s be honest, GIGA Terraforming Mars is not good, objectively speaking. If you want to spend seven hours playing the same board game, you can do better. But it’s fun in a dumb, maximalist way. It’s better than I expected. I actually would love to see some of the features from it, such as the above-average Postlude cards, in the base game.
So if you have time to spare and enough tables to fit such a monster, it’s good to try. It’s a great variant for clubs, conventions and those who work at ink factories. There’s fun to have with these huge variants, even if they are a bit broken and end up giving you a headache.