Terraforming Mars versus On Mars

 
by Stephen Venters

Terraforming Mars or On Mars?

I see this question posted a lot on various board game forums, so I thought I'd discuss both, their similarities and differences, and provide some guidance to which one you should buy.

Terraforming Mars On Mars

The Details

The theme of both games is, of course, settling Mars, and in both games each player is a space corporation trying out pace their competition as they build their presence there. While they have a lot of similar mechanics such as tile placement, tech trees, and end game bonus points, the main difference between the two is the main action mechanic for getting your things onto the map. Terraforming Mars is about managing a hand of cards that came from a draw pile while On Mars is, at its core, an economic worker placement game.

Terraforming Mars (2016) On Mars (2020)
Designer Jacob Fryxelius Vital Lacerda
Publisher Stronghold Games Eagle-Gryphon Games
History In 2016, during what I consider the dawn of the KickStarter age of board games, Terraforming Mars became an instant success. While going to gaming MeetUps in NYC, I'd often see two games going at once. Up until then, heavy Euro games had dominated, but TM showed there was interest in less-heavy games as well as games with a bit more random chance baked in. With minimal fanfare, in 2019 Eagle-Gryphon Games KickStarted Lacerda's 12th game. After fulfillment, it would quickly become one of his most popular games due to its heavy weight, a stunning visual design, and a complexity rivaling that of his other game Lisboa (2016).
BGG Page Terraforming Mars @ BGG On Mars @ BGG
Weight Medium with a weight rating of 3.25
(out of 5.0 on BGG)
Heavy with a weight rating of 4.65
(out of 5.0 on BGG)
Time to Play ~120 minutes 90 - 150 minutes
Game Play The game is played over an indeterminate number of rounds as players do things that terraform Mars. Once terraformed, the game ends. While players must vie for the best spaces on the board, managing their hands of cards and playing cards to their tableau in an ideal sequence so that they combo well is the bulk of the strategy. Resource management is also a large aspect of the game. There is also a fair amount of take-that actions where you harm other players, usually by making them discard resources. Here is a brief overview (3:42) by J_3MBG. Players start in nearly the same state as each other and take actions by placing their workers on action spaces which are either in orbit around Mars or on its surface. Early actions build up technology and resources while later actions build structures and manage things on the surface of Mars. All of this is ultimately increasing Mars' Life Support Level which, once it reaches its highest level, triggers the game's end. Here is a brief overview (3:00) by Nersi.
Mechanics Closed Drafting, Contracts, Enclosure, End Game Bonuses, Events, Hand Management, Income, Once-Per-Game Abilities, Set Collection, Take That, Tech Trees / Tech Tracks, Tile Placement, Turn Order: Progressive, Variable Player Powers, Variable Set-up, Victory Points as a Resource Closed Drafting, Contracts, Delayed Purchase, End Game Bonuses, Hand Management, Income, Movement Points, Moving Multiple Units, Set Collection, Tech Trees / Tech Tracks, Tile Placement, Variable Phase Order, Worker Placement
Randomness As with any game with hand management, there's a lot of randomness as you draw cards. If you draw well, you'll do well; if you draw poorly, you better know the game very well in order to pivot. The base game was marred with this problem which which is why people house-ruled drafting. Nearly all of Lacerda's games limit the amount random chance in them and what randomness there is mostly comes during setup to increase replayability between games. The tech and Blueprint markets are refreshed during the game, so there's a bit of randomness as the new items are laid out, but it is minimal amount compared to the rest of the game.
BGG Rating 8.270 - 4th overall 7.715 - 53rd overall
Cost Terraforming Mars is a mass produced game with an average level of production quality. The base game's MSRP is $70, but you can find it on Amazon for about $55. The Prelude expansion, which is considered a must-have, will run you another $20 or so. As with all Lacerda's games, they aren't cheap. They are highly sought after by fans and the components are high quality production. As of the writing of this article, you can buy it for $125 at Eagle-Gryphon Games website. On the aftermarket such as Geek Market, a copy goes for a bit less.
Expansions There are a number of expansions and promos at this point, but the one that best helped manage some of the issues with the base game is Prelude (2018). I recommend this being the first expansion you get and that you play with it 100% of the time. Aside for a promo or two, On Mars only has one major expansion, Alien Invasion, which adds a cooperative spin on the game and is set to ship in late 2022.

My Thoughts

Terraforming Mars took the board game market by storm and was the first non-Euro centric game that became wildly popular. Prior to 2016, games like Terra Mystica (2012), Agricola (2007) along with its cousin Caverna (2013), and Castles of Burgundy (2011) ruled the top spots on BGG. Soon after TM's release, it entered the Top 10 and has stayed there ever since. The age of lighter-weight games involving more random-chance had begun.

I've always thought TM, especially the base game, suffered from Better-Lucky-Than-Good syndrome. If you made decisions early on to focus on a certain kind of card and you never draw them, then your game will stall. And, unless you pivot early, you have no chance of winning. Likewise, if you do pivot, it is nearly impossible to win against someone who is drawing well, especially if they know the deck well. Card drafting mitigates this somewhat and the Prelude cards from the expansion mitigates it more, but I still get frustrated when it happens because I simply have no control over it. In the end, you'll probably have to buy more than just the base game to have a good game.

Lacerda's games are "gamers' games" and On Mars is one of his most popular. It is heavy, tight and well designed in both game play and graphic design (which is absolutely stunning). Your decisions and ability to out maneuver your opponents are critical to winning. There is very little hidden information and there is a lot you have to take everything in. It's the kind of game that you need to play 3-4 times before you really start to "get it" which is a selling point for gamers who seek out games that are hard to learn and to master. But On Mars is expensive (as are all of his games), so you're making an investment for your collection.

Which Should You Buy?

Both games are highly rated, though TM is in the stratosphere of ratings. While both games have some similarities beyond the theme, they are definitely different games. Simply put, however, I'd say the determining factor between the two would be: how heavy do you like your games?

If you like lighter-weight games or are fairly new to gaming, I'd recommend TM. It's a more accessible game for those just getting into board games and finding other players is easy. It's also good if you like games with an amount of randomness or take-that mechanics. That said, you'll have to buy at least the Prelude expansion, and possibly more, to get the most out of TM.

Assuming you can afford it, go with On Mars if you are an experienced gamer who likes heavier games with tight game play and complicated decision making. Or if you dislike randomness in your games (TM will frustrate the hell out of you if you don't like randomness). Lacerda's games are all very well designed and implemented, so you can't go wrong with On Mars; especially if you like a tired brain at the end if your gaming session.

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