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Terraforming Mars: A Designer Spotlight

Terraforming Mars: A Designer Spotlight



In the world of board gaming—akin to patterns in Hollywood scripts—there are recurring, or trending, themes. A few years ago, one could not swing a dead cat in their friendly local game store (flgs) without knocking over a game about zombies, Cthulu, or Vikings. As of late, designers are turning their eyes to the red planet: Mars. With the reprint of Mission: Red Planet by Fantasy Flight Games, Ignacy Trzewiczek’s First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet and Jacob Fryxelius’ Terraforming Mars, the long-forgotten planetary unit is making a big showing at the game table.


In fact, Terraforming Mars, published by Stronghold Games, received a nomination for the 2016 Spiel Des Jahres—a prestigious German award for board games, equated to the Oscars of the weirdly twisted and niche board game world. While not winning (losing to a series of escape room games, a super-massive bummer in this author’s opinion), Terraforming Mars holds a firm and formidable nine out of ten rating on boardgamegeek.com. It has numerous expansions, not to mention its movement into the digital world with a spiffy Terraforming Mars app on the Steam platform. And yet, despite the loss, years later, Terraforming Mars remains relevant and incredibly popular among the community. However, even with its rating and praise, Mars simply cannot be solidified as a game for everyone. There is no doubt Mars is a heavy strategy game. The first time I taught the game to a close friend of mine it took me—the teacher—the better part of twenty-five minutes to instruct my fellow player and adversary on the rules, how a turn works, how the cards work, how the money system is designed, and, most importantly, how one wins the game.



Let’s get to theme… In Mars, our planet earth is looking to begin expansion to the famous red planet. The lucrative government pays corporations for their efforts in making or terraforming, the planet to sustain human existence. This is our future and humankind must obtain self-preserving, it is of paramount importance the red planet becomes habitable. Players take on the roles of Mega-Corporations, which use the aforementioned government funding to change three planetary global parameters: oxygen level, temperature, and establish a clean water source. By doing so, the corporation receives a boost in their terraforming rating, which determines the winner at the conclusion of the game.


Through electronic communication on boardgamegeek.com—the place for talking about, searching for, and posting user-generated material like player aids and game variants—I was able to correspond with the designer of Terraforming Mars, Jacob Fryxelius.


There is a saying: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Well, it is the perfect place to start the story of this blog. Born in Sweden, where he currently lives, Jacob emerged from a large family of creative siblings. Among his kin are artists (Issac Fryxelius is the lead artist for Mars), writers, and designers that all work (or have worked) in the board game business. The siblings make up FryxGames—as previously mentioned. When it comes to addressing a game designer, the signature question is to jump into their history with games. In response, Jacob had this to say of his childhood:


“I can't remember at what age I started playing games. My father made his own games that we played. Then we kids started to make our own games as well, like assigning costs to bricks when playing with LEGOs, using rulers, dice and modifiers we [were] playing with toy soldiers and so on.” He went on to say: “We had a wonderful childhood. Gaming [began to be] so much fun, it stuck, and I continued to make games as I grew up, and so did many of my brothers. As an adult, I went more into CCGs and LCGs - I'm really fascinated how cards can be used for so many different purposes.”


Obviously, Jacob is no stranger to game design. He worked as the lead designer for After the Virus, Space Station, along with all the expansions for Mars. Currently, he designs games for FryxGames, a design company ripe with nepotism (more on that in a moment). These days most of his time is spent toiling away for FryxGames working on expansions for his most recent award-nominated creation.


When designing Mars, Jacob leans on the theme before mechanics. “Theme first,” he explains to me:


“My usual start for a game is suddenly having an idea of a theme with a connected mechanic. Then I work from there to implement the theme into the mechanic, developing the mechanic to fit the theme. I don't like abstract games much, so for me there has to be a strong connection between theme and mechanics. The cards, the board, the corporations, they all tie into the Jacob’s imagined world. For example, one card in the game is about growing plants. What do we know about plants? They need water. Many cards have prerequisites to be played. In order to grow plants, there must be X amount of water available. In return, plants increase the oxygen level, yielding points for the player. I wanted everything to make sense.”


says Jacob. And, when you think of it, everything does.


Also, Jacob is no stranger to narrative within games: “Great narratives and great artwork have become more commonplace, so designers naturally try to include that into their games.” His aforementioned love of card play shines in his games In Mars, card playing is a crucial part of obtaining resources, which, in turn, are used to affect global parameters. Jacob understands not only the need for an amazing theme but for narrative possibilities: “If you look at BGGs top 100 games, a clear majority of them have some kind of narrative (like a story or building your empire/business). This is not a random occurrence.” During the course of a game, card play creates a unique narrative for each player as cards are drafted by the players.[1] Every card within Mars is of benefit to players, however, many cards hit the sweet spot with the corporation’s asymmetrical abilities (some corporations are better at growing plants, others, at creating power or heat). Corporations are drafted, which allows for a different experience and a different narrative every time the game is played. “Not that every single theme begs for a narrative component, but the thematic ones usually do. They [are] longer games, asking more of their players through time and mental effort. One thing that brings the game to life for these players is giving a name to things, giving a reason, giving something that they can recall when they talk about the game. The game tells a story. Each game is the same story, but modified slightly every time depending on what corporations are being used and which strategy players implement.”


While the average play-life, or buzz, of a game, is around a month (give or take), Terraforming Mars shows no signs of slowing down. At the time of this writing there are two expansions for the game: Hellas & Elysium, which offers a completely new double-sided board, and Venus Next, giving players more cards, more corporations, and more global parameters. When wanting to reach for and scratch that strategic and thematic itch, Terraforming Mars is a game worth reaching for.

[1] Drafting in between Generations (rounds) is a well-played variant.

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