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Factions in Terra Mystica

Jesse Dean
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Introduction and Categories
One of the things I like most about Terra Mystica is the breadth of the strategic space. I talked a little bit about this in my review, Magical Earth (which I highly encourage you to check out), but I felt it was worthwhile to write about the strategy space that I see each of the Terra Mystica factions existing in, and how they interact with and overlap with each other and the bonus and round tiles.

Terra Mystica features 14 factions, each of which has its own combination of abilities, building costs, initial positions, and incomes. While each one is distinct, there are some particular commonalities that allow the factions to be dissected, categorized, and effectively compared.

Faction special abilities cover pretty much every aspect of the game, with each faction having a set of abilities that appears to be largely thematically consistent. However, even with the diverse combination of way that makes each faction unique there are a few particular aspects of the game that seem to have more attention focused on them than others.

Terraformers
Modification of the game’s rules on terraforming is one of the more common way the factions are differentiated, with the Darklings, Giants, Halflings, and Nomads all having special abilities related to it. Darklings change the cost structure of terraforming by making it so each terraforming action requires a single priest. Giants change the spade cost structure by making it so that all terraforms require 2 spades, no matter what the distance. Halflings get cheaper terraforming tech, victory points from terraforming, and free terraforms from building their fortress. Nomads get to circumvent the terraforming process entirely through their fortress.

Considering that the challenge normally associated with terraforming, the fact that all of these factions, except perhaps the Giants, have an easier time of it makes them quite attractive in a general, competitive sense. While I have not come to any particular decisions about which of the factions is the strongest, both the Darklings and the Halflings are in the running due to the flexibility of their terraforming capabilities; they have more control over what the board will look like then any of the other factions.

Extended Range
Five factions also feature the ability to ignore the normal rules about where you can build. Dwarves, Engineers, Fakirs, Mermaids, and Witches all have the ability to more effectively build a rather sprawling set of dwellings breaking them away from the normal limitations on expansion while also giving all of them, except the Engineers, the ability to turbo-power their income in ways that most of the other factions are unable to do.

Dwarves and Fakirs are the two most similar factions in the game, with each featuring the ability to ignore one adjacent terrain hex when building new dwellings. The costs of this action is different for each faction, with the Dwarves needing to spend 2 workers and the Fakirs only 1 priest, but both also get victory points for using this travel ability. Their fortress differentiates them as the Fakirs are able to go up to 3 hexes away while the Dwarves are able to reduce the cost of their tunneling. Unfortunately, the rest of their differentiation is in ways that make me wonder if the Fakirs are either the weakest faction, or at least one of the weakest. The first part of this is the fact that the Fakirs only get 5 power in their 2nd bowl and 7 in their 1st, greatly weakening their ability to get as good of a start as the other factions. They also lack the ability to increase their terraforming capability beyond the 2nd level. While this is only a marginal problem, moving past the first level seems worthwhile only infrequently, it still reduces the ability of Fakirs to build towns and consolidate their territory. They also have one of the most expensive strongholds in the game. I hope that these restrictions indicate that the Fakirs would simply be too powerful without something to hold them down, but as it stands I intent to watch them closely so that I can try to understand why the designers and developer’s felt a need to hold the Fakirs back.

Cultism
The Auren, Cultists, and Chaos Magicians all have abilities that make them particularly well-suited to dominating the cult tracks, with the Auren and Cultists both having abilities that directly interact with the track while the Chaos Magicians have abilities that give them extra favor tiles, which also help with Cult track advancement. These bonuses give these factions a leg up on competing to dominate the cult tracks for scoring victory points, true, but I think the best thing about these factions is the ability to get extra use out of the bonuses that come for being far enough along a given cult track in any given round. None of these factions have the ability to expand efficiently as a default, but with enough bonuses gained from the cult tracks they can gain just as much board position as the rest. Unless you are the Chaos Magicians, of course. The Chaos Magicians should not expect to expand very far at all.

Faction by Faction

Alchemists
Core Ability: Convert victory points to money, better money -> VP conversion (money)
Stronghold Ability: 6 money; one shot 12 power; every spade gives 2 power (money; power)
Secondary Ability: Better money for 2nd, 3rd Trading Post (money)
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Fire, 1 Water

The Alchemists are unique in how focused they are on many and their lack of abilities focused on any of the big three categories mentioned in the previous section. Their core abilities are weak enough (money for victory points and a better money to victory point conversion) that I really think of their stronghold ability as their real special ability, as it is strong and very helpful. Most other factions get either two or four power per turn from their stronghold, and 6 money a turn provides the alchemists with a level of flexibility that a lot of the other factions lack. This flexibility is further compounded by the fact that they get 2 power every time they use a spade. With the fact that Alchemists should be (relatively) swimming in money and the bonus they get from power, the Alchemists are one of the few factions that I think should seriously consider going to the top of the Terraforming track. This puts them into a good position to compete for largest settlement too. Even if you pursue other avenues, the additional money from the fortress and the later trading houses is sufficient that it gives the Alchemists plenty of flexibility and power.

Without a strong reason otherwise, you should try to build the Alchemist’s fortress early. If not the first round, it should definitely be something you are shooting for in the second round. So much of their position is tied to their stronghold that you should try to maximize your use of it.

Auren
Core Ability: None
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 1 favor tile; action to move up 2 on 1 cult track (Cult)
Secondary Abilities: More expensive sanctuary
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Water; 1 Air

The Auren are another faction that gains a big bonus from their stronghold, and should try to get their fortress in the first round or the second round in most games. This is because the only thing that distinguishes them from the more common races, is their fortress’s capabilities. Playing without is like playing at an intentional handicap.

With their fortress, they have a unique and flexible ability, gaining an extra action that lets them move up two spaces on any cult track. While you can, and should, use this to dominate as many of the cult tracks as possible, the true strength of this ability is in its effectiveness in controlling the per round income from progress on the cult tracks. With this, some priests, and your periodic favor tiles you should be able to get one or more levels of bonuses every single round, allowing you to potentially pull ahead of the players even without any abilities that get you extra cubes, terraforming, money or anything of the sort.

Cultists
Core Ability: Cult Advancement When Power Taken (cult)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 7 Victory Points
Secondary Abilities: More expensive fortress and sanctuary
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Fire, 1 Earth

The Cultists’ special ability encourages them to build in a way that is very different than other factions. Rather than constructing your settlements such that you force other players into hard decisions about whether they want to sacrifice victory points for power, you want to make it as easy for them as possible. That way they are more likely to help you, giving you an advance on a cult track because of the juicy, juicy power you are giving them. Generally, you want to take advances you are given to take advantage of round bonuses, in much the same way that the Auren do. However, I would probably not worry too much about trying to dominate the cult tracks, except for during very specific situations, your bonus is so inconsistent that you are better off trying to take advantage of it for as many short term gains as possible.

The Cultist is one of the two factions that I think are strictly inferior to other factions that are available. For more experienced players, who are less likely to want to give you an advantage in exchange for free power, it seems like the Auren are better, as it seems unlikely that you will get more than 10 advances out of them for the entire game.

Chaos Magicians
Core Ability: 1 Initial Dwelling
Stronghold Ability: 2 cubes; take 2 consecutive actions
Secondary Abilities: 2 Favor Tiles from Temples and Sanctuaries (Cult); Less expensive stronghold; more expensive sanctuary
Unique Initial Allotments: 4 workers; 2 Fire

Chaos Magician’s biggest special ability is found in their secondary abilities: the fact that they get 2 favor tiles from each temple and sanctuary. This is very strong but is also paired with one of the biggest disadvantages in the game, the fact that you only start with a single dwelling on the board. It is very easy to either lose out on the opportunity for free power or get blocked in with this single dwelling, so it is important to be careful about its initial placement. Specifically choosing to stick with a smaller footprint is also an option, and the Chaos Magicians have perhaps the easiest time of any faction in staying small but still doing well thanks to all the options that they have for extra income.

Chaos Magicians also have an expanded ability to compete on the cult tracks. They will be getting lots of “free” cult track advancements, and it can be helpful to use these to either strategically compete for position or to claim end of round bonuses.

Darklings
Core Ability: None
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; convert up to 3 workers to priests
Secondary Abilities: More expensive sanctuary; 1 priest = 1 spade; sanctuary produces 2 priests (terraform)
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 worker; 1 priest; 1 Water, 1 Earth

The Darklings have a very strong focus on priests but, due to their need to use them for terraforming, they are much less likely to aggressively compete on the cult tracks then the other factions. In many ways this is an advantage, as it allows them some additional flexibility; they can take the valuable favor tiles that offer a much lower amount of cult advancement with little impact to their overall game plan. Darklings in general should focus on having most of their structures are dwellings and temples, with the first temple coming out during the first round. These will directly feed off of each other, as the priests coming from the temples will allow the Darklings to terraform and build more dwellings. This is not to say you should ignore their fortress or trading posts, both of these items give you interesting opportunities, but I think they are of secondary importance to the overall temple -> dwelling cycle.

Dwarves
Core Ability: Build 2 Hexes away for 2 worker (extended travel)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; Build 2 Hexes away for 1 worker (extended travel)
Secondary Abilities: Extra Money from first and last Trading Post (money)
Unique Initial Allotments: 2 Earth

Dwarves should always be in competition for the largest settlement bonus. With the ability to build two spaces away for the cost of 2 workers (or 1 worker) compounded with the fact that they get victory points every time they spend cubes in this manner, they should be able to spread across the board more effectively than any race except for the mermaids and, maybe, the Fakirs. This ability is only enhanced by the construction of their fortress, so this should be built as soon as possible, it will allow you to expand even more aggressively than before, particularly since you should only have to terraform more than one step in the most unusual circumstances.

You should be careful not to get so distracted by this capability that you ignore the benefits of building a town, but I would argue that Dwarves, thanks to the significant amount of victory points gained by their extended range ability, can afford to ignore the town bonus more than most other races. Getting one is still worthwhile, and there are several parts of the map that have helpful one step to mountains terraforming locations on them, so it should not be too difficult unless one of the other, terraforming-happy factions end up setting up in one of these neighborhoods.

Engineers
Core Ability: Build Bridge for 2 workers (extended building range)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 3 VP/bridge connecting two engineer structures at the end of each round (victory points)
Secondary Ability: 5 power income for 2nd temple; less worker and money cost for Dwellings, Trading Posts Temples; less worker cost for stronghold, sanctuary; less worker income from dwellings
Unique Initial Allotments: 9 power 2nd bowl, 3 power 1st bowl; 10 money, 2 cubes

Engineers have a tough time of it. Their reduced cube income means that they have difficulty terraforming, and desperately need to get access to the spade generating bonus tiles and power actions. Having the ability to get extra cubes is also key. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am unlikely to even play the engineers unless the 2 cubes per turn and the one spade action bonus tiles are in play, it is just too difficult to get started with them otherwise.

They, like the Chaos Magicians, benefit particularly well from building compactly. They can build up much more effectively than the other factions thanks to their exceptionally cheap buildings, and the lack of income from many dwellings is enough to push them towards alternative paths. This is particularly true of they can get some of the victory income from their fortress going early enough in the game. This is not to say that you should push for the fortress in all games, just that if you are able to successfully get two bridges running that it is extremely worthwhile to build the fortress and get the three victory points per turn.

Even with this bonus though, the Engineers are tough to play. I would strongly avoid playing them as a new player, and would recommend that even experienced players avoid them unless they are both at the right spot in the initial turn order (later is better) and have the right bonus and round tiles (spades = victory points is usually a no go) out. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for a loss.

Fakirs
Core Ability: Build 2 away for Priest (extended building range)
Stronghold Ability: 1 priest; Build 3 away for Priest
Secondary Ability: Only one level of terraforming advancement; More expensive stronghold
Unique Initial Allotments: 5 power 2nd bowl, 7 power 1st bowl; 1 Fire, 1 Air

The Fakirs are the second faction that is similar to, but strictly inferior to another faction out there, with the other faction being the dwarves. I am now going to go into great detail as to why they are inferior, as I discussed it a bit, above under “Extended Range”. Beyond that though, you want to play them very similarly to the dwarves, expanding as useful to increase your overall worker input, and backfilling as necessary to get the town bonus. This is hurt by the fact that priests are significantly more difficult to get then workers, but after you construct your fortress you should have even less of a need for terraforming then dwarves thanks to the extended range. I remain deeply skeptical about the Fakir’s overall power level though, and if someone can explain to me how they are in any way better then, or even comparable, to the dwarves I would appreciate it.

Giants
Core Ability: All terraforming requires 2 spades (terraforming)
Stronghold Ability: 4 power; Terraform with 2 spades + Build (terraforming; power)
Secondary Ability: None
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Fire, 1 Air

Giants are one of the factions whose special ability is really a restriction. Being able to transform hexes that are normally only cost three spades for two is an advantage, but it is strongly outweighed by the cost of needing those two spades for ones that would normally only cost one, meaning that even a basic terraform will cost six cubes. That is a lot. This means that the giants are especially dependent on the double terraforming location on the power action spots and in their fortress. The Giants require their fortress ability more than any other faction, and while others benefit greatly from getting their fortress first round, the Giants actually need it.

On the bright side, once you do have it, you do have a great deal of flexibility as to where to build. You should never fear putting an initial dwelling near other players, as once you build up to your fortress, you should have a bigger impact on their ability to successfully expand then they will on yours. This should also provide you with plenty of power, as they will be upgrading near you, and that, combined with the good power income of your fortress, means that you could potentially get two no-cube terraforms in most rounds. I would suggest burning down to six power with them as soon as possible, and to keep your power income high enough (probably through the 4 power per turn favor tile or any of the power generating income tiles) that you are able to cycle it back to the third bowl as much as possible.

Halflings
Core Ability: 1 victory point per spade (victory points)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 3 spades (terraform)
Secondary Ability: Less Expensive Terraforming Tech (terraform); More expensive stronghold
Unique Initial Allotments: 9 power 2nd bowl, 3 power 1st bowl; 1 Earth, 1 Air

Halflings are one of the factions that it is easiest to play well. Their cheap terraforming tech advancement allows them to more flexibly transform terrain than any other faction. Additionally, they get victory points every time they use a spade, this is particularly strong when the round tile that gives 2 victory points for every spade is in play, resulting in very high scoring rounds for the Halflings, particularly if they can successfully build their stronghold. There really is not much more to them than that. They are as straightforward as they are strong.

Mermaids
Core Ability: May ignore one river space when building town (Town)
Stronghold Ability: 4 power; Advance 1 on Sailing Track (extra building range)
Secondary Abilities: More expensive sanctuary, Extended and Improved Sailing Track (extra building range)
Unique Initial Allotments: 9 power 2nd bowl, 3 power 1st bowl; 2 Water

Mermaids are another straightforward, yet powerful faction. Their extra sailing technology enables them to engage in a minimal amount of terraforming while still expanding their income, and their ability to ignore one river hex when building a town enables them to construct towns easily and in configurations that no other faction has access to. Mermaids stronghold ability is helpful, but is flexible enough that there is not real pressure to build it any particular point in the game, building it when you can get bonus victory points out of it is probably the best idea but if there are instances when getting the advancement on the sailing track, and the 4 power income, are more important than it is not a major loss if you build it too early, unlike other factions. The fact that they start two positions up on the water cult track is also helpful, as it makes it an obvious place to specialize and compete for scoring purposes.

Nomads
Core Ability: Start with 3 Dwellings
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; Convert adjacent hex into desert (terraform)
Secondary Abilities: More expensive stronghold; Extra Money from Trading Houses (money)
Unique Initial Allotments: 2 workers; 1 Fire, 1 Earth

Nomads share both the flexible terraforming capabilities of the Halflings and the disruptive capabilities of the giants. Since their fortress-based free terraform allows them to ignore the normal terrain costs they are able to terraform easily while also effectively disrupting their opponent with minimal opportunity cost to themselves. They lack the cheap costs of the Halflings, and do not have the ability to potentially perform two disruptions a round like the Giants, but they still have a nice middle ground and have the added bonus of having extra money from their later trading houses and a greater board presence on top of that.


Swarmlings
Core Ability: Get 3 workers for completing town (Town)
Stronghold Ability: 4 power; Upgrade Dwelling to Trading Post
Secondary Abilities: All structures cost more; Additional worker income; Trading Post, Sanctuary produce extra resources
Unique Initial Allotments: 8 workers; 20 money; 1 on each cult track

Swarmlings are, in many ways, the mirror image of the Engineers. Where the Engineers get less cube income, but also less costs for their buildings, Swarmlings get (slightly) more cube income, and quite a bit more power and money income but make up for it in increased costs. At least they do until they reach the point where they get their Stronghold, at which point they can make one upgrade from a dwelling to a trading post per round for free. This creates some interesting opportunities for them, particularly in games where trading post scoring rounds tiles are out or they are able to acquire one or both of the bonus point tiles for Trading Posts. These should probably be part of any Swarmling strategy, though whether one or both of them is acquired will depend on when in the game they receive their first bonus tile.

Towns should be a priority for Swarmlings, simply because completing them allows the Swarmlings to power through with further building and terraforming. Getting more then two in a game seems likely to be difficult, but getting those two should happen every time.

Witches
Core Ability: 5 victory points for building a town (Town)
Stronghold ability: 2 power; Place dwelling for free on forest tile (extended building range)
Secondary Ability: None
Unique Initial Allotments: 2 Air

In many ways the witches are the mirror image of the Swarmlings. Both have town-based abilities, and both have an action based on their fortress that allows them to put down buildings for free (in the Witches case, it is free dwellings). The Witches are much more vanilla then the Swarmlings however, as beyond their Stronghold ability and their bonus for the town, they are pretty close to the Terra Mystica average. This is not a bad thing however, as workers are the most commonly used resource in Terra Mystica, and Witches have the potential to get a lot of them. Their ability to place dwellings on any forest on the board, also allows them to have the greatest capability, outside of perhaps the Nomads or Mermaids, of building multiple towns over the course of the game.

Conclusion
I do not have any strong inclinations about which of the factions are the best and the worst yet, but I do think it is pretty easy to divide them into “more difficult” and “less difficult.” It is good that the “more difficult” factions are not clearly better then the “less difficult” factions as that would perhaps give too much of an advantage to skilled players. As it is, it is easy to determine how much difficulty you want out of a particular game and then choose a faction to match. That, plus the dynamism that comes from the various faction and available tile combinations is one of the reasons I like Terra Mystica as much as I do. Seriously, give it a shot.
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Mon Dec 3, 2012 11:21 pm
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Strategic Musings on Ora et Labora

Jesse Dean
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To new players Ora et Labora is a strategically ambiguous game. The decision tree is fairly extensive with enough things that seem to be good that it can sometimes be difficult to identify what moves are good and which are merely distractions. While even at thirteen plays I think I have a lot to still learn, I think I have learned enough that it is worth starting a discussion on Ora et Labora strategy. I have only played the four player game once, and have not played the two player game so I expect most of these suggestions are most useful for the three player game. Additionally, I have played Ireland a lot more than I have played France, and I suspect that my perspective of what is good is warped a little bit based on that. Most of these principles should be useful regardless of player count or scenario though.

Your First Action As First Player Should Be To Take Wood
Using your first action for wood is useful for two reasons. The first is that it immediately clears off a space on your board, allowing you to start planning your settlement placement without being pushed into taking wood later on when there are better options available. The second reason is that it enables you to use your second action to build the Cloister Courtyard and thus trade three different resources into six identical resources. This is useful because there are a number of significant buildings that convert unlimited amounts of a basic resource into useful advanced goods. The Cloister Courtyard enables you to gather large amounts of those resources and thus set yourself up to use these conversion buildings more efficiently.

Your First Action As Second Player Should Be To Take Wood
In addition to enabling you to immediately prepare yourself for the A settlement phase as noted above, taking the two wood puts pressure on the first player, forcing them to build the Cloister Courtyard on their second action rather than allowing them the flexibility to perform other actions before their construction action. If they choose to ignore this pressure then it lets you build the Cloister Courtyard and use it immediately. Otherwise you can build the Priory, which lets you use any building occupied by the Prior, and immediately use the Cloister Courtyard anyway.

Bonus Actions Are Key
In general, each player has a limited, equal number of actions during the course of the game, with the exact number of actions dependent on the number of players. The only way to break this limit is to construct a building and use the prior to immediately take a bonus action. The momentum gained by placing a building and getting an action at the same time is enough that it is usually best to maximize the number of bonus prior actions during the course of the game. The best way to do this is to use up your workers as fast as possible, either by maximizing your ability to place workers on your own board to perform actions or by having buildings that other people want to use.

Constructing buildings that are good places to use your secondary workers helps this greatly. Buildings that provide you with a way to get scenario-specific goods, let you use other people’s buildings while still using up one of your workers, let you clear land while using up one of your workers, or are just easy to use without a lot of requirements are very good for this as they let you easily and efficiently move back to the point where you can place your prior and thus maximize the number of your bonus actions.

Maximize The Use Of Late Game Buildings Through Combos
Particularly later in the game when you are going to have a limited number of worker refreshment cycles to take advantage of the buildings that give you a large number of victory points with a single action, having ways to use the same building repeatedly can be particularly powerful. In Ireland these buildings are the Priory and the Grand Manor. In France they are the Priory, Palace, and Cloister Garden. At first I underestimated the value of these buildings, but now I see them as the primary way to get serious points out of goods, by allowing you to use the Wonder buildings multiple times in a row, or settlements, by letting you use the Castle multiple times in a row. .

You Cannot Ignore The Settlement Phase
While you may initially feel “less pressure” from the Settlement Phase then you do from the feeding phases in Agricola or Le Havre, that does not make the Settlement Phase any less important than the feeding phases in either of those games. If you handle the Settlement Phase poorly you will lose to those who are able to maximize their settlement capabilities. It is important to start thinking about how, where and when you are going to arrange your settlements from the very beginning of the game. This is largely because maximizing the points earned from the dwelling values of your buildings requires you to place them in-between as many of your settlements as possible and being able to do this requires you to not only clear out forests and moors, but also clear them out at the right time. With a bit of planning, it is possible to earn 20-30 bonus points from a high dwelling value building, and even with scores in the 200-300 range this is extremely significant.

The settlement phase really deserves its own article (with pictures and the like) of its own, but for now I will just encourage you to treat the settlement phase with the same seriousness you would treat the feeding phase in Agricola or Le Havre.

The Most Valuable Of The Basic Goods Is Livestock
While other goods can be more valuable with conversion actions, sheep are the most valuable basic good because of their high native food value of 2. A single use of the cloister courtyard for sheep is sufficient to produce enough food for any of the early to mid-game settlements, and a group of them is a useful building block towards placing the Village and Hilltop Village. They are also fairly easy to convert into even larger amounts of food with the Slaughterhouse, and in Ireland can be used to get money without actually consuming any resources using the Spinning Mill. So unless you have a specific need for a particular resource, it is usually best to take livestock due to their high value in their natural state.

Scenario Goods Are Important
While it might be possible to win Ora et Labora without paying attention to Whiskey and Beer (in Ireland) or Wine and Bread (in France), not having access to either of them makes the game much more difficult. This is because these goods are the easiest way to get reliquaries, which are both required to get wonders and very valuable in their own right (worth 8 victory points each). I have done very well both investing a great deal of time in getting large amounts of beer/whiskey and wine/bread and have also done very well simply using the secondary buildings that give smaller amount of these resources, but ignoring them entirely does not seem to be a real option.

Do Not Buy Too Much Land
It is very easy, particularly for new players, to buy more land then strictly necessary. Resist this urge. You will generally only need to purchase two or three land tiles over the course of the game, mostly because there are only so many buildings that can be constructed over the course of the game, but also because the settlement phase rewards you for having lots of buildings close together. If you have buildings randomly spread across a half-dozen terrain tiles you will not be maximizing your settlement points.

The only situation where I think this could be violated is if you are able to put together a strong Irish Festival Ground strategy, which gives you points based on the number of forest and moor tiles that you have on your board, but even then you probably should be using the Bulwark as much as possible to get the additional terrain tiles rather than the just spending money.

Watch For Disruption Potential
Ora et Labora rewards players for successfully executing particularly intricate chains of actions. By maintaining a strong awareness of what other players are doing, and how important it is to them to do it at a particular moment in time, you can take actions with their workers and potentially throw their entire chain out of whack with a potentially big impact on their score. Of course, this only works if you do not have a similarly tight action chain or at the very least are aware enough of points in the game where you have enough flexibility to be a disruptive source.

Abuse The Hospice/Guesthouse
While there are a lot of buildings I am fond of, none of them quite equal the Hospice/Guesthouse. Particularly with the three player game, where a large number of buildings go unbuilt, the Guesthouse allows for an amazing amount of flexibility. This is particularly useful when combined with the Grand Manor/Palace and the Priory, making it possible to use a variety of different unbuilt buildings or using the same unbuilt building three times in a row.

Conclusion
I still have a lot to learn about Ora et Labora, and it is quite possible that in another dozen plays I will look back at my advice here and laugh at a few things. So far I have found these to be pretty good rules of thumb while playing Ora et Labora. This really is an impressive design, and the way the web of conversion chains, actions, and requirements weave together creates a rich and rewarding experience that provides strategic avenues without really giving you one of a set number of paths to follow. Right now I am working with my local gaming partners to experiment with the relative value of extreme strategies focusing on settlement points vs. goods points, and determining if either one is better than a hybrid between them. I suspect after this I will start to look at the Festival Ground in more detail and then see what sort of additional strategies are possible with France. How have your early experienced with Ora et Labora been?
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Fri Feb 3, 2012 7:57 pm
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Ten Things To Keep In Mind When Playing Mage Knight

Jesse Dean
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So now that I am quite a few games into Made Knight exploration, here are the Top 10 things that I think are useful to keep in mind as you play.

1) While it can also be useful later on, going first during the initial round can be very valuable

Particularly with three players, it can be a bit tough to accomplish anything very meaningful in the first hand or two unless you go earlier in the round. There is a race to get to the village or monastery for recruitment or to kill the first few monsters to get the experience points required to reach level two. This is less the case with two or four players, as there is a bit more room, but even in these cases there are usually prime spots worth fighting for. Keep this in mind when selecting your tactics cards. This importance is, of course, overshadow by actually needing to be able to do something with that initial turn. If you cannot do so, then those cards that manipulate the cards available in your initial hand are, of course, more useful.

2) Try to be level 2 and have a follower by the end of the first day

While particular board configurations can make this difficult, always try to be level 2 with a follower by the end of the first day. Followers are one of the most important keys to victory, essentially providing an additional card that is available (almost) whenever you need it. Getting to level 2 allows you to access and use your first advanced action and skill, both allowing you to maximize your number of uses as well as get an idea of your general capabilities throughout the rest of the game. Failing to do one of these things is unfortunate but something that can be overcome. Failing to do both when your opponents succeed can put you into a hole that will be very difficult to climb out of.

3) While it is important to have a plan on how to get rid of your wounds, getting them in of itself is not the end of the world

In my first few plays I tried my hardest to avoid getting wounds, and generally did not get into fights if I thought I was going to get hurt. The first time I did not do this was a moment when I was able to defeat an opponent but had to take four wounds in the process. Not only was it not awful, I was able to deal with the wounds pretty easily and the artifact I got from conquering the dungeon was helpful enough to win the game. Since then I’ve prioritized winning fights over avoiding wounds, and it has worked out pretty well for me. I even received the “greatest beating” award during our last game and still ended up winning by a large margin. The advantages I achieved from slightly riskier play paid off.

4) Scenario goals are helpful and rewarding, but you need to build your experience and rewards backbone if you want to be able to win

Most of the presented scenarios provide an additional way to get victory points and an additional category of scoring available during play. These are all fun and interesting ways to get some great bonuses, but you need to avoid letting your focus on them override your sense of good play. You need to spend your time killing orcs, exploring dungeons and ancient ruins and conquering keeps and wizard towers otherwise will you never reach the point where you can successfully complete the scenario goals. Sometimes it might be worthwhile to skip the scenario goals entirely and focus on just performing the normal adventuring actions. While your opponents are wasting time trying to defeat a big stack of monsters you can leave a trail of destruction across the world that results in a big pay-off come final scoring. Similarly by ignoring the final goals, you are also making yourself better prepared to accomplish them, as you will be getting the bonus spells, crystals, and artifacts which will make it more likely you will be able to win some of the bigger, rewarding battles.

5) Do not overload your deck with combat abilities. It is almost always better to have just a few good combat cards and more of the secondary cards that support them

While there are tons of great cards that allow you to do some amazing things in combat, it is too easy to focus exclusively on these cards to the exclusion of cards that provide movement, healing, or mana bonuses. If you get too many great combat cards, you will end up having to throw a bunch of them away for a +1 modifier to movement or influence instead of using them for their named ability. All the great combat cards are worthless if you have no way to get to the locations you need to in order to use these fantastic combat abilities and lack the ability to power them to their full potential once you get to these locations. Cards that provide movement or magic are almost always useful though, as it is rare to have too much movement or too many ways to power up your cards. Having extra cards that provide healing have the benefit of allowing you to take risks that you would normally not be willing to, and frequently have secondary effects that are useful even if you are not using the card for healing.

6) Only get spells if you have the mana sources to power them

Similarly, while spells are generally pretty amazing, their mana cost presents a hidden trap. It is pretty easy to get into a situation where you will have a large number of wonderful spells in your hand that you will be unable to use because you don’t have enough crystals and the one mana you get from the Source per turn just is not cutting it. So make sure you have a good mana flow before you go crazy with the spell acquisition.

7) It is frequently worthwhile to spend time camped on a monastery or wizard’s tower

If you have the influence cards and/or the reputation, it is very worthwhile to spend a few rounds hanging out a wizard’s tower or a monastery in order to add additional action cards to your deck. Not only will spending this time improve your deck, it will also give you a pretty sizeable amount of end-game points. Remember rule 5) though, if you are learning spells! This makes influence improving actions doubly important, not only do they give you access to units, but they also allow for additional avenues to improve your deck and the points that go with it.

8) Prioritize dungeons (and artifacts)

While all locations are valuable targets for adventuring and conquest, dungeons are the most valuable, simply because they are the easiest way to get artifacts. Why are artifacts so valuable? First of all, they do not require any mana to activate. This enables them to be generally useful, no matter what sort of hand you have. Additionally, a lot of them provide pretty powerful abilities that either provide new capabilities, enhance existing ones, or both. Getting one of the rings that provides a crystal and a mana gives you the sort of mana income that you need in order to successfully utilize multiple spells; getting a banner expands one of your unit’s capabilities significantly. Finally, they provide massive, game changing special abilities that can be used once in exchange for the discard of the artifact. These aren’t the sort of thing that I will use every game, but after seeing a lady in our gaming group discard an artifact on Sunday to completely avoid all attacks and damage while assaulting a city, it is not something I will ignore again.

9) It is better to follow the person who is controlling the board then to be the one who is controlling the board

I argued in a previous article that you could punish other players who are more focused on conquest then defining the board by pushing it off in a direction where they are not going, thus limiting that player’s options later in the game. While I still think that is pretty strong, I think it is even more powerful to be able to effectively follow that explorer, moving in behind them and taking advantage of what they reveal without spending the movement required to open up these tiles. Granted, you will not have first choice as to what to get to on these tiles, but the erstwhile explorer will be slowed down enough by their movement costs to make this irrelevant. This is particularly helpful if you get one of the spells or advanced actions, such as Underground Travel or Wings of Wind, which allow for you to get across the board quickly. Then your lack of exploration is even less relevant, and you can easily target the locations that you think are most important.

10) Make every turn meaningful

While it is unlikely that you are going to make every single turn result in an experience gain even in the late game, try to make sure that every action you take has a significant effect on your relative position in the game. While this can be difficult for certain hands, proper use of tactics cards, deck knowledge, and hand management should allow you to spend most turns accomplishing things that will move your position forward or at the very least have a very significant turn in the near future. If you do not accomplish this, then you have probably made a mistake somewhere and need to reevaluate how you make decisions in Mage Knight.
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Wed Dec 14, 2011 3:41 pm
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Some Thoughts on Mage Knight Strategy or Burning Down Monasteries For Fun And Profit!

Jesse Dean
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So I was able to celebrate Mage Knight release night with three sessions of Made Knight the Board Game. The first was a three player teaching scenario (two new players), the second was a four player teaching scenario (three new players), and the final was a two player game using the mines scenario. Just a word of suggestion, do not play four player Mage Knight unless you are okay with a longer and more frustrating game. Three or two player is much better as an introduction, even with reasonably fast players.

I would also highly suggest you sleeve your cards. At the beginning of the third game we reached the point where we were noticing that the cards were already showing wear. I promptly bought some sleeves and we took turns applying them when it was not our turn. This is pretty ludicrous considering the price tag of the product, and is a blemish on what I consider to be an overall effective level of components. As it stands, I encourage everyone who acquires this game to sleeve their copy even if you are someone who does not normally do so. I had no intention of doing so originally, but was forced by the degradation I saw even over one evening.

Another revelation last night was how much the standard competitive scenario is essentially about managing a steady income, in this case of fame, in the face of a steadily diminishing supply. Each player has some capability in introducing new sources of fame by exploring into new territories, exploring a dungeon for a second time, or attacking someone else’s fortress but, with the exception of the new territories, each of these options is in many ways worse than the standard sources; the rewards are smaller without any decrease in risks.

You can take advantage of this knowledge in a couple of ways. One of these is by taking part in a strategy of resource denial. If you are more mobile than another player, than you can move in behind them, eliminating sources of fame that they miss, and making it so when they eventually reach the natural limits of their expansion due to insurmountable obstacles or a lack of opportunities that they will no longer have any reasonable targets for backtracking and thus will find their later fame opportunities dry up no matter what the available options are in their hands. This can be avoided by focusing on spells and advanced actions that allow for an increase in overall movement capabilities, and I tend to find myself most excited about abilities of this kind that allow you to move vast distances over the course of a single turn.

You can also take advantage of a typical opponent greater focus on conquest to do the same with exploration and thus control the shape of the board. This is more effective in lower player counts than higher ones, as someone else will inevitably follow you and take advantage of your spent movement points, but in a two or three player game it is possible to put your opponent into a tight position with few scoring opportunities simply by building the map away from them. I have seen situations where someone gets stuck in a position where there is nowhere else for them to explore and the closest site that is reasonable to attack is quite far away. It was not pretty.

This is part of the reason I so frequently end up attacking monasteries. While I like to be a good and upright citizen (look at all the time I’ve spent helping to build holy sites in Caylus, Troyes, and Upon A Salty Ocean) there comes a point every session or two where I do not have very many reasonable options left. I know the end is coming and I’ve exhausted all reasonable locations nearby that are worth attacking. So the options are to either spend entire hands to get enough influence to recruit a unit or buy an advanced action, if there are any even left, which are generally pretty marginal at the point in time where it is usually worthwhile to attack a monastery. In comparison, attacking a monastery has plenty of benefits, and a pretty small downside. Before I explain why it makes sense, let me talk a little bit about scoring in Mage Knight.

As is true of many games, scoring in Mage Knight is split between points accrued during the game and those claimed at the end. Typically, they end up being pretty equivalent, though there are situations where one or the other ends up being a larger percentage of your final score. End of game scoring is centered on gaining majorities in particular categories. So, for example, at the end of the game you get two points for every artifact you have and one point for every two mana crystal you have. Whoever has the most points in the category gets 3, points with ties reducing the value each player gets by 1.

When you attack a monastery you are forced to fight a “wizard” class enemy. These targets are typically very challenging in the early game but a bit less so once you gain a few levels and get some advanced actions and skills. Killing them in of it is typically rewarding, but that isn’t the only fame you will eventually get from attacking a monastery. On top of the points for killing the wizard you also get an artifact, which are almost universally very useful for their abilities but also have the advantage of giving you 2 points in a category where it can be tough to get any points, meaning that you will frequently be able to get 5 points from that category just for this one attack. Additionally, it adds another item to the “Greatest Conqueror” category, giving you 2 points and also giving you an advantage in winning that category. So the conquest of a monastery can end up being a pretty significant amount of points for someone who is a bit started of scoring opportunities in the mid-to-late game. This is not to say that I am always in favor of attacking a monastery. The reputation hit you take can be significant, especially considering how valuable influence is in the game, and making the decision to attack a monastery earlier is frequently not the right choice. However, in the correct situation it can help you win, which is why I’ve started to gain a reputation among my Mage Knight opponents as someone who likes to burn down the monasteries or, as Jerry like to put it, “It’s not a game of Mage Knight unless Jesse burns down a monastery!”
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Thu Dec 8, 2011 9:22 pm
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Strategic Musings on and Statistical Analysis of Urban Sprawl

Jesse Dean
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Urban Sprawls three currencies: action points, money, and building permits. The planning deck is the major source of two of these currencies, with each of the deck’s 36 different building permit cards displaying both a money payout symbol and a number of permits on it. Money is important for determining where you can build, but without the right number of permits, you won’t be able to build at all, which is usually a lot more inconvenient then not being able to build in an optimal space. Permit cards can also be transformed into money, if you have one at the beginning of the round, though the reverse is not true. Only action points (Aps) can be used to acquire permits. The other item that action points are used to acquire is contract cards. It is very easy in Urban Sprawl to get distracted by the flashy power of the contract cards but I think this is largely a mistake. Building permits are just as important as contract cards, if not more so, and it makes sense to be careful in both when you acquire them and how you spend them.



So what makes permits so valuable? It is mostly a matter of the scarcity of the higher value permits, and the way the requirements for the bigger ones balloon as the game continues. As you can see from the table above, the combined quantities of size 3 and size 4 permit cards are equal to that of either of the size 1 and 2 quantities. When you add in the Urban Renewal cards, these larger cards become rather scarce, and once you start reaching the City and Metropolis phases (when average permit size goes from 1.56 to 2.64 to 2.83), very important. Playing in a fast and loose way, where you try to use available building permits to build an available contract every turn may require less thought but it will also create even more of the sort of chaos I talked about in my Initial Impressions post, as you become truly reliant on what cards are coming out in order to be able to do anything.



In addition to being restricted by permit size, contract cards can only use permit cards that specifically allow them. This is rarely a problem for the smaller contracts, as they are so plentiful that you can just reach over and grab whichever card takes your fancy. Once you get into the larger permits, however, things become a bit more difficult. All of the level 3 and 4 permit cards can be used with commercial buildings. This makes sense, because there are far more commercial buildings than any other type. All but one of the level 3 and 4 permit cards also allow industrial buildings. This also makes sense because, on average, industrial buildings require more permits than the others. Residential and civic are less permit-intensive and thus have less of a requirement for large contracts. Where this becomes problematic, however, is in getting out those rare, large residential and civic buildings. It might even be worthwhile to hang on to contracts that allow them because merely by holding them you are reducing the capability of other players to build these larger buildings. With this restriction they are less likely to grab them for themselves, meaning you are more likely to get these big, valuable, contracts for a reduced cost. Also, once the Metropolis era arrives with its powerful late-game contracts, being able to build them before anyone else can be a powerful.



In a particular game it is extremely likely that you won’t see more than 75% of the town and city decks, and you will never see more than 50% of the metropolis deck. As a result of this you can never expect to see a particular card. However, the four zones each have a fairly tight mechanical focus making it so that you have a good idea of the sort of ability you will be taking advantage of when you get a building permit. Civic contracts tend to focus on gaining victory points and tend to supply Education, Public Service, and Tourism vocations. Commercial contracts tend to focus on producing and claiming other people’s money, and tend to supply Finance, Media, Tourism, and Transportation vocations. Industrial contracts tend to focus on manipulation of planning cards, and tend to supply Energy, Factory, and Transportation vocations. Residential contracts tend to focus on manipulation of wealth and victory point markers and control of buildings and tend to not deal with vocation markers. With this in mind some planning and strategy is possible, even if it is limited somewhat by when and how the contracts come out.

The eight vocations are not evenly distributed across the contract cards. Some vocations, such as Public Service, appear quite frequently across the contract cards while others, such as Media and Finance, are much, much rarer. In many ways taking a particular vocation-based contract is an exercise in risk vs. reward. Finance has some pretty amazing pay-out opportunities, but with only 4 appearances across the three decks, the likelihood of seeing it again is much lower than the more modestly rewarding Public Service, which has 12 appearances. “Dead” vocation markers are not a total loss, however, as they help you get Mayor, one of the six political offices.


*The Media vocation gets constant income from event cards in the City and Metropolis decks.


With the exception of Mayor and Contractor, ownership of a political office is about controlling the most valuable building of a particular type, with ties going to those who have the majority of buildings of that type, with further ties resolved by other political offices. The special abilities provided by these offices are powerful, and thus worth fighting for. The Union Boss, determined by the most valuable Industrial building, has the flashiest power thanks to its ability to provide 2 extra APs every round, but this typically only provides the ability to select more expensive cards then they normally would instead of getting extra cards. The District Attorney, determined by the most powerful Civic building, allows you to get more victory points from zone adjacency, which can provide a considerable bonus if it is used frequently and carefully. The Treasurer, determined by the most powerful Commercial building, allows forces other players to pay you $2 each at the beginning of your turn. This is helpful because of the fact that it provides you with a continual source of income regardless of which contract cards come out. The last one, and probably my favorite, is the Police Chief, who ensures that you get both victory points and money when getting a vocation pay-out, rather than just one. This one is obviously only useful if you are grabbing lots of vocations, but I admit I am a fan of vocations, so this does not bother me much. It also dovetails nicely into getting the Mayor, as vocation tile quantity during an election determines who gets this office. Because of the relative rarity of contracts of certain zones, it seems that it will be easier to hold on to the political offices associated with those zones. However, an errant urban renewal or the shifting dynamics of the wealth and prestige markers will prevent these offices from being too static. It will take some concerted effort to hold on to a particular office throughout the game, and if someone is willing to go through all of that to hold on to an office, they probably should get to keep it.

In addition to determining what special ability you receive, political offices also give you special bonuses via events. In the City deck there are eight events, two for each of the main political offices besides Mayor that provide some sort of extra special benefit for that political office. Four of these events cause a change in the distribution of money and/or VPs between players while the other four are slightly flashier and fun. All of the Metropolis-era events are focused on the Mayor, mostly giving the Mayor special bonuses or allowing him or her to direct the negative effects of a bad event in a limited way. This means that, while the Mayor is useful earlier in the game, it is most important to control the office during the Metropolis era as that is when the office’s biggest bonuses kick in. The others are important throughout the game, as they have good events during the City era, but also can provide big victory point bonuses at the end of the game.

Digging into the statistical guts of Urban Sprawl has actually improved my opinion of the game. I had previously been cautiously positive about it, but now that I understand it better I can move from there to fully positive. I am not quite sure where it is going to eventually settle into my rankings, but I plan to play it extensively in the near future to find out.
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19 Comments
Wed Oct 26, 2011 4:43 pm
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