Terraforming Mars

What a Board Game Taught Me about Transforming Other Worlds—and Earth

What if we could rebuild Earth from scratch?

What if we could create a new planet without all the centuries of ecological errors that haunt us now? On Earth 2.0, there could be no air pollution or desertification. Maybe instead, there would be an abundance of clean water and greenery.

Except that we can’t redo Earth: most of its current human tenants would surely object to being evicted while we bulldoze their planet, not to mention the impossibility of finding some kind of motel to house 8 billion people while Earth is built anew. And then there’s the other estimated 8.7 million species here, each with its own environmental needs.

But other planets are a different matter. If and when humans colonize the stars, they could “terraform” alien worlds by modifying their atmosphere, climate, and ecology to make them more like home.

And what better candidate for terraforming than Mars? True, it lacks a few amenities that people look for in a new neighborhood, such as breathable air, liquid water, and soil that can grow food. Yet as interplanetary moves go, the Red Planet isn’t such a bad journey: the average distance between Earth and Mars is just 140 million miles, which is feasible to reach with current technology. Space entrepreneur Elon Musk has even unveiled plans for a Mars-capable rocket. It may seem far-fetched; but remember this is the guy who already launched himself into space once.

Most important, Mars is geologically much more similar to Earth than the sizzling rocks and oversized ice cubes that comprise the rest of the solar system. Although Mars is half our size, it does have polar ice caps, water buried in the soil, and an atmosphere. While no one would mistake the two planets for twins, add some RVs, tents, and people in shorts to the image in your mind of the rust-colored Martian landscape and you would think you’d stumbled upon tourists in the Nevada or Arizona deserts.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we land on Mars in five years or 50 years, or whether the first expedition wears a corporate logo or the NASA emblem. For love of knowledge or lure of profit, the human drive to explore the unknown is too strong. Eventually, humans will set foot on Mars. And when enough of them do, they will do what people always do when they arrive in a new place: they will build things. Cities, roads, homes, factories, and laboratories will appear as humans try to make a home for themselves.

But will that new home look like their old one? Would Mars be sustainable or become an environmental disaster? To help us find out, we have Terraforming Mars, a board game of humanity’s epic attempt to turn Mars into Earth.

Terraforming Mars by FryxGames. (2016)

Of Gods and Guilds

There is something foundational about the concept of terraforming. Some religions believe that humans were created in the image of divine beings, and what could be more god-like than stewarding an entire planet? In that vein, Terraforming Mars, developed by Jacob Fryxelius, is a game in which each turn represents not a year, but a generation. God may have created Earth in seven days, but rendering Mars into Tahiti will take centuries.

It’s that lure of the grandiose that 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. The average temperature is minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The atmosphere is lethally thin, with low atmospheric pressure and air that’s 95 percent carbon dioxide. While all that CO2 might be nice for growing roses or tomatoes on the plains of Utopia Planitia, a large crater basin on the planet, settlers may be too busy avoiding asphyxiation to enjoy their gardens (think Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eyes popping out of his head in that famous scene in the movie Total Recall).

But when the chance to find lucrative new markets beckons, lack of oxygen is just an inconvenience. 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.

Life Supports

At the start of the game, the map of Terraforming Mars is a real estate developer’s dream: a mostly blank tableau. Yet after a few turns, behold! 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).

Each turn, players can take two actions, which mostly involve playing cards. Players also track their energy production, heat production, and stockpiles of steel, titanium, and biological plants.

The heart of Terraforming Mars is the 208 colorfully illustrated Project cards, which players purchase with their game income and play. These cards confer various benefits such as raising temperature and oxygen levels, gaining additional plants and raw materials, boosting income, building new cities, forests, and oceans, or snagging victory points. With options like Aerobraked Ammonia Asteroid, Biomass Combustors, and Magnetic Field Generators, playing Terraforming Mars is not just an education in futuristic technology: it’s a ticket to a Martian Santa’s Workshop for those who love exotic gadgets.

High score wins the game, with victory points coming from multiple sources, including a player’s final terraform rating, cities and forests placed on the map, and the achievement of certain milestones, such as having the highest income or the greatest steel and titanium stockpiles. Scoring for forests has a cooperative twist: woods adjacent to a city score points for that city’s owner—regardless of who planted the forest—so greening Mars benefits multiple players.

The game never specifies what “winning” really means. Is it just growing wheat on Mars, or will colonists walk around on the surface in shorts and T-shirts (and never mind the deadly solar radiation)? Indeed, Terraforming Mars raises some fundamental questions about humanity’s home in the universe. For one, is it really possible or desirable to remake another planet into a duplicate of Earth? And more fundamentally, what does “winning” mean, on Earth or any other planet?

One reason humans have become the dominant species here is because of our sheer adaptability. Name an environment: jungle, desert, tundra, the summit of Mount Everest, the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Humans have managed to survive in these places, and often establish thriving communities. People have even managed to live for years on orbital stations in the relentlessly hostile environment of outer space. While long-duration spaceflight does have health effects, history suggests that humans can and will adapt to new environments such as other planets.

Mars as it is now cannot support Earth-based species without artificial life support. But, in many ways, artificial life support—infrastructure—is what humans do best.

Martian Math

Or they would, if there were ever enough money. As players transform Mars, their ratings rise, which in turn generates more income to perform more terraforming and increase their final scores.

The problem is that, as on Earth, no one ever has enough money to play every card they want. Do you go for expensive, high-benefit projects like Beam from a Thorium Asteroid (increase your energy and heat production) and Water Import from Europa (use water from Jupiter’s moon to place an ocean tile), or less ambitious but less productive cards like Kelp Farming and Greenhouse Gas-Producing Bacteria? Players end up tailoring their hands to a specific strategy, such as maximizing production of discrete resources. If you can get some kind of terraforming machine running early—be it producing lots of energy or growing lots of plants—you can get ahead and stay ahead of your rivals.

But whatever you do, do it fast. 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.

Have It Your Way

Despite the origins of space exploration in the Cold War—and today’s militarization of space by the United States, China, and Russia—Terraforming Mars depicts the future of planetary transformation as competition well short of war. There are a few nasty things that players can do to each other, in a sort of cartoony Wile E. Coyote on Mars way. Playing the Deimos Down card crashes a Martian moon into your opponent’s territory to wipe out their plant stockpile, raise the temperature, and get you some extra steel as a reward for your meanness. But for the most part, Terraforming Mars is a peaceful contest.

Yet science fiction is a deceptive genre: it often purports to depict alien worlds and futuristic events, when its real message is about life on Earth today. The lesson of Terraforming Mars is that a planet’s environment—that which makes it possible and pleasant for humans to live there—consists of many interrelated parts. There is not one single component that we can change on Mars, in either life or game form, that will make it habitable. And by extension, there is no single problem that we can fix on Earth while ignoring the rest of them.

As an instrument of speculative planning, Terraforming Mars is stimulating. However, it is also a warning. We know how to build worlds, but we often don’t like the consequences when we do. Belief in terraforming requires certainty that we can anticipate all the knock-on effects of changing the environment, yet humanity’s track record for these predictions on Earth isn’t encouraging.

And even the most sensible and well-intentioned environmental initiatives often founder because environmentalism is not one-size-fits-all. Banning fossil fuels and tackling global warming may seem imperative to rich nations. But to nations whose economies depend on oil and coal, or who lack the wealth to develop or import alternative energy, that makes little sense.

It is also more than optimistic to think we can all agree on what Paradise should be like. Most of us would probably concur on the essentials: abundant food, clean air and water, etc. But what should the ideal temperature be? If people can’t agree on how warm or cold to set the thermostat in their homes or offices, they’re not going to agree on a temperature for an entire planet. Similarly, how much of a planet’s surface should have oceans and lakes? How much space should be allocated for oceans and forests, and how much for farms and cities?

These are matters of preference as well as necessity. Old Earth is a collection of ecosystems, and assuming colonists on Mars would come from different regions, it would be natural for each group to re-create the environment it prefers—and to fight other groups pursuing their own. Or, potentially, fight life that already exists on the new planet. The tragedy of terraforming, then, may be greed or xenophobia, with humanity destroying other life forms with or without knowing it. Perhaps not so different from the forces that could drive humans to need a new planet to begin with.

All of this, of course, is just one more unknown in a universe full of unknowns. For now, it appears that humans do have a real chance of someday colonizing another world, though most of us will probably never set foot on Mars or have the chance to practice the art of terraforming. Yet Terraforming Mars accomplishes a rare feat: taking a complex issue and making it fun and educational. Where else can you build your planet your way?