The lure of the grandiose explains the pull of Terraforming Mars

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

The lure of the grandiose explains the pull of Terraforming Mars:

Although the topic is formidably complex — how many people do you know who are qualified to renovate planets? — the game is not a hard-core scientific simulation requiring degrees in astrogeology or exobiology. Rather, the genius of Terraforming Mars is that it takes a topic that should be as dry as a Martian dust storm and turns it into a fun family game that elegantly captures many of the essential processes necessary to make a planet of milk and honey.

The briefly described premise of Terraforming Mars is that a World Government has decided to make Mars so hospitable for humans that they don’t need to walk around in space suits. “Generous funding attracts gigantic corporations that compete to expand their businesses and emerge as the most influential force behind the terraforming,” explain the rules. Such capitalization of terraforming does not seem implausible. We have already seen how government-funded space programs — the ones that brought us Sputnik and Apollo — have been replaced by private corporations and spacefaring billionaires. It is quite possible that the first manned exploration of Mars will be accomplished by the private sector, followed by private developers who know that if people will buy houses in deserts and flood plains on Earth, they’ll buy them on Mars.

But these interplanetary entrepreneurs should remember a simple rule: if the government has to pay you to build somewhere, it’s not out of generosity. Whether it’s tax breaks for building housing in hollowing Rust Belt cities in the United States or free land in Siberia, as the Russian government has promised settlers, those incentives exist because the projects may be unprofitable or unpleasant.

And on Mars, developers who might have cursed zoning boards and environmental impact statements on Earth will quickly discover that the Martian environment is even less business-friendly.


In Terraforming Mars, each player takes on the role of a big corporation or political group, from the Mining Guild and Interplanetary Cinematics to the Tharsis Republic and the United Nations Mars Initiative. Each corporation has specific capabilities in terms of income, raw materials, or terraforming ability. The goal is to achieve the most points by taming the Angry Red Planet into the Jolly Green World.


Cities, forests, and oceans begin to sprout on a brown map that soon turns blue and green.

The goal of all this growth is to change three Martian parameters: temperature, oxygen level in the atmosphere, and number of ocean tiles on the map. These all feed into each other. “As the atmosphere thickens, greenhouse effects will raise the temperature. . . . As the temperature rises, carbon dioxide will thaw out, adding a greenhouse warming effect. . . . Then, at 0°C, ice-bound water in the soil will begin to melt, adding water to the surface,” as the Terraforming Mars rules book explains.

The game ends once all three parameters reach a certain level (although even those endpoints seem less than hospitable). The acceptable Martian oxygen level is 14 percent—Earth’s is 21 percent—while the Martian temperature goal is 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit), a bit chillier than Earth’s average temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit).


What humorist Will Rogers said about Earth applies equally to Mars: “Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.” And indeed, there is a limited amount of space on the Terraforming Mars map to create cities and forests. However, the real stumbling blocks—and where Terraforming Mars shines as a simulation of planetary ecology—are the prerequisites for many Project cards. Fancy a fleet of zeppelins as a cheap, low-pollution transportation option? Then someone has to first thicken the Martian atmosphere to 5 percent oxygen. Tundra farming on newly thawed Martian soil? Sounds wonderful, except that the Martian temperature begins the game at minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit), and the card can’t be played until the temperature is a relatively balmy minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) or warmer. Would you like to import some nice nitrophilic moss that will thrive in salty Martian muck? Those plants need water, which means there must be at least three ocean tiles on the board.

As many a Terran politician has painfully learned, environmental policy often involves painful choices. Damming a river, planting new flora, or introducing non-native animals to an area will help some species but hurt others. Such dilemmas are a feature of Terraforming Mars. For example, players can introduce birds, fish, and herbivores to score extra points—but only at the cost of decreasing their plant production (presumably devoured by the new species).

The Red Planet game becomes truly inflamed when players discover that all those expensive Project cards they purchased become useless once someone has changed the delicate balance of life on Mars. We already see this on Earth, where expensive hydroelectric dams, such as the Hoover Dam or China’s Three Gorges Dam, generate increasingly less electricity because of low water levels caused by drought. Or there is the infamous Soviet plan to divert water from the Aral Sea to irrigate cotton, which turned a large body of water into a desert and created a massive environmental disaster.

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