Terraforming Mars, the tabletop game, has been out for several years now. Since its initial release in 2016, several expansion packs have been released. In the game, you and your fellow players take on the role of corporations trying to terraform Mars for permanent human settlement. As corporations, everyone is competing to do the best job for their company as well as working together to transform Mars into a habitable environment. This is done by using a board which is the map of Mars (an expansion provides you with other sides of the planet) that is scientifically accurate in terms of geography. One of the game developer’s goals was to create a good representation of what it would take to actually terraform Mars by including the amount of oxygen, water, and temperature necessary to make the red planet a place for human life. The flavor text and types of cards that you can play vary depending on your corporation’s resources. Some cards do not benefit Mars, instead focusing more on improving your corporations outputs, while other cards focus no providing Mars with improved conditions to reach the goals.

IMG_7738.jpegTerraforming Mars game just starting to begin the game. Photo by author.

The concept of requiring corporations to take the brunt of investment in terraforming Mars into a habitable environment is not necessarily new or outlandish in the current state of global affairs. It is important to note that United Nations agreements make it so that a person or entity cannot own parts of space, instead that space is a place for all humanity and encourages cooperation in traveling the stars. So these corporations would be doing this for future collective use of the interplanetary resources, unless UN agreements are changed. Not to get into a discussion of the logistics or science of actually terraforming a planet, the game provides an interesting look at the current state of how humanity, corporations, and scientists expect the process to go. It also serves as an artifact about our knowledge of the red planet during the time of the game’s development.

One particular interesting aspect is the name and purpose of specific cards. The game pieces themselves are mostly cubes of a variety of colors, but the cards are the main mechanic. Each card provides a name, function in the game, and flavor text. The end-game points on the cards, if any, can be looked at in conjunction with all of the aforementioned aspects and art as representations of current social ideas. We can use the game pieces as artifacts that speak to current ideas about moral and social norms. The game cards represent and imply social concepts and norms of the developers during the time of the game’s creation. While I will not being doing so in this post, these types of norms can be applied to specifically the creators of the game and those who they consulted during their time in development which could lead to a discussion about privilege and the game’s pieces being a representation of social norms and attitudes of individuals in those positions.

Specifically there are several cards that stand out to me as artifacts worth interpreting. These cards have a lot to say about ideas of sociopolitical and humanitarian freedoms. By examining these cards, one can understand the social context and structure in places during the development of the game. Looking at the number of end-game points that a player receives for playing a card is one of the most distinguishing factors in deciding how a particular issue is perceived. For example, renewable power sources and alternative energy source cards are positive or neutral implications in terms of player points. “Solar Power” and “Tectonic Stress Power” are positive points while “Geothermal Power” and “Solar Wind Power” do not provide points but they are not worth negative points. The burning of biomass in the “Biomass Combustors” card is worth negative points to the player at the end, suggesting that burning wood as fuel is possible a bad thing for the terraforming of Mars. There is also positive points or no points awarded to the player who promotes nature preserves and ecological zones, suggesting that these are good things for Mars and the people who will live there in this hypothetical terraforming. 

TFMars-cards 2Terraforming Mars playing cards having to do with energy sources.

TFMars-cards 1Terraforming Mars cards having to do with promoting ecology.

Cards that provide negative points are intriguing. The “Nuclear Zone” and the “Corporate Stronghold” make sense as being negative points. The former is actively detonating and irradiating a specific area of the planet for the purpose of raising the temperature. The latter is a city solely for use by your corporation, thus no cooperating or providing access to others on Mars to a specific area of human-friendly living conditions. The installation of a governor for the moon or Venus by your corporation is neutral in terms of points. This can be interpreted as possibly a take on how government may help better terraform mars but there is also an interpretation that the corporations are in fact in charge of providing government to the people of the moon or Venus. Though in conjunction of cards like “Toll Station” where the flavor text reads “Licensed by the ‘government” the meaning may be different. This could possibly be interpreted that while it may be frowned upon in current society for corporations to directly install their own governments, this may be something that would happen in the future by corporations when discussion terraforming Mars.

TFMars-cards 3.jpegTerraforming Mars cards.

On a similar note, directly targeting and harming other corporations seems to be frowned upon in that several cards are negative points. However, indirectly hiring people to do the sabotage may not be a negative thing. Take for example the cards “Hired Raiders” and “Air Raids.” They are not negative points but they are not positive end points. Unlike “Energy Tappers” where effectively your corporation is stealing from another corporation, “Hackers” which is self explanatory, and “Bribed Committee”, are all considered negative points for the player. The tongue and cheek “Cartel” card which has flavor text that reads “We see it as brotherhood” is worth neutral points but the wording suggests differently. 

TFMars-cards 4Terraforming Mars cards which are generally considered negative.

I would be remiss not to address a few cards in this discussion since they are the ones that stood out to me the most. These are the “Callisto Penal Mines” which are worth a positive two points to the player at the end of the game and the “Indentured Workers” which are worth a negative point at the end of the game. The flavor text on these artifacts cannot be ignored in the analysis as it seems as with the aforementioned cards that the developers might view these things differently in the social context as to compared to what the points may suggest. The “Callisto Penal Mines” reads in the flavor text “You always wanted to be a warden, didn’t you?” And the “Indentured Workers” reads “There are many who would work for us for almost no pay in exchange for a ticket to Mars.” For the corporations which you are playing as, this may be how the corporations may view these types of labor. Though further analysis on this can and should be done using the game artifacts as well as the press information and published discussion of the game with the developers to get a better understanding. 

TFMars-cards.jpegTerraforming Mars cards.

TFMars-cards 5.jpegTerraforming Mars cards for tourism promotion and positive views of humanitarian services.

There are many cards that suggest places of freedom and places for entertainment on and around Mars are a good thing. I have only examined some of these cards shallowly. There is so much more work that can be done in discussing the Terraforming Mars game cards and other pieces. I have only scratched the surface on the types of analysis that could be done on Terraforming Mars as an archaeological artifact. Looking at all the expansions and the base game combined as well as each expansion and the base game individually may also yield interesting analysis and results. Recently the publisher and developers held a Kickstarter for upgraded plastic game tiles which can and should be examined as artifacts when they are released.

–Kaitlyn Kingsland, archaeogaming
29 July 2020

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