A Review of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (Solo and Cooperative Modes Only)

I didn’t expect to be writing this post so early. I was a Kickstarter backer of the Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition back in March 2021. I picked up this game originally because it promised a solo mode and a cooperative mode! And that’s all we’re looking at here (since this is a cooperative games blog after all). So, Stronghold games promised delivery from the Kickstarter in September 2021. But I got one early. But not like you’d expect.

Controversy

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As of yesterday, June 20th 2021, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition was available at Target (see above). When I picked it up, it was $39.99. A lot of people from the Kickstarter were VERY upset that the game was available from Target BEFORE it was delivered to Kickstarter backers. The rationale is something like: “We helped back the game with our hard-earned dollars, shouldn’t we be put first?” There is also some grumpiness because Stronghold only told the Kickstarter backers A DAY BEFORE the Target release. A lot of Kickstarter backers have stated that they would have been a LOT more forgiving if Stronghold had been more up front about this.

If you look at the current ratings of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition on BoardGameGeek, you will see a LOT of ratings of 1.0/10.0. This is a “civil unrest” way for Kickstarter backers to show their displeasure. At the time of this writing, the rating is all the way down to 5.1/10.0. (There are also some people who give it a 10.0/10.0 just to balance the 1s). We’ll take a look at the game and see what we think, orthogonally to the controversy.

There are differences between the Kickstarter version of the game and the Target version. See the graphic below (directly from the Kickstarter) for differences. I can’t comment on these differences until September (when I receive my Kickstarter version), but I can say the Target list seems accurate.

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Unboxing

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Let’s see what’s in the box!

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The rulebook is of SUPER high quality paper (linen paper) just like the Canvas rulebook. The paper quality is really nice! (If you look closely above, you’ll see some of the texture).

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There’s a nice quickstart guide (see above). Perhaps more importantly, it discusses the difference between Terraforming Mars (the big board game) and Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition. A lot of people will probably be coming to the table with experience with Terraforming Mars, so this really helps!

The Player Boards (see above) are just cardboard sheets: this is one of the bigger differences between the Target version and the Kickstarter version! The Kickstarter version will have dual-layer boards, with indentations so the cubes don’t move around.

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The cardboard tokens and nice and readable (see above).

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And the rest of the game (the majority of the game) is cards and cubes (see above). They all fit nicely in the box.

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The cubes are nice, if nothing super special. The resource cubes are nice in that the copper cubes (representing 1 resource) are smaller than the silver cubes (representing 5 resources) which are smaller than the gold cubes (representing 10 resources). That’s a nice touch that’s make it easier to “make change” in resources as you play.

But, of course, the focus of the game, the major component, are the cards. There are really nice linen-coated cards (see above and below).

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If you look closely above, you can see the linen-coated cards. And look at how nice the cards are! Easy to read! Very colorful! Consistent art and consistent layout! One major complaint of the original Terraforming Mars was that the art was very inconsistent and something not great. Ares Expendition does NOT have this problems. These cards look great!

Weirdly, the dividers and the player summary card are NOT included in the rulebook summary of components? But they are very nice!

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Overall, the components are absolutely fantastic. The art on the box is really nice! The art on the cards is amazing and consistent with the rest of the game! Perhaps the only complaint someone might have is that the player boards are too easy to bump and cubes go flying … oh wait, that’s why the Kickstarter version has dual-layer player boards…

Rulebook

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I don’t want to focus too much on the rulebook, except to say it’s fantastic! It’s a very high quality paper! It’s very nice to the touch.

The font is big and readable. The components page lists the components AND shows their pictures. Very easy to read! See above!

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Right away, the game discusses the card layout: see above. (Recall, a minor complaint about The Phantom: The Card game was that the card layout was near the end of the rulebook where it was less useful). Right after we see the components, and they are fresh in our minds, we can correlate what’s on the card with what was JUST in our head/hands!

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This is always a tricky line: Do you discuss the game components first or the game set-up first? If you show the game set-up first, you know how the components fit together in context of gameplay. If you show the components first, you get an idea of what the components are before you get too far. Both ways can work: I personally tend to prefer Set-Up immediately after the Components list, but the way Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (discussing components before Set-Up) works very well in this rulebook. I also remember this way working really well in the rulebook for Code 3.

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Again, everything is easy to read, the font is big, and the Set-Up is very clear!

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So, halfway through the rulebook (where the staples are), we finally start discussing Gameplay. You know? This technique of Components picture, Components exposition, Set-Up, then Gameplay worked really well.

This was a great rulebook! It was easy to read and easy to set-up. Ironically, I don’t think the game needs the “Quick Start Guide” set-up pamphlet because the rulebook is great for your first time! But, I can see the “Quick Start Guide” pamphlet being good for later plays when you already know most of the rules.

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Overall, fantastic rulebook.

Gameplay

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I want to touch on the gameplay elements a little before we discuss the solo modes and the cooperative modes.

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is a cross between the original Terraforming Mars (the big board game) and Race For The Galaxy.

The original Terraforming Mars is essentially an engine-builder game where you are buying cards and resources to help terraform Mars. This game, Ares Expedition, keeps that feel!

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See above for a set-up! You start with some cards you can buy, and these cards help you get plants, MegaCredits (MC or money), heat and more cards. Just like the big brother, to win you have to:

  1. Raise the heat of Mars to an acceptable level
  2. Add enough oxygen to Mars (planting Trees and other methods).
  3. Add water to Mars (via lakes)

You need to do ALL THREE in order to win.  The cards you buy give you an engine to “add heat”, “grow plants”, “get bucks” and all sorts of other tools which you use to terraform Mars.  By the end of the game, you have will a huge tableau of cards representing your engine!  See below!

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Notice (see above) the engine of the solo player with so many cards helping out.

Now, this may sound a lot like the original Terraforming Mars, and it is.  Here are the “official” differences:

The biggest difference is that each player only gets to execute one “phase” of the game per turn. There are 5 phases:

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On your turn, you “choose” one of the phases to do (Development, Construction, Action, Production, or Research).

When you choose a phase to execute, ALL PLAYERS get to execute that phase, but YOU get an extra bonus during that phase! For example, if you select Development, every player can buy and play a green card, but YOU get a discount on how much that card costs!

If this sounds familiar, it should! It’s essentially what Race For The Galaxy does! (And to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico). In the original Terraforming Mars game, you played all phases. But, by making this “phase” breakdown, PLAYERS CAN PLAY SIMULTANEOUSLY. This can really help speed up the game! The original Terraforming Mars can take 3-4 hours to play a full game! Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition drops to an hour (in real life, it took us 1.5 hours in a 2-Player game) because of this simultaneous play.

In general, this is an engine-building game with some simultaneous selection. It moves fairly quickly, even with players who tend to be analysis paralysis players.

Solo Mode

So, one of the many reasons I backed the Kickstarter was that this includes a solo mode. To win, you have to terraform Mars in a timely matter (you only have a certain number of turns to finish the terraforming). See rules below: it’s just one page in the very back of the rulebook.

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The main difference between normal play and solo play is that there is a “dummy” hand of phases. This means the solo player usually gets to execute 2 phases per turn: the phase the player selected and the phase the dummy hand selected.

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In the picture above, the “dummy” hand has selected the Production round and the solo player has selected Development.  Thus, on the solo player’s turn, he gets to do Development (with the bonus, because the solo player selected it) and then Production (without the bonus, because the dummy hand selected it).  The only real maintenance for the solo player is to shuffle the dummy action phase hand every 5 cards! In general, there’s not a lot of maintenance!  This makes the solo game flow pretty quickly, or as fast as the solo player wants.

I found the solo mode easy to understand, easy to play, fun to play, and a great way to learn more about the game.  There are even different difficulty levels as you get to know the game better!  

This was a very good solo mode.

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Cooperative Mode

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Really, the main reason I backed this: It has a cooperative mode! Unfortunately, the cooperative mode is a little lame for two reasons. First of all, the cooperative mode ONLY plays two players! Second of all, it is a “reach a victory point” level to win. You still have to terraform Mars completely to win in the cooperative game, but you also have to have a shared score of 80 victory points. See rules below.

Like the solo game, you only have a certain amount of time (15 rounds in this case) to terraform Mars! The mechanism for countdown is a little wonky: you have 27 “copper cubes” and 3 “unused player color cubes”. At the end of the turns, both players take a cube: if a player takes a copper cube, it goes straight to the MC (money), if a player chooses an “unused player cube”, the two players can trade a development card instead. When all cubes are gone (15 rounds), it’s the end of the game. If you have terraformed Mars AND gotten 80 shared victory points, the 2 players win! Otherwise, they lose!

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Even with the wonky countdown mechanism, the cooperative mode worked pretty well. In the game above, you’ll see that Mars was terraformed, but with only 64 Victory Points, so it was a losing game. I really think there should have been a gradation in winning:

  1. A “major win!” You terraform Mars AND got 80 shared victory Points!  Your team terraformed Mars in style!
  2. A “minor win!” You terraform Mars, but not enough shared victory points.  Your team succeeded, but Mars still needs a little more work
  3. A Loss: You didn’t Terraform Mars!  Um, sorry.

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In general, the cooperative mode worked well enough. We lost, but we think we knew some of the things we needed to do to play a better game: Mainly, make sure EVERY PHASE, both players need to be doing something useful! A few times during the game, one of us chose a phase that wasn’t mutually advantageous to BOTH players.

It was still a little lame that the cooperative mode only worked for 2 players.

Replayability

The core of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition was the deck of development cards. See the huge deck above! To win, you tend to need to get a very large tableau going:

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You can see how BIG the deck of development cards is in the picture above!

Between 10 different corporations you can play and the HUGE deck of development 180+ cards, there is a ton of replayability here. After I finished playing both the solo and cooperative modes, I and my friend were still thinking about ways to have done better. I lost my first few solo and cooperative game, but I still wanted to play more!

I will also bet you $10 that Stronghold is planning expansions for this.

Conclusion

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Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is a card game in the Terraforming Mars universe that is significantly shorter than the original Terraforming Mars game! It’s quicker to play and it also looks better than it’s original big brother. The solo mode is very good, but the cooperative mode needs some work: there really should be cooperative rules for all player counts of the game. If you were thinking of getting this game JUST for the cooperative mode, I’d say there are better cooperative games to get. If you where thinking of getting it for solo and cooperative modes, then I’d say that’s the tipping point! The solo and cooperative modes combined make this worthwhile to get. Now, if you factor in the competitive mode, then I’d say this is a no-brainer to get! Overall, Terraforming Mars:Ares Expedition is a fantastic game with fantastic components and a fantastic rulebook.

Some people love the 3-4 hours games of Terraforming Mars. Some peop;e don’t. If you love the gameplay of Terraforming Mars, but not the time commitment, Terraformform Mars: Ares Expedition might be a good compromise for you.

It will be curious to see if the controversy of the Kickstarter game and the Target deal adversely affects the game’s reception. It’s too bad that controversy had to exist: this is a good game.

4 thoughts on “A Review of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (Solo and Cooperative Modes Only)

  1. Bleeargh! I just got word they are sending out some of the kickstarter sets already. Here’s hoping we’re in the early batch. Thanks for the review! I’m wondering if we could tweat the co-op mode for more players, say increase the total points required by 40VP/player? Not sure if it would work but it would interesting to try.

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    1. There’s a lot of balancing needed for multiple players I think. BTW, are you seeing your comments? We’ve have a few reports that the comments aren’t making it in.

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      1. Yeah I see them but I can’t edit them (that’s why tweat appeared and not tweak). Other times on these sorts of blogs I’ve been able to edit my posts.

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