Releasing a game called Terraforming Mars so soon after (the recently much-improved) Surviving Mars probably ain't great for the ol'Google rankings, but in fairness Terraforming got there first. It's an adaptation of an extremely well-received 2016 cooperative-but-competitive boardgame, retaining all the rules, but removing the need to pollute your home with a thousand pieces of cardboard or the festering presence of other meatbags.
The game's due later this year, but yesterday a free beta-cum-demo snuck onto Steam, which gives a good sense of what to expect as well as how to play.
Terraforming Mars very much concerns terraforming rather than colonisation - for that, you do want city-builder Surviving Mars. There are cities in Terraforming Mars, but they're a piece of the puzzle of introducing oxygen, plant life, heat, and water to a dead world, as opposed to a goal in themselves.
It uses familiar designer boardgame structure - action phases and outcome phases, token trackers and numerous card categories... A canny wrinkle is that it manages to be both co-operative and competitive at the same time. Everyone playing is contributing to the global goals of increasing oxygen and heat until the planet is considered habitable, but they're also each playing as a corporation competing for victory points in the process. Whoever's made the greatest contributions to the march of Martian process come the end wins. In the main, you're getting on with your own goals, but some cards let you e.g. nobble an opponent's vegetation production.
For more on how it works, take a look our hands-on write-up from back in April or have a gander at the below:
The 600Mb beta/demo comprises a tutorial that takes you about halfway through a game with/against a single AI comrade/opponent, then eaves you free to play the rest of the bout as you so please. As someone who's not played the boardgame (I keep getting invited to by a friend but haven't had the chance), I found that the tutorial rushed through through some key concepts despite being long, and was so restrictive about what I could do there was no sense of the choices I need to make later.
As such, freedom felt like being given a toothpick and being told to hunt a bear. I figured out the main rhythms after a few mis-spent 'generations', though, and was disappointed when the race ended (with a slight loss for me) just when I thought I'd really grokked it.
There's no other mode in this beta, though you can do the whole shebang again. The proof of the pudding will be multiplayer, but so far I reckon it's found a smart balance between being a boardgame adaptation and being a PC strategy game. They haven't just digitised some cards and hoped for the best - tiles are 3D and there's a proper interface, though I thought it could stand a few more tooltips. I'll be back, glad of the opportunity to finally play this boardgame without the need to clear a whole evening for it.
To get into the beta, you'll need to create or sign-in to an account with publisher Asmodee, then head to this page and select 'Terraforming Mars - Tutorial Beta' under 'Available betas'. That'll generate you a Steam key, and you know the rest.