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Terra Mystica» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Terra Mystica - Engine building in fairyland. rss

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Stephen Mould
United Kingdom
Sheffield
South Yorkshire
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efficiency - noun

the good use of time and energy in a way that does not waste any


engine - noun


something that provides power, often economic power, for other things




Terra Mystica is a game about fantasy races expanding their civilisations across an imagined world, using magic and their natural and learnt racial advantages to get an edge on their competitor species.


Terra Mystica is a game about managing resources as effectively as possible, whilst ensuring that you gain the most points possible.


Both of the statements above are true. Both can tell the whole story, if you want them to.


Terra Mystica’s theme makes me think of Lords of Waterdeep. Lords of Waterdeep is a game in which I just cannot see the theme, no matter how hard I try. Reading all the flavour text, playing with meeples instead of cubes, nothing can make me believe I’m sending adventurers on a quest. It’s always just about paying 2 white cubes and 4 orange cubes for some points to me. But I know people who truly believe Lords of Waterdeep is the most thematic game they’ve ever played. They can really visualise their wizards taming the Owlbears (admittedly, one of the greatest mission cards in any game, ever).


Now, I don’t claim that I imagine my Giants stomping the land flat every time I terraform a hex in Terra Mystica but I can at least see the design intent in each of the race’s powers. Of course Mermaids find shipping easier, they’re half-fish! The terraforming wheel makes sense to me. It’s obviously easier to turn a swamp into grassland than into a desert. Even the Cult track, the least connected part of the whole thing, I can imagine as some great civilisation bridging religion to which all must pay homage and which wields great political power.


But I can understand why some people might find this a stretch. Especially when considered in the context of the second statement, which is just as true as the first. The actual flow of the game, the things you do, do not always immediately make you feel the theme. Yes, trading workers and gold to terraform a piece of land to your races preferred type makes thematic sense, in that to carry out such a large scale project you would need people and cash, but doing it for the sole reason that it scores you the most points that turn breaks the illusion a little. I guess points represent how influential your race are in the world, but when you’re playing, you’re building that house to get two points, not to expand the reach of your mighty civilisation. When you trade workers and gold to improve the efficiency of your terraforming you’re doing it to make it cheaper to get that bit of the board you really want, which in turn will improve your points engine, not to improve your races technological prowess.


So if you don’t buy the theme, what is there for you here? Well, really it’s a hugely intricate efficiency engine, in which everything you do, every choice you make, has an effect on the overall function of that engine. Do you want to upgrade that trading house to a temple in order to get a priest every turn? Fine. but you’re going to lose the gold income the trading house would have got you. Want to play that settlement to benefit from the points it’ll score you? Fine, but now you’re out of workers this turn and that upgrade you were going to make to terraforming will have to wait. And it isn’t only the cogs that you’ve added to the engine that matter. The Trading house mechanic, in which those particular buildings become cheaper if you build them adjacent to an opponent, but also gives a benefit to your neighbour, ensures a weird dynamic on the board. Everyone wants to corner an area whilst remaining close enough to their opponents to benefit from their buildings and the magic their upgrades provide.


Magic, I haven’t even mentioned magic, which is so hugely important to the continued success of your engine, providing vital injections of manpower, cash and terraforming opportunities. Careful shepherding of your magic can be vital to success, giving your engine a little boost at just the right moment.


The game, despite its intricacies, is surprisingly easy to teach. Sure, the initial rules explanation takes some time but everything makes sense and players quickly see the options, understand what’s going to score them points and how they do those things. The trick isn’t in learning the rules, it’s in learning how to manage the options as efficiently as you can. Every game, you’ll notice things you could have done better, but more than that, you’ll see options with races other people were using that they missed, that make you want to play with that race next time.


So you need to be efficient to win. But what’s great about this is that efficiency can mean more than one thing. Unlike some point salad games, Terra Mystica’s options are not all equally good in every game and with every race, but they are all viable with a particular race or in a particular game. You have choices in this game, real choices that make a real difference to the outcome. And once you realise this things can get a little overwhelming. People can stare at their player board for a long time, paralysed by the thought that, as much as one option might be better than another, the wrong option has the potential to break your carefully crafted machine. And if another player terraforms that space you were banking on getting, or takes the magic spell your turn revolved around, it can be devastating to your chances.


Terra Mystica is BGG’s number 4 game at the time of writing. It had a somewhat meteoric rise when it was released, entering high and climbing steadily towards the top of the pile. If Twilight Struggles popularity in the context of the BGG list is hard for some to understand, Terra Mystica’s success is almost laughably easy to explain.



First off, it’s a euro requiring a focus on building an efficient engine to achieve success. See previous number 1’s Power Grid, Puerto Rico and Agricola. Secondly it’s massively overproduced, shipping with most of a tree in the box, beautiful artwork on thick boards and a general sheen of polish ala current top 10 games Caverna: The Cave Farmers and Star Wars: Rebellion. Lastly, it has a heavy dose of point salad, a style of game that is currently popular, as a certain Mr.Stefan Feld can attest. Terra Mystica is everything the BGG community (collectively) likes.

Positives:
Intricate mechanisms that fit together like a well made watch. A plethora of strategic options. Variable races, with differences that extend down to the cost of pieces in some cases. Lovely bits. Clever dynamics around player interaction.


Negatives:
Clever dynamics around player interaction doesn’t mean lots of player interaction. What there is, is usually of the ‘you took the space I wanted!’ variety. Can be a brain burner and expose latent analysis paralysis, although usually in those who have played a couple of times rather than those new to the game. The way player order is determined in the base game needed fixing, something which the expansion has done, but really this should have been in the base game. Despite the intuitive flow of the game, people will not understand how to win the first time they play.

Conclusion:

I realise reading this back that it sounds more negative than I intended. Terra Mystica is fantastic. It’s deep, engaging and thematic in intent, if not always in execution. The race’s feel different, providing new challenges and opportunities. Scoring is a perfect mix of knowns and unknowns. It’s possible to win by focussing on end game scoring or by ‘pegging’ during the rounds. The incredible production quality grabs people when you open the box and though you might begin to lose them as you go through the rules, they quickly become hooked once the game begins and the options become clear. It’s possible to have a runaway leader, but usually at least 2 players run each other close and everyone is just as interested in their own final score as in the winning score.


Terra Mystica is the perfect storm of classic BGG likes. It’s deep and intricate, and rewards repeated play. It looks great on the table and exudes quality. The lack of interaction and the thematically disjointed parts (cult track, direct vs indirect adjacency) do not take away from what is a modern classic.
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James Wolfpacker
United States
North Carolina
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Nice Review

Stevemould wrote:

Negatives:
The way player order is determined in the base game needed fixing, something which the expansion has done, but really this should have been in the base game.


This is an easy thing to lifehack with the base game. Use a terrain tile to represent each faction in the game. Use the 1st player token to indicate the top of the turn order for the current round. Place the terrain tiles in a column to indicate the turn order. Use an X token to indicate the next round column. As a player passes just move the terrain tile to the X column until all players have passed. Swap the X token and 1st player token to start the next round.
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Bojan Brankov
Serbia
Novi Sad
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I often debate about the theme in Terra Mystica with my friend who equally likes it. He says there is no theme while I see it in abundance.

Your statement that you don't build dwellings to extend your empire but to maximize your points can be completely reversed. You ARE extending your empire and for that you get the hefty reword. For me it's like that. I am motivated to build and terraform and I know that it will surely mean that my faction will prevail.

If you want something else out of the game you can make an achievement list and equally have fun. Like the time when I made 3 (Three) cities with one action with Alchemists, and came out last, but still had amazing sense of achievement.
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Stephen Mould
United Kingdom
Sheffield
South Yorkshire
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I agree, but I do think that the higher level theme (racial powers, the concept of terraforming etc.) is stronger than the theme around the actions. Although, I'm more with you than your friend, I get enough theme out of it to keep me happy and even if I didn't I think it's strong enough mechanically to keep my attention.
 
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Robert
Germany
Bocholt
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I feel the theme is stronger in Lords of the Waterdeep than in Terra Mystica, so if you can't experience the theme in the former then it's no wonder if the theme in latter doesn't appeal to you either.

Personally, a fitting theme is the icing on the cake, and I agree that the icing on TM isn't super-great. But I'm mainly concerned about the quality and taste of the cake, and the TM cake tastes super-delicious!
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