Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Terra Mystica, by Z-Man Games

Terra Mystica has one of the more fantastical titles in board gaming. The name promises passage fair to a far off land of mystery and adventure, and for the most part, it delivers on its grandiose promise. Terra Mystica is a very intricate game, no doubt intimidating many first time players with its expanse of tokens, charts, and colors. 

This is definitely not something I would drop onto a newer player, but anyone with a basic knowledge of German-style board games will immediately recognize the familiar elements for success.

The game, like many others, relies on players to mange and assign resources in order to accrue victory points. On the surface, Terra Mystica may seem nothing more than a greatest hits collection the more popular game mechanics from the past decade, but what is so fantastic about this game is that it finds a ways to expand on each of these elements at the same time. No strategy feels inherently weak nor wasted. Every player will find use of something while playing, leaving a very balanced and even playing field.

At its core, Terra Mystica is a color war. Each player receives a faction to pilot, ranging from familiar faces (dwarves, mermaids) to the very unique (chaos magicians, swarmlings). These factions have their own color identity, and players may only build their buildings on spaces that match their color. One look at the confetti colored board might make players worry as there are many colored spaces, and like-colored tiles are spaced far from each other. This is where Terra Mystica earns its namesake, as players may invest workers to terraform these tiles, matching them with the terrain type their faction requires to build structures. The cost of this varies by faction and, like most things in game, can be upgraded to decrease the price or increase the effectiveness. 

While Terra Mystica prides itself on its world shaping mechanic, it’s the creativity and variance within the factions that calls me back for replay after replay. This asynchronous gameplay is a must have these days for quality replay value. What Terra Mystic is able to do with this, however, is give each player an identity. Wether piloting the magic harvesting Fakirs, or the money grubbing Alchemists, I’m not only rewarded with unique rewards for common gameplay, but I now have a map to better find my victory points within the ocean of options in the game. Plus, each faction has a special power, allowing them better conversion rates or special maneuvers that nudge players along the path best fitted for their color.

Everyone in the game has the same building types, and all provide the same rewards with the exception of the two highest level upgrades. Players may build settlements on tiles of their color, and may spend additional resources to upgrade these buildings along specific trees. Buildings yield resources every turn and Terra Mystica has developed quite a clever mechanic to calculate all the variables needed each turn. Building pieces rest on your faction sheet, and when purchased, they go to the board, exposing their reward value underneath. Every turn, players simply calculate the exposed spaces and collect their reward at the start of each round. The two highest tiered upgrades (Stronghold and Sanctuary) yield different rewards based on the faction’s identity. This really illustrates what’s so impressive about Terra Mystica. The deeper players are willing to travel down the rabbit hole, the more complex and rewarding the game becomes.

I was very nervous when I learned that Terra Mystica was only six turns long. With so much on the table (and it is an insane amount to take in) I couldn’t imagine how someone could possibly feel accomplished with so much to do in only six rounds, especially since first turns are usually rather lacking in inertia. Have no fear. Terra Mystica starts off with a bang, allowing not only a well of starting resources, but with the amount players will be acquiring each turn (sometimes in the middle of their rounds) you’ll be able to stick a finger in just about everything each round. 

The other thing that Terra Mystica does that really knocks my socks off is this very deep risk and reward scenario that continues to arise during the game. Often players have the ability to sacrifice resources to acquire others allowing them to manage their needs more adeptly. This even extends to victory points. Players can sacrifice the points they need to win in order to gain magic, which can then be used to get other things, hoping to win down the line. When combining this with a few bonuses available each round, the game becomes a snowstorm, each snowflake demanding your attention. Be warned though, it is a risk and there is no going back.


Terra Mystica is a very unforgiving game. There is hardly any variance, and absolutely zero luck based mechanics, but this is not a bad thing. For a seasoned patron of board gaming this challenge can be very appealing. Expansion is risky, because it offers your opponents the chance to earn resources from your prosperity. Devoting yourself to a particular strategy allows your opponents to predict your movements and plan your defeat three turns in advance. Things you may ignore as irrelevant suddenly taunt you from the sidelines as your enemies take advantage of what you’ve discarded. In fact, every failure in this game is your fault. Whenever you fall behind, you can immediately trace your mistake back to that building you should have upgraded turn two, or that priest you should have purchased. Blame can only rest on your own shoulders.

But the game never chastises you for it. Instead, it extends a gentle hand reminding you that mistakes don’t make the man, and that you can surmount the challenges of this game with a little more dedication. Then it flashes a cheeky smile and suggests that maybe you should play again to redeem yourself. To develop a game with cutthroat gameplay, without any actual animosity toward your opponents, is an achievement truly worth celebrating in gaming. It allows a competitive experience without sacrificing the community we’ve worked hard to build.

This is definitely not a game I would slap down in front of a newer gamer. The reality is, this game is very intimidating in appearance and gameplay. The unforgiving nature could scare away novices, but offers and addicting challenge to seasoned players. However, nothing in this game is anything too new, it’s simply more developed. If you’ve had experience with victory point based games, you should be fine with Terra Mystica. This is definitely a must play even at the intermediate level. If you have the gaming circle that could play regularly, it’s also a must own.

The gameplay and presentation offer a simple set of core rules that allow familiarity in strategy, but just enough asynchronous gameplay to require a certain adaptability with each game. It takes the skills learned from other German-style board games and offers newer and more complex challenges, definitely evolving your gameplay ability. Terra Mystica feels like a step up, a graduation in skill level. If that seems too intense for you, I recommend playing anything you can find with a victory point track around the outside of the game board, and you will eventually find your way to Terra Mystica.

- A Must Play
- A Must Own (for seasoned players)

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