Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Just a little less spite

I played Terraforming Mars again this weekend and my impressions of it weren't much changed from the first two times.  The game is well themed, well made, and has some stuff in it that bothers me.  I still don't like the way a lot of the cards punish other players because they so often have no choice in who they attack.  Letting players punish the leader is one thing, but having lots of cards that will usually only be able to attack one target means that the game feels really capricious.

I am not going after the game's balance here; I don't have enough knowledge to do that.  I am just talking about enjoyment and feel.  The cards that destroy stuff suck as far as I am concerned but I am sure if they all went out of the game the balance would massively shift.  My best first guess is that plants would become completely the dominant strategy if the meteors that blow up plants were removed and I don't think that is a good thing.

The other thing that bothered me was the drafting element.  Lots of the time I would open a pack of four cards and see nothing much interesting for me so I would simply hate draft the the the next player needs.  I would often see two good cards I couldn't use so I would make sure to take the one the next player needs so that they would hate draft against the player after them.  This honestly isn't much fun.  Having players talk about the great cards they took from you while you go turn after turn not seeing the stuff you need is crappy.  They usually aren't even using the cards either, just tossing them away into the trash.

The drafting part of the game also adds a lot to the duration.  With quick drafters it wouldn't be much of an issue but in all the games I played I am sure the draft added on most of an hour to the game time all in all.

I thought of a couple ways to address these concerns.  The simplest way to speed up the game is to simply not draft and just deal each player four cards.  That reduces the skill component a little but would definitely speed things up so overall I think that is a better way to play.  There is another solution though which doesn't speed the game up but which does mean that each player would be more likely to get cards they want and you would be a lot more likely to find the big payoff cards for the strategy you are employing.  The idea is that you pay for cards as soon as you draft them rather than waiting until the end of the draft and tossing cards out if you don't want them.

Right now you draft one card from each pack and usually pay to keep 1-2 of them.   The rest go in the garbage.  I would rather a system where you must pay for any card you draft at all.  Each pack would still go around the table once and you could only take 1 card from a pack when it passes you but you don't have to take a card, and if you do take one you must pay your 3 bucks for it.  This would mean that hate drafting would have a real cost, and while it sometimes would be worth it to spite people out of their cards you wouldn't end up just spiting everything by reflex.  I don't think we need to eliminate hate drafting completely, I just want to tilt the game towards positive drafting that builds your own strategy and away from constant hating.

I suspect this alternate game style would inflate scores.  You would have some money that just gets thrown out of the game when people draft and pay for cards they can't use at all but people would get their big payoff cards substantially more often and would end up with higher scores overall.  More relevantly though I think you would see new and/or weaker players actually get to have their strategies work out.  They wouldn't be so penalized for not knowing exactly what their opponents are doing (because hate drafting has a much larger cost) and they would end up with their cool stuff more often.

I really like the idea of people getting to finish off their strategies more and I am completely willing to give up some skill emphasis to achieve this.  I also think it would be a better game to teach and people just starting would enjoy it more.

I guess it says something that I have so many issues with the game and yet I am invested in trying to improve it; Terraforming Mars certainly does some things right, just not quite enough things.


  1. Having switched from draft to sealed and back, I found sealed excruciating. You'd be trying to play games X and Y, but you're getting cards G, and H while your opponent is frustrated in reverse. It felt completely random whether you got the bombs that fit your strategy or not.

    I don't find the hate drafting to be a big issue, maybe because of my extensive Magic experience? It just feels normal. People still manage to build what they want to build - sometimes there are too many good cards for other people, or a card you just can't pass up.

    Or, and this is relevant, sometimes you have to hate the punisher card that destroys you.

    To get around hate, I think the key is to have multiple strategies going at the same time, and not rely too much on any one element. If your entire game rests on a single Titanium production, then your strategy isn't robust. It *really* sucks when you get hit, but I suspect people get used to it with exposure. And anyone who plays plants is asking for trouble - I complained, but I knew it was going to happen when I chose to try plants.

    That being said, I'm finding the game ends and I'm not satisfied, whether I won or lost. I love the Magic-like potential of getting combos and engines and making random cards work. But I don't come away super happy. Maybe it's because the game is too long. Or maybe it's because it feels like a single mis-calculation can cost you a 4-hour game? I'm still not sure. That sense of "don't make a mistake" hurts the "let's play a timely game", that's for sure. I don't know if that goes away as people become really good and decisions because more routine and faster.

    1. I don't mind defensive drafting. I just find that it is too large a component of drafting in TM. I actually defensive drafted all four cards out of multiple packs and that *sucks*. I like the idea of drafting for myself most of the time and occasionally sniping something. That isn't a design decision everyone would agree with, but it is definitely what I want. I think the game would feel better if people did complete their engines and get their big payoff, at least more often than they do right now.

  2. I don't know the game, so I'm speaking in a vacuum here, but one thing that concerns me about your idea of paying when you draft is that it would feel bad but for a different reason. Basically sitting in the seat upstream from the player who is in the lead would put you in this awkward position of being the one who has to pay resources to keep them in check. Like if player on the left is in first, and player on the right is in second and righty passes you a great card for lefty, you end up in an awkwardly forced kingmaking position. Like the "logic" of trying to minimize other people's scores relative to your own might say that you should hate draft at your own expense, but you have to realize you are just paying to make one player win rather than another, when neither is you.

    1. You do reverse the order of the draft alternate turns so if there is a clear leader the people on both sides of them might be taking turns to punish them. However, I have found it really difficult to determine who the leader is a lot of the time. I think experts would have a better handle on that then I would, but in a tight game I would think it is extremely difficult to determine who is winning, and thus who you ought to spend resources to hate.

      You are right though that you might feel obligated to hate draft people anyway, and that would kind of suck.

    2. The person who is winning is always Kate. I've found that rule to serve me well.