Terra Mystica: A four-sided game review

Terra Mystica SetupTerra Mystica is a complex strategy board game of empire building, released at Essen in 2012. While it has a fantasy theme the game is largely abstracted, so don’t let that put you off!

It accommodates two to five players and plays well across that spectrum, but you should expect it to take a good couple of hours (especially early games). The game has a lot going on, so takes a while to set up, but it’s certainly not too much like hard work for a game of this complexity.

You each play a faction (one of 14, each with its own strengths) expanding its interests across a large map. You need to build increasingly complex dwellings to grow your territory and abilities, but to do so you first need to terraform the land to suit you (water, sand, swamp etc). There are no battles, but terraforming/building (and so blocking) in the right places is one of many keys to victory.

While Terra Mystica comes in a pretty standard sized game box, this is one of those rare occasions when it’s almost full. Each of the seven coloured faction (player) boards comes with its own set of wooden pieces; while there’s also a lovely game board, the cult board, plus more than its fair share of cardboard/wooden chits and bobs. It’s a fantastic looking game but comes at a price; you can expect to pay around £50 for a copy.

Teaching

Terra Mystica player aidThere’s a lot going on in Terra Mystica; players certainly shouldn’t go into game one expecting to win against more experienced players (unless it’s me!).

That said, the game comes with a solid rulebook, clear iconography and player aids that remind you of the options available each turn. Most players should be able to ease their way through the complexity levels, but it’s not a good choice of game for a group of beginners.

It’s tempting to try and give a full rules explanation before you play, but probably easier to get the core concepts across and let people fumble through asking questions. While you have plenty of choices each round there are pretty standard moves early on; by the time the choices become more complex the players should have a better handle on things.

Each player starts with one to three basic dwellings on the board and will spread outwards from those. As you improve them or make more dwellings, you’ll get resources from them in later turns – so right from the word go expansion and improvement is key; as is making sure you’ll be creating the right mix of resources to achieve your goals.

As you earn power it moves between three 'bowls'; power in the right hand bowl can be spent, but can only be moved from the top left bowl when the bottom left bowl is empty.

As you earn power it moves between three ‘bowls’; power in the right hand bowl can be spent, but can only be moved from the top left bowl when the bottom left bowl is empty

Terra Mystica’s resources are coins, workers, priests and power (magic). Coins and workers are the basic tools for terraforming and building/upgrading, while priests are largely used to – surprise surprise – increase your influence on the cults board.

Power works slightly differently and keeping it moving will be crucial to your success. It can be spent to make almost any task in the game easier, but once used has to be recharged before being able to be used again. Its a clever system that works very well.

And I am only touching here on the game’s biggest mechanisms. Behind them are all kinds of bonuses, extras and other doohickeys to tempt you each time you have an action (and you’ll have plenty in each of the game’s six rounds). The more you play, the more options seem to present themselves.

All this is, of course, is working towards the inevitable – victory points. The big end game points will come from how well you’ve advanced up the cult tracks, plus the size of your largest connected settlement. But another fascinating element of Terra Mystica is the scoring that goes on during the game.

The top section shows the end game points; the lower is the bonus points available each round

The top section shows the end game points; the lower is the bonus points available each round

A randomised scoring tile accompanies each round (all six are known from the start so you can plan for them). These give points for basic tasks, but make you think more about the order in which to do things. You may want to build a trading house,

but if you do it next round you’ll score points too. Add this to the fact each faction has ways to score on its player board and you have quite the mix of options. And it doesn’t end there…

While scoring points is the goal, you’re often tempted into spending them to. You’re cleverly encouraged to build on spaces next to your opponents, as this reduces your build costs.

But the player you build next to can in return trade in victory points to cycle their power points. It’s so tempting, as power really opens up your action options.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Much like contemporaries Eclipse and Tzolk’in, Terra Mystica seems to be the natural conclusion of the games that have come before it. It’s the thinking gamer’s euro, packing a fantastically deep experience into a beautifully produced yet surprisingly quick playing package. The variable factions and bonuses add replayability, while every game leaves you thinking you could’ve done a little better.
  • The thinker: In the one to two-hour game category, this is now one of my first choice of games. A favourite aspect is no matter the player count, there are interesting territorial situations rubbing up against the problems of advancing your own civilisation – both in your building and cult track choices. It’s a delicious challenge that has you thinking before (once you know your faction), during and after.
  • The trasher: It’s hard to think of a civ building area majority game without thinking combat, but Terra Mystica is just that – and something I don’t often say: I don’t think it needs direct conflict. You’re planning like a general, claiming territory, and while I’d prefer a bit more chaos in the mix I’m always happy to give this one a go as it offers players a real challenge.
  • The dabbler: I’ve enjoyed my plays, but this is a very difficult game to get good at and isn’t a favourite. If you have a friendly group it can actually be quite social though; there’s no secret information, so especially with new players there can be a lot of chat about each player’s next best move. This is also really helpful when teaching, as it’s nice to be able to point out little hints and tips as you go.

Key observations

Terra Mystica has risen strongly into the all-time top 10 on the BoardGameGeek list and of the 7,000+ ratings it has received a good half of them are 9 or above out of 10. Some 90 per cent of reviewers have given in 7 or better, so any criticisms here need to be considered in that context.

Terra Mystica faction board

The green ‘Auren’ player, ready to go

Half the criticisms are from people who simply don’t enjoy this kind of game; it adds nothing new, it’s a point salad, it has boring euro mechanisms etc. All fair points, but if you don’t like that style of game you really shouldn’t be wasting your time playing it. It seems an odd reason to give the game a bad review.

The others tend to focus on it being ‘multiplayer solitaire’, dry and/or abstract with a pasted on theme. The latter points seem fair but once again, it’s a matter of taste; disliking the genre rather than being a direct criticism or Terra Mystica itself. But the multiplayer solitaire comments are more interesting.

The game is definitely played largely in your own head, and on your own player board, as managing your resources is absolutely key. But you shouldn’t underestimate the territorial decisions, as these will have a direct influence on both your spending costs and the amount of power you may give other player’s the option of getting. Making creating a town (several connected buildings) difficult can also throw a spanner in the works of an opponent, as they can give significant bonuses.

I expect criticisms of this nature are probably made largely by players who have only played once; your first game is very much going to be a learning one and it’s hard to see the bigger picture when you’re simply trying to get to grips with the basics.

Conclusion

Terra Mystica boxI’ve found myself joining the 50+ percent of people ranking Terra Mystica at 9 out of 10 on BGG. And such a high grade doesn’t come lightly from me; only about 10 per cent of the games I’ve ranked get such a high score.

This is the euro version of a 4X game; explore, expand, exploit, exclude – the fear of a late game beat down that for me adds a big ‘up yours’ to the otherwise enjoyable Eclipse; is replaced with the more subtle but still potentially disruptive mechanism of blocking.

And while it may at first seem there’s simply too much going on, the game soon reveals a really satisfying interconnectedness between the actions and currencies that soon begins to make sense. It really is a game you can sink your teeth into.

So is it worth £50? For me, absolutely. If you’ve read the hype but don’t like non-conflict euro games it is very unlikely that this will convert you, and if you’re a beginner to the genre you might be better off looking at a simpler introduction to the hobby (Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan would be good starting points – see my ‘gateway games‘ post). Otherwise, Terra Mystica has to be at least in the must-try category (if money is an issue), if not must-buy. A real gem.

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