What is it about colonizing celestial bodies that gets me fully torqued? The rousing edict to “go forth and conquer” has never resonated with me; I’m about as anti-imperialist as they come. Nor have I ever even been that particularly compelled by the biological imperative (sorry if you’re reading this, future kids). Still, anytime I see images of Mars, all dusty and barren and full of potential, I can’t help imagining how great it would be to cover it in processing factories and water parks. Maybe if it was lush and green like Endor I’d be more reserved, but just look at it. Mars is already a parking lot – let’s cover it in fucking shopping malls.
Terraformers, a new early access city-builder from studio Asteroid Lab, allows you to do just that – though maybe not quite as cynically as I described. In fact, maintaining a certain level of colonist support and comfort of living is key to success, a concept Elon “Let’s colonize Mars with slave labor” Musk would likely scoff at. Terraformers fairly utopic in its imagining of the Mars colonization project. You choose a new leader every few years based on expertise in farming, construction, and other useful trades. You’re occasionally offered rewards for rejecting corporate support. One of the scenarios – which happens to be my favorite – tasks you with turning Mars into the healthy, sustainable planet that Earth could never be. There’s catharsis to be found in this second chance simulator, especially when you’re in full control of every choice the colony makes.
If you like 4X games like Civilization but don’t have the patience to learn the ins and outs of hundreds of complicated systems, Terraformers might be the right speed for you. It takes the ‘grand’ out of Grand Strategy Game in favor of a shorter, more manageable experience that’s easier to learn but still offers plenty of depth and replayability. Unlike 4X games, you aren’t playing against other players, so the only adversary you’re up against is the clock, or Support resource, which represents the ever-increasing wants and needs of the colony. The only way to fail at Terraformers is to neglect and overburden your citizens to the point of total societal collapse. Don’t worry, it’s not as difficult as it sounds.
As you explore regions of the planet, establishing mining colonies to extract resources and building structures that will eventually turn Mars into a naturally habitable planet for life, you need to maintain your Support value. This could mean building energy generators far enough away from living quarters to avoid excessive noise, or constructing a library to keep people entertained and engaged. It’s a careful balancing act that sometimes requires sacrificing efficiency and progress in order to serve the needs of the people who make it all possible. What a novel concept right? Terraformers isn’t heavy-handed with social issues – it’s mostly a game about digging up space metal and turning it into rocket ships – but it always feels socially aware and thoughtful.
As long as the colony is happy, you can get a lot of work done pretty quickly on Mars. During each turn you have the opportunity to explore new regions of the planet, taking any resources you find along the way, as well as construct resource-providing facilities like habits, energy generators, bacteria spreaders, and mining operations. There are eight hard resources to manage, including food, power, water, science, and a few different minerals. You can trade these resources back and forth with Earth using trade routes, then spend resources to build new facilities. Once you’ve established some passive income of resources through things like mines and farms, you can start focusing on the terraforming effort.
There’s a lot of factors that go giving Mars a livable atmosphere. You have to find ways to increase the temperature and oxygen level, as well as raise the sea level and protect your colony from radiation. Certain structures will help you improve your atmosphere a little, but space projects – like importing ocean from Saturn’s moons – help a lot. These secondary objectives require you to divert your valuable resources directly into them, so managing your income and overhead becomes a constant, delicate process.
Once you complete the introductory scenario, which simply asks you to earn a certain number of victory points by completing any projects you want, you’ll earn access to a wide variety of scenarios with different objectives and difficult ratings. Some ask you to turn Mars into a gardener's paradise, while others task you with generating as much profit as possible for the capitalists back on Earth. Scenarios are sort of like victory conditions in Civ, and they provide a lot of variety and replayability to the game.
While it's easy to think of Terraformers as a simplified grand strategy game, I find it no less engrossing. It‘s so easy to get sucked into the ‘one more turn’ trap and wind up playing an entire scenario from beginning to end in one sitting – something that can take anywhere from two to five hours, depending on the scenario. As you learn the game and find ways to cut down the number of turns it takes to achieve victory, you’ll be rewarded with mastery levels that more scenarios and more difficult challenges. Terraformers is a lot of game for $17.99 (if you grab it before the launch sale ends) and may end up being my go-to strategy game over the longer, more demanding alternatives.
For an early access game, Terraformers already has a ton of content to experience, and there’s plenty more on the way. The roadmap outlines four upcoming updates with 16 additions, including new scenarios and difficulty levels, new types of gameplay, volcanos, moon cities, and entirely new game modes. While early access is often best left to only the most enthusiastic and impatient, I don’t see any reason to hold off on Terraformers to wait for the full release. It might not be perfectly balanced or feature complete yet, but it's a fully playable game – and a great one at that.
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