Colonies is the fourth expansion for the red planet themed engine builder Terraforming Mars, from FryxGames. Designed by Jacob Fryxelius and Jonathan Fryxelius, this time around a range of distant colony opportunities opens up to players from Jupiter’s moon Io to the outer edges of the Solar System, with the (dwarf) planet Pluto. Colonies are a great new source of resources with microbes, steel and more accessible via a mere trade fleet journey. However, is this a must have expansion like Prelude or more of a Venus Next? Let’s find out!
Colonies adds in two additional actions and one small new step between rounds. Starting the game the new corporations can be shuffled into the corp deck and the project cards into the draw deck. A number of colony tiles are randomly drawn and placed next to the main game board, the amount equal to the number of players plus two (apart from two player games where 5 are used). The Trade Fleets tile which lists the two actions is placed next to these, with a trade fleet token for each player placed on it – made from a fleet piece and a player cube. An additional small action reminder tile can also be placed the other side of the board.
The first new action enables players to pay 17 megacredits to construct a colony on any of the colony tiles, which doesn’t already feature one of their own colonies. On top of this, regardless of player count, a total of 3 colonies are allowed per location. Building a colony gives the player an instant bonus, often a production of the resource type assigned to that location. Unsurprisingly, a range of the new cards also enable players to build colonies, including some that let players double up on a colony tile.
For 9 megacredits / 3 energy / 3 titanium a player can send one of their trade fleets to an empty colony tile. For this the player receives a trade income, indicated by the colony resource type and the individual colony’s tracker. Players that have a colony built there then also receive a colony bonus – a lesser but still helpful gain. Having the option to pick how to pay for sending a fleet off is extremely helpful for allowing the colonies to fit into different strategies. If you have an abundance of megacredit income it can be used to convert them into something helpful via sending off a fleet piece – and it also makes having energy more useful than before, being a great way to gain resources.
At the end of each round all trade fleet tokens are returned to the main colony board, freeing up the locations. Then, the colony markers, which determine the resource return, are advanced one step. It’s a short cleanup stage and it is easily forgotten in the first few rounds. Thankfully, by the end of your first game with the expansion it will have fitted into the flow of what is needed to be done between rounds. It is a tiny extra step that one player can even do while the other deals out project cards for the research stage of the next round if necessary.
Five new corporations are included in Terraforming Mars Colonies: Aridor, Stormcraft Incorporated, Poseidon, Arklight and Polyphemos. Out of the five only two can be used whenever you play Terraforming Mars, having no dependency on the rest of the expansion. To get a bumper load of Colonies action Poseidon puts an additional Colony tile into play. The issue with this is it feels somewhat weak for that player, akin to how the Vitor corporation funds an award for free but could be gifting points away for no personal benefit.
One of the most interesting corporations included is Polyphemos. The benefits sound strong – starting with 50 M€ and 5M€ production. However, this corp has an on-going effects of both starting and drafted project cards costing 5M€ each instead of 3M€. Some corps allow you to change strategy but you feel locked in when taking this corporation as you often have less cards to pick from, simply from not wanting to “waste” money on purchasing them. There are solid engines that can be built with this corp, as a victorious opponent proved to me. To date, though, I’ve been unable to make it work for me.
Despite the money that is drawn away from players purchasing/paying for cards or the main board of Mars, Colonies does little to slow the game down. It might cost 17 megacredits to get a colony built but the rewards returned can be high. Take Ganymede as an example, which placing a colony rewards a plant production and has a colony bonus of 1 plant. If you then pay for a trade fleet via energy to visit when the colony tracker is at maximum gains you 6 plants plus the colony bonus. This is almost enough to build a greenery tile onto the main board in one go – which via a standard action would cost 23 megacredits. Even if you ignore them after building a colony they can be beneficial, letting other players visit them and reaping the colony bonuses.
The colony tiles and fleet ships are consistent with the base game’s component standard, unfortunately that is considered to be low. Having the potential to be neat flair items the ships instead are essentially white arrows with a gap for a player cube. Perhaps, we should be glad the gap is indented unlike the base player boards. One minor positive to come from this is it is easy to understand the iconography for them used on cards. Art wise the colony tiles are nice to look at but they feature the same issue as the base player boards. Accidentally knock the table and the white cubes that track each colony and player built colony cubes can easily shift. These are issues which could easily have been addressed during the design of Terraforming Mars Colonies.
In terms of the additional project cards they add in an couple new elements, such as Community Services which is dependant on cards you’ve played with no tags on them. Floaters make a return in Colonies, the resource type added in Venus Next. A fair few cards of the expansion feature these symbols, so for those not wanting Venus Next it is possible to include them without it. Combos can still be made without Venux Next floater cards in the deck, though naturally they will have a lower success rate.
Earth tags have become more viable, if specific cards come up and you are able to draft them. A small amount of the Colonies cards seem to balance later on in the game when Earth cards’ impact ebbed away, with a few strong cards with Earth tag requirements. There aren’t enough to suddenly make them an overpowered strategy, and go towards enlarging the deck. Nevertheless, the slight tweak to the Earth tag ratio in the deck does make discarding Earth tag cards a harder decision.
On the surface it looks like Terraforming Mars Colonies is trying to change as much as the Venus Next expansion. As something which doesn’t sit right with many, diluting the core experience, it was a pleasure to find this not to be the case. While players can slip behind by not participating in the Colonies, these can be seen as a way of obtaining bonus resources – of almost any kind. Each game a different selection of colonies are there, ready to shake up the game, and top players (which I seem to play against but am not included in) will need to adapt their strategies accordingly.
In terms of additional play time the change is unnoticeable past a game of learning how it interacts with the game mechanics and reading a selection of the new cards. This is the sort of Terraforming Mars expansion that will sit right with many, adding something new but not interfering enough to even marginally taint the core experience. After Prelude, Colonies is the next expansion to get!
[Editor’s Note: Terraforming Mars Colonies was provided to us by Asmodee for review purposes. The game is currently available on 365 Games for £23.99. It is also available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]