Mini Review: Terra Mystica 1


At our previous International Tabletop day, one of the attendants was kind enough to bring their copy of Terra Mystica, allowing us to give it a spin! Here are my thoughts on this great game by Z-Man Games.
Let’s start off by saying, there is a very steep learning curve right off the get go! There are none of the usual game elements such as cards or dice, so immediately the game grabbed my attention as it focuses less on Luck and more on Skill.

Once set up,. this game takes over an impressive amount of table space!

Once set up,. this game takes over an impressive amount of table space!

What’s in the box?

The heavy box is neatly packed with seven double sided faction boards (Meaning there are fourteen factions to choose from!), a central game board depicting the world that you’re about to start terra forming, a worship board, a bunch of nice sturdy matte chits of various shapes and sizes, and hundreds of wooden pieces including seven colors of player pieces that each player needs to play.
This is a monstrosity of a game to break down and explain. It’s detailed with lots of “moving parts”. That being said, after a single playthrough the system’s mechanics are a lot clearer and quickly become almost intuitive. For the purposes of this review, I will talk about each of the the components. This will allow you to grok their true purpose as the overall game rules are then explained.

 

An empty starting board. Wont stay that way for long though!

An empty starting board. Wont stay that way for long though!

The Main Board

The main board is a map composed of seven different terrain types (one linked to each potential player colour) and separated into continental sections by water. Actions each player can take during a round may include the communal actions lining the bottom of the board, but those require mana, which we will get into detail about later.
You begin the game with a somewhat lengthy setup, and there are some important elements that will effect the rest of the game. The scoring tile track, of which you randomly choose six out of the included eight tiles and place them on the ladder like space provided on the left of the board. This is a really clever mechanic as even though the board itself doesn’t change, the scoring opportunities each round of each game do. Every game has six scoring rounds in total and they will effect how you choose your actions and in what order.

Worship Board

Separate from the primary main board is a cult worship board. This board is divided into the four paths of air, earth,  fire and water. In addition to round to round bonuses for sufficient worship on the board, at the end of the game the top three players with the most worship in each element also gain bonus points, so keeping up with your opponents is never a bad thing.

 

The noble nomad race gets an additional house to start off with!

The noble nomad race gets an additional house to start off with!

The Faction Board

Each player gets one of the double sided faction boards, determining their colour and factional powers. Once that is done the players then choose a starting bonus. There are nine separate starting bonuses tiles. Once again these are selected at random for each game, mixing it up every time you play) so that you have tiles equal to the number of players plus three. Each player will get their selected bonus for one round, then the bonuses will cycle out. IE: the first person to pass for that round, gets to to choose a new bonus tile from those available for the next round, leaving their previous tile behind (as a potential choice for another player). This clever mechanic means that sometimes you may pass a little early to get a particular bonus tile you want for the next round. (After all, your resources can always be used to complete that building project next round no?)

Every faction has a standard set of actions they can take. (printed on a handy reminder card!) The most important and obvious being constructing buildings. These buildings include Houses, trading houses, temples, sanctuaries and mighty strongholds. Each faction will have different costs for these buildings but they will always cost a combination of white wooden cubes (Which are meant to represent workers in your labor force but I call them tofu) and money. The building of advanced structures requires the basic house infrastructure to be in place first. So all structures start out as houses. Each time you build a new building, it takes an action. The clever design of the game comes into play when you realise that as you construct buildings and remove them from your faction board, it uncovers small resources icons. These icons, which have little hands under them, indicate that at a start of the turn you will receive that income. Aside from the previously mentioned workers (tofu) and money, you can also generate magical power or priests (Which are little meeples). lastly, the bigger buildings often provide special actions that can be used once a turn.

 

Architecture 101

The board is quickly filled with sprawling metropolises

The board is quickly filled with sprawling metropolises

In order to construct a building, you have to build on your factions appropriate landscape and generally next to your existing buildings. The Nomads for example, must build on dessert tiles. “But wait!” You cry, the board doesnt have ANY adjacent dessert tiles, how do they do that? Which of course brings us down to the name of the game… Magical terraforming! Of course, as most of you know, terraforming is art of changing a landscape into one you can survive on. In Terra Mystica, each faction uses magic or just plain brute force to change the face of the board so that they can settle their cities. The further away from your terrain type a tile is however, the more resources it requires to terraform it. This action requires “shovels” which are very expensive to obtain. (for most factions) As an interesting mechanic, you can upgrade your shovel “technology” up to twice allowing you to procure it for much cheaper. This also requires significant investment however, so a fine balance exists between the two options. Once your group of buildings reaches a certain size in both value and tile space, it becomes a City, granting you bonus points and the selection of a bonus effect or resources. Interestingly, building a structure next to another player allows them to “trade”,  giving them an opportunity to sacrifice some victory points to gain some power in proportion to the buildings they have adjacent to your new one. This is a tricky balance, as power is a very versatile resource, so it’s a seductive choice. It also makes for some interesting building plans, as being next to a neighbor will ensure you have the option to an accelerated power growth if you need it.

The Power of magic

The three bowls of power! *Cue ominous lightning*

The three bowls of power! *Cue ominous lightning*

Magic power in Terra Mystica has probably the most unique mechanic in the game. Your faction board has three purple bowls. One bowl is available power, One bowl is expended power and the third bowl is recharging power. All throughout the game, you will see the purple power icon with a small number in it. That number is power value you gain as an income. (or in some stages immediately on the worship track) Whenever you gain power, you have to prioritize the “Expended” bowl first, shifting little power tokens from expended to recharging for each power you gain. Once your expended bowl is empty, for each power you gain you shift a token in the “recharging” bowl into the “available” bowl. This power can now be used to cast spells and perform effects. Once you spend the tokens on the spell, you shift them to the “depleted” bowl and the cycle begins anew. As a nifty emergency option, you can also permanently burn power tokens from your recharging bowl (IE: remove them from the game and reduce your available magic power) to force power into the Available bowl. This results in a game of constant manipulation and adjustment of your power and opens up a lots of additional possibilities if you develop your lands into a “spell engine” of sorts.

Overall thoughts on playstyle

In my (humble) opinion, the entire game actually boils down to playing your actions in the right order, and most efficiently for your faction. Overall it becomes a balancing act of building up your structures and worshipers, focusing on whatever gives you the most points each scoring round based off the random setup, all the while attempting to build the best “resource engine” out of your cities. In the end, the player who has juggled their resources the best, gaining the most points overall will win at the end of the sixth turn.

Conclusion

Terra Mystica has many unique mechanics and an overwhelming array of action combos. The sheer volume of races and starting randomization results in a high re-playabilty overall, with seven double sided faction boards amounting to fourteen different characters you can play. The factions seem mostly as balanced as possible, although I’m fairly certain with enough play through, “optimal” locations may be found for each race to potentially start, as the only static element in the game is the main board layout. This of course can be mitigated through judicious randomization of starting factions.

 


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