Terra Mystica, by Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag, is a heavy weight Eurogame intended for anywhere between two to five players. In it players represent one of fourteen different factions, races or organizations that are intent on transforming the world to their liking in order to expand their civilization. I categorize Terra Mystica as a civilization game, but it lacks the conflict systems that are frequently present in civilization games. Instead players come into conflict mostly in the form of indirect competition over shared resources and cutting off your opponent’s ability to expand.
Terra Mystica had a very successful debut at Essen, ending up at #2 on the Fairplay list and doing well on the other trackers. It has seen similar success in the BGG ratings, with an excellent post-convention average rating that has only been rivaled by those of Keyflower and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar. While initially published only by a new, small publishing house, it was quickly picked up by Z-Man Games for future worldwide distribution and has continued to accrue glowing recommendations and a bit of post-Essen hype.
I first played Terra Mystica at BGG.Con on Wednesday, and the reaction from the people I game with was strong enough that I was able to accumulate eight total plays of the game at the convention with one more afterwards; my review is based on my experience with those nine plays. I received a review copy of Terra Mystica, and an early look at the rules, though I only played one of these games on my copy of Terra Mystica as it did not arrive until after the convention. Otherwise, I probably would have squeezed out another play or two.
Terra Mystica features a large quantity of wooden and cardboard bits. Based on the copies I played with they all appeared to be functional and high quality with an eye towards both a consistent physical presentation and a consistent iconography to speed play and ensure that the game can be played easily across language boundaries.
Some of the physical components are very similar to those found in other popular Eurogames, to the point where certain fans of those games were using the wrong terminology to describe those buildings. Luckily this gave me plenty of reasons to tease that player, so I consider this a benefit rather than a drawback.
Do any of these look familiar?
Coloring, as frequently seems to be the case, is problematic. I had the biggest difficulties telling the yellow and green pieces apart, and thought the brown looks more like a green than the green does, though considering that there are seven player colors, each of which has a strong association with the terrain being depicted, I am not sure what they could have done to accentuate the color differentiation. Additionally, the fact that the terrain tiles are pretty clearly different helps to ensure that color issues are relevant only when comparing victory points or position along one of the four cult tracks.
Beyond that quibble though, I found Terra Mystica’s components to be enjoyable and effective, allowing for clear differentiation of game state while still providing with an attractive, yes clean, looking board.
Terraforming And Terra Mystica’s Core
Terra Mystica centers on three primary currencies, one secondary currency, and one derived currency. The three primary currencies are workers, money, and priests. Workers and money are used for building and upgrading buildings as well as advancing on the game’s two tech tracks. Priests are used for advancing on those tech tracks and for competition in the cult tracks. The secondary currency is power, which is used as a wildcard currency for acquiring any of the primary currencies or in order to generate the derived currency. Spades are usually generated from the other resources used for one of the core actions of Terra Mystica, the one that really seperates it from other games: Terraforming.
The core actions of Terra Mystica are terraforming and building, which are most frequently combined into a single “Terraform and Build” action. When taking this action, players spend spades in order to convert the terrain of a hex that is adjacent to one of their current hex into a different terrain, usually one that matches the terrain that the current player needs for building. The amount of spades required depends on how different the target terrain is to the current one. The difference between terrains is functionally equivalent for all factions except for one, though the factions are differentiated in how easy, and in what manner, terrains are transformed. To further complicate things, how one goes about getting spades varies dramatically depending on the particular game state, and your special faction powers.
This differentiation adds a great deal of tactical and strategic complexity as well as replayability, as being able to terraform terrain is the primary struggle of the game. The basic resources of the game, workers, priests, money, and power, all require buildings to be produced, and most-of the points in the game come from the production of these buildings. When you place buildings you boost your income and unlock special powers. So you need space, and thus you need spades.
The most straightforward, the brute force method if you will, to get spades is to turn workers into them. At the beginning of the game all races, except for the darklings that use a single priest, use 3 workers to transfer a terrain tile a single step. It is possible to reduce this conversion ratio to as low as a single cube by paying, in cubes, money, and priests, to advance along the spades “tech” track. I have typically found this to be a little bit too costly, but faction abilities, as always, can change this calculus. The second main way to do this is by using power in order to take the limited, “one spade and build” or “two spades and build” actions. These are useful, particularly early on, because they enable you to expand without having to spend a lot of your useful early cubes. The third main way, and probably the best one in the early game, is the round bonus tile that gives you a terraform and build action that does not cost any resources. The final main way is through bonus spades that are available on round markers for advancement on cult tracks.
The diversity of ways you can use resources to terraform, and how the value of these resources will fluctuate based on the faction players are playing, the current board situation, and player’s individual resources is in my mind what really makes Terra Mystica interesting and worthwhile to play. This need to change the terrain and expand reverberates through every other part of the system and really makes it shine. This is not to say that terraforming is the be all and end all to the system. It is not, but questions of how, when, and where to terraform are all central to the central ideas and conflict in the game.
The Vagaries of Terrain
Terra Mystica features seven different types of terrain, with two factions associated with each terrain type. The terraforming “distance” that each terrain has to all the others is identical regardless of the faction you are playing, with the exception of Giants, so it is very easy to identify how many terraforming steps are required in order for an opponent to transform one terrain into another. Individual terrains are indistinguishable beyond how they are associated with particular factions on the terrain wheel.
In addition to the seven terrain types, Terra Mystica also features river hexes. These serve as a barrier of expansion, but one that can be overcome. Most factions have the ability to develop ship building technology, which allows them to ignore a number of river hexes when determining adjacency for the purposes of construction and end game scoring. Bridges have a similar effect, but makes hexes adjacent in all respects.
The Building System
Terra Mystica has a foundation of five buildings that are used to differentiate player’s incomes and abilities. Most of the different factions have identical incomes for the majority of buildings, but there are enough differences to keep things interesting. Additionally, the value of each resource varies depending on the faction’s abilities. Most of the buildings have round-based scoring opportunities associated with them, but the fact that only a subset of the per-round goals are used in any individual game can dramatically impact their relative value even more; a game where there are two round bonuses for building trading posts will have a different building character than one where there is none.
Dwellings are the basic building block of the Terra Mystica economy, providing the white cubes that represent the game’s workers. Workers are required for every building and technology in the game, and all buildings are ultimately upgrades from a dwelling base. However, more advanced buildings do not usually provide workers, making it so that the factions constantly need to provide new terrain to place additional dwellings and provide more of the precious workers required for continued expansion and victory points.
The next step in the building process is the trading houses, which produce money, the other resource required for every building and technology in the game, and power, which I will explain in more detail below. While all the factions have dwellings that produce workers, and almost always just produce a single worker, trading houses have a bit more variety, with the exact quantities of power varying depending on the faction in question as well as, for some factions, how many are already on the board.
After the trading house, real upgrade choices emerge as players can choose to either build the faction’s single fortress or build one of three available temples. The exact characteristics of a fortress vary dramatically depending on the faction constructing it. All provide some sort of income, most provide some sort of ongoing special ability or action, and a few provide a powerful one-time bonus. Because of the varying opportunities available from fortress construction the decisions that are involved in when you want to build the fortress are part of what makes playing each faction unique. Some factions have a much stronger motivation to build the fortress early than others, and identifying when it is appropriate to follow that motivation and when it is not adds a bit of texture to the game that I appreciate.
Temples provides priests, which are used for cult advancement as well as the spade and ship building technology, as an ongoing income as well as one of the games 12 different favor tiles, each of which provides a different capability or bonus. All of the tiles provide for progression on one of the four cult tracks, but the amount varies based on the tile. Most of these bonuses are continual, in the form of income or bonus victory points for construction, but there are a few that provide more conditional bonuses or simply allow a player to gain more of an advantage on one of the temple tracks at the cost of a special ability. Temples provide the primary opportunity for early special power differentiation beyond fortresses, and frequently, due to their lower cost, they are superior to the fortress. Temples also open up the opportunity to build the single available sanctuary, which provides another favor tile but also provides the ability to construct a town with less total buildings.
Towns are both a direct result and a motivation for building a bunch of buildings in the same vicinity. Each building has a power rating of either 1, for dwellings, 2, for trading houses and temple, or 3, for fortresses and sanctuaries. When four buildings, or three if one of those is a sanctuary, which total 7 in their power rating are built directly adjacent to each other or adjacent by way of bridge, then they instantly form a town. This provides a number of bonuses, the biggest of which an immediately acquired town/key tile which gives victory points as well as a onetime bonus in the form of one of the game’s four resources or one advancement on each of the cult tracks. These keys also give access to the top spaces on the cult track. Each player may achieve the top position on no more than one cult track per key, tying success on this track to the ability to expand compactly on the board, as if two players are fighting for dominance of one track, then the winner will be whomever is able to get the first key.
The Laws of Power
Power is one of the four main resources in Terra Mystica, but it is the only one that does not directly pay for anything personal. Instead it is used primarily to generate resources of the other three types or to compete for shared actions, called power actions, that are each available only once per round and are accessible for all players. Power is strong, but also flexible; rather than having to wait until next round to get access to money, a priest, or worker cubes players can spend power in order to get them right now. Power actions provide the ability to get these resources at a more effective conversion rate (for example a priest costs five power normally, but only three with a power action), in exchange for losing some flexibility in time, as the opportunity to use them is lost if another player grabs them first.
Power income is also different than income of any other type in that it is a bit indirect. Rather than receiving a set amount that you can spend every single turn, there are three different “bowls” that hold power, and power can only be used if it is in the third bowl. Otherwise power simply moves to the next bowl, with power moving from the third bowl to the first when it is used, but only moving from the second to third after all the power in the second bowl is emptied out.
Players start with twelve power, divided between the first and second bowls, but have the ability to permanently remove some of their power in the second bowl from the game in order to move power immediately from the second bowl into the third bowl. It is always a good idea to do so, but the question of “How much?” is frequently ambiguous, particularly as a new player. During my plays I regularly found myself on the cutting edge of power burning, going down to six first and then five, but it was only rarely that I felt constrained by this; usually I did it because of a lack of power income either from my own generation or due to a lack of neighbors. In situations where one or both of those were not a problem, 7 or 8 seemed like a better number.
In addition to buildings and favor tiles, players can also get immediate, rather than beginning of the turn, one-time power income from advancing along the cult track or from players building next to them. The cult track income is based simply on straightforward passage of certain indicated milestones, but the bonuses from player construction results in more deliciously symbiotic relationships.
Whenever one player builds or upgrades next to another, the second player has the option to sacrifice victory point in order to get power income based on the power ratings of the buildings that the second player has next to the new construction. The power income is equal to the power rating of the adjacent buildings, and the victory point loss is equal to that number minus one.
This leads to all sorts of interesting incentives, as players are encouraged to build so that they are adjacent to their opponents, not only for the opportunity to block off their expansion but also because it allows them to gain a direct benefit from their opponent’s further constructions. It is not always a good idea to take advantage of this benefit though, as the victory point loss can add up rather quickly, but having the option available is helpful, and the victory point to power ratios on the lower end of things are frequently valuable enough to make leeching fairly common.
There are four cult tracks, each associated with one of the cult tracks, that are available for players to advance. Advancing on its own provides some limited benefits, in the form of one time power infusions, but the secondary benefits are the real reason to focus on cult track advancement.
The first of these advancement benefits is victory points. The first, second, and third place bonuses for position on the tracks can be helpful, but frequently not any more significant than points that are earned during the game. The second benefit is an additional form of income that varies depending on what round tiles are randomly determined at the beginning of the game. Each of these gives you a bonus amount of currency, or a free spade, for every 1, 2, or 4 spaces up a cult track you are. These bonuses can be significant, and it seems that skilled play will frequently be related to how effectively you are able to advance up the cult tracks, and squeeze out these bonuses, while still effectively keeping with your larger game plan.
A lot of games like to claim differentiation by providing a number of different special powers or abilities that players can start with or acquire, but frequently this difference ends up being minimal. The Scepter of Zavandor, designed by one of Terra Mystica’s co-designers, is particularly guilty of this as the differentiation available is pretty easily erased, and at most encourages the players to go down slightly different tracks. Terra Mystica’s differentiation however is both meaningful and real. Each of the different factions plays differently, and the wide variety of provided special powers, starting resources, fortress abilities, and building incomes results in deeply meaningful strategic and tactical considerations; you are unable to play different factions in the same way without seriously undermining your ability to succeed.
I claim no true knowledge of factional balance at this point in time, but my first impression is that they seem to be fairly balanced, though some factions seem to be tougher to play than others. These are frequently the ones that are the most different from other factions too, which I think is mostly a plus; once players are becoming a bit more familiar with the game they can provide themselves with an additional challenge by playing the giants or the engineers.
Even with the more “standard” races though, there are a lot of options and a lot of interesting nuances that I find both refreshing and fascinating. The only real areas where I think that they effectively failed are in making the special powers a little bit too similar as they did with the dwarves and the fakirs. Both of these races ignore the shipping track and can use resources to skip over one space when building new dwellings for the cost of resources, and in exchange for victory points. The fact that one uses cubes and the other priests does change strategic decisions a bit, but it does make them lose a little bit of luster in relation to the other factions which each have more easily distinguished special powers, even if these special powers move along some of the same axes.
Winning Terra Mystica
Terra Mystica is a most victory point game, with a significant number of ways to get victory points during the game and two further sources of victory points at the end of the game. In-game victory points are largely defined by the round token, each of which indicates which actions will give victory points. Individual factions have additional ways to gain in-game points too, and both favors and the bonus tiles provide additional opportunities to gain significant victory points over the course of the game. Frequently the biggest individual source of victory points are from building large, contiguous sets of buildings called towns that provide said victory points as well as a one-time infusion of resources or advancement on the cult tracks.
At the end of the game victory points are awarded to the player who is able to build the largest connected settlement, with smaller numbers being awarded to players who get the second or third largest settlement. Similar, tiered scoring is given to players based on their relative positions on each of the cult tracks.
All of these sources of victory points are important parts of winning, and complete specialization in any one area is virtually impossible. In order to win you will need some combination of the varieties of in-game scoring as well as some quantity of end of game scoring, though the particular configuration will vary from game to game as well as from faction to faction. One thing that is important to note however, is that this is not the sort of game where you can freely ignore points for the majority of the game and dash towards the finish in the last round or two. Players will need to constantly make trade-off decisions between when going for victory points or further resources is more necessary, and when it is important to compromise long term plans for victory points that are only offered during specific rounds. The best players will be able to weave these specific round victory points into their long term plans, and build an overall strategy around them.
What Works and What Does Not Work
Terra Mystica is a deeply satisfying game, particularly for players who enjoy optimization-focused heavy eurogames. There are interesting decisions to be made throughout the arc of the game, and the relative value of particular actions grow and shrink both based on such a large variety of individual factors that the game has a great deal of replay value. This variation in valuation is, I think, more significant in Terra Mystica then they are in many other eurogames. The game is complex, but it feels that even with mastery of the rules you will not master the game itself, as there are so many different ways to explore and manipulate the system, particularly when you add in the influence of other players. If you like to play games regularly and in depth this aspect is gamer catnip, and is part of the reason I expect to play Terra Mystica even though I consider it “very good” rather than “one of the best.”
So what holds me back from considering it “one of the best” is how much amount of relative time is spent in solo optimization puzzles rather than in considering how other player’s plans will affect your position and how to take advantage of their anticipate moves. Part of this is because there are only a few places of intersection. Competition over map positions is the most obvious one, but there is also some competition for spots in the cult tracks and for particular bonus tiles. These are real and significant sources of interaction, and what other players do is important to your decisions in Terra Mystica, sometimes dramatically so. However, these interactions are not what you spend most of your time on. Instead you spend a lot of time on deciding how you want to spend your resources; whether you want to upgrade an existing building or expand your territory, or work on advancing on cult tracks, or whatever. I find this stuff to be entertaining, otherwise I would not like economic games as much as I do, but it is not the sort of thinking that pushes a game from “very good” to “fantastic” for me, and is the primary reason I am not able to build as much enthusiasm for Terra Mystica as I have been able to get for my favorite releases of previous years.
I like Terra Mystica a great deal, but have been unable to quite reach the point where I love it. It is an extremely impressive and clearly well designed game. All of the intricate parts work together quite effectively and while I wish more of your time was spent focusing on what other people are doing rather than building your empire, I do not think this will detract from the game’s general success and popularity. In fact I think it will only add to it and make Terra Mystica one of the most successful and popular releases of 2012. If you like heavy eurogames then this is a game you should definitely play.