Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Terraformers by developer Asteroid Lab and publisher Goblinz Studio is the latest in a steady trickle of games taking the colony sim genre to Mars. Unlike some of its brethren that delve more towards RTS territory, Terraformers keeps the focus at a highly strategic level and uses a timescale appropriate to the titular task of terraforming. Players will need to make choices about leadership, resource allocation, priorities, and what methods they will (or will not) use.
Coming from small Swiss developer Asteroid Labs, Terraformers acknowledges the scale of the task put before the player in several ways from the outset. First, the game’s timescale: ten turns in Terraformers will run you 40 years on the clock, which isn’t terribly long when you’re trying to reshape an entire planet. It is, however, a long time in the career of any regular human, and this puts us up against the first of many decision points that Terraformers layers on.
Your terraforming project needs a leader, and that leader’s experience and background will influence what they bring to the project. Every ten turns, therefore, you need to choose between two candidates to take over the project – your previous leader has just spent 40 years at the helm and is retiring!
While I was playing the review version immediately before the Early Access launch, this facet rapidly came to shape my playthroughs – could I set up enough things to make proper use of my current leader in time, even if it meant dropping some other items I had previously been working on? Terraformers puts the effort in to make these leaders unique as well, with individual portraits, backstories (that sometimes reference previous generations of leaders, in a nod to time passing) and abilities.
Once you’ve come to terms with your colony’s leaders shuffling off the mortal coil with their life’s work incomplete, it’s time to look at some of the other ways that Terraformers models your job. The game tracks four major areas you need to influence: temperature (heat), oxygen level, water level, and atmospheric density. For those not already aware, Mars in real life is extremely cold, has an atmosphere a fraction the density of Earth’s, and lacks oxygen in the quantities we would need to breathe. In game terms, this means that you need to do things like deliberately pump CO2 into the air, ship in chunks of ice from Saturn or other places, and generally build up an atmosphere on the planet that can eventually sustain life.
Progress in these areas is tracked on a simple scale with levels 0 (starting) to 3 (Earthlike) and differing levels of input points required to reach the next level in each area. Generally, the first level of progress takes 30 points – and as you usually only produce a few points a turn, you start to realize that it will be generations before your project is complete. This is a marked difference from more RTS-styled games like Surviving Mars or Planetbase, where the scale you are operating at here is entirely unconcerned with how many drones are linked to a particular hub, or whether or not you have different types of food available in the hab module.
Terraformer’s heart, however, comes down to its city building. During the game, the player will slowly explore the Martian surface via a network of Point of Interest nodes. Some of these nodes will be colonizable areas, unlocked with a hefty startup cost of resources for the new colonists. Each city layout brings its own benefits and challenges – buildings are placeable in particular spots, connected via defined tunnels/roads. Some areas will be blocked by rocks or debris that need to be removed, others will have local benefits that increase the output of a particular building type if placed there.
In Terraformers, city design comes down to balancing what you need to progress the overall project with the needs of your colonists. Many buildings have bonuses that unlock when adjacent to particular other ones – a park may provide a public support bonus if adjacent to a habitation module, for example. This goes the other way too, however, as nobody wants to live right next to the compost facility or nuclear power plant! These adjacency considerations bring a considerable level of detailed strategy to how players build their colonies, and that is further complicated by how you get your buildings…
The team at Asteroid Labs has made an interesting decision here to combine a high-strategy colony sim with elements of a card game. At the beginning of each turn, the player is presented with three or more potential projects they could undertake – buildings, usually. Unless they have placed specific special buildings already, the player can only ever choose one of these cards each turn, and hold up to eight of them for future use. Anything you want to build, has to come from these cards. You want to put down a habitation module in your new colony? Best hope you had the foresight to grab one last time the project was proposed.
This isn’t to say that placing or using these cards is free – these are more like ideas that people have pitched to the town council than complete buildings. The player still has to pay a resource cost to ‘play’ the card/build the building, but fortunately here the extended timescale works in our favor and construction is instant as it wouldn’t take longer than a four-year turn. I am often hesitant when confronted with these random-draw elements in games, especially in situations where a bad draw can end a play-through. In Terraformers, however, I never ran into a problem with it across multiple completed scenario runs – the selection is varied enough and the hand size you can keep is big enough that with a bit of planning you should never be completely out of luck.
The average scenario in Terraformers ran me about two hours to complete, representing 50-70 turns. In the pre-Early Access review copy provided, the Asteroid Labs team has provided at least five different scenarios – and I say “at least” as every time I finish a run it seems like more things unlock to pique my interest and keep me coming back. Completing scenarios will garner players additional buildings, leaders, access to scenarios and more that promise to add replayability to the title. As this is just the start of Early Access I fully expect that the development team will add more to this already very polished title before calling it complete.
In summary, Terraformers is an excellent take on a high-level strategy colonization sim. You will not find RTS-like micromanagement here, but you will find a game that is constantly challenging you to decide where your limited resources should go.
In the end, the slow transformation of the red planet with hints of blue and green as you begin to meet your goals is tremendously satisfying. This is a solid choice for players looking for a non-competitive single player game, and Terraformers is in a very polished state for just launching into Early Access.
A definite ‘buy’ recommendation from me, and not just when it’s on sale!Score: N/A