Terraforming Mars Solo Rules

How To Transform The Red Planet On Your Own

In only a few years Terraforming Mars has become one of the hottest gaming properties you can get onto your table.

Its combination of card play, area control, interaction and variability has made it a real hit among gamers despite a high price tag and some underwhelming components.

Thankfully the experience of playing it has meant that many gamers are happy to overlook the basic player mats and thin cards and instead focus on the red planet as it slowly comes to life on their table.

Like an increasing number of modern games, Terraforming Mars comes with a built-in solo mode, which means that you can play it even when you have no other opponents around.

The good news is that it plays remarkably similarly to the multiplayer game, despite some significant changes, so you can use it to hone your skills for when you next have opponents while still having fun on your own.

Keep reading to find out how the solo version of Terraforming Mars plays and where it differs from the competitive rules.

The aim of the solo game of Terraforming Mars is to terraform the planet in a maximum of fourteen rounds. If the oceans, oxygen level and temperature have reached their targets by this stage the solo player has won, but failing to meet any one of these criteria results in a loss.

This article will assume that you already know how to play the multiplayer game of Terraforming Mars and will focus on the changes you need to make for the solo version.

If you need a quick reminder or don’t happen to have the rule book with you then you can take a look at it online at the publisher’s page which will bring you up to speed.

The Solo Game Is Impressive In Its Own Right

Okay, so I’m going to make an admission here about my experience with Terraforming Mars.

I’ve always found the multiplayer experience to be so-so, mainly because it takes so long for everything to get going and, as a result, the game is just too long for the entertainment it offers.

In its solo mode, though, I don’t mind the slow start at all because that’s when I am working out my strategies and plans and thinking about my long-term goals for getting the planet terraformed.

I can take time to consider my choices and mull over my decisions, and I actually like the way that the whole terraforming process begins slowly and then triggers a greenhouse effect – literally.

So I actually much prefer Terraforming Mars as a solo game, even though I wouldn’t recommend buying it if you were only ever going to play it that way, as it just doesn’t represent great value for money unless you are going to play it against other people as well.

However, if you own a copy, have a real desire to play it all the time and haven’t checked out the solo game yet then you should definitely do so.

Apart from a few little areas here and there the solo experience feels remarkably similar to the multiplayer game, and although some elements are missing you also don’t have to sit around and wait for everybody else to finish their turn before you have another go.

In fact, it’s perfect if you want to turn Mars into something habitable without other people interfering!

terraformingmars solo

You Need To Play The Corporate Era

The first thing to note is that the solo version of Terraforming Mars is designed to work only with the Corporate Era variant.

The Corporate Era is the longer and more involved version of the multiplayer game which incorporates the extra cards and corporations with the white triangle symbol on the red circle.

It really should be thought of as the full game, and for this reason the solo variant is probably best left until you have a few sessions of Terraforming Mars under your belt, else the choices and combinations can feel a little overwhelming.

The Corporate Era variant also makes players begin with no resource production on the board other than anything they might gain from their starting corporations, so the solo challenge definitely begins with you on the back foot, and that’s another reason to begin with the introductory multiplayer game before moving on to the solo version.

However, once you are up to speed with the design and the interactions between the cards the solo variant will provide you with a tough and variable challenge.

You Must Terraform To Win

The most obvious change between the solo and multiplayer versions of Terraforming Mars is that in the competitive version the game keeps going until the three major parameters – oceans, temperature and oxygen – have reached their targets.

At that point all the players have the opportunity to create some extra greenery and then tot up their points to compare the winner.

In the solo version it plays out slightly differently, and while you can still earn points as in a normal game effectively it’s a win or lose scenario.

You have fourteen turns (or “generations”) in which to terraform the planet, so if you have not managed to achieve the targets for all three of oceans, temperature and oxygen by the time that the timer runs out then you lose – it’s as simple as that.

If you do manage to reach the required levels then you have won, and totting up your score can then help to give you an idea of how you have performed compared to previous plays.

The limit of fourteen rounds means that you are in a pressured situation right from the start, so you need to plan your strategy from the very beginning of the game to ensure that the planet has been fully terraformed by the time your timer ticks down to zero.

terraformingmars playerboard

The Board Begins With Two Cities

One small advantage you have when playing solo is that the board begins with two cities placed on it, each of which has an adjacent greenery tile.

This means that there are always a couple of options already in place on the board for scoring opportunities and placements that would not be there in a multiplayer game.

The downside is that you don’t get a choice over where they are placed – instead they are located at positions on the map that are determined by the costs of various cards drawn from the deck.

You could end up with something really useful or they could be no help at all, but at least the board is seeded with initial tiles in this version of the game.

The way that the cities and greenery tiles are placed might initially seem a little fiddly, but it actually works quite well.

First you draw four cards from the top of the deck and use the cost on each card to work out where the tiles go.

For the first city you count a number of hexes from the top left of the board, skipping over any illegal placements such as oceans, and then place the city on the hex that corresponds to the cost, so the thirteenth hex if the cost was thirteen.

You then count the number of hexes corresponding to the cost on the second card for the other city, but this time you start at the bottom right of the board and work backwards.

In other words, for the two cities:

  • Draw one card for each city and look at the cost
  • For the first city count the corresponding number of legal hexes from the top left of the map
  • For the second city count the corresponding number of legal hexes from the bottom right of the map

To place the two adjacent greenery tiles you draw another two cards, one for each tile, begin in the hex to the top left of each city and count hexes corresponding to the cost in a clockwise direction, again skipping any illegal placements.

Once you have reached the hex that corresponds to the cost of the cards you drew, that’s where you should place the greenery tile for that city.

This video by Tom Teaches will take you through the entire set up process for a solo game, including the initial cities and greenery.

YouTube video

Your Terraform Rating Begins At Fourteen

In a normal game of Terraforming Mars your Terraform Rating, which is equivalent to your income, begins at twenty, but in a solo game it only starts at fourteen.

There is a handy indicator on the board to remind you of this, but that is really the only positive element because it makes for some very tough decisions in the early rounds.

Whereas in the multiplayer game there is enough income from the start of the game to allow for a fair amount of flexibility in terms of purchases and placement, things are much tougher when playing solo.

Combine the lower Terraform Rating with the tight time limit and the lack of starting resources and hopefully it should become clear why this solo variant can feel like a challenge.

Getting your Terraform Rating up is just one of the things you will need to consider in a solo game, and balancing that need with moving up the ocean, temperature and oxygen trackers is something you need to work out if you are going to have a chance of winning.

terraformingmars midgame

There Are No Awards Or Milestones

In a multiplayer game of Terraforming Mars you and your opponents will be trying to grab points in a variety of ways.

You could try to edge out a placement on the board that will grab you an advantage or maybe place a tile that awards you a couple of points at the end of the game.

You could also work towards a certain combination of cards or play technologies that earn you points.

Another way of grabbing points in a multiplayer game is by attempting to take an award or fund a milestone.

Awards are funded by players during the game and grant extra points at the end of the game in certain categories.

Milestones are claimed as and when a certain player fulfils a certain set of criteria, at which point they can go for the reward that they have earned.

In the solo game neither awards nor milestones are in play, simply because there are no opponents to compete with.

Even though the solo game works really well, I have to admit that of all the changes between the multiplayer and the solo rules this is the one that actually takes a little spice out of the game.

I understand that it would be pretty much impossible to include these two elements in a solo game, but the challenge of trying to get to awards and milestones before your opponents is one of the factors that makes the multiplayer game exciting for me.

Because of this, even though a solo game of Terraforming Mars is usually really satisfying, I always get the impression that it is never quite as cinematic an experience as the full game played against a table of living, breathing opponents.

Even so, having a solo version of Terraforming Mars that is almost as immersive as the real thing is still far better than not having a solo version at all.

There Is A Neutral Opponent You Can Steal From

One of the areas where the multiplayer game of Terraforming Mars really shines is in the interaction between players.

While it never quite escalates into full-on interference there are definitely ways in which you can stick a small spanner into the works of your opponents, and that can be really satisfying to do.

Of course, it can also be really irritating if it happens to you.

There are so many cards in Terraforming Mars that interact with your opponents that the game would lose a great deal of its shine if they became redundant in the solo version.

Thankfully the designers have provided a neutral opponent that you can interact with in a limited way, and this means that all those cards that refer to other players can still be used in the solo version.

As an example, you can reduce their production or their resources, and while this does not actually have an effect on them – they aren’t playing against you, after all – it does mean that you can play certain cards as if you had a real opponent at the table and benefit from what they would have given you.

You could reduce the neutral opponent’s heat production by two steps to use Heat Trappers, for example, and then you would be able to increase your energy production by one step.

The neutral opponent also makes a card like Hired Raiders work, and again it’s because in this case you are stealing from the neutral player.

So many solo variants of games simply tell you to ignore cards that impact upon other players that I think that this is one of the best bits of this particular design and it serves to keep every single card in play, which is a great choice.

terraformingmars neutralopponent

A Summary Of The Solo Rules

If you’ve read through to this stage then you’ll have found out everything that you need to know in order to be able to play Terraforming Mars solo.

You can watch Tom Heath (slickerdrips) play through an entire solo game of Terraforming Mars by watching this video and he’ll also remind you of the rules as he goes through.

YouTube video

The arc of a solo game feels different from the multiplayer challenge thanks to the win/loss condition, but the interactions and the challenges and the combinations feel just right.

In other words, this is a solid game in its own right and well worth exploring if you haven’t tried it yet, even if you are not usually a solo gamer.

Here’s a summary of the differences between the multiplayer and the solo versions of Terraforming Mars:

  • You need to play with the Corporate Era cards and corporations and no initial production apart from what your corporation gives you
  • Two cities and adjacent greenery tiles are placed by using the costs of four different cards taken off the top of the draw deck
  • Your Terraforming Rating only begins at fourteen, not the twenty of the multiplayer game
  • There are no milestones or awards in a solo game of Terraforming Mars
  • There is always a neutral opponent you can interact with in order to be able to play cards
  • In order to win you have to hit the targets for oceans, temperature and oxygen by the end of the fourteenth round

Other than the above, a solo game of Terraforming Mars progresses in exactly the same way as the multiplayer version.

Hopefully this information will encourage you to try the solo version of this game if you haven’t done so already, maybe even trying to win using all the different corporations.

It’s a different but involving challenge and will definitely help you to understand the inner workings of the game, so you’ll not only have fun but maybe even end up beating your friends the next time you play.

That has to be a win-win situation.


Image credit, posted with permission, No changes made.
Image credit, license, No changes made.
Image credit, posted with permission, No changes made.
Image credit, posted with permission, No changes made.
Image credit, license, No changes made.

About the author

James Declan discovered board gaming via a one hour sesh trying to escape Forbidden Island with his daughter and has never looked back.