Why Terraforming Mars: Turmoil is my favourite expansion in the entire series

And, yes…, this is including Prelude.

But first, a quick backgrounder for some of you who may not have heard of Terraforming Mars, or who may only have a passing knowledge of the game.

Terraforming Mars is a 2016 board game release about the terraforming and colonizing of our red planetary neighbour; it’s an epic sweep of tabletop gaming that theoretically spans multiple generations of mega-corporations (that’s you, the players) doing their utmost to make Mars habitable for future generations of mankind. He or she who terraforms best, wins.

You manage a hand of project cards to build a personal tableau of cards which can help generate resources each round (money, steel, titanium, plants, etc) which can then enable you to gradually transform Mars (represented on the main game board as a large hex grid) from a dry, icy-cold, and lifeless landscape into a warm, lush world filled with oceans and forests, and teeming with flora and fauna. 

You may also frequently hear Terraforming Mars being referred to as an ‘engine-builder’ whereby you play your tableau of cards to build an efficient engine that can perpetually provide you with points and resources each round. As engine-builders go it’s considered one of the best of breed, and rightfully so.

Each game usually lasts between 8 to 14 rounds (called Generations) depending on player count from 1 to 5 players, with each Generation being roughly equivalent to 30 Earth years. So that’s about 300+ years needed to shape up Mars to become hospitable enough to sustain human life naturally. An epic sweep indeed.

Since it’s release, Terraforming Mars (or TM) has quickly become one of the industry’s 800-pound gorillas – on, which lists approximately 128,200 board games in its database, any game that appears in the Top 1,000 list represents the top 1% of most highly-rated board games; you could rightfully say these games are the cream.

Of those Top 1,000 best board games, TM comes in at Number 4, putting it very firmly among the absolute crème de la crème of modern board games.

For the record, the others titles that accompany TM in the pantheon of Top 10 board games at this time of writing are Gloomhaven, Pandemic Legacy Season 1, and Brass Birmingham, which come in just ahead. Coming in behind are Twilight Imperium 4th Edition, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, Gaia Project, Through The Ages: ANSOC, Star Wars: Rebellion, and Twilight Struggle.

Of these Top 10 games, TM has had more board game expansions and promo material released for it than all the other nine titles combined. 

Which conveniently brings us to the subject of this review.

Terraforming Mars: Turmoil (or just Turmoil, for brevity’s sake) is the fifth and last expansion of the series. It’s the most different of all the TM expansions. It’s the most complex to initially grasp and the most complicated to initially teach and learn (although not drastically so). It’s also likely the most divisive one, if the general comments on BGG or numerous other board game sites are any indication.

But, to me, it’s the one TM expansion that introduces something actually fresh into the mix: a solid dose of reality in the form of global events that can mess up your best-laid plans. In all fairness, these global events can also bring some lucrative windfall benefits – that is IF you’ve planned for it and taken stock of the unfolding situation. 

Some TM players may find Turmoil to be punishing at first blush. After all, one of its key mechanics is that all players will automatically lose one level of TR Rating at the end of each turn. That’s a definite “ouch” for sure. But its a pain that can be mitigated – it all depends if you’ve been keeping an eye on the unfolding political upheavals taking place within the Terraforming Committee and if you’ve positioned your delegates carefully and accordingly to welcome any winds of change that are inevitably coming.

It’s not for nothing that the designers of TM have billed Turmoil as an ‘expert expansion’.

Allow me to briefly compare Turmoil with each of its sibling expansions: 

  1. Hellas & Elysium (2017)
  2. Venus Next (2017)
  3. Prelude (2018)
  4. Colonies (2018). 

Turmoil was released in 2019, and is the fifth and final expansion in the series.   

Hellas & Elysium
This expansion is essentially an extra double-sided map featuring two different areas of Mars as the name implies. Each of the maps feature new Milestone and Awards scoring objectives to shoot for. Apart from that, this expansion adds little else new to the base game by way of mechanics. It’s offers a decent alternative play map and I think it’s fine for what it is but I actually just prefer to play on the main base game board.

Venus Next
As you can imagine, this expansion introduces… Venus. There’s now a new Venus side board featuring an additional terraforming track for players to progress along. It also introduces new corporation cards and many new project cards. If you want some new buttons to push and levers to pull, I guess it’s an all-round decent expansion. It fulfills the basic requirement for any expansion by adding in Generally More Stuff To Do.

But the question that keeps playing in my head is…why shoehorn Venus into the mix? The game is called Terraforming Mars! It’s like introducing an expansion about Yakuza triads in Tokyo into a board game about the Mafia set in New York! 

That’s how it honestly feels like to me, and I just did not find it compelling at all. Unsurprisingly, it’s my least favourite expansion but I’m sure there’s someone reading this who loves it. Peace.

The next chronological expansion in the series is actually Prelude, but I want to jump ahead to Colonies first. One reason is that it’s quite similar in concept to Venus Next in that – instead of just Venus – Colonies goes all in to introduce almost a dozen different satellite moons from across the entire spectrum of the Solar System, from our own Moon to the distant worlds of Io and Europa orbiting Jupiter. Eleven moons in all, each on its own mini side board, each can be colonized by you with each yielding its own unique resource from titanium (used for building) to microbes (used to spawn growth).

Compared to Venus Next, I like Colonies a lot more. Setting aside the similar thematic disconnect, Colonies dares to Go Big with its idea of harvesting stuff from around the Solar System. It adds new ships for you to fly around between all the moons and it adds in yet more corporation and project cards. I mean, how can you not like an expansion that introduces new spaceships for you to fly around the stars? I rest my case.

It’s possibly very, very safe to say that Prelude is by far the most beloved of all the TM expansions – you would be seriously hard-pressed to find any TM player, seasoned vet or new devotee who wouldn’t not profess their love for Prelude once they’ve played with it.

Conceptually, Prelude is very straightforward. It’s essentially a deck of quick start cards that are distributed at the start of each game. These quick start Prelude cards (you’re dealt four, you choose to keep two) greatly help you to jump start your tableau / engine by giving you instant upgrades on your overall production. Terraforming Mars = engine-builder, remember? Without the benefits provided by the Prelude cards, getting your engine up to speed can often be an arduous task for players. 

With Prelude, it’s like being repositioned one kilometer ahead of the starting line in a marathon. I mean, what’s not to like about that! You finish the race quicker while expending less effort overall. Also, say hello to yet more fun corporation and project cards!

I like Prelude, I would mostly choose to include it in my play sessions but I don’t actually need it, mainly because I don’t want it to become my crutch. I had clocked in 14 games of TM before Prelude ever showed up on my shelf and I have become accustomed to the slow buildup. But that’s me. I don’t mind some suffering, which brings us to…

I find Turmoil, in spite of its name, to actually be the most rewarding addition to the series in terms of gameplay.

It introduces the Terraforming Committee in the form of an extra side board – this is the new political element added to the game. You control 7 delegates in your player color to vie for control of one of six different factions each turn. You maneuver your delegates to become Party Leader of the faction that best suits your strategy. If you end the round as the Dominant party, you automatically become the next Chairman of the Terraforming Committee.

(I know this may sound desperately boring but, trust me, it’s not. On the contrary, it adds to the thrill of the chase.)

Why is this important? Because you get rewarded in different ways depending on which ruling party is in power. And the rewards can be very lucrative.

It also introduces the concept of global events as mentioned earlier – this takes place on a second complementary side board displaying an event deck of either Good Things or Bad Things that are going to happen in the next 1 to 3 rounds. Being forewarned is as good a being forearmed. The clever player will embrace these coming changes and twist the circumstances to their advantage.

For example, I found myself in a game where the prevailing Ruling Policy for the round was that you had to pay 3 MC (the currency in TM) each time your TR Rating went up. But the upcoming Global Event dictated that every player would lose ALL their Heat resources at the end of this Generation. And I had a lot of Heat on my board. So I had to bite the bullet and spend my Heat to raise Temperature multiple times and pay the TR penalty multiple times as a result of that. Or suffer losing all my heat to no advantage whatsoever at the end of the round.

In another instance, the Global Event in the next upcoming 2 rounds was that each player would receive an extra 2 MC for each card with a Building tag in play. And so, you try your best to take advantage of that. As a result of planning, I made an extra 18 MC for that event (and subsequently swiped the Builder Milestone for good measure).

So you see, Turmoil can be quite a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, and twists and turns. And what of that automatic 1 TR penalty at the end of each Generation? Bah, just a bit of a nuisance in the beginning, and by the time you get your engine churning well and good, the reduction will be insignificant. Sure, it’ll hurt a bit more in the beginning, but it’ll make you stronger in the long term.  

If Prelude is the wet nurse who makes you feel warm and fuzzy and satisfied, Turmoil is the drill sargeant who drives you on to become as hard as nails. And that is why Turmoil is my favorite Terraforming Mars of the entire series.

Expansion rating: 8.5 / 10
Remarks: While Prelude remains the best all-round general expansion to target, Turmoil is surely the essential expert expansion – it injects a much needed tension and challenge into Terraforming Mars, undeniably making it a better game altogether.


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