In the board game Terraforming Mars each player represents a corporation tasked with making Mars habitable for humanity. You make Mars habitable by raising three global parameters to the required level: oxygen to 14%, temperature to 8°C, and the number of oceans to 9.

Global parameters are raised using a combination of cards (which represent projects) and resources which you acquire during the course of the game. Cards typically use some resources to either raise your production of other resources or to raise some of the global parameters. There are six types of resources: Money, plants, power, heat, steel, titanium.

In the process of raising global parameters, you acquire victory points (VP) through a complicated scoring system. Once the global parameters all hit their required levels, the corporation with the highest VP wins the game.

Terraforming Mars turned out to be a really interesting and deep board game. Over the past few months I developed a mild addiction to it and even started playing the online version of the game after a while.

I noticed that parts of the game can be analogous to real life. So here are my life lessons from Terraforming Mars:

  • The rich get richer: Compounding of productive resources.
    • Terraforming Mars demonstrates the power of compounding, and how the rich get richer. Small differences in the beginning of the game can accumulate to astounding advantages towards the end.
    • E.g. That card you played that gave you +2 money production in the first generation will generate +20 cash over 10 generations, each time giving you the opportunity to invest that money in productive assets.
    • The game ends up pushing people to two extremes -- either poverty, where you struggle to afford things to the very end; or excessive wealth, where you have so many resources you literally cannot make productive use of them.
  • Luck matters.
    • Getting a few good cards early on can set you up well in the game, allowing you to compound your resources exponentially as described above.
  • When young => focus on resource production, when old => focus on resource consumption.
    • Early in the game your focus should be on increasing your production of money, steel, titanium, power, plants, and heat. Later in the game increasing production is less valuable. Focus on turning the resources you have collected into victory points.
  • The lever of riches: Sometimes you find a single tactic that can deliver most of your success in the game. It's often best to focus on these 'strengths' when they become apparent.
    • Example 1: There are cards in the game that allow you to convert 4 energy => +1 oxygen + 1 titanium. If you find one of these cards early in your game, you should get to 4 energy production ASAP. Then every generation will give you +1 oxygen and +1 titanium, allowing you to start compounding your resources.
    • Example 2: There are cards that give you 1 VP per Jovian tag, and they themselves have a Jovian tag. If you play 3 such cards you get 3 * 3 = 9 VP, which is huge. Each additional Jovian tag at this point will give you 3 VP.

Some differences between TM and life:

  • TM is zero-sum, life is not.
    • One person wins. Life is zero-sum sometimes, but often positive-sum. If the other player increases the oxygen level on Mars, it gets more comfortable to live in, so that makes my life better too.