Terraformers Early Access Review – The Birth Of A Genre

I like computer games.  I like boardgames.  I don’t like computer adaptations of boardgames very much.  Terraformers isn’t quite any of those things, and I think it’s brilliant.

The computer games I play most are strategy games: the kind of game where you play it for three hours and then say to yourself “OK, I think I know what I should have done on turn one.”  So you start it again from the beginning, and eight hours later, you say to yourself “Right, I definitely know what I should have done on turn one.”  It’s all about understanding what’s happening, planning carefully, and applying the game systems to maximum effect.

When I’m playing a board game, people don’t like it when we’ve been playing for a couple of hours and I say “Excuse me, I’ve just worked out what I should have done on turn one, mind if we start again?”  Especially since if I did do a really bad job on turn one, that means that it’s one of my friends who is winning.  I pride myself on playing really well, and I’m really keen to believe that I’m a better player than any of my friends are.  How then, do I explain it to myself when I lose?  I say things like “The dice were against me today” or “I had terrible cards.”  This is why most popular boardgames have lots of randomness: to give us an ego defence.

The other thing that happens when I play boardgames is I forget some of the rules.  Just because I have a card that gives me “Plus one plant production if I control a city with at least four human population” doesn’t mean that I’ll remember that I have it.  Or that I’ll remember to count the humans in my cities and realize that I only have three humans… or… you get the idea.  Boardgames need to be simpler than computer games, because there’s only so much counting and remembering rules I can do before I stop ‘playing a game’ and I start ‘working as an accountant’.

Which is why computer adaptations of boardgames so often deliver the worst of all worlds: you get a really simple ruleset, a level of difficulty that assumes you’re distracted by the other people at the table, and nobody else at the table to distract you.  Somehow, you miss out on the richness and complexity that computers enable, while also missing out on the social interactions with other people.

Now, there’s a trend at the moment in computer games for ‘computer game plus boardgame’ and the deckbuilidng genre shows us that this can be a really good idea.  You take the foundation of a computer game, and you layer a boardgame into it and you get something that’s a bit more interesting and fun than simply recycling the same old computer game cliches forever and ever.  (Although there are so many deckbuilders now….)

Terraformers isn’t a ‘computer game plus boardgame’ either.  It’s a ‘boardgame plus computer’.  It’s what you get when you take a boardgame fused with a cardgame, and you get rid of that part where “You can’t have too much accounting going on” because the computer can do that for you.

Which means that the game knows how many penguins there are on the surface of Mars, and it knows whether you’ve placed a building that produces pollution next to a residential building, and when it generates a support bonus, it knows how many humans are living on Mars without having to spend five minutes counting them.

terraformers game review

16 turns in, and humanity is already spreading across Mars like a spider spinning multicolored thread.

There’s a LOT going on in that picture. On the left, you can see I’ve got a huge quantity of silicates, but  (at the bottom) none of the cards I’ve drawn require silicates. I’ve occupied a region where we can mine water, and I’m about to build a mine there (yellow droplet).  The red city can expand, but I haven’t chosen a space for it to expand to.  I haven’t made any progress on terraforming the planet yet.  Tucked away discreetly in the top-right, you can see icons showing the passive abilities I’ve unlocked so far…

By the time you get to the end, there’s way too much going on for you to be able to track it with counters and whatnot.

Do your boardgames layer different colours on the board depending on the terraforming you’ve done?  I THINK NOT.

Terraformers is not a strategy game in the usual sense, because it has way more RNG than most strategic computer games do.  And that is causing some pretty serious salt in the Steam forums.

A difficulty problem to solve

Terraformers launched into Steam Early Access a few weeks ago, and it pissed off a whole bunch of people.  With the cards being random, and many computer game enthusiasts being people who don’t play a lot of boardgames (they are more expensive and much bulkier than computer games), there’a a whole bunch of folks who aren’t used to playing the cards they’ve been dealt.

The developers responded immediately by adjusting the numbers in the game to make it much easier to win.  This pissed off the hardcore board-gaming set, who already thought the game was too easy, and it looked for a moment like a war might break out between the player groups.  Fortunately, the developers have pulled out a winning move, and within two weeks the game went from having four difficulty levels to having seven difficulty levels.  They also made it possible for arrogant bastards elite board-gamers like me to skip difficulty levels if they wanted to prove how tough they are.

I’d be surprised if the developers continue to put out multiple releases every week, but their responsiveness in the forums (matched by prompt changes to the code) is what I think we all hope for when we pick up an Early Access game.

I mean, it’s still an Early Access game.  If you lose, then it can be really difficult to understand what went wrong.  And once you’ve lost three or four times in a row with no clues on what you should have done differently, then it makes sense to throw your hands in the air and say “This game is too hard.”

There’s also a pretty noticeable lack of content past turn 50 or so, and the endgame has a kind of ‘stale’ quality to it.  It’s likely in every playthrough that you’ll reach a point where you say to yourself “OK, I know for certain I’m not going to lose, but I still have to play a number of turns before I win.”  It’s like you were transported back to 1993, and you can’t win a game of Civ without destroying that one city on the far corner of the map that can’t possibly survive your assault, but it’s going to take you ten turns before your army actually gets there.

Recommended for

  • People whose response to reviews saying “This game is too difficult” is “At last, a challenge worthy of my talents.”  
  • People who want to be able to say “Yeah, the first game of that type was Terraformers.  The devs implemented one of my suggestions, actually.”  
  • People who were disappointed by the computer game edition of Terraforming Mars.

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