I played Terraforming Mars for the first time a little while ago and I have been mulling over my feelings on the game. It is a competitive board game with a vaguely cooperative theme in that everyone is trying to terraform Mars as quickly as possible and the ones who do that the best win the game.
The game combines a grid of hexes representing Mars upon which everyone makes cities, lakes, and forests with a system of drafting and playing cards. The cards have a lot going on, in that they can cost temporary resources or reduce your income, and they can generate temporary resources or permanently increase income. There are lots of kinds of resources and income too, and also the cards have lots of symbols on them that interact with other cards. Thankfully the design of the cards is really well done and with minimal practice you can easily figure out what each card does.
The cards seem largely well built, both in graphic design and balance. I am not anywhere good enough at the game to make proper evaluations but my first pass was a favourable one for sure. You can play a balanced game looking for all the best deals at a given moment or you can really go all in on one strategy and hope to cash in on the cards that reward the particular thing you are doing.
One thing I found really odd was that the main way of getting points was linked to income. If you get a point, you also get a buck every round. This worried me initially because it seemed like anyone who did well at the beginning would just steamroll their way to victory but there are ways to score points that don't increase income and ways to raise or lower your income without getting points, so it didn't end up being a problem. In most games you end up either building your engine or generating points and you have to figure out when it is time to stop creating infrastructure and just start making points as the game closes down, but in Terraforming Mars you often end up just doing both at the same time.
The game does have other ways of generating tipping points though because there are three good ways to score points that have a fixed number of them that can be cashed in. When there are ten temperature bumps left to go nobody cares much but when you get down to the last few suddenly everyone scrambles to get their temperature bumps in before the opportunity to score off of them vanishes.
The theme of the game is well done. For example, as terraforming proceeds the oxygen % goes up, and that means that eventually you can build cities without domes. However, once the oxygen gets high enough you can't build a city with a dome anymore because nobody wants to live in a domed city when the air outside is breathable. The cards reflect these sorts of things effectively and the themes feel like they tie into the mechanics in immersive and enjoyable ways.
There is one thing about the game that I don't much like though, and that is the number of cards that punish a player of your choice when you play them. Throughout the game people would draw cards that could do something bad and then they would have to pick which person to hurt. I don't like that mechanic in Lords of Waterdeep and it isn't any better here. I like mechanics where you can play against another person's strategy, but cards that simply say "Pick who gets screwed" are not fun for me. This is pretty much the only catch up mechanism in the game so I imagine with excellent players it would usually mean that the player in the lead gets beat up, but that kind of mechanic usually means that the players in last place end up kingmaking (when people are good) or people end up punishing the person they don't like (when people are bad at the game). Neither is fun.
Overall I think the designers of the game did a great job. The game looks slick, the information is presented effectively, and the theme is well integrated into the mechanics. I like the way new players can be handed a faction that gives them a simple starting situation that is balanced, and I the replayability looks good. But that card mechanic of "Pick who gets screwed" .... I don't like it. I will play the game more times for sure to figure out what I think of it, but overall I expect it is a game I will continue to enjoy despite that one significant drawback.