Terraforming Mars Prelude: expansion review

Terraforming Mars Prelude is a small box cards-only expansion for award-winning sci-fi board game Terraforming Mars, released in 2016 (and reviewed by me earlier this year).

Terraforming Mars is a tableau building card game, which also has a central board adding tile placement and a small element of territory building. It also has elements of resource and hand management, as players compete to earn points by completing the steps necessary to make the red planet habitable.

The base game has more than 200 different ‘project’ cards, making every game feel different; while its 17 corporation cards help players initially set out with different strengths. There are multiple paths to victory and a small amount of direct interaction through some of the cards, combining to create a euro game that rally brought its space theme come to life: something of a rarity, which has helped it climb into the Board Game Geek all-time top 10 game list. This is its third official expansion.

What does Terraforming Mars Prelude bring to the party?

While I’ve said this is a small box expansion, the box is still way bigger than it needed to be. Weighing in at just 47 cards, this could easily have come in a standard sized playing card pack.

These are split into three types: the 35 Prelude cards that give the expansion its name, alongside five corporation cards and seven project cards. Except for one of the corporations, which requires you to be using the Prelude cards to play, the other corporations and project cards can simply be shuffled in with the rest.

At the start of the game, each player is dealt four Prelude cards along with the usual setup (10 project cards and two corporations). You’ll choose two of these to keep and discard the other two. Each card will give you a set of one-off bonuses, with the aim of giving each player a unique head start over their opponents: money, cards, resources and/or production – or even some terraforming points or steps.

The only other addition to the rules is the ‘wild’ tag, introduced to a few cards and acting as any tag you may need. In addition, the ‘Robinson Industries’ corporation has a similar tag but in a production box, allowing you to raise your lowest production by one step as an action.

How much does it change the game?

While Terraforming Mars has proven highly popular, one recurring criticism – even from fans – is that the game has quite a slow start: it takes a good few rounds to build up your engine. But even worse, if you’re not dealt any cheap and timely production cards, you can fall behind the curve and struggle to recover.

The Prelude cards go a small (but welcome) way to mitigating that initial luck of the draw, while significantly speeding up the game. I’ve noticed a good 30 minutes (or a round or two) being shaved off the playing time; and as that’s from the least interesting part of the game I no problem with that.

These are big bonuses: three production steps plus a few free resources on a card is not uncommon, or you may find yourself completing two terraforming steps with a single card (and also, of course, your terraforming rating). While others offer big initial extra cash boons or free cards. There’s a big variety, and the fact there are 35 cards means you’ll be seeing new ones for a long time.

Beyond this, with the exception of one of the corporations, I really like all the other extra cards. The previously mentioned Robinson Industries is interesting, while Valley Trust gives you an extra Prelude card as your first action. The other cards are pretty standard, but hey – this is a game that flies on variation, so new cards that slot right in without hugely rocking the boat are always going to be welcomed by fans.

Is Terraforming Mars Prelude value for money?

This is a tricky one. In a word, for materials, no. This is retailing at £15-20, which is frankly ludicrous for less than 50 playing cards. And as is usual for Terraforming Mars art, it ranges from average space art to dreadful clip art, so its hard to use that as any justification.

For a similar situation, you only need to look at the expansions for Terraforming Mars’ spiritual successor, Race for the Galaxy. Designer Tom Lehmann said he went to great lengths to add something a little extra to each expansion – be it solo components, the Xeno Invasion or Alien Artefacts boards, or goal tiles. These were to add value for players, where the real cost had been card art. If only that had been done here.

Because the Prelude cards especially are a really strong addition; they take what many players see as a weakness of the original design and fix it beautifully and elegantly. You’re paying to get 30 minutes of your life back from each play, while losing very little of the enjoyment. £20 though? No way. But it’ll sell like hot cakes, because it’s good – even if that doesn’t make it right.

Is Prelude essential?

Again, certainly not – unless the only problem you have with the base game is those often slow early rounds (in fact some will see this as fixing a problem that isn’t actually a problem). If you don’t feel you need the Prelude cards, while the other few cards are nice they’re certainly not worth investing in this for. But the Prelude cards? I personally won’t play without them unless I must.

I know this makes me sound like a hypocrite, especially being in the privileged position of getting games either free or at a discount, but I’m super happy with what they bring to the game. for what they do, in terms of time and early asynchronicity and focus, I can’t see how they could be better. And, while I applaud Tom Lehmann’s commitment to value, how many of us Race fans actually play any of that extra stuff he squeezed into those expansions? Sometimes you have to see value in terms of simple achievement.

Changes to the solo game

Prelude has a solo rules card giving a new goal: reach a terraforming rating of 63 in 14 generations. This nicely changes up the solo game, meaning you’re not forced to do everything at once and can instead specialise to try and get your win in a number of different ways.

In addition, if you want to play with the Terraforming Mars Prelude cards, you have to do it in just 12 generations. The rules also state that you apply this to the old solo game two, if using the Prelude cards to play a traditional solo game. Finally, the rules card introduces a new standard project for the solo game: spend 16 cash to improve your TR by one. This is also a welcome change, giving players who favour a cash-heavy strategy an extra route to a victory.

… and does it fit in the original Terraforming Mars box?

Very, very easily indeed…

* Thanks to FryxGames (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy of Prelude for review.

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