Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition ★★
One of the strange things about the board game industry is that every successful title, no matter how simple, eventually gets a card or dice-based variant. These versions are rarely as good as the games they are based on and Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is no exception. By reducing the scope of its mechanics, it loses the depth and nuance that defined the original.
Ares Expedition puts us in the same position Terraforming Mars did. As directors of powerful corporations we are tasked with making the Red Planet inhabitable. Through the use of project cards, we’ll create oceans, raise oxygen levels and gain access to resources such as titanium. The game ends when the terraforming process is complete and the player with the highest amount of points is declared the winner.
Turning a space rock into a nice place to live in is not easy. If we want to terraform and grow our corporation, we have to consider our expenses. We’ll need to establish an economic base and try to raise a profit. Scoring, while mandatory, is out of reach at first. Mining, construction and income are a much higher priority.
However, unlike the original game, we cannot play our cards freely. Each turn, we must choose from one out of five phases to be available to all players. For example, choosing Development will allow everyone to play one of their cards while Research lets us draw. But, if no one chooses a phase, it will be skipped. Fortunately, there’s a small bonus for those who choose a phase to take place.
If this setup seems familiar, it’s no coincidence. It has been taken wholesale from Race for the Galaxy. Four of the five phases are completely identical between the two games and the last one only differs a little. It’s a good mechanism and I’m not surprised to see it being copied. While it’s never as tense as it was in Race, it’s a good fit and integrates seamlessly with the rest of the game.
The problem with simplifying Terraforming Mars is that it never had any great mechanics in the first place. At its core, it was a fairly mundane engine builder. Rather, all the interest lied in its nuances. It had a bit of planning, a few interesting cards, and small bouts of interaction on the planet’s surface. By doing away with these tibitds, Ares Expedition loses sight of what made the original fun.
Of these removed elements, the most important was the board. The new map is purely for show and can’t be built on. Hence, players no longer compete against each other. Forests remain a source of points, but they can no longer be taken advantage of by our opponents. Oceans don’t provide bonuses to nearby tiles and cities have been removed altogether.
With this, Ares Expedition worsens one of the flaws of the original which was the lack of interaction. As the game is now played purely on personal boards, our actions barely affect our opponents. Hence, it barely matters if we play against better opponents or the included solo mode. Even milestones, the prizes players could compete for, are gone
The economy has also been simplified. Titanium and iron used to be resources that could be accumulated from turn to turn. This gave us the choice to be used immediately or saved to fund projects later. Now they have all been turned into discounts, which have no such nuance and which promote cramming in as many cards as possible.
Compared to the original Terraforming Mars, Ares Expedition constantly shoves resources into the player’s hands. Thanks to the Research phase, cards come for free and they can even be sold for 3 credits a piece. Fewer cards have onerous requirements and many give us bonuses even the same turn they come into play. With barely any friction from the game or our opponents, every action becomes effortless.
Still, Ares Expedition remains fiddly. The depth of strategy has been sacrificed in the pursuit of a shorter playtime but we still need to move resources to our personal boards and count symbols every other turn. It’s shorter than the original, but longer than Race of the Galaxy and less interesting than both.
Ares Expedition is not terrible. It flows well and jamming cards in it remains fun, even if the strategy is thin. But it suffers from a mortal problem: It’s worse than the game it takes inspiration from. There’s no situation in which I would choose to play it over the original Terraforming Mars or the shorter Race for the Galaxy.
After all, it’s not an original concept. Even Race for the Galaxy was originated as a card-based variant of the classic Puerto Rico. There’s no shortage of better, more challenging games to play. When Innovation and Mottainai languish on my shelf, is Ares Expedition the game I really need to play? Other than its name, it lacks any compelling reason to hit the table.
Even then, it’s hard to argue there was much of a need for a simpler Terraforming Mars. It never was a difficult game. Its rules are simple, there are few potential pitfalls and even its cards are easy to understand. It remains a popular introduction to the hobby and can be easily found even in mainstream stores. And, if time is an issue, all these other games take less time to play.
The only advantage Ares Expedition has over the original are its components. It has better illustrations and a more coherent style. Cards are thicker and you can even get deluxe playmats to fit them all. More importantly, it has decent player boards to keep resources in their place. But, in the end, games exist to be played. Despite their ungainly appearance, other games do what Ares Expedition tries to, but better.
|TERRAFORMING MARS: ARES EXPEDITION (2021)|
|DESIGN||Sydney Engelstein Jacob Fryxelius|
|ART||William Bricker, et al.|
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||1-4 (Best with any number)||SCORE||★★|