When we think about cooperative games, we generally focus on games where you win or lose together, the players versus the board. But the nature of board games means everyone’s affecting the play state constantly, morphing it into something new on a regular basis. Even competitive games are collaborative by nature, and nowhere is that clearer than Terraforming Mars.
Ostensibly an economic engine-building game in the same vein as Race for the Galaxy, Terraforming Mars casts you as competing corporations as you all race to see who can terraform the planet the most by the end of the game. This is done by raising three attributes: temperature, oxygen, and number of oceans. Any time you improve one of these three things, your Terraform Rating increases, and the one with the highest wins the game. So far, so normal.
The trick is that once all three attributes are maxed out, the game ends. From a mechanical standpoint, this is also nothing new, but think of what this means thematically. You’re all competing to be the top terraforming corporation, but you’re not single-handedly creating enough oxygen for the planet alone. Other players are also improving the living conditions of the planet at the same time, accelerating its growth. The cards that you’re playing also start to change, with more Earth-like locales and technologies open to you in the later rounds of play. You’re all making Mars into a livable planet together.
Further adding to the collaborative feel of Terraforming Mars is the Mars board that you build different kinds of tiles on. It starts out barren, but as players place greenery, cities, and other kinds of construction on the planet, it starts to change from a solid orange color into a mix of browns, greens, and greys, with a splash of color from all the cubes marking who owns what tile. Watching the board fill up, Mars starts to feel alive and vital, something you’ve all be tending to together even as you’ve been competing with one another. You tend to take ownership of this Mars because you just can’t help it. You helped make it what it is.
That’s because board games are more than just who won or lost at the end. It’s a hundred little narratives between players trying to build up advantage over their foes. It’s any number of different plays that opens up a brilliant move for another player. It’s that magical last round that culminates with someone winning the game by just one point. The numbers and the board memorialize all these things, crystalizing a couple of hours’ worth of coming together to play.
Terraforming Mars just marks the journey that much better thanks to a killer fusion of theme and mechanics in a way that’s obvious but no less effective. When you find yourself taking ownership of Mars as it changes from barren wasteland to a more Earth-like landscape, your opponents are doing the same, creating an unspoken bond as you all marvel at what you accomplished together.