Essen Preview #30: Terra Mystica Rules Preview and Interview with one of the Designers

Terra Mystica

(rules summarized by Luke Hedgren)

Board is a hex grid, with 7 different terrain types, plus some rivers, dividing the land up into irregular islands and peninsulas. Each player chooses a faction that determines special abilities and one of the seven colors to be their home terrain. Each color/terrain type has 2 possible options. Examples are Witches, Dwarves, Mermaids, etc. (Because of the special faction powers almost every absolute in this summary could be followed by “unless you are the X, who do something different.” Be warned.)

Players start with 2 Dwellings on the board in two different hexes of their home terrain, and during the game will build more, and upgrade them to Trade Houses, Temples, Strongholds and Sanctuaries. Each of these increase your income in some way, as well as other effects. The Stronghold is important, as it allows you access to your factions’ secondary special ability. Also, when building and upgrading, any adjacent opponents may trade in some vps for power (one of the currencies). Temples and your Sanctuary provide favors when built. This is one of the major ways to shape your strategy, as you get a choice of favors that can direct your progress in the game.

The board

There is a cult board, that tracks each player’s level in 4 different cults. Movement up this track is rewarded each round with “stuff” depending on score cards, with power as you pass thresholds, and with points at the end of the game based on player rank.

Over the course of 6 rounds, players will get some income, spend action rounds doing as many actions as they like, and some scoring and cleanup each round. The currencies in the game are coins, workers, priests and power. These are earned during the game, and during the income phase of each turn, based mostly on how many, and of what type of buildings you have built. Built buildings reveal your income on your player board, Eclipse-style. Coins, priests and workers are represented by standard bits, but power has a unique 3-stage rondel of sorts, where your available power is tracked.

Player board for the Fakirs. The Power circle is upper left.

During the game, buildings need to be built adjacent to your existing buildings. This adjacency can be expanded along rivers, and this “indirect adjacency” allows for more building options and counts for end-game scoring groups, but does not count for building cities nor neighbor power bonuses, which require direct adjacency .

There are 2 kinds of cards in the game, bonus cards and scoring cards. The Bonus cards are selected each round by the players, from a group of N+3. When you pass your turn, you take another, from the unclaimed. Also, each round, unused ones are given a bonus coin, Puerto Rico-style. These cards provide a small bonus income or ability for the round. The scoring cards are laid out at the beginning of the game, one per round. They determine what activity will gain some bonus points for that round (building a dwelling, or upgrading to a trade house) as well as a way to score the cults. An example of the latter might “be receive 1 worker for every 2 spaces moved along the orange cult track.” The scoring cards direct much of the in-game strategy, as you want to be positioned to gain points from the assigned tasks in the appropriate round.

The bonus cards

The action choices are as follows:

  1. Convert an adjacent terrain to your home type, and then optionally pay some stuff to build a Dwelling on it. The more “different” the converted terrain is, the more “spades” you need to convert it. Spades are normally gained by trading in workers. Remember this triggers adjacent opponents to trade some vps for power if they want.
  2. Pay some stuff to advance your shipping track. This allows you to use the river spaces to expand your building area using indirect adjacency.
  3. Pay some stuff to advance on the worker/spade track. This decreases the number of workers you need each time you need a spade.
  4. Pay some stuff to upgrade one of your buildings. Put the old one back on your player board, and put the new one in its place. The standard track is Dwelling, Trade House, Temple then your single Sanctuary. Your single Stronghold gets upgraded from a Trade House. Again, this triggers your neighbors’ ability to trade vps for power.
  5. Permanently sacrifice a priest to move up 2 or 3 spaces on a cult track. Alternatively, temporarily sacrifice him to move 1 space.
  6. Spend some power to claim one of the communal actions that are on the board. These are standard-ish things, like use some spades, or get some more workers or coins. One time use per round, so claim them early if you want them. Additionally, outside of normal actions, you may use power for exchange actions. These can be done before or after your normal action, and do not count as an action. You can spend power for workers, priests and money.
  7. Special actions, granted by “stuff” during the game. An example is the special action that might become available to you depending on your faction once you build your stronghold.
  8. Pass. When you pass, you get to trade out your bonus card for another, and the first person to pass gets to be the starting player.

As a free action, during your turn, you can found a town. You can place a town when you have a group of at least 4 directly connected buildings, and a sufficient value of buildings. A city provides a one time bonus of stuff and points, and as well, grants you the ability to reach the highest point on a cult track.

The cult board

End game scoring occurs after 6 rounds. Points are awarded for advancement on the cult tracks, groups of adjacent buildings and leftover resources. Most points wins.

I glossed over a few things (e.g. permanent power sacrifice, bridges that expand direct adjacency, etc.) but I think you should get the gist of this complex and interwoven game.

Impressions from the Rules – Well, I must admit that I’m dying to get a chance to play this one.  I will admit that I’ve recently leaned towards the lighter fare (I’m the anti-Jesse Dean), but this year I have certianly been drawn more towards the complex games.  Additionally, the game has a very good pedigree, both of the co-designers have created games which I greatly enjoy: Zepter von Zavandor and KaivaiThere are a lot of moving parts here, and I think a big challenge here will be managing the multiple currencies in the game (power, coins, workers and priests).  You might be pushed towards one over the other based on your race’s special ability, but I think a big part of the game will revolve around making sure you have enough of what you need.

Gameplay should be quite varied given the different special abilities – both primary and secondary, and how they will interact with the other possible choices.  The bonus cards also add little tweaks along the way, though it remains to be seen just how varied and strong these bonus cards are.  Furthermore, the way in which the scoring cards come out will change how you approach each round, and this will be different in each game that you play. There are some concerns that I would have with any game with special powers as far as balance is concerned, but after discussing the game with one of the designers, I’m not as worried now.  And speaking of that conversation… on to the interview with one of the designers!

OG Interview with Helge Ostertag about Terra Mystica

Helge, thank you for taking the time to do this short interview about your new game.  As I mentioned on BGG, I am intending to do a series of interviews, each limited to 16 questions.  When we are finished, I will format the interview and let you review it before we post it to our blog!  Thanks again!

Q1) Helge, I’ve read the rules to Terra Mystica, and it’s most definitely a complicated game.  If someone asked you to describe the game concisely (say in an 60 second elevator ride), how would you explain the game?

A1) It is a fantasy themed civilization game with a strong spatial element. One of its central mechanics is the terraforming of different terrain into your homeland, each faction lives on its own habitat an can expand only after transforming other landscapes into their own habitat.

Q2) Can you tell me a bit more about how the game started out?  The rules mention that: “Terra Mystica has been designed by Helge Ostertag. The rules have been adapted to the great variety of game plays in cooperation with co-designer Jens Drögemüller…” It sounds like you started on your own, and then you had assistance from Jens later?

A2)  The first versions of this game go back to 1997, when my brother and I experimented with 5 different landscapes and 5 factions on a modular gameboard with squareshaped spaces. After Hans im Glück tested and finally rejected our game, we gave it a rest. Years later, about 2001/2002, I restarted the designing process, now on my own, without my brother Anselm. I expanded it to 7 landscapes and 14 factions, changed to hexspaces on a fixed board (thus accelerating the setup of the game  a great deal), I expanded the techtrees and so on and so on. 2010 I met Uwe Rosenberg at the Cliquenabend Mallorca Gathering, he liked the game, but said, there was still some work to do (e.g. excluding luck factors, eliminating arbitrary destructive actions and make the differences between the factions/peoples more distinct). Uwe introduced Jens and Frank (publisher) to me at our first testing session back in Germany, and after a few more sessions, Jens asked me, if I was interested in him as co-designer, which sped up the remaining work and  really brought the game onwards to its final state.

Q3) Wow. 15 years in the making!  It has definitely evolved over time from your description.  As you were creating the game back in 1997, did you use any games as inspiration for Terra Mystica?  Did other games published in the intervening 15 years also help shape Terra Mystica?

A3) The idea of terraforming was inspired be an old game for Macintosh “Spaceward Ho”, the techtree of the buildings was inspired by computergames like “War Craft”, but other than that I can’t say I was directly inspired by this game or that, though I am sure there are influences. The idea of the ressource income via player board (built structures show your income)is something you find in some other games, but when I had the idea, none of these games existed. I have to give Uwe credit here, he helped as well to shape some mechanics of TM.

Q4) A lot of the complexity in the game, as well as the high potential for replayability stems from the 14 different factions that you have created for the game.  How did you go about balancing all the different factions?

A4) In the beginning it was a lot of trial and error, we had to change the gameboard at some places to fit in with the factions abilities, ran about 120-150 test plays, changing this and that. When we sorted out, what factions and abilities we really liked, we started refining the mechanics, tuning here and there – at prices, at VP’s, at starting ressources, at cult bonusses and at favour tiles. It was a very long process and I am glad we had so many playtesters. In the end we had a chart, telling us which factions won above the average and which were to weak. So we followed our statistics for the last finetuning, playtested several more times and in June 2012 we were ready, after 2 intense years of playtesting.

Q5) Sounds like your playtesting was laborious indeed – 150 games of a 90-120 minute game is nothing to sneeze at!  Though, I would guess that repeated plays probably brings down your playtime?  Once players are very familiar with the game, how long would a game take for 2p/3p/4p?

A5) When you know the game, playing time per player is about 25 minutes.

Q6) That is definitely raising my interest in the game.  From what I see in the rules, there is a lot of game there for 25 minutes/player!  It appears that you will end up having to approach the game slightly different each time depending on which faction you receive/choose.  Could you talk a bit about how you decided which factions you included in the recommended first game?  I know that we spent a lot of time choosing the first 10 cards for Dominion – it was important to us to get the first-time player off to a good start so that their first experience with the game was as good as possible.  Are the Nomads easier to play or easier to win with?  Or were you trying to avoid specific combinations of factions?

A6) For the recommended first game, there is a specific order for the chosen scoring tiles and there are specific bonus cards to get the first-time player off to a good start. The recommended factions exclude the more difficult ones (like for instance Chaosmagicians or Swarmlings – both definately for advanced players) and  are chosen in a balanced distribution around the circle of terraforming.

We tried to use easy to play factions with abilities around the basic mechanics of Terra Mystica: Witches have a good starting position right in the center of the map. Nomads have no problems to expand their territory. Alchemists have no problems getting money. Halflings are good in terraforming. Mermaids are good in expanding along the rivers and in founding towns. Giants have a strong special ability which can be unlocked by building their fortress.

Q7) Oh, that makes sense. I hadn’t thought about their relationship on the Terraforming circle – and that seems like it would be good to try to balance in an introductory game as well. Considering the different factions, what is the relationship of the factions that share a color?  Was that choice made to make sure that Chaos Magicians and Giants would never be in the same game, etc?  Or is there a relationship among the 7 different pairs of factions that I don’t see?

A7) The relationship between the 7 pairs is more a thematic one, we imagined, what kind of faction would like to live in each of the different landscapes? Or – where would that faction want to live, what habitat do they like?

Q8) One more question about the factions – The rules seem to allow you to either select your own faction or deal them out at random, so it seems that all the factions work well with any other… but are there any particular faction matchups that you prefer?  For example, are Dwarves as interesting to play against Fakirs as against Mermaids, etc.?

A8) When I choose a faction, for me the most important thing to consider is what scoring tiles are in the game (and in which order) and on what bonus cards can I rely upon. Next important thing: am I first, second….or last in turn order, because I prefer not to be surrounded by factions that are adjacent to mine on the terraforming circle – it is to much competition on the gameboard. On the other hand, I try to be a competitor to another player concerning landscapes, when so far nobody has chosen a faction close to his on the terraforming circle.
I will put it this way: some matchups are more demanding than others, depending on many factors, not just on the factions themself.
In our test sessions I was very good with the Dwarves, Frank was very good with the Nomads, Jens was very good with the Chaosmagicians – some factions are more to my liking (and therefor easier to play for me), than others (those are more demanding).

Q9) Well, that makes a lot of sense. I am looking forward to exploring how the different factions interact and how their special abilities will change how I play the game.  One other thing that often changes a game is the number of players.  In Terra Mystica, you use the same size map whether there are 2 or 5 players in the game.  Does the relative amount of space change how the game plays with varying numbers of players?
A9) You need proximity to other players to build trading houses (upgrade dwellings into trading houses) for less money and you can gain power when other players build close to you – that is enough appeal to stay close to each other even in a 2 player game. But of course with more players competition for key hexspaces increases and the general amount of space is more limited.

So with more spatial competition, your timing of expansion is very crucial, otherwise you will be cut off from central spaces and will have a hard time to get into the area scoring and founding towns is getting more difficult as well.

Q10) That all makes sense, and it’s a good design that can accomodate different numbers of players equally.  That being said, is there any particular number that you prefer to play Terra Mystica with?  Is there a number that is better for an initial game?
A10) I prefer to play it with 4 or 5 players, simply because there are more players to interact with, more opponent agendas to play against/compete with. I think 4 players is good to start with: you get to know different factions and will be able to play the game within a reasonable time (assuming first games take longer than an advanced players game).

q11) So, if I remember correctly, you co-designed your previous game with your brother.  Was it different not working with him this time?

A11) From my previous games I co-designed the Western themed cardgame DESPERADOS, the strategy boardgame KAIVAI + Expansion and the bluffing cardgame GURU together with my brother Anselm, GALAKTICO was my design, published by Anselm at Pfifficus Spiele. In all these games I was somehow involved in publishing or even producing (we handmade the spaceships for Galaktico) and the steps weren’t allways so clearly separated. Our time schedule for each game was allways tight and as self-publishers we didn’t allways have enough distance to be critical enough at some points (for instance, the first version of the Kaivai rules were hard to understand for many players, because we didn’t ask enough other people to read them).

With Jens as co-designer, Frank as publisher and main playtester and Uwe in the background, everything about the game was checked several times, critical questions being asked along the whole balancing process of TM. Jens is more the type of heavygames gamer -like myself- whereas my brother has a taste for lighter games, with Kaivai being the exception. After Kaivai I would have liked to do another heavy strategy game, but Anselm wanted to go more into the direction of action or fun games (like HATZ FATZ). So with Jens it was working in the same direction again.

q12) That makes a lot of sense!  And, you can definitely count me in the group that was a little confused with the initial set of rules of Kaivai!  But, you and your brother were very good at answering all the questions, and it is still one of my favorite games from that year!  So, are you working on any new designs for the future?  Or has all of your time been devoted to Terra Mystica?

A12) Thanks to the internet we were able to clarify all the confusing parts of the Kaivai rules. But to avoid confusion on the first hand is much better, so I am glad that Uwe wrote the rules of Terra Mystica and I was able to look a little bit from the outside onto the rules.
I hope you will enjoy the similarities of Kaivai and Terra Mystica: both games have a strong spatial element and in both games symbiotic behaviour can be beneficial.
To your question:
Well, Terra Mystica required a lot of time, but I am already working on some new ideas and designs. I just started the next design with Jens, so you can expect another Ostertag/Drögemüller game in the future.

Q13) Well I’m definitely looking forward to getting my first chance to play Terra Mystica. Where can I (and others) find you in Essen? Will you be in your usual Hall 5 spot?

A13) Feuerland Spiele will be in Hall 9 booth 9-94. It is in the same Hall as lookout games and Uwe Rosenberg will be at the Feuerland booth as well to explain Terra Mystica.

Q14) Well, that’s convenient – Uwe won’t have far to go between his two stands!  Do you know yet how large the print run will be? Will people need to pre-order Terra Mystica to get a copy? If so, where would they pre-order?

A14) The printrun is 2000 copies. You can pre-order the game via if you want to make sure to get a copy in Essen. 1000 copies will be ready on time and taken to Essen.

q15) Great. I peeked at the website – I can see that the price is 59,90 EUR.  The rules can be downloaded from that page or from BGG.  Will there be any Essen-only special components or expansions?
A15) Frank decided the Essen-special will be a reduced price. At the Essen fair you can get Terra Mystica for 50.- €. We do have some ideas for future expansions, like additional factions, but that is something for maybe next year.

Q16) OK, last question, and before I forget – thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me via email.  Is there any last thing you’d want people to know about Terra Mystica to get them to try it?

A16) About the favor tiles: they are a reward you get for building religious structures (temples or sanctuary), indeed they are another kind of “technology” you can gain, creating income, victory points, additional cult influence. And they add another aspect to the replayability of Terra Mystica, because you have to choose between 12 different favor tiles and most factions can get a maximum of 5 favors per game (Auren up to 6, Chaosmagicians up to 10), so different strategies are waiting here as well!

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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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3 Responses to Essen Preview #30: Terra Mystica Rules Preview and Interview with one of the Designers

  1. John Brier says:

    Thanks for doing the interview! Terra Mystica is my most highly anticipated game of the year so of course I enjoyed reading this. One small quibble with your rules explanation: you say: “During the game, buildings need to be built adjacent to your existing buildings. This adjacency can be expanded along rivers, and this “indirect adjacency” allows for more building options, but does not count for end game scoring direct adjacency ” That last sentence is incorrect. Indirect adjacency DOES count for end game scoring. The only places it doesn’t count are for founding a town and for gaining power (when your opponents build or upgrade – directly – adjacent to you).

  2. Lucas Hedgren says:

    Thanks for the correction, John. Ill edit.

  3. ふらつー モンサンミッシェル [プラダ 店]

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