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Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition Review

Ares Expedition Artwork
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Full disclosure: I’ve never played the original Terraforming Mars. It’s a game I’ve always wanted to play, but it never seemed right for my family. I was afraid it would be too long and complex to get to the table regularly, and I am under the impression that there’s some meanness in the game.

When Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition launched on Kickstarter, I immediately knew this was my chance to finally get a taste of this world. This is a lighter version of the original game, and setup and playtime is quicker. Sold!

What’s Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition all about?

In Ares Expedition, you’ll play as a corporation vying to make the planet Mars habitable and prosperous. In order to achieve these lofty goals, you’ll need to develop projects that create oceans and raise the temperature and oxygen levels on Mars. As you increase these key variables, your terraforming rating (TR) will also increase. The more TR you have, the more money you’ll make, and the more projects you’ll be able to develop!

How you play!

The gameplay in Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is very streamlined and played simulatenously. Every round has 3 steps:

  1. Planning Phase: Players will decide what they wish to accomplish during the round by selecting 1 of 5 phase cards (details below). Not only can you use the phase card that you have selected for this round, but you can also use the various phase cards that your opponents have played. Also, if only 2 phases are selected by players in step 1, the other 3 remaining phases are skipped this round!
  2. Resolve the phase cards: You came up with a plan in step 1; Now is the time to execute it!
  3. End Step: This is a quick cleanup before moving to the next round. Make sure to discard down to 10 project cards.

More about the phases

There are 5 phases that players can select from each round

  1. Development: During this phase you can play a green project card.
  2. Construction: During this phase you can play blue or red project cards.
  3. Actions: This is when you can cash in all those resources you’ve been generating to raise the temperature and oxygen levels, or to flip an ocean tile. You can also trigger the actions on the project cards you’ve developed!
  4. Production: You’ll generate all of your resources by adding cubes to each of their corresponding supply blocks on your player board. This can be a bit fiddly because you’ll produce each resource individually, but I also find it quite satisfying!
  5. Research: Draw extra projects cards during this phase.

*The only rule regarding phase selection in step 1 is that you can’t repeat the same phase twice in a row.

The beginning setup for Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition
Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition setup and ready to play! The playmat is not included in the box.

Game End

The game end is triggered when all ocean tiles have been turned over, and both the temperature and oxygen are at their max levels. Add any victory points earned through your project cards and forest VP tokens to your TR score. The player with the most VP wins!

Let’s look inside the box

It’s rare when I hear talk about Terraforming Mars that doesn’t include comments about the quality of its art and components. I have the Collector’s Edition of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition and I’m pleased to report that the components inside this version are pretty good.

The player boards are dual layered. As the game progresses, you’ll end up with a ton of cubes on these boards. Without the dual layering, it would be difficult to keep everything in place.

Card quality is great. There are 208 project cards in Ares Expedition which creates a massive deck of cards to manage. I’ve never sleeved a card game before, but I’m pretty sure this will be the first one I do. I think sleeving the cards will protect them and make them easier to shuffle!

We have the plastic cubes, but they’re swirly and pleasing to play with. Anyone get the metal cubes? They were so expensive and I wasn’t certain it was worth the upgrade. Would love to know what people think of them!

I love the art in the game too. The card art and ocean tiles seem similar to the original game. It’s the backside of the cards, the rulebook, and the box that all have the noticeably improved art.

Artwork in Ares Expedition
A look at some of the art in Ares Expedition

The only component that I have an issue with is the scoring board. For whatever reason, this board is not dual layered. When you’ve got multiple player cubes moving along the TR track, it’s nearly impossible to keep them in place. I’ve already seen overlays available on Etsy, and I think it would be worth it to upgrade this piece! I also find it odd that the oxygen and temperature tracks are sized differently, yet the tracker cube is the same for both. It’s awkward. BGG users have created alternative scoring boards that are worth checking out!

**Check out the setup picture above for a look at both the player board and the scoring board!

Ease of play

The first time I pulled out the rulebook for Ares Expedition, I was a bit overwhelmed. It’s a lot of text and details and diagrams. Have no fear. Watch it Played has created the best video tutorial for this game. It’s so good, after one viewing, I was able to set the game up and play. I did have to consult the rulebook a few times, but mainly just to lookup some of the iconography. If you’ve played the original Terraforming Mars, I’m guessing this iconography will be familiar! Overall, it’s much easier to play than I anticipated!

Solo Mode

Ares Expedition has a very simple solo mode. Setup the game like normal but grab a second set of phase cards that the AI will use. For the first 4 rounds of the game, you shuffle and then randomly flip over a card from the AI’s phase deck. Once all 5 phases have been used, shuffle and repeat. You can use this power, just like you would in a game with multiple players. During the fifth round, you get to select which powers the AI is going to use. The goal is to flip all ocean tiles and raise the oxygen and temperatures levels to the max before the end of the fifth round. 

It’s easy to setup, easy to facilitate, and It’s a lot of fun to play.


As I noted above, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition includes 208 project cards. You could probably play this game a dozen times and still see new things. There’s also several different starting corporations to choose from. Replayablity is definitely high, and with a new expansion set to launch soon, this game will continue to have plenty to offer!


This is a true engine builder. You’re constantly trying to improve your production values so its easer to develop additional projects. And finding the right balance for your production values is critical. You don’t want to produce 20 plants, and only 2 MC (currency) every round. And you don’t want to forget about collecting certain tags on your project cards. It’s frustrating when you pick up the perfect card, but you can’t play it because it requires 4 science tags and you have none.

This still isn’t a game my kids are going to pull off the self on their own, but they’re interested in it. I’m happy it’s a quick enough game I can play with my husband after dinner, or with more casual gamers. There’s lots of fun combos, strategy, and engine building to keep everyone engaged. From what I’ve seen so far, there’s no meanness in the cards either! For us, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition is exactly what we hoped it would be.

A Note About the Target Exclusive Edition of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition

Just a heads up, Target is selling an exclusive version of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition. This box looks different than the Collectors Edition and has a red band at the top of the box. There are a few differences between the editions that you should be aware of. First, (and most important) the player boards are not dual-layered. Also, be aware that storage trays for your cubes and tokens aren’t included in the Target version either.

Gameplay is the same, but you’ll want to look for plastic overlays for the boards. Or use a lot of tac. Yikes.

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