05 November 2016

Board Game Review: Terra Mystica

A game of Terra Mystica in progress. The board, made up of a series of hexagonal spaces, each representing a different terrain type, some with discs to indicate that it has been changed to a different terrain type, is covered with wooden pieces of various types, some of which have cardboard tokens indicating that they've been turned into cities.
I recently got to learn a hefty game called Terra Mystica. Being the dedicated game reviewer that I am, I will now review it for you. As always, we start with the numbers.

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 5
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Useful
Average Length of Gameplay: 2 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

Terra Mystica is a heavy and fairly complex game. Players take on the role of a faction. Many of these factions are a fantasy race, such as elves, dwarves, halflings, or giants. Others are classifications, like chaos magicians, witches, alchemists, or engineers. Still others appear to have been created wholecloth, like the auren or the swarmlings. Regardless of which faction you choose, you take the appropriate player mat, which details all the options, costs, special abilities, etc, for your faction. This mat also provides a place to organise your pieces.

In the centre of the playing area is the game board. This is comprised mostly of hexagonal terrain spaces, including mountains, deserts, wastelands, plains, forests, lakes, and swamps. Rivers separate some of these hexes. Each faction can only settle in one terrain type; for examples, merfolk can only live in the lakes, whilst nomads can only settle the desert, and so on. Players start by placing two dwellings on the board, in any hex they are allowed to settle.

During a player's turn, he may take any one of a list of eight actions detailed on a handy player aid. In some ways, the most important action is to build or upgrade dwellings. This is done by paying the listed cost (usually one gold and one worker cube to build a dwelling; six gold and two worker cubes to upgrade a dwelling to a trading house, etc. Note that trading houses may be upgraded either into a temple — which can be further upgraded into a sanctuary — or into a stronghold). And this is where the unique and interesting mechanic of Terra Mystica comes into play: whenever you build or upgrade a structure, any players who occupy adjacent hexes gain power.

Power is a strange little beast. On your player card are three 'bowl of power.' These are purple ovals on which you place markers representing your mystic power. You start the game with some tokens in bowl 1 and some in bowl 2. These tokens are effectively worthless until they are in bowl 3. They may be spent from bowl 3 by moving them to bowl 1 in order to take a variety of 'power actions,' which are generally detailed either on the game board, your player mat, or one of the various tokens you can receive throughout the game.

To get power tokens into bowl 3, you must move them there from bowl 1. However, you cannot move tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3 if there are any tokens in bowl 1. You must first move all tokens from bowl 1 into bowl 2 before you can start moving any tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3. Normally, tokens are moved as a result of other players building or upgrading structures on a hex adjacent to one of your structures. Each power gained in this manner allows you to move one power token to the next bowl. Occasionally, you will gain power as part of your income, or by advancing on a cult track (more on cult tracks in a moment). The only time you're allowed to move power tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3 when there are still tokens in bowl 1 is if you take a free action to sacrifice (that is, remove from the game entirely) an equal number of tokens from bowl 2.

When building a new dwelling, you must place it adjacent to one of your existing structures. But, as it is rare to have two of the same terrain type adjacent to one another, this means that you will have to terraform. There is a terrain conversion wheel on your player mat; the further away from your native terrain an existing terrain type is on this wheel, the more difficulty it is to convert. You must use a number of spades (spades are normally obtained by turning in worker cubes, but can be acquired in other ways as well) equal to the number of steps you move along the conversion wheel in order to terraform hexes. Once you have transformed a terrain hex in this way, you place a marker on it to indicate the type of terrain that it has become.

In addition to building and upgrading structures, actions include:

  1. Upgrading your shipping. Most factions start with a shipping value of zero, but this can be upgraded during the game. Your current shipping value determines how many river spaces away a structure can be and still be considered 'indirectly adjacent.' Although indirect adjacency does not count when building new structures, it does count when determining how many connected hexes you control at the end of the game when determining victory point for largest controlled areas.
  2. Decrease the exchange rate for purchasing spades. At the start of the game, most factions must spend three worker cubes per spade, unless using a power action or other special benefit. Taking this action decreases the cost.
  3. Send a priest to a cult temple. There are four cults in Terra Mystica: one each for earth, air, fire, and water. The different factions start with zero, one, or two points of influence in each one (for example, the darklings start with one each in earth and water and none in the others, whereas the witches start with two in air and none elsewhere). By sending priests to a temple, that faction moves two or three spaces further along the track for that cult. Standing in a cult is worth victory points at the end of the game, and you can gain power from moving along the tracks as well.
  4. Take any power actions or special actions available to you. There are some power actions listed on the game board, and special actions may be made available to you as a result of actions you take during the course of the game (for example, once the Witches have built their stronghold, they gain the option of a special action that allows them to place a dwelling on any unoccupied forest space). Power actions and special actions may only be taken once per round (even if it was taken by another player; so once a specific action has been taken once by any player, no player may take that action again until the next round).
  5. Pass. Once you are unable (or no longer wish) to take any more actions, you can pass. When you pass, you turn in your current Bonus Card (which grants you resources, points, special actions, or some combination of these) and select a new one to use on your next round. In addition, the first player to pass on a round becomes the first player on the following round.
Once everyone has passed, you proceed through the cleanup phase, which involves resetting the once-per-round actions, gaining cult bonuses, and so on. Then the next turn begins with the income phase. The game lasts for a total of 6 rounds. At the end, the player with the most victory points wins. Victory points are rewarded (and can be spent!) in a variety of ways. 

This is just the briefest overview (and it's already quite long!) There are a lot of details I've left out (for example, I haven't even mentioned founding cities!). So you can see why I rated the complexity of this game at 5.

The first time I played this game, I lost very badly. I don't normally mind losing, but in this case, I felt like I simply had no real clue what was going on. I had trouble remembering what the iconography on the game pieces meant, I had trouble working out what options were available to me on my turn, and this left me completely unable to devise a strategy. The second time I played, it was better, but I still feel I need to play a few more times to really get a grasp on how this game works.

The other problem I have is that this game has a strong economic aspect. The more structures you build, the more income you receive. But of course, it can be very expensive to build structures. It's the old 'you have to spend money to make money' trope. And for whatever reason, I've never been very good at that. Games with a strong economic component like this are hard for me.

I don't know. I think I'll give it a few more tries before I write it off completely. But I also think it will take me two or three more plays to really get the hang of it. Which is a shame, because several of my friends really like this game. I'd hate to think I'm missing out on something good just because of a bad introduction. So I don't want to just give up on it. But I fear it will take a few tries before I can get it right, assuming I ever do.

Anyway. That's my impression. What are yours? Please let me know what you think in the comments below, and I will see you here again next week. Until then,

Game on!


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