Why is Terraforming Mars so popular?

Terraforming Mars boxOccasionally, a game comes along that inspires nothing less than complete obsession.

Terraforming Mars appears to be one of those games.

Every year, me and 30 of my friends rent out a massive country house for a week to play board games and generally relax.

Last year, Terraforming Mars dominated the week. People played it several times over the week, often one game after another. One person even played it five times in one day!

I’ve just come back from this year’s holiday, where two people brought the game, complete with expansions and I saw both being played at once on more than one occasion.

It got me to wondering what it is about the game that inspires this kind of rampant enthusiasm.

For one, I think the card deck has a lot to do with it. There are over 200 cards, all of which are different, meaning no two games will run the same.

Then, there’s the fact that, mechanically speaking, it’s a pretty straight forward game. Even newbies to the board game world can understand and play it competently.

But the game itself is far from simple.

There are dozens of strategies, all equally balanced, and the random card draws means you constantly have to shift your ideas about which one to use (though does make any long-haul strategy almost impossible if that’s your style).

Terraforming Mars

One of many TM games played during our gamers’ holiday.

Yet, there is enough synergy within the deck that you can start down a given track and be pretty confident you’ll get enough cards to continue down that path.

The expansions came at just the right time for me. In many games, I’ve grown tired of the base game long before its expansions hit the shelves, and I was beginning to get that way with Terraforming Mars. But the new milestones and awards of the Elysium and Hellas boards completely altered the way I played, while the Venus Next expansion added in some totally new mechanic to get to grips with.

To top it all off, the theming is strong – if not always 100 per cent scientifically accurate – and I personally get a kick out of the artwork (though that might just be because I recognise half of it from the day job) and I love the visual gags on one or two of the cards.

The game does still have many flaws I’ve noticed after several plays – randomness can screw over your end game; it’s easy to knock your production track markers; and I repeatedly get into the situation where I have zero cards in hand and have no way of drawing any more (Seriously Fryxgames. How game breaking could a card buying Standard Project be?).

But as games go, Terraforming Mars is probably one of the most well balanced I’ve ever played, so I’m not surprised it’s so popular.

Now… wonder if I can get another game in this evening?

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis follows the adventures of Jazz Bashara, who lives and works on the Moon

When Andy Weir released his first novel The Martian in 2011, it quickly became a surprise hit, eventually being made into a film starring Matt Damon.

Now, Weir is finally releasing his long awaited second novel Artemis, a thrilling story of lunar sabotage and subterfuge.

Several decades from now, mankind has set up its first ever permanent human lunar colony, Artemis. Founded by the Kenya Space Corporation, Artemis is the must-visit destination for scientists, business leaders and the excessively wealthy.

Keeping the city running is an army of support staff, from cleaners to architects. And at the very bottom of the social heap is Jazz Bashara – porter, part-time smuggler and our heroine.

One day, billionaire Trond Landvik offers Jazz a million slugs (lunar currency) if she will just do one tiny act of vandalism – blow up the station’s only way of producing fresh oxygen.

Should she accept? And if she does, how do you even go about blowing something up in the lunar vacuum?

As with The Martian, Weir uses the scientific practicalities of how people would actually go about surviving and thriving on the Moon to shape the plot.

Everything about Artemis has one foot in reality: all the technology either already exists, or probably will in the next decade or so. One rather surprisingly tense plot point comes from the health and safety procedures of getting in and out of an airlock.

Every challenge that Jazz is confronted with, she uses her scientific and engineering knowhow to make the perfect plan.

And as with every ‘perfect’ plan, it never runs smoothly.

Soon Jazz is drawn deeper into Artemis’s world of political intrigue and industrial espionage, a world she never expected, or wanted, to be a part of.

This political side of Artemis is just as well thought out as its scientific aspects.

In the here-and-now, space is no longer about Russia and the US: Europe and the Asian nations of China, India and Japan – not to mention private spaceflight companies – are transforming spaceflight from a purely scientific enterprise to a serious business model.

Weir’s vision of our lunar future is equally as diverse, with characters hailing from all over the globe brought together by the common dream of venturing out into the vast beyond.

The only real criticism of the book is its pacing. It takes a while to get going and while there are some incredible action set-pieces, the sections linking them together often fall a little flat.

Thankfully the lulls tailed off towards the end, and as I neared the grand finale I found myself racing to get to the conclusion.

Artemis is a fantastic view into what it would be like to live and work on the lunar landscape, wrapped up in smart and gripping novel.

A must-read for any future lunar dwellers.

How to play Hanabi two player

I suggested Hanabi in a previous post as being a really great two player game to bring couples together.

It is not, however, necessarily great from a game play point of view.

Over the years my partner and I have adapted the game as we’ve played and here is my advice for playing two player Hanabi.

Variant 1: Five cards

five card hanabi two player

Both players start with a hand of five cards.

This doesn’t give a lot of leeway.

You can only see five cards, opposed to the eight you can see in three player, so you have a lot less information making deductions much harder.

Not only that, but it’s easy to end up in a situation where one player has a ‘locked up hand’ where nothing is playable or discardable – you end up having to throw away a card even though you know it will stop you getting a high score.

This is annoying, and makes the game a lot less fun.

Variant 2: Five cards plus one


Both players start with a hand of five cards and one additional card is placed face up on the table.

Either player can play or discard the card BUT discarding it doesn’t get you a clue back.

It’s amazing how helpful just one extra card is to working out what cards you have, as well as preventing a hand from locking up.

However, it’s still not perfect. There are times when you get a run on the shared card, constantly playing or discarding from the shared card for several turns in a row.

This feels like cheating.

While perfectly allowable in the modified rules, there’s no real finesse required. It undercuts the joy of puzzling out the situation with logic.

Variant 3: Six card hand

six card hanabi two playerEach player has a hand of six cards.

This, to me, is the best option we have tried so far.

There’s no runs, so no feeling of cheating, you have the extra information and even that one extra card means you rarely ever end up with a locked out hand.

There is, instead, a different problem: it ends too quickly.

All too often, we reach the end of a two player game only to find that the remaining playable cards are in one persons hand, but there are no more turns to play them.

With the clever use of clues, you can stall to play down as much as possible, but often in two player this is impossible to do to any meaningful degree.

There is nothing more frustrating in this game than getting to the end, knowing you can get a much better score but unable to play your cards.

Variant 4: Six card hand with an extra turn

Each player has a six cards and at the end of the game they get two turns to play down cards instead of the usual one.

This is a recent addition to our repertoire.

The small bit of extra freedom can lead to several more cards being laid down, and a much more satisfying end to the game.

However, some people I’ve played with say it feels like playing on after the clock has run down.


I suggest you try the options for yourself and see what works best.

The couple that games together, stays together

My partner and I have a game we play in the bedroom ­– Hanabi.

For those not familiar with boardgames, Hanabi is a co-operative card game of logic and deduction with a twist – you can’t see your own hand.

My partner, Sam, and I often play boardgames together but I realised that the two-player ones I most enjoy playing with him are co-operative games, where we working towards a shared goal.

Though I do love a good victory, it always feels slightly tainted when I’m only playing against Sam, because it means he’s lost.

But with a co-op game, we win and lose together. We are a team in the game, as we are in life.

We look at the situation together, listen to each other’s thoughts on what to do, decide on the best course of action and make compromises when we don’t agree, working as one towards the end goal – all good skills for a relationship.

Oddly, it is the losses not the wins that are the best for our continued domestic bliss. When we lose, it would be easy to fall prey to bitterness for some ‘stupid’ move our counterpart made.

But we’ve learned not to. And being able to rise over such petty resentments has helped us long after the game has gone back in the box.

But probably the best games are the ones where we aren’t allowed to communicate freely. Games like Hanabi, which we often play, as my misleading opening line would have you believe, in bed.

Couples game hanabi 2 player

Boardgames have been an important part of our relationship since day one

In Hanabi, you have to play cards in a certain order, but you can’t see your own hand and are limited in what you can tell your fellow players.

We’ve played the game together for years. We’ve grown to understand how the other thinks.

Now when Sam gives me a clue I can see the message beyond what he said. Unspoken communication – yet another great relationship skill.

And then when he fails to notice that I’m about to throw away a vital card which will screw us monumentally? Well, I usually blame that on him being tired rather than an idiot. Usually.

We recently purchased Codenames: Duet, another game of limited communication, this time about word association. We’ve played a few games, and I’ve already learned a lot more about the way his brain works (as well as the disparities in our vocabulary…).

What will I learn about his mind with more games? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Review: Fragments of Him

fragments-of-him-titleA tragic accident one morning takes a young man’s life. Though he is dead, he is not entirely gone, living on in the people he has left behind.

This is the set up for Fragments of Him, a walking simulator by indy developer Sassybot. It’s a title that is more narrative experience than true game, taking the player through the life of Will, the eponymous Him. As it does so, the game explores the true nature of love and grief, as well as tackling topics such as polyamory and homophobia.

The narrative follows the three people who loved Will most: first Mary, his grandmother who raised him, then Sarah his ex-girlfriend who stepped aside allowing Will to find true love with Harry, whose grief over losing his partner is shown in the final act. Throughout this, we see Will as he prepares for the what will ultimately be his last day, thinking of the past and looking forward to the future.

Certain aspects of this story line were expertly done. Hearing Will’s voice over as he plans a future the player knows he will never have does a fantastic job of reaching right into the chest, grabbing the heartstrings and yanking.  It’s a cheap trick, but an effective one.

I also enjoyed Mary’s story. She does not react well to learning of her son’s male lover, and getting a view inside her head as she tries to justify her reaction was a very interesting take on homophobia I haven’t seen before.

However, Sarah and Harry’s stories were less compelling. The game repeatedly tells you how in love Will is with the pair, but never really shows it. The end result is I never felt connected with either character. There was an interesting story buried in there somewhere, but it was somewhat lost in the telling.

Fragments of Him gameplay

The graphics of Fragments of Him features simplified, largely grey scale graphics, relying on voice over to provide emotion. Credit: Sassybot

The gameplay was also disconnected from the story for the most part, just requiring you to move around and click on different objects. There was no real choices to be made, no grand vistas to explore, just you plodding through the story. This made things drag in some places, particularly when you had to spend a minute searching for one thing you missed to click on.

There were a few places however that this play style was used very effectively. During Harry’s mourning, you have to go through the house clearing out everything, really hammering home the sense of complete loss.

The graphics were very minimalist, clean lines all shaded in a sort of off-white grey scale. Bleaching all colour out of the world really helped to add to the sense of desolation, echoing the sense of mourning once again.

The characters were portrayed as blank mannequins, instead relying on voice overs to convey emotion. Thankfully, the voice acting was spot on and a few other clever tricks helped bring the characters to life, though not enough to compensate for the flaws in scripting.

When I finished playing Fragments of Him, I walked away thinking: about life, love and loss. I think this was the game maker’s plan, so well done. Purpose very much achieved.

Summary: An intriguing, but flawed story about loosing a loved one that doesn’t quite measure up to its promise, but a worthwhile play none the less.

Review: The Martian

The Martian still

Mark Watney sits on the surface of Mars. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Alone on a planet where the air will kill you, the ground is barren, and it’s so cold you’ll freeze to death; you wake up and realise no one even knows you’re alive. This is the situation that Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself in the latest blockbuster, The Martian. After a disaster on his mission to the red planet, Watney is left behind 140 million miles from aid, with no way to contact Earth. The only man on Mars has nothing but his wits to survive.

Luckily, it’s not long before NASA realises they’ve left a man behind and begin to mount the most ambitious rescue mission in history. For every step closer Watney takes to coming home, another thing breaks, explodes or tries to kill him. While the whole world is looking to Mars in support of Watney, there are many times when the only person he can rely on is himself.

The action flicks back between Mars, those on Earth and the vessel carrying the five other crew mates back and forth between the two. The reminder of all the people that were working to bring one man home helped to give heart to what could so easily have been a dry story of one man growing potatoes and fixing things. However, while this served to highlight the triumphs of every obstacle overcome, it seemed to do the opposite for every set back that occurred on Mars. Major accidents that could easily have killed Watney were easily fixed with a roll of duct tape in a few minutes, making it seem that surviving on Mars was relatively easy when in truth it is anything but.

The bigger challenge was the constant struggle with loneliness, and it was here that the film shone. Though thousands at NASA work tirelessly, ultimately Watney is alone. Fantastically played by Damon, he has nothing but is intellect and smarm to fend off not only the inhospitable Martian terrain, but the psychological horror of being the only living soul on an entire planet.
Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in the depiction of the planet itself. Mars is shown in its full majestic beauty, at once showing the incredible wonder that inspires and draws people to it while simultaneously emphasising its barrenness and emptiness. This is a world that humans cannot survive on, and yet Watney does.

For those of you that have read Andy Weir’s book on which the film is based, there are several changes. Where the book deals with how to survive on Mars, the film concentrates much more on the rescue. Much of the hardcore science nerdery is mentioned, but passed over quickly and several of Watney’s major disasters are by skipped completely, but the spirit and humour of the book very much remains. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend giving it a read. Bring a calculator.

The Martian is a tribute to human determination and exploration and I highly recommend it.

The Martian will be showing in cinemas around the UK from 1 October.

Did you know…?

Pluto New Horizons

New Horizons has provided our closest ever look at this fortunately found dwarf planet.
Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins Univ./APL, Southwest Research Inst.

The planet Pluto was discovered because of a mistake.

In 1821 Alexis Bouvard published a table detailing the orbit of Uranus. Other astronomers quickly noted that there were some irregularities, and hypothesised the existence of another planet pulling Uranus out of line. After several more refined predictions, an approximate placement of the 8th planet was found. In 1846  Johann Gottfried Galle at the Berlin Observatory discovered Neptune, just where it was predicted to be.

It wasn’t long before tables of Neptune’s orbit were published and these appeared to show that they were being pulled out of whack by a 9th planet, dubbed Planet X, though the effect was much smaller.

In 1930 when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto it was quickly touted as the famed 9th planet. However, fame soon turned to infamy. The planet was far too small to disrupt the orbit of the massive Neptune (1186km in diameter according to New Horizons).

Though the apparent perturbations have since been shown to be observational error, there are still people who hunt for Planet X (some believing it to be the harbinger of doom, or about to crash into Earth and kill us all). However he WISE infrared survey discounted the presence of a large body out to a distance of one light year, so its not looking likely for any killer planets.

Why is Venus so hot?

Venus, the second planet from our Sun is a hellish place. Despite being further away than Mercury, the planet is several hundred degrees hotter. At 735K (that’s 462ºC or 863F in old money) the air is hot enough to melt lead and once you start looking at the planet a bit more closely, the reason becomes clear.

Venus's thick atmosphere

Venus’s thick atmosphere prevents astronomers from seeing the planet’s surface. Credit: NASA

Venus’s has one heck of an atmosphere. The surface pressure is around 92 times that found on Earth and it’s made out of some pretty nasty stuff: 96.5% carbon dioxide, 3.5 nitrogen, laced with sulfur dioxide,  sulphric acid and a few other trace elements.

It’s no great secret that carbon dioxide is a green house gas – it lets light and heat in, but not out again. Venus is an example of what can happen if you let carbon dioxide build up in your atmosphere to ridiculous levels.

But what I always wondered was why does Venus have such a thick atmosphere in the first place? In most respects the planet is much like Earth. It’s slightly smaller, with around 80% of Earth’s mass, meaning its gravity is pretty much the same. It’s at 0.7 AU, one AU being the distance between the Earth and the Sun, so it’s not that much closer and from most observations seems to be pretty similar to the Earth. At first glance its warmer atmosphere and lower gravitational pull should mean atmospheric molecules are more likely to escape. So what the hell happened?

The surface of Venus

Using radar, scientists have managed to get a good idea of what Venus’s surface looks like. Credit: Venus

The answer is all to do with that magical substance that has defined the hunt for life in the Galaxy: water. Venus doesn’t have any, or at least not much. It has trace amounts in the atmosphere, around 20 parts per million, but compared to the 40,000 parts per million of water found in our atmosphere it’s practically nothing.

But it used to. As I said, Venus is very similar to Earth and almost certainly formed in much the same way. The Earth has water, as did Mars in the beginning for that matter. It stands to reason that Venus had its fair share too, though we don’t currently have any evidence as no Venusian lander has lasted longer than two hours on the surface.

At some point though the temperature on the planet reached a tipping point and it began to lose its oceans. The Sun has been warming at a rate of a few percent every billion years. On Earth this hasn’t appeared to have effected us too much, but Venus receives twice the energy from the Sun. The change in temperature was too much, eventually the oceans began to evaporate and as that happened, things began to go oh so terribly wrong.

Water’s of Venus

The evaporating water saturated the atmosphere. In the high atmospheric levels the Sun’s radiation started to break apart the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The light hydrogen floated away into the deep dark depths of space while the heavier oxygen does what oxygen always does, and reacted with absa-bloody-everything, most notably any carbon hanging around to create carbon dioxide.

Not only that but as the water evaporated the planet’s mantel began to dry out. Plate tectonics require liquid water to absorb minerals, act as a lubricant and so on. Without it, everything just seizes up, and that’s exactly what happened on Venus. Volcanic activity is another way that carbon dioxide gets sucked up and stored in rocks, being re-released when volcanoes do their thing.

All of this lead to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which caused the planet to begin heating causing the oceans to evapourate and eventually boil. To make matters even worse, water vapour is itself a green house gas, insulating a planet. Once the water began to be lost, Venus never stood a chance. On Earth the interaction between water, rock and carbon dioxide help to regulate our nice, temperate climate [1]. With this thrown out of kilter, everything went awry. The end result is a planet no one ever wants to go on holiday to.

Venus surface by Venera 13

The Russian Venera programme has sent several probes to Venus, including several landers. The missions were the first to land on another planet, but none lasted longer than two hours. However they did manage to send back several images of the planet surface, including this image taken by Venera 13. Credit: Roscosmos

[1] The Earth is pretty good at regulating its temperature. It does this through the interactions of volcanism, carbon dioxide and water. Volcanic activity is constantly catching and releasing carbon dioxide in the Earth’s crust. If the global temperature drops, water freezes, stopping it from absorbing carbon dioxide, which creates a green house effect, which heats the planet and melts the ice. Global temperatures get too high, the ice caps melt, the atmosphere becomes more humid and all that lovely liquid water sucks up the carbon dioxide and temperatures drop again. It should also be noted that while the planet is doing this, there are colossal civilisation ending, mass extinction educing storms and weather pattern shifts, which is why ‘global warming’ does not mean ‘a bit sunnier in the Summer’.


Did you know…

1994 Solar eclipse

The light of the corona is usually only visible on Earth during a total eclipse. It can be seen with specialist equipment though. Like a space telescope. Credit: Luc Viatour

The Sun’s corona, this aura of plasma that surrounds the main star, is many hundreds of times hotter than the photosphere, the surface that we see. While the temperature of the Sun’s surface is only 6,000K the corona can reach up to 1,000,000K.

All hail hypnothread. ALL HAIL.

Simulation of a cross section of a thread of solar material. All hail hypnothread. ALL HAIL.
Credits: NAOJ/Patrick Antolin

No one is 100% sure why this is, though the current leading theory is that it’s probably magnets… or rather that magnetic waves generated by the motions of matter inside the star. These oscillate through the Sun and cause the plasma in the corona to move in a turbulent motion (queue mesmerising gif to left) and the friction heats up the corona.

Exploring the Universe with the At-Bristol 3D Planetarium

Sitting under the dome of At-Bristol’s new 3D planetarium, I stared up at what looks like the night sky. There are a few stars I recognised but mostly there was familiar orange glow of light pollution circling the horizon. The presenter leading the show asked us all to close our eyes for a moment.

“Now,” she said. “Open your eyes.”

Credit: Tim Martin

Credit: Tim Martin

In front of my eyes was a sky covered in stars, the Milky Way streaking across the centre. For many people who lived in and around Bristol, this was the first true representation of a dark sky they had ever seen.

Credit: Tim Martin

Credit: Tim Martin

“There was one lady who came out of that show who was buying lots of astronomy books because she wanted to find out more,” said Lee Pullen, Planetarium Manager when I interviewed him later. “She confessed that she’d found the experience so emotional that she’d wept tears of joy in the show. Often people are just amazed. They had no idea there was so much out there to be able to find.”

The show in question was Summer Stargazing, a seasonal show highlighting the landmarks of the night sky at this time of year. We flew to distant stars, searched the sky for various asterisms like Cygnus and Lyra, though the highlight for me was taking a swooping journey through the rings of Saturn. The sight of ice particles jumping out of the screen all around me is something I won’t be forgetting.

An environmental perspective

The planetarium shows don’t just look up at the sky. Their environmental show, Blue Marvel, casts its gaze back downwards to our own fragile planet. Here the 3D really came into its own. The Earth became the canvas on which to paint humanities impact in a very tangible way. Deforestation was projected across the globe and oil consumption per capita jumped out from every country*. But perhaps the most striking moment was when the sea levels were made to rise 20m, flooding the world, including the place where I live.

The show was an excellent way to show the strain we humans are placing on the world, but also rather depressing. There was little indication of what we could do to prevent what seemed like the inevitable destiny of our civilisation.

Bristol is open to technology

But it is projects like this, beyond its main use as a planetarium, that the dome was upgraded for. The funding for the project came in part from the Bristol Is Open project.

“The Bristol Is Open Network is a high speed network that runs all around under Bristol,” says Seamus Foley, the planetarium’s media production officer. As part of this network the Planetarium goes by the moniker ‘the At-Bristol Data Dome’. “The idea is that in the future we might be able to stream 4K frames down the pipe in real time so you can have a supercomputer processing visualisations of molecular simulations, for example, and it turns up in the planetarium.”

The planetarium aims to be more than just a fancy screen for showing astronomy films, and the team are currently working at ways to make the dome earn its keep, including some intriguing ideas such as putting on music concerts and introducing interactivity.

At-Bristol Planetarium & Millennium Square

Credit: Tim Martin

“One of the experiments that we’ve done is dropping a buggy onto scans of the Tycho Crater and driving around it like a computer game,” says Foley. “We want to make it more than just a cinema experience. We want it to be an interactive and engaging, let people can take part and take control of the experience.”

Whatever comes next, I’m sure it will put the planetarium to its best use. I look forward to finding out what At-Bristol has in store.

* – Luxemburg was the real surprise here. It practically hit you in the head with it’s oil consumption the spike was so huge. Apparently it’s due to people nipping across the border to fill up on cheap petrol.

For those of you with a family At-Bristol is open most days between 10am-5pm on weekdays, and 10am – 6pm on weekends. They also regularly puts on After Hours and Planetarium Nights to allow adults to use the planetarium and have a look round.