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Subject: Terra Mystica: Now You're Playing With Power! .... and bowls? (a review) rss

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David McMillan
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Madison
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You live in a land of wondrous and varied settings. For many ages you and your kin have lived simple and happy lives, but as time has worn on, your numbers have grown exponentially and it is no longer feasible for you to remain in the spot where you currently are. Expansion is the key to your survival. It’s not as easy as packing a suitcase and going elsewhere, though. You’ve grown accustomed to living a certain way and in certain conditions. Before you can expand, you must blaze a path ahead of you. Using the magical arts, your kindred have developed a method for transforming swamps into forests and lush forests into placid lakes and serene ponds into empty, blistering hot desert. To make things even more difficult, you are not alone in this land. Other clans and other races and factions also desire to expand and spread out. Will your faction win out or will you become just another footnote in history?

This is the world of Terra Mystica. In this game, you will control one of 14 different factions and you will attempt through subterfuge, tactics, and superior resource management to outmaneuver your opponents and become the dominant faction in the land.

CONTENTS

Terra Mystica comes packaged in a large box that is adorned with the following image: in the distance we see a mountain range. Majestic rivers sweep down from its peaks and wind through the valley below. On an outcropping stands a dwarf with a spade slung over his shoulder. His sharp eye gazes out upon the serene setting and surveys the land laid out before him. In the foreground stands a second dwarf. He is glancing over his shoulder at us with a wry, mischievous grin on his face. I suspect he is grinning because of what’s waiting inside of the box.

What awaits us inside of the box is a veritable smorgasbord of pieces and components. The sheer volume of game bits speaks volumes about this game’s complexity and high quality of said pieces speaks to the overall quality of the game itself. There is nothing here that isn’t meant to be here. Everything in this game has a purpose. There is always just enough to do whatever it is that needs to be done, but there is never too much excess and there is never a shortage either.

Inside of this box, you will find 7 different two-sided player boards with each side representing a different faction (for a total of 14 possible factions). Each board is a certain color and accompanying the board is a set of same colored wooden pieces: dwellings, trading houses, strongholds, temples, sanctuaries, priests, markers, and bridges. As for the rest of the wooden pieces go, there are also 65 white worker cubes, 65 purple power tokens, and one orange starting player token.

And it doesn’t stop there. There are also tiles and tokens galore: favor tiles, bonus card tiles, action tokens, coins of varied monetary values, scoring tiles, a game end token, several 100 victory point tokens, and a whole slew of terrain hex tiles. Additionally, there is also one cult track game board, a large terrain game board, and a well-illustrated, written, and designed rule book.

SET UP

The setup for this game can take a while the first few times, but will become much easier once you have become familiar with where all of the various pieces go. This is just some forewarning for you. There are a lot of aspects of this game to cover and the most difficult thing for me is determining where to begin. What I have decided to do is to approach the game from the perspective of the player board. For now, please excuse any unfamiliar verbiage that you might encounter. I will explain everything in due time.

First, each player chooses a faction and then takes all of the wooden pieces of their color as well as however many power tokens that are listed on their player board. The player board is divided into several areas. Beginning with the upper left hand corner are the power bowls. There are three bowls in total and each one of them is labeled with a Roman numeral from I to III. Inside of the I and II bowls, there are some numbers. Power tokens equal to these numbers are placed in their respective bowls.

Beneath the power bowls is a section that I will call the ‘building’ section. This section is broken up into several subsections: dwellings which lead to trading houses. Trading houses can then become strongholds OR can then become temples. The temples can eventually become sanctuaries. Each player will take each corresponding piece from their supply and place it on top of its icon on the player board. For instance, there are a total of 8 dwellings per player and there are eight slots in the dwelling section of the player board. Each player will place a single dwelling on top of each one of these slots.

To the right of the building section is the area that shows each player’s chosen faction’s special ability. Each faction receives extra victory points whenever certain conditions are met. For instance, if the dwarves tunnel to a new area and then build something, they receive bonus victory points.

Directly above the special ability section is the shipping track. The higher up a player is on this shipping track, the more spaces they can move up or down a river to build new settlements. There are four levels of shipping ranging from 0 to 3. Each player will place one of their markers on the 0.

Directly above this section is the exchange track. Like the shipping track, there are multiple levels. The exchange track, however, only has three levels. This track signifies how many workers it will take a player in order for that player to terraform a single piece of land one single time. The higher up on the track a player moves, the less workers it will take. Each player begins with one of their markers on the lowest rung of this track.

This ties into the transformation cycle chart that lies directly to the left of the exchange track. Each faction favors a certain type of terrain and there are certain types of terrain that are easier for each faction to terraform than others. At the top center is the type of terrain that a player’s chosen faction prefers. To its immediate left and immediate right are the easiest terrain types for that faction to convert. To the right and left of those are the next easiest. To the left and right of those (and these are next to each other at the bottom of the transformation cycle) are the two most difficult types of terrain for that faction to convert. Each conversion happens in steps. So, to complete the most complex conversion, the player must terraform from the most complex to the nest easiest, then to the next easiest, then to the preferred type of terrain. That’s a total of 3 conversions and the player would have to pay a number of workers equal to the cost indicated on the exchange track for each separate conversion.

Directly above the exchange track is each player’s starting setup. This starting setup tells the player how many workers they begin with, how much gold they begin with, and where their markers begin on the cult track board. By default, each player will place one of their markers at the 0 on each of the cult tracks of which there are four: air, earth, fire, and water. The players will adjust their starting markers according to the starting setup on their player boards.

The terrain game board is laid in the middle of the table where everyone can reach it. Along the leftmost edge of this board is the turn indicator. The game is played in a series of six turns. For each turn, there is a spot for a scoring tile. Six scoring tiles are chosen and one is placed on each of these spots. Each of the scoring tiles is broken into two parts. The left side of a scoring tile is something that happens all throughout the turn. The right side is a bonus that happens at the end of the turn. Since there are only six turns, the sixth turn will not have a bonus, so this bonus side is covered up by the game end token.

Along the bottom of the terrain game board are six different actions that players may pay for during their turn. An action token is placed above each one of these. When one of these actions is used, the token is placed on top of the action to signify that this action is no longer available to other players. Once the action tokens have been placed, a number of bonus tiles based on how many players are playing are chosen and placed face up next to the terrain game board. Some of the bonus tiles have single use actions on them. For each of these, an action token will accompany them.

Now that you’ve got everything laid out, you are just about ready to start playing. The last thing that needs to be done is that each player needs to set out their first dwellings and select their bonus tile for the round. Choose a starting player. Beginning with that player and moving clockwise, each player will place a dwelling on an existing home terrain (the terrain that your faction prefers). Once everyone has placed their first dwelling, then the last person that placed a dwelling places a second dwelling. This goes in counterclockwise order until everyone has placed two dwellings onto the terrain game board. All structures are taken from the building area of the player board from the left to the right. Once everyone has 2 dwellings placed, then everyone chooses a bonus tile beginning with the last player and moving in counterclockwise order.

Now, armed with a bonus tile and two dwellings on the terrain game board, you are ready to begin playing. Like I said, the set up takes a little bit.

TURN SEQUENCE

The game takes place over the span of six turns (we will refer to these as rounds from here on out to avoid confusion) and each of these rounds is broken down into a number of phases. Within each separate phase, players will perform the actions that happen within that phase in turn. Don’t get used to the turn order, though, because it can and in all probability will change multiple times throughout the course of the game.

The phases of a round are:

- Income phase
- Actions phase
- Cult bonuses and Clean up

The Actions phase is the busiest of all of the phases because there are many actions for a player to choose from. The caveat, however, is that the player may perform only ONE of those actions. The various actions to choose from are:

- Transform and build: you may terraform any unoccupied, adjacent terrain to one of your structures. If that would change the terrain into your home terrain, then you may immediately build a dwelling there.
- Advance the shipping track: the higher your shipping track is, the further you can look downriver for ‘adjacent’ terrains to transform. Even though these terrain are not actually adjacent to the terrain that you are sitting upon,
- Lowering the exchange rate for spades: this option will make it so that terraforming will not cost as many workers per transformation.
- Upgrading a structure: the higher level a structure is, the more valuable it is as a commodity on the board. After a player has gathered enough structures together in one single area, those structures become a town and that player receives not only a victory point bonus, but some other valuable bonus as well.
- Send a priest to the cult track: there are four spots on each cult track that can hold a priest. When a priest is placed atop one of these numbered spots, the cult track marker for that specific cult track will move up the track a number of spaces equal to the number. That priest will then reside in that spot permanently. A player may, if they choose, place their priest on a cult track temporarily to move up a single space on the track. The priest is then removed at the end of the turn.
- Power actions: everything in this game costs some combination of power and something else. Sometimes, though, if you find yourself lacking in a particular department, you can convert power directly into something else that you might need. 5 power can be converted into a priest. 3 power can be converted into a worker. 1 power can be converted into a single gold. A priest can be converted into a worker which can, in turn, be converted into a gold. Unlike the previous five actions, power actions can be performed at any time in any phase during your turn.

Let’s look at these phases in some more detail.

INCOME PHASE

On many of the bonus cards and various board spaces, there will appear an image of an open hand with something resting on top of it. This open hand represents your income and whatever the hand is holding is what you will receive during this phase. For instance, beneath each dwelling in the building section of the player board is a hand holding a white cube. This represents an income of a single worker. The more dwellings that you have on the terrain board, the more workers that you will receive as an income. There are many different types of incomes that you can receive in addition to workers. For instance, you can receive an income of priests or money or even power. The more that you receive during this phase, the more that you will be able to do in later phases.

ACTION PHASE – BUILDING and UPGRADING

Whether you are terraforming, building a new building, or upgrading an existing building or one of the tracks on your board, everything in this game has a cost. That cost is typically some combination of power, workers, and money. Each cost is listed next to the icons representing each action on your player board. The cost for building a dwelling, for instance, is 1 worker and 2 gold. This is represented on the player board as a white hexagon with a 1 inside of it sitting next to a gold colored circle with a 2 inside of it and an arrow pointing at a dwelling. So, at the very lowest level of the exchange track, it would cost you at the very least 3 workers to terraform an area and then an additional 1 worker and 2 gold to build a dwelling there. As you can see, you tend to run out of resources rather quickly, so it is important to have plenty of resources available to you.

PLACING PRIESTS

One of the actions that you can take is to place one of your priests onto one of the four cult tracks. As your marker moves up the cult track, it will cross over several points that will gain you bonus power. This bonus power can only be gained once per cult track. The further up the track you have moved, the better these bonuses become.

The tracks are numbered in spaces from 1 to 10. Below the tracks are the four spots which I mentioned earlier. There is one spot that is worth 3 track movement per each track and 3 spots that are worth 2 movement each. Any player can move up any of the cult tracks and occupy that space with any other players that have moved that far up the track except for space number 10. This space is locked and can only be unlocked with a key. The only way to obtain a key is to build a town. Once a player has crossed into the number 10 space, then no other player may ever move into that space.

Moving a priest to the cult track is not the only way that one can move up the track, however. Whenever a sanctuary or a temple is constructed, the player that has done so will get to choose a favor tile that they will control for the rest of the game. These favor tiles will typically provide some immediate, one-time benefit as well as a long term income phase benefit. Typically, these favor tiles, when collected, will allow you to move your cult track marker up a certain number of spaces on a certain cult track. Also, some of the tokens you can receive for building towns will allow you to move your cult track markers as well.

PASSING, CULT BONUSES, and CLEANING UP

There will come a point during a round when a player will no longer have enough resources to do anything useful and they will be forced to pass. The first person to pass during a round is given the starting player pawn and they become to the first player for the next round. When a player passes, they must return the bonus tile that they currently have to the supply and take into their possession one of the leftover bonus tiles.

Once all of the players have passed, then the round comes to an end and the cleanup begins. First, the cult bonuses from the right side of the scoring tile are calculated. For every specified number of a certain type of cult track (shown on the tile), each player that meets the requirements will gain some kind of benefit. For instance, if the scoring tile shows 2 air cult track icons followed by the single worker income icon, then a player whose marker is currently on the air cult track would receive a free worker for every 2 spaces they have moved up the air cult track. If they’d moved a total of 5 spaces, they would receive 2 workers.

Once the cult track bonuses have been worked out, all of the action tokens that have been placed on bonus tiles or on the terrain board actions are removed. Then a single coin is placed on top of each unused bonus tile. Once that is completed, the scoring tile is flipped over to signify the beginning of the next round.

PLAYING WITH POWER – the BOWLS

One of the most significant aspects of this game is the manipulation of the power in your power bowls and the acquisition of power. First, we’ll talk about the bowls and then we’ll talk about the acquisition of power. Finally, we’ll touch on the terrain board actions and what they represent.

As I mentioned previously, your power bowls are divided into three sections ranging from Roman numeral I to numeral III. Before you can begin moving power into bowl III, you must first move the power from bowl I to bowl II. When you acquire power, you acquire the means to do so.

Let’s pretend that you begin the game with 5 power in bowl I and 7 power in bowl II and at some point during the course of the game, you acquire 2 power. You would then move two power cubes from bowl I to bowl II. As you acquire more power, more of those power cubes get moved until, eventually, bowl I is completely empty. Further power acquisition would then move power cubes from bowl II to bowl III.

Once you have power cubes in bowl III, you can begin spending power. Whenever power is spent, an appropriate number of power cubes are moved from bowl III back into bowl I. You can never spend more power than you have in bowl III. The power can move a little slowly at times. Fortunately, though, there is a way for you to get power from bowl II to bowl III more quickly. We’ll call this method ‘burning power’.

Burning power requires you to have at least 2 power cubes in bowl II. To burn power, you may move one cube from bowl II to bowl III. The remaining cube is then removed from the game. If you had four power in bowl II, you could immediately move two of that power to bowl III, but it would require you to remove the remaining two power in bowl II from the game.

Burning power, while costly, does provide a couple of benefits. The first is the immediate influx of power to do whatever it is that you are trying to do. The second benefit that is not as obvious is that burning power enables you to cycle power through your pools much more quickly than you would normally be able to. While I am not recommending that you burn as much power as you can, I do recommend that you burn some at some point because it really helps.

PLAYING WITH POWER – ACQUISITION

I have already covered several method of obtaining power : bonus tiles, income phase, favor tiles, cult track, etc. but there is one other method of gaining power that I have not discussed: being in the right place at the right time. Whenever someone else builds something next to something that you own, you have an opportunity to gain power from their actions.

Each structure in the game has a power value. Dwellings are worth 1, trading houses and sanctuaries are worth 2, and the other buildings are worth 3. Whenever a structure is built next to another structure, the person building the structure must let the owners of those other structures know that they have the opportunity to collect power. To determine the amount of power that the opponent could gain, the building player will add up the power value of each of that opponent’s structures that are directly adjacent to the structure that is being built.

For instance, if you were to construct a dwelling that is directly adjacent to two of an opponent’s dwellings, then that opponent would have the opportunity to gain 2 power. However, this power gain is not free. If the opponent chooses to gain the power, then they must give up victory points equal to one less than the amount of power that they are going to be gaining. A power gain of 5, for instance, would cost the other player 4 victory points if they chose to take it.

PLAYING WITH POWER – POWER ACTIONS

Across the bottom of the terrain board are six power actions. The only cost associated with these actions is the raw expenditure of power. Once a player has claimed one of these actions, the action is unavailable until the next round. The actions vary in usefulness. Some allow you to use power to terraform as opposed to using workers. Another will allow you to exchange power for money at a much better rate than you normally could. Sometimes it is almost worth giving up actions that you could have performed to ensure that you are the first player at the beginning of the next round so that you will have first choice of the power actions.

END GAME and SCORING

The game ends at the end of the sixth round. Then scoring begins. First, the cult tracks are considered separately. The person whose marker is highest up on the cult track will receive 8 victory points. The second highest will receive 4, and the third highest will receive 2. If any players are tied (i.e. – sitting on the same spot), then their scores are combined and split evenly between them. So, if the second and third place people are on the same spot, they will split 4 points for second plus 2 points for third or 6 points between them for a total of 3 points apiece.

Next, the terrain board is considered. Each player counts up their adjacent and indirectly structures. A structure is indirectly adjacent if it is more than one space away from other structures but could be legally be reached by some means such as shipping or a faction’s special ability. The person with the most structures counted up in this way will receive 18 points. Second place will receive 12 and third receives 6. Just like the cult track, if players are tied, their scores are combined and split evenly.

Lastly, every player may convert all of their remaining priests and workers into coin (this only includes priests which they received during the income phase or during their turn but have not used). Then each player counts up their coins and receives one victory point per every 3 coin. The person with the most victory points when all of this is done is the winner. If there is a tie, then there are multiple winners.

THOUGHTS

I must admit that when I saw this game come out of the box that I was slightly terrified. There is a lot going on here and it can be very intimidating at first. The large, 20 page rulebook doesn’t help to alleviate this terror any. However, after the first couple of turns, I was beginning to grasp the various concepts and was beginning to see the big picture beyond my current turn. The game setup and breakdown is a pain, but the gameplay itself goes by pretty quickly once you get used to it.

Now, I like a game with plenty of options and Terra Mystica has more options than you can shake a stick at. Ignore the terrain board and you will find yourself outmatched before you know what hit you. Ignore the cult track and you’ll miss out on all of the bonuses and victory points. There’s a fine balance that must be struck here if you hope to be successful in the end and it is finding this balance that presents the strategic element of this game that makes it so enjoyable.

With lots of options, though, comes analysis paralysis. Terra Mystica is not immune to this and you will find that you’re having to wait a while for your turn to come around at times. This is especially true towards the end of the game when every player is trying to squeeze out as many victory points as possible with the limited resources that they have available to them. So, if being patient isn’t your cup of tea, you’ll probably want to steer clear of this game.

As for me, though, you couldn’t keep me away. I absolutely love this game. I love the thinking and the strategizing and the planning and the gambling. I love the feeling of the pay off when your strategy has you raking in 11 workers every round or when the end result of your planning and scheming is your coffers overflowing with gold. Terra Mystica is a game that rewards careful calculation and sound strategic thought. It’s a game that’s welcome at my gaming table any time.
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Mark O'Reilly
United Kingdom
Chester
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Awesome review of a cracking game.
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Matt Jackson
United States
New Bedford
Massachusetts
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If a person who has an evil heart gets the Triforce, a Hero is destined to appear... and he alone must face the person who began the Great Cataclysm.
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If the evil one destroys the Hero, nothing can save the world from his wicked reign. Only a person of the Knights Of Hyrule, who protected the royalty of Hylia, can become the Hero...
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Great Review thumbsup
 
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David Larkin
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Brighton
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sthrjo wrote:
A good walk-through of the entire game. If you change 'burning' power into 'sacrifice' power you will receive 0.5 from me.
we always "burn" it so 0.5 fro me!
 
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Robert Stewart
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CarcassonneFreak wrote:
Burning power, while costly, does provide a couple of benefits. The first is the immediate influx of power to do whatever it is that you are trying to do. The second benefit that is not as obvious is that burning power enables you to cycle power through your pools much more quickly than you would normally be able to. While I am not recommending that you burn as much power as you can, I do recommend that you burn some at some point because it really helps.

Small niggle here: while it's true that burning power reduces the amount of power gain required to get some or all of your power into Bowl III when it's all in Bowl I to start with, that's not an advantage over not burning power. Burning one power is equivalent to gaining one power except for the timing and the limitation on how much power you can usefully gain or spend at once.

Suppose you start with 7 power in Bowl II and 5 in Bowl I, then gain 1 power and burn 4 to take a 4-power special action, leaving you with 8 power in Bowl I. It'll then take 12 power income to get back to 4 power in Bowl III - burn 4, spend 4, gain 12 to leave you at 0/4/4 power.
If, instead of burning 4, you gained 4 to put all your power in Bowl II, then gained 4 more, spent 4 and gained 8 more, you'd end up with 0/8/4 power - having taking the same special action and gained just 4 more power in place of burning 4...

When Bowl I is empty, the equivalence is even more obvious.

The key insight is that power in Bowl II is irrelevant - power in Bowl I is a penalty you need to clear before you can actually gain power, and power in Bowl III is power you've actually gained and have ready to use. If it weren't for burning power (and the 12 power limit), you wouldn't need Bowl II at all...
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