Mary Dimercurio Prasad: Review of Terra Mystica

BoxTerra Mystica

Publisher: Z-Man Games/Filosofia Editions
Designers: Helge Ostertag, Jens Drögemüller
Artist: Dennis Lohausen
Players: 2-5
Ages: 14+
Playing Time: 30 min per player
MSRP $79.99
Released: 2012

Reviewed by: Mary Dimercurio Prasad
Game Played: Review Copy
Number of Plays: 5+

Introduction

Terra Mystica is a strategy game with a simple game principle and very little luck involved:

You govern one of 14 factions trying to transform the landscape on the game board in your favor in order to build your structures. On the one hand, proximity to other players limits your options for further expansion[;] on the other hand though[,] it provides some benefits during the game. This conflict is the source of Terra Mystica’s appeal.

The 14 artfully designed factions, each having unique special abilities, as well as the exchangeable Bonus Cards allow for a large number of possible game plays that constantly keep this game entertaining! (From website.)

Rules Summary

The game board is mostly made up of terrain hex spaces separated by river hex spaces. This is where each player will build their faction’s structures. Along one side of the board is a Round Scoring Track, with an end-game scoring summary at the top. Before the game starts, 6 of the 8 included Scoring Tiles will be laid out, one per round in the game. Each round one of these tiles will be flipped so players can tell at a glance which round they are in, as well as what the scoring will be for the current and following rounds. Two tiles will not be used but are provided for variation in other plays. The bottom of the board has six Power Action Spaces for use during the game.

Game Board

Players each receive a faction board. There are 7 double-sided boards included with the game, corresponding to the 7 types of terrain in the game. The game plays up to 5 players so there are a lot of options for future games. Each side depicts a different faction with its own strengths and weaknesses. For example the dark gray board has the Alchemists on one side and the Darklings on the other side. The terrain type for both of these factions, swamps, is also dark gray. Each faction may only build structures on hexes of their home terrain type, thus players must terraform other types before they may build on them.

Each faction has a unique ability and a stronghold power depicted on their boards. In general, the ability is available immediately and/or throughout the game whereas the stronghold power is only available once the player has built a stronghold. Before the game starts, each player sets up his Faction board with the structures that will be used for the game, in their player color: 8 dwellings, 4 trading houses, 1 stronghold, 3 temples, and 1 sanctuary (more below). Players also take 7 priests, 7 markers (for different tracks), and 3 bridges in their player color, plus 12 power tokens in purple.

Players receive the starting resources shown at the upper right of their faction board. Workers (natural colored cubes, shown as white on the boards), coins, and priests will be gained and spent during the game. Below the starting resources are the exchange track and the terraforming cycle for this faction. The exchange track shows how many workers it takes to terraform one step (single shovel icon). Players may pay the resources shown below the exchange track to move up one on the track, making it less expensive to terraform. The topmost space of the terraforming cycle shows the home terrain, then moving left or right down the wheel, terrain types shown become increasingly more difficult to terraform, indicated by the shovels between the levels.

Player Board

Player Board

The upper left part of the faction board shows the three bowls of power with the starting location of the 12 power tokens, which may differ depending on the faction. There is also a small chart on bowl III showing exchange values. During the game, players gain power as income, by advancing on the cult board (described later), and by other players building adjacent to their buildings. The latter is a key element to the game: building near opponents may gain you power but also limits your ability to expand.

There are places for all player structures on the faction board; each structure covers a resource income, ability (stronghold), or cult favor (sanctuary). Once a space has been uncovered, i.e. when it has been built on the main game board, that resource/ability/favor becomes active or comes into play. The cost to build each is also listed on the faction board. Structures follow the upgrade chart, as shown. For example, to build a temple, a player must spend 2 workers and 5 coins to replace one of her trading houses on the main game board with the temple. The trading house goes back to her faction board, covering its income, although she now gets the income uncovered by the newly placed temple.

To the right of the structures, at the bottom right of the board is the shipping chart and faction’s special ability. The shipping chart allows a player to build across river spaces. The cost to advance on the shipping space is shown at the left of the chart.

There is also a separate cult board where players may develop four cults: fire, water, earth, and air. Advancing on the chart provides the player with increased power and other rewards, such as possible points at the end of the game.

Cult Board

Cult Board

At the start of the game, a subset of 9 Bonus Cards will be set out, depending on the number of players. Favor Tiles, Town Tiles, terrain tiles, workers, coins, and other tokens will also be set out.

The goal of the game is to earn the most victory points (VP). There are multiple ways to gain VP:
Favor Tiles that award VP under certain conditions
Bonus Cards that award VP under certain conditions
Scoring Tiles after each round award VP for certain conditions
Founding towns (explained below)
Improving shipping
Improving terraforming skills
Some factions have special abilities to gain VP
End game scoring awards VP: area scoring and cult scoring

Before the game begins, there is a set up where each player will place two starting dwellings “Settlers style.” Then, beginning with the last player, going counterclockwise, each player will choose a Bonus Card. The game is played over six rounds. At the start of a round, players collect income. The next phase is actions: each player, beginning with the start player, takes an action or passes. When a player passes, he trades his Bonus Card with a new one and takes no more actions this round. The first player to pass also takes the start player marker. This continues until every player has passed.

Actions
There are eight possible actions; each may be taken multiple times (except passing), although power actions and special actions may each only be done once per round.
1. Terraform and build – players may terraform a space, paying the appropriate costs, then build a dwelling if they are able (i.e. the space has been terraformed into their home type). Adjacency and other rules apply. If you build next to an opponent, she may gain power (one being free but gaining more costs VP).
2. Advancing on the shipping track.
3. Lowering the exchange rate for spades.
4. Upgrading one of your structures on the main game board, following the upgrade chart.
5. Send a priest to the cult board
6. Power actions – these may only be taken by one player each round; when taken, the action is marked by an Action Token to show that it has been used this round. Power is used to take these actions (see Bowls of Power below).
7. Special Actions – these may only be taken once per round and are marked with an Action Token when taken.
8. Passing and taking a new Bonus Card.

Conversions
At any time during your turn, you may do any number of conversions. The conversion chart is on the player board, under power bowl III. These exchange power for priests, workers, or coins, or convert a priest to a worker, or a worker to a coin. These do not count as actions.

Bowls of Power
Each player starts the game with 12 purple power tokens, distributed as described by the player’s setup. When a player gains power, if there are tokens in bowl I, he moves the tokens to bowl II. Once bowl I has been emptied, for each power gained, he moves power from bowl II to bowl III. If all power tokens are in bowl III, he cannot gain more power. Players spend power by moving tokens from bowl III to bowl I. If a player does not have enough power in bowl III for an action or conversion, he may sacrifice power tokens: for each token moved from bowl II to bowl III, a token from bowl II must be removed from the game.

Founding a Town
During the game, towns are founded automatically when a player has at least 4 adjacent structures (3 if one is a sanctuary) and they total at least 7 in value (the value is the number of purple tokens listed next to the structure on the player board). A player chooses a Town Tile, receiving its benefits, and places it under one of the town structures.

At the end of a round, cult bonuses, shown on the Scoring Tile, are activated. There is a bit of clean up, e.g. Action Tokens, used to mark if an action was taken, are removed. Flip the Scoring Tile face down.

Download the pdf from Z-Man Games for the full set of rules.

Thoughts

The price of Terra Mystica may seem a bit steep but you get a lot of bang for your buck. This game is packed with wooden bits and cardboard! The production is high quality (although I do prefer a linen texture to the smooth matte finish, but it is still quite nice). The artwork is attractive, without being distracting. The only board that’s a little tricky is the cult board – just remember that the spaces are colored and you’ll be fine.

One of the things I like best about the game is its replayability. There are a lot of factions to try, as well as variations in Bonus and Scoring Tiles, making each game quite a bit different. I’ve played the game with 2, 3, 4, and 5 players. It scales well, although it slows down with 4 and 5. I personally do not care for the extra competition with more players, but some people enjoy the extra tension. I prefer playing with 2 or 3.

Two main mechanisms of the game are engine building and resource management; both things I love in a game. There are different ways to go about building your engine, through building via the upgrade chart, and choices of Favor Tiles. Throw in Bonus Cards, power actions, special actions, cults, conversions, etc. – there is a lot to do during the game! This is another reason I love it: it is not a simple repetitive game by any means.

Although there are a lot of rules, it is pretty straightforward and fairly easy to figure out. The rulebook is well written, with lots of colorful photos. After playing a few rounds, things will start to make sense. By the second game, play will come more naturally (of course, being efficient is a different story). It is a very gamery game (is that a thing?), with much strategy and little luck. Players will need to keep things moving because it is easy to overthink with all the choices available. Analysis Paralysis (AP) inflicted players will likely bog down the game.

There are a couple unique features of Terra Mystica. The bowls of power movement is quite unique; its use as a source of exchange for certain things, as well as its use for actions gives players a lot of flexibility. Also, having something positive coming from being adjacent to opponents is very interesting. Players actually want to be near opponents, although they must balance this against their more limited ability to expand to other areas.

This is a solid game, firmly planted in the “Euro” style category, with lots of replayability and very little luck (yay!). It also scales well and is fun to play. Just don’t play with Mr. AP.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Korner: Terra Mystica is one of my favourite ‘heavier’ eurogames to come out over the past few years. The balance between sticking to yourself (to maximize expansion space) while leeching off others (which means you want neighbours) is sometimes tricky to navigate, and nothing makes you feel more annoyed than letting your neighbour take the power she needs to grab the power action you wanted just before you can.

That said, there are some issues with the game that remain. A good friend of mine maintains that much of the game is on rails once the initial placements are set; while there is elbowing for position and the occasional competition for the same items, much of this is secondary to the arc of the game and winning is more an output of competent play as opposed to clever tactics. I’m not sure I agree entirely with this, but it does happen from time to time that the game’s outcome appears well known relatively early on.

There is also the issue of faction balance, which, let’s be honest, is tough to perfect. Even accounting for some factions benefitting from certain setups more than others, some factions are simply better than others. This was not helped by the expansion, which features not one by two overpowered factions. If you think this is a major issue, then feel free to bid victory points for draft position; if not just see how things go. Not a showstopper as long as everyone’s around the same skill level.

Matt Carlson: (just a first impression based on one play.) This game has everything I enjoy in a deeper strategy game – engine building, unique player powers, slightly randomized starting conditions. However, my only play didn’t spur me on to try to obtain the game myself (and thus be able to play it more often.) While it was fun, and I did rather well with my specializations, it seemed that one of the other races/players had a bit of an advantage in our setup.

I’m the first to admit that one cannot judge balance based on a single game – but it did sour the game for me a bit (despite playing with perhaps my favorite circle of boardgamers that I might be able to assemble.) While I’d entirely write off my concerns due to a first time play, Patrick’s comments lend a bit of weight to my concerns. I can see why the game is enjoyed so highly by many people – and I would have expected to experience the same when just looking at the mechanics – but somehow, I didn’t. As it stands, I’m putting it as a “high” neutral, with decent odds it would climb up into the “like” it range if I were able to play it more frequently (something I do not foresee in the near future.)

Patrick Brennan: A game I can admire, and appreciate why many people rate it as high as they do. It’s a simple game of expanding your territory and building on your territories. And then it gets complicated because there’s a ton of ways to go about it. Each building provides a different type of income. The twist they pull is that to build a new building you must upgrade it from an older building. You get the new type of income, but the old building goes back into your supply and you lose the type of income it was previously providing.

There are multiple currencies, each used for different things, so losing worker income means less buildings, losing power income means less spells, etc. So you’re trading off what currencies you want to earn in. And of course there’s a ton of ways to score points, so it becomes an efficiency game … if I do this, then I get this, but I no longer get that, so I won’t be able to do that. And you cycle through a bunch of options to determine which nets you just one more VP (end-game), or provides you better options during the mid-game. So don’t play with AP’ers, it’ll drive you mad.

While I like having a ton of options to explore, efficiency decisions for minor gains aren’t a lot of fun, and neither is the downtime they induce for your opponents. The theme is tacked on and doesn’t provide an edge, making this a pure abstracty Euro, so while I’d rate it higher for the game space it provides, a few issues for me give it a slightly lower rating. While I wouldn’t mind playing if it was at the table, I’m not itching to.

Jonathan Franklin: Normally, I complain about games causing me AP, but this one does not. There is often time to plan ahead and come up with a fallback plan. We are not good enough at the game to bid for races, but go into it knowing that, like Settlers, there is a strong Turn Zero component. Also, I have the feeling different races might be better or worse with certain player numbers. What I really like about Terra Mystica is the micro-turns. Take one action and your turn is over. I have not played the expansion or read the strategy guides, so take this with a grain of salt.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it! Mary Prasad, Patrick Korner, Larry, Jonathan
I like it: Patrick Brennan, John P
Neutral: (Matt Carlson)
Not for me…

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About Mary Prasad

More about me at: http://artbymdp.blogspot.com
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One Response to Mary Dimercurio Prasad: Review of Terra Mystica

  1. rprasadusa says:

    Way too much “Turn Zero” for me! Obviously there are decisions to make throughout, but I think the biggest ones happen at the beginning: which race to select, where to build, which actions to take that first turn (expand, upgrade path). With skilled play I think the outcome is largely dependent on the beginning, since there is nothing random after game setup. Games with just a little randomness — the flip of plantations in Puerto Rico, the roll of the dice in Age of Steam — are so much better!

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