How Terraforming Mars (the Board Game) Qualifies Me to Work at SpaceX


About me

I’m a Partner Manager at Builtfirst where I manage relationships with SaaS partners like HubSpot, Zendesk, Brex & more. I participated in (& organized a meetup for) a startup apprenticeship program, Praxis.

You can find me at a park playing sports, a concert, or wine tasting.


Yes, I know it’s far-fetched. But then again, so is living on Mars.

In my favorite board game, Terraforming Mars, you play as a unique corporation competing with others to be the most effective in making Mars habitable and building a corporate empire. But don’t worry, I’m not going to waste (too much) of your time explaining how Terraforming Mars teaches you the various ways to make Mars habitable.

We won’t debate whether an asteroid collision with Mars would have a positive ecological impact, or how a giant space mirror would help increase the surface temperature. In the game, these are effective strategies. All I’ll say is I wouldn’t have considered these interesting sci-fi ideas without playing this game.

Instead, we’ll be exploring what’s considered by some to be a controversial topic—  gamified learning and how it translates to real-world skills. And in turn, how those skills would translate to working for a company, SpaceX, hoping to colonize Mars.

Let’s be real. As someone with zero credentials or experience in aerospace technology, I’m immediately disqualified from working at SpaceX. I’m currently running a small business designing and hosting websites and certainly no rocket scientist. However, I am a huge advocate for unconventional learning (and populating Mars), which is where I come into the big picture with SpaceX.

Why Games Make Learning Easy

The meaning of the word “education” comes from two Latin roots: “educare”, which means to train or to mold, and “educere”, which means to draw out. 

This creates two conflicting concepts from the same word. The “traditional” learning style, educare, is gaining specific knowledge that allows you to solve complex problems. The “creative” approach, educere, provides a “why” to the lesson through entertainment; a good story, a gross experiment in science class, or a strategic game.

Ultimately, both approaches are important. One without the other results in random facts about history, or vague inspirational quotes that don’t get you anywhere.

Games reflect our innate competitive nature, requiring you to work within a set of rules to outwit or overpower your opponent. Depending on the game, they can involve complex strategies, require trained precision, teamwork, and more.

Applying this concept to learning is “gamification”. The quality and nature of the game determine just how useful it might be. Luckily in the case of Terraforming Mars, the quality is high and the lessons are extremely useful. Let’s dive into some of those skills.

Strategic Planning & Problem Solving


Terraforming Mars is no easy feat. There are three key requirements to officially complete the terraforming process:

  1. Temperature, which must reach 8 degrees Celsius
  2. Oxygen, which is required to be 14% of the atmosphere
  3. Oceans, which involves 9 “water” tiles covering the planet, or ~15% of the planet’s surface

I have no clue if these numbers are realistic in making Mars habitable. But the game provides a seemingly infinite number of ways to achieve this goal. Each player’s approach is entirely different based on their starting corporation. Some focus on energy and heat production, while tree huggers (like myself) focus on increasing oxygen levels by planting as many trees as possible. My friends just build mega-cities because it’s “cool”. Have they learned nothing from the Industrial Revolution?

Once you have your strategy, the resources you choose, the cards you draw, and the decisions you make vary drastically. Every card requires resources (usually money) and provides a specific benefit to the planet and/or your corporation. If you decide the card you draw doesn’t fit your end goal, you get rid of it. 

Certain cards have minimum requirements in order to play them, so you have to do not only a cost-benefit analysis or the card itself, but a time-based analysis to see if the card will still be valuable later on in the game. From there, you have to ensure the other cards in your hand will help achieve that minimum requirement.

Fundamentally, this is no different from the planning that goes into business. 

Every company has a set of OKRs (Objective & Key Results) they wish to achieve. There’s an infinite number of ways to achieve those OKRs, but it’s up to the leadership team to determine which strategies will be most effective to get there. 

Let’s take a SpaceX OKR as an example: sending astronauts back to the moon by 2024. In order to accomplish this, they’ll need to be successful in the following programs:

Since these plans are well-publicized, it’s not difficult to analyze the various strategies at a high level. Elon Musk tweets regularly about the various logistics that go into making these things happen, such as the heat tiles that ensure the rocket’s safe return through the atmosphere.

SpaceX utilizes Agile methods of rocket building, breaking it down into phases. They employ incredible technology. 

Siemens NX is a great example, a tool that streamlines product development with an integrated toolset of design, simulation, and manufacturing solutions. This allows engineers to constantly test and model different designs quickly. The timeline from design to testing is much, much shorter than a typical rocket design.

SpaceX likely won the NASA contract because its revolutionary approach is cost-effective, unlike the alternatives. I think we can agree the $2 billion per flight quote from NASA is a bit pricey. 

This brings us to resource management, another area where SpaceX excels and the key to winning Terraforming Mars.

Resource Management

In Terraforming Mars, you have six types of resources at your disposal: money, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat. 

Money is the most self-explanatory, allowing you to purchase cards, as well as fund various planet projects and milestones. Steel and titanium provide resources to purchase cards in place of money. Plants allow you to plant trees on Mars, increasing the oxygen levels. Energy converts to heat, which you can use to increase the temperature of the planet.

Certain cards can increase or decrease your production of a resource. As the game progresses, you narrow your focus down to three or four types of resources based on your overarching strategy. Luck is a significant factor in the actual cards you draw, but there are even cards that allow you to draw more cards. 

In order to win, you combine luck of the draw with proper resource management. You might use 5 cards in a given turn; you’ll need enough money to purchase them all. If your card is a building, you can combine steel with money and build yourself 3 cities in a single turn. 

By creating reusable rockets, SpaceX astronomically decreased the cost to go to space. Their rockets are no longer (as much of) an expense, they’re an asset. 

Remember the $2 billion figure from earlier? While it can vary depending on how each flight goes, the Falcon 9 rocket was quoted as low as $28 million per flight. They continue to work to optimize every phase of the rocket, bringing the cost as low as $15 million in a best-case scenario. That’s less than 1% of the NASA price. 

Winning Terraforming Mars = Effective Business Operations

Just in case you were wondering, I almost always win Terraforming Mars. Not to brag or anything.

Instead of mindlessly playing a game for fun, I’m a “tryhard”. I weigh every decision I make, down to the exact placement of the tile on the board. Yes, I do believe this makes me more effective at strategic planning in my business. I fully embrace “educere” and gamified learning, making the work I do and the new things I learn a self-competition.

Coming back to the initial premise of this article— does this qualify me to work at SpaceX? Yes and no. The majority of what I read about their rockets flies right over my head. However, I’d argue I’m equipped with the same fundamental problem-solving skills as a rocket scientist. All I’m short of is a Master’s in aerospace engineering.

I’m always looking for creative ways to put my skills to use. If you’re a strategic thinker like I am, let’s dominate the future corporate empire of Mars (by playing Terraforming Mars, of course). More realistically, let’s work together on a project that requires good problem-solving and resource management skills. Preferably both. Or, learn more about how I put these skills to use on my Talent Profile.

You May Also Like…

An Austin Meetup, Praxis-Style

An Austin Meetup, Praxis-Style

Last week, a bunch of young professionals working in tech gathered in Austin to hang out for the week and explore the...