Step-by-step instructions for how to play Terraforming Mars. Terraforming Mars is the award-winning engine-building strategy board game launched in 2016. The game is pretty intense and will take a few hours of your life, but if you are willing to make the investment it is worth it. It is incredibly well balanced and a leader in its field. The game is for 1 – 5 players and will run around 2 – 3 hours per game. This guide is for the 2 – 5 player game, there is also a solo version that is amazing and outlined toward the end of the article. This is our definitive guide to how to play Terraforming Mars.
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HOW TO PLAY TERRAFORMING MARS – WHAT IS IT?
Players take the role of a corporation duking it out with other players to make the most money-making the planet inhabitable. Using a mixture of the resources steel, titanium, plants, energy, heat and mega credits, you need to build up your production machine to get bigger and better stuff. Working with other players to raise the temperature, oxygen and water levels to inhabitable levels, you also want to slip in a big flashy action or vainly claim a big award to get you some victory points along the way.
HOW TO PLAY TERRAFORMING MARS – STEP BY STEP
Time Needed: approximately 2 – 3 hours.
This is a step by step guide for how to play Terraforming Mars (non-solo) the popular engine-building board game. Additional notions and special rules can be found below the list. These will be referenced for your convenience.
1. SETUP | Put Out Game Board
Step one is learning how to play Terraforming Mars is with the big board. It folds out big from four pieces. Make sure there is lots of space because there are many things that need to go around it.
2. SETUP | Put Out Tiles
There is a water space with the number “9” on it, that is where you put the blue water tiles. There is a brown stack of specialty tokens, make sure those are stacked somewhere handy. Finally, there are greenery (side a) / city (side b) tiles, make a pile of these somewhere handy. You probably will not need all of them out at first.
3. SETUP | Put Out Win Condition Markers
There are 3x little white cubes in a little bag. This is to mark the temperature level, oxygen level and generation level. Put the markets at 0%, -30 C and 0 respectively.
4. SETUP | Put out Tokens
Each player chooses a color and takes the bag of cube markers matching that color. Besides that, there are the unit markers to mark all your various resources (bronze is worth one, silver five and gold ten), put these in a few handy stacks everyone can get at. Players put one of their markers on the “20” on the outside track which is the starting victory point total.
5. SETUP | Put out Action Cards
If you look at the back of all the black cards, there is one matching symbol that is on way more than any other. These are the action cards. Put these in a very large face down pile for people to draw from.
6. SETUP | Resource Cards / Initial Production
Each player gets their own resource card. This is the flimsy piece of paper that has boxes and number tracks for six different things. To start, put a player marker on the “1” of each of the six number track. This says you will produce “1” of that specific resource during the production phase. This is the starting point. This completes the setup portion of how to play Terraforming Mars.
7. GAMEPLAY | Corporation Setup
At the beginning of the game, everyone is going to get a corporation card and ten action cards. In the beginner games, you start with a generic corporation that tells you to start with 42 mega credits and ten action cards you don’t have to pay for. After a few times, you play the normal rules which give you two random corporation cards that will have various special abilities, like one might be better with plant or heat resources. You also get ten action cards to start but you have to pay three credits from your starting credits for each one you want to keep. This is probably the most important part of the game so pay attention to this section of how to play Terraforming Mars.
8. GAMEPLAY | “1” Marker Token
Decide who is going to go first and give them the “player 1” marker token. This is the player that is going to be first to act during the action phase. This token gets passed clockwise each generation.
9. GAMEPLAY | Understanding Phases of a Generation
A generation is multiple phases that each have a variety of turns and things to do. The four phases of a turn are (1) player order phase (2) research phase (3) action phase (4) production phases. Each has its own set of things to do. A game will last around 8 generations or so if that gives you a better idea. On the very first turn, you skip phases 1 & 2.
10. GAMEPLAY | Jump Right Into Action Phase
Before this step see “Types of Actions” below to better understand them. During this phase, players get to take any number of actions that they have available to them. A player does not do these all at once, it will go in cycles where a player can do 1 or 2 actions. It moves to the next player and comes back around until all players pass and no one has any more actions they want to take. There are benefits to doing one action (the longer you wait the more you get to see others do) or two actions (you get to something before another player beats you to it). Once you “pass” playing no actions, you are out of that action phase, the other players continue until they are done.
11. GAMEPLAY | Finish Initial Turn in Production Phase
During the production phase (the end of a generation) you get resources based on your production. The marker on the track on the individual player card tells you how much to take. This is true for every resource except mega credits. That total is your credit production plus your total number of victory points (the outside number track where your player marker is).
12. GAMEPLAY | Start New Generation
When you start a new generation you move to the player order phase where almost nothing happens. Here you move the generation marker up one (to mark what generation it is) and pass the “player 1” marker to the player on the left to signify a new active player.
13. GAMEPLAY | Move to Research Phase
The second phase of the generation is the research phase where players get new cards. Every player draws four cards, they can keep any number of them, they just need to pay 3 mega credits for each one they want to keep. In more advanced gameplay you do this as a draft.
14. GAMEPLAY | Move to Action Phase
The action phase is the third phase of the generation. It is where you started out in generation one and it plays exactly the same way. Players rotate around the circle playing 1 or 2 actions until there are no more actions left to play.
15. GAMEPLAY | Repeat Each Generation Until Game End
These four-phase generations continue until the game ends. The game ends at the end of the generation where the three victory conditions are met. Those are maxing the oxygen level, temperature and putting out 9 water tiles. See “Winning Conditions” below for more details. These are the basics of how to play Terraforming Mars, after this, it is A LOT of repeating.
16. SCORING | Add Score From Tiles on Map
Your base final score is the amount you were able to get to during the game on the outside track, but at the very end, there are many other bonus points that are added to that total. On the map, you get points for the city and the greenery. See “Playing Tiles on the Mars Board” below for more details.
17. SCORING | Add Score From Milestones
Any player who has their marker on a milestone, they get 8 points for each. See “Actions – Milestones” below for more details.
18. SCORING | Add Score From Awards
For any award, whoever has the most of that condition gets 5 bonus victory points and whoever has the second most gets two. See “Actions – Award” below for more details.
19. SCORING | Add Score From Action Cards
At the bottom right corner of some action cards, there are big numbers on top of a Mars symbol. These are victory points. Everyone adds up their individual points and adds them to their score.
20. WINNING | Highest Score Wins
After the long hard fight that is how to play Terraforming Mars, it comes down to whoever has the most victory points wins.
HOW TO PLAY TERRAFORMING MARS – KEY INFORMATION
The whole point of the game is building up your resource production so you can keep getting bigger and better things. The six resources and what they do are below. Most of the action cards will either give you these or increase your production of that resource. It is an important difference to note and one of the hardest to first get in the game. If the symbol on a card has a brown background border, that means it increases the production of making those, if the symbol does not have a border, you get that many of that resourced (already produced and delivered to you).
- Mega Credits – The main source of currency and used to buy pretty much everything.
- Steel – When every you play a card that has the brown hut symbol on it, you can use units of this in place of 2 mega credits each.
- Titanium – Similar to steel, whenever you play a card with the black and gold star symbol, you can use units of this in place of 3 mega credits each.
- Plants – 8 of these can be exchanged to put 1 Greenery Tile on the board.
- Energy – This is used for various things and it also turns into heat at the end of each generation.
- Heat – 8 of these can be exchanged to increase the temperature 1 notch.
THE 3 WIN CONDITIONS
Players need to work together to make Mars a place people can live. The game ends when 3 different conditions are met – Oxygen Level, Temperature and Bodies of Water, and the current generation ends. There are many notches to move up in the different categories. The player that moves any condition up one gets one victory point. Move it up right then and there, you do not wait until the end of the game (this gets you more credits).
Oxygen Level – You start at level 0% and need to move 14 notches up to 14%. Every time you play a greenery tile that raises oxygen 1, but this can also be done with many of the action cards. There is a special bonus at 8% where whoever moved it there gets a bonus notch raise on the temperature bar.
Temperature – You start at -30 C and need to move 19 notches up to +8 C. Turning in 8 heat tiles to move up one notch is the main way to move this but various cards will have effects to increase this as well or you can pay 14 mega credits as a standard project to move it up. There is a special bonus at -24 C and -20 C where whoever moved it there gets to increase their heat production by one.
Bodies of Water – There are 9 water tiles that need to be placed on the Mars map. There are 12 spaces on the map that are shaded in blue. These are the only places water can go, and only water can go there, nothing else (unless a card states otherwise).
TYPES OF ACTIONS
The biggest phase of every generation is the “action phase”. This is when players taking turns doing all sorts of things. Below is the full list of actions you can take during Terraforming Mars. Reminder, players go in rounds of doing 1 or 2 actions at a time. Don’t rush to do 2, there are advantages to both.
- Play an Action Card
- Use a Standard Project
- Claim a Milesteone
- Fund an Award
- Use the Action on a Blue Action Card
- Covert 8 Plants to Greenery Tile
- Covert 8 Heat to Raise Temperature One Notch
ACTION – ACTION CARDS
Action cards are the big wrench in the game. You have to pivot on your strategy based on the action cards you draw or you will lose. There are three different cards which are outlined below. Theses can be all sorts of things like give you victory points, alter win conditions or give you resources.
Automated Cards (green) – These are one and done effects that stick around. Their effect happens right away but they stick around so their tags (the symbol in the top right corner) sticks around.
Active Cards (blue) – Blues are tools that you can use over and over, once per generation to be precise. You pay the cost to put the card down and then on the card is a separate effect you can play over and over, once a generation. The left side of the red arrow is the cost and the thing to the right is the effect. Some of these are static, they just happen, like a specific type of card being cheaper
Event Cards (red) – These happen and are gone. You flip them over, not using their tags”, until the end of the game when their victory points (if any) are scored with the rest. These are referenced sometimes in other cards using an arrow pointing down symbol
*Negative – if a box has a red border around it, that means you take that from other players, not yourself.
ACTION – STANDARD PROJECTS
Standard projects are like generic action cards that are always there and you can always use. They are printed right there on the map where the amount to the left of the arrow is the cost and the thing to the right of the arrow is the payoff.
- Exchange any amount of cards -> Recieve that many credits
- Pay 11 Mega Credits -> Increase Power Production by one
- Pay 14 Mega Credits -> Increase Temperature by 1 notch
- Pay 18 Mega Credits -> Add a Water Tile to the board
- Pay 23 Mega Credits -> Add a Greenery Tile to the board
- Pay 25 Mega Credits -> Add a City Tile to the Board + increase Mega Credit production by 1
ACTION – MILESTONES
There are five milestones total but only three of them can be claimed in a game. As an action, a player can pay 8 mega credits to claim one of the below as long as they have satisfied the requirement. The player who claims it adds their player marker and at the game, whoever has one (or more) claimed, gets 8 victory points for each. Once three have been claimed, the other two are closed off.
- Terraformer: Having a terraform rating of at least 35.
- Mayor: Owning at least 3 city tiles.
- Gardener: Owning at least 3 greenery tiles.
- Builder: Having at least 8 building tags in play.
- Planner: Having at least 16 cards in your hand when claimed.
ACTION – AWARDS
Similar to milestones, there are five awards to fund but only three can be used. As an action, you may pay a cost (8 first claimed| 14 second claimed | 20 third claimed) to “fund an award”. At the end of the game, whoever has the highest in that category gets first (5 victory points) and whoever gets the next highest gets second place (2 victory points). It doesn’t matter who funded the award and ties are friendly. Taking all these bonuses in is a big part of learning how to play Terraforming Mars.
- Landlord: Owning the most tiles in play.
- Banker: Having the highest mega credit production.
- Scientist: Having the most science tags in play.
- Thermalist: Having the most heat resource cubes.
- Miner: Having the most steel and titanium resource cubes.
PLAYING TILES ON THE MARS BOARD
The tiles that can actually be placed on the board are water tiles, greenery tiles, cities, or specialty squares. There are many things to keep in mind when it comes to placing. Whenever you put anything down except water, put a player marker on it to claim it as yours.
- Water – See the description above in win conditions
- City – These can be placed anywhere accept next to another city or on one of the shaded blue tiles meant for water (unless card says otherwise). The city give you nothing at first, but at the end of the game, it is worth 1 VP + 1 additional point for any greenery it touches (regardless of who controls it).
- Greenery – Whenever you place one of these you get to increase the oxygen level by one, which in turn will give you one victory point. A greenery must be placed connected to a tile you control if possible. At the end of the game you get one victory point for each greenery.
- Specialty Squares – These don’t do very much and are typically a secondary effect of some action card. These are things like “mine” or “volcano” that is just something to add to the board and get you a little something-something. A card that makes you play one of these will tell you exactly what you need to do so nothing to worry about.
*Bonus: Many of the hexagon spaces on the board have small resource symbols on them. Whenever you place a tile on a square, you get the resources you just covered up.
**Bonus: when you place a tile, you get 2 mega credits for any water tile it is touching.
SOLO GAME VARIATION
This how to play Terraforming Mars tutorial dealt with the multiple player game but there is also a fantastic one player game. The solo game is very similar to the main game with just a few tweaks to create a ticking clock for you to work against. The main difference is that in this version, you have 13 to generations to satisfy all three of the win conditions on your own.
Other differences include:
- Start your player marker on the 14 spot instead of the 20
- Do not utilize the milestones or awards part of the game
- two sets of a city/greenery tile are placed randomly on board
- On the player board, your resource production for each starts at “0” instead of “1”.
- 1x Rules Booklet
- 1x Game Board
- 5x Player Boards
- 17x Corporation Cards
- 208x Project Cards
- 8x Reference Cards
- 200x Player Markers (5 different colors)
- 200x Resource Markers (bronze, silver, gold)
- 3x White Cube Game Markers
- 9x Ocean Tiles
- 60x Greenery/City Tiles
- 11x Special Symbol Tiles
- 1x First Player Marker
OR WATCH THIS VIDEO: How To Play Terraforming Mars by Watch It Played [TRT 29:01]
HOW TO PLAY TERRAFORMING MARS – IN CLOSING
We hope you can now say that you know how to play Terraforming Mars. If you like engine-building even a little bit, Terraforming Mars is something you should try out. It takes a few games to understand the interworkings of all the mechanics and various things that you can do, but once you get there, it is very satisfying. The game won multiple awards for a reason, huge recommend.
What should players do if they draw unplayable cards at the start of their turn, due to the tempature being too high?
Hi Peter, You should not buy them. Unfortunately, those are just wasted cards that you cannot use (except discard to exchange for 1 mega credit via the standard actions). You win some, you lose some. That is Terraforming Mars.