Terra Mystica

Reviewed by: Pevans

(Feuerland Spiele/Z-Man Games, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up, 90+ minutes; $79.99)

terramysticaboxI came to Terra Mystica late. I missed it at Spiel ’12, but noticed when several people mentioned it as one of their favourite games of last year. I somehow got the impression it was a card game, a notion that was rapidly dispelled when I saw the deep box the game comes in. Inside are a board, players’ boards and lots of chunky wooden pieces and solid cardboard tiles. Plus the 20-page rulebook. Yes, Terra Mystica, as designed by Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag, is a complex game, so bear with me as I try to explain what’s going on.

The essential idea is that each player is a specific fantasy race (elves, dwarves, halflings et al), expanding and developing across the mystical land of the title. They score points for building towns and improving their faction’s abilities over a set number of rounds. There are bonus points available each round and final bonuses, which can be significant. As usual, the player with the most points at the end wins the game.

Okay, back to the beginning now to build up a picture of how this is achieved. The board shows the territory the players contest, divided into a grid of hexagonal spaces. Each hexagon shows a type of terrain, dominated by a particular colour: yellow means desert, mountains are grey and so on. (I had a chilling flashback to Kingdom Builder, but managed to suppress the shuddering.) As this is a fantasy land, terrain of each type is widely dispersed. In particular, you won’t find two spaces of the same type next to each other apart from the river spaces that divide the land into several sections.

Each player gets a colour, which indicates both their faction and the type of terrain they live in. There is a double-sided board for each colour, showing two different factions. While the essentials of the factions are the same, each has particular advantages and costs. For example, one side of the grey board is the Dwarves, who have the bonus of being able to pay extra to skip a space when expanding their territory (they dig tunnels!). On the other side are the Engineers, who can build bridges across the rivers – and potentially score points for them. Both of them live in the mountains, but only one of them will take part in any game. Your faction will, of course, influence the way you play the game: if you are the Engineers, you want to build bridges!

The heart of gameplay is expanding territory and adding buildings. In general, players must expand into areas that are next to their existing buildings. However, they can only occupy spaces of their own terrain type. In order to expand, therefore, players must first transform an adjacent space to their type of terrain. This requires a number of “spades”, depending on how far away the base terrain is from the one they want. Each faction board has a handy diagram – a wheel – that shows the seven terrain types with the faction’s home terrain at the top: each step is a spade.

Wielding a spade has a cost, though, which brings me to the several currencies in use in the game. One of these is cash, held as cardboard coins, another is workers – white cubes – and the third is priests, which are pawns in the player’s colour. The cost of a spade is shown by a track on each faction board, with a token that starts on the highest cost – three workers, say. Players can develop this ability, making each spade cheaper, by spending some combination of coins, workers and priests (shown on their faction board) and moving their token. This also scores points, so it can be worth doing just for the points.

terramystica2When a space is transformed, a disc showing the new terrain is placed on it. The player may immediately place a ‘dwelling’ (house-shaped wooden piece) on the space. As well as expanding a group of their buildings, this also increases the player’s income. Players’ unplayed dwellings are laid out in a row on their faction board and each empty space shows an additional worker income. At the end of the row is the cost of building each dwelling – in cash and workers.

Dwellings are only the basic buildings and the faction boards show how they can be upgraded. A dwelling is replaced by a ‘trading post’ (a church-shaped piece), which provides cash income (while returning the dwelling reduces the player’s worker income). A trading post can be upgraded to a ‘temple’ (squat cylinder), which provides priest income, or to the player’s one ‘stronghold’. Playing your stronghold gives you a specific bonus – this is how the Engineers are able to score points for their bridges, for example. A temple can also be upgraded, to the player’s one ‘sanctuary’. There is a cost to any upgrade, of course. This varies between factions and from building to building and is shown on the faction boards.

In addition, each type of building has a power value. A player’s group of at least four buildings with a high enough total power value becomes a town. On establishing a town, the player takes a bonus tile. This scores points immediately and provides some other bonus – workers, cash, a priest and so on. There is also a bonus for building a temple or sanctuary: a ‘Favor’ tile. There are a dozen different tiles, with limited numbers of each. Each Favor provides a reward (such as extra income or points) and increases the player’s standing with one of the cults that are another aspect of the game.

terramystica3A separate board has tracks for the four cults and players have a token on each – initially placed according to the faction they’re playing. Players’ standing in each cult brings them bonus points at the end of the game. This is not a huge numbers of points, in terms of overall score, but you can’t afford to ignore this aspect of the game (speaking from experience!). As well as taking Favors to increase their standing in a cult, players can deploy a priest to do this. However, the priest doesn’t come back and you have a limited number, so you have to give this some consideration. What’s more, there are a limited number of spaces to place priests on each cult, so delaying too long may mean losing this opportunity.

I have not yet mentioned a fourth resource players have: power. In the top left corner of each faction board are three interlinked ‘bowls of power’ – purple coloured ovals. Players start with a dozen tokens in the three bowls. When they gain power, they move tokens from bowl 1 (the palest purple) to bowl 2. Once bowl 1 is empty, they start moving tokens from bowl 2 to 3 (the darkest). And tokens in bowl 3 can be spent.

Across the bottom of the board is a row of special actions – gain priests, workers, cash, build a bridge, transform and build etc – with their cost in power. As their turn, players can use one of these, spending the appropriate amount of power. Each action can only be taken once per round, so the space is covered with a marker once the action has been taken. In addition, power can be traded for priests, workers or cash as part of an action. While this is very useful, it also increases the options to consider each turn: is it worth spending three power to get the extra worker to take that action? Or spend 1 on a coin and take a different action?

Let me see, what haven’t I covered yet? Ah, ships. Each faction board has a track where a token shows how many river spaces that player can use to connect their buildings. This generally starts at zero (the Mermaid faction’s special power is that they start with one). As with the spade track, this can be improved by paying the cost shown, which also scores some points.

So much for the parts of the game, now let me try to put it all together. A round begins with the players taking their income. Then, starting with the start player, players take an action. The options available to them are to transform a space and place a dwelling, upgrade a building, improve their spades or ships, put a priest on a cult or take one of the special actions. Play proceeds clockwise until everybody has had enough – usually because they’ve spent the resources they had available – and passes. The first to pass gets the start player marker for next round.

terramystica4As each player passes, they take one of the ‘bonus cards’ available and return the one they had this round. These narrow tiles provide extra income, points and/or an action for the round. Players take one at the start of the first round and then when they pass to finish a round. Note that this means that the tiles held by other players are never available to take and this can influence when you want to pass. The cards not chosen at the end of a round are made more attractive with the addition of a coin.

The other thing that happens at the end of the round is that players get a bonus based on their standing in a particular cult. This is shown on the tiles laid out for each round at the start of the game. They show a bonus that’s available during the round (for example, for building dwellings) as well as the one that takes effect at the end (a worker for every two points in the red cult, say). It’s definitely a good move to look at these at the start of the game and plan for which ones you will try to take advantage of. As they’re laid out at random, they can be convenient (say, points for building dwellings one round and points for trading posts later) or annoying (trading posts before dwellings).

As I’ve already mentioned, the game ends after a set number of rounds. Players score bonuses according to their relative positions in each cult and for the relative size of their largest contiguous group of buildings. They also convert their remaining resources into coins and get a point for every three coins. The bonuses are significant – a player who gets several bonuses can transform a losing position to a win – but the extras for resources don’t usually make much difference.

Did I mention that Terra Mystica is a complex game? This is definitely one that you need to play before you really understand what’s going on. I’ve played it a few times now and I’m still working on it. The differences between the factions are quite subtle, but make a substantial difference to how you approach the game. It might make sense to play the same faction for your first few games, as this will let you get to grips with the special requirements and rewards of this faction – but where’s the fun in that?

There are a couple of tactical wrinkles that I haven’t mentioned yet. First, when you build or upgrade a building that’s adjacent to other players’ buildings, they have the opportunity to gain some power points. The amount depends on the power values of their adjacent buildings and costs them one less victory point than they gain in power. This makes gaining a single power point a no-brainer. However, more than one point needs consideration. As you’ll realise, power points are more valuable early in the game (and players start with a few victory points so that they can pay for early power), but victory points are more valuable towards the end.

Now this is clearly a disincentive to build next to another player’s building. However, some buildings are cheaper to build when they’re adjacent to another player’s building. This makes it a trickier decision. The other factor is that building next to another player’s building deprives them of a space they could have expanded into, which generally makes tactical sense. In fact, there’s a whole tactical element to where you build according to what’s easiest for you to build on, what spaces the new one gives you access to and what it does to other player’s opportunities.

The second tactical wrinkle is that players can discard tokens from their level 2 power ‘bowl’ to move an equal number from there to level 3 – where they can be used. This sounds useful and it can be if you really need a few power points. It also reduces the number of tokens in your power bowls. The advantage of this is that you re-charge your power more quickly. The disadvantage is that you can’t have as many power points at your disposal. From my experience, I’d say it’s worth burning up a few tokens this way when you have to, but not too many – except on the last turn…

It’s hard to talk about how to play Terra Mystica since so much depends on just what options are available each turn, what you have in play and what your strategy is. Not to mention which faction you are playing. However, I think I can draw a few generalisations. First off, you need to get buildings onto the board, to increase your income if nothing else. As I’ve already mentioned, there are lots of tactical considerations in choosing which spaces to transform and which buildings to upgrade.

One thing to consider is how quickly to build your stronghold. This provides a bonus for each faction and getting it into play sooner rather than later may give you a significant edge. Building temples and your sanctuary gets you Favors and these also provide useful bonuses. The questions are which is most useful, how soon do you want to build them and what resources do you have available to do this. I usually find that I’m short of something: if I have enough cash, I need more workers; if I have workers, I need priests. Clearly you need to balance your income with your expenditure.

While you’re playing, don’t forget the bonuses available each round and the end of game bonuses. These last are particularly important. A large number of points goes to the player with the largest contiguous group of buildings, so this is well worth competing for. The points for positions in the cults are not as big, but there are four of them. Getting first place in more than your fair share of cults gives you an edge over your opponents.

As you will have gathered, there is an awful lot to think about in Terra Mystica. You have a lot of options to weigh up and decisions to take. This makes it a challenging game to play and I do have a bit of a problem with the resulting analysis paralysis. While I enjoy the game and am happy to play it, it’s not a game that I want to play week in and week out – though this is probably what you need to do if you want to be good at it. I give it 7/10 on my highly subjective scale.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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