Any DND nerds out there? I thought so! Let me hit you with an analogy:
Some board games are wizard games. They require a looooong study of the rules to understand, and even then you need to keep referring to them in order to prepare a game session. Plus, you can only really play them once per day.
That’s not your typical cantrip.
Other board games are sorcerer games. Their rules aren’t meant to be studied, they’re meant to be taught from a master. Then you commit the rules to memory, and you’ve got it down. You can only keep so many in your head before they start to blur, though. And you’ll probably want to bring them out ALL THE TIME.
“Want to draft again? Like, right now?”
Then there’s Terra Mystica, a game that’s externally more complicated than 3rd edition grappling rules and yet elegantly designed to be mind-numbingly simple after you get it. Then you’ll fail at it halfway through your first game because you misjudged how long it would take you to get the rules, vowing to do better next session. So that makes it like a…monk? Cleric? I’m not really all that knowledgeable about DND…
Jedi? Do they have a jedi class?
In any case, that’s what my friends Alex and Martha found out when we sat down to play it. We had about two hours to set it up, learn the rules, and play a game. I was optimistic. Everyone else in the game room was not. Ira, the only one who had played it before, laughed when we pulled out the mountain of components. He did the same thing when we asked a clarifying question.
“I played it once like a year ago. I don’t think I’ll be of any use to you. Good luck!” –Ira
Our first mistake was looking at the rulebook. The second was having ME look at the rulebook. The component list takes up two pages, the set up takes 3 more, the cards are not broken down in a chart, and the suggested setup for the first game is represented on a 2-3 inch picture of the entire board. The writers also make the strange choice to put the list of ways to get points in one of the first sections, prefaced in small print with a warning not to read them.
“This section has no relevance for understanding the rules” – actual quote, page 7
After almost an hour of this, we took out the cheat sheet cards which told you what actions you can take. Then we looked at our boards. And EVERYTHING MADE SENSE. The player faction mats are designed so that everything you need to know is right in front of you– income, costs of actions, how to terraform, what upgrades into what, and how many structures you have available to build. The rest of the board plus the cheat sheet tells you just about everything else you need to know. We had spent all our time searching for rules until the game showed us that the rules were within ourselves the whole time. Basically, it Obi-Wanned us.
After we struck it down, it became more powerful than we could imagine. And followed us around in ghost form for two more movies.
SO, if you’re going to play, here are some things we wish we knew:
1. DON’T LOOK AT THE RULES.
2. Pull out the tiles and just look at the board
3. The point of the game is to build and expand for points. Look for things to get you points.
4. The game is played over 6 rounds, with special point goals for each round. That’s on the left of the board.
5. There are three parts of a round: income, actions, and clean up
6. In the income phase, you get stuff. Look for the hand symbol. You get whatever lays above it.
7. Then, it’s the action phase, where you do things. Everything you can do is on the cheat sheet card, in symbols. Players keep acting in turn until they pass.
8. The main thing you do is terraform – turn one environment tile to another – and then build on it. To terraform, you need spades. These are good.
9. After that, it’s the cleanup phase. You get points for what you did in the round.
10. You get extra points for building and upgrading things. Though it’s not the only way to get points, most of the game is outbuilding your opponents
Okay, NOW look at the rules. It should be much easier to understand, like a magical version of Settlers of Catan with a little bit of worker placement thrown in.
Despite that debacle, the game went incredibly smoothly, though we only finished four rounds. Here’s how it went:
Part 2: The Gameplay
For the first game, factions and starting positions are pre-set in order to achieve game balance. Martha was the leader of the Witches, creatures who lived in Forests and automatically got more points for making cities (i.e. having 4 buildings in adjacent tiles.) This got her a fair amount of points in the long run, although the power didn’t seem to fit with the theme of her faction. Maybe they’re suburban witches?
Pictured: Martha’s subjects
[POST WRITING NOTE: As it turns out, you actually need both 4 buildings AND a certain amount of points from buildings to make a town. We were playing as if it were either/or. Sooooo...read the rules too.]
Alex was king of the Nomads, desert-dwellers who began with three settlements instead of the usual two. This turned out to be an awesome boon, because more settlements means more workers to terraform and build. Plus, he was already spread out across three continents when we started, making it easier to find easily terraformable land. And, because Alex is Alex, he takes great joy in turning once green forests into desolate wastelands.
“Muhahaha…burn, burn!” – Alex
I controlled the Alchemists, a profession apparently so organized as to create a race of people. Their special power was to convert victory points into gold or vice versa, something I ended up having to do as the game wore on, though I always felt a bit dirty doing it (probably because I was already in last place when I had to, but more on that later.) Alchemists lived in swamps, presumably with the permission of any other large green creatures living there.
One would hope, anyway…
Each faction may only build dwellings on their particular terrain type, and each terrain type takes a certain number of “spades” to convert to another. For example, lakes and fields each take one spade to convert to a swamp, while mountains take three (as it’s hard to turn a mountain into a swamp.) The starting set up placed my terrain smack dab in the middle between the other two, which is pretty cool since I can more easily terraform their terrain…and they can do the same to mine. All of this is explained on the faction card via a color wheel, which you can see on my faction board below.
Also pictured: my inability to be neat. It’s my little way of getting back at super-organized Alex.
In the first round, I was pretty timid. The wooden houses and such had gotten me into the mindset of Settlers of Catan, so I started using the strategies I would use for that game: isolation and upgrading. When Alex and Martha started vying for control of the central landmass, I expanded West, what I thought to be a land ripe for swamping. While they were constructing meager dwellings, I decided to diversify and upgraded my dwelling into a trading post on the heretofore undeveloped Eastern continent.
The plan was going perfectly – Alex had already made a vow to “crush” Martha, so I could sneak away and get up to my own devices in the swamp. This seemed like a very alchemisty thing to do, so I did it.
Drinking out of beakers. Also alchemisty. Not something I did.
I ran out of resources first, so I was the first to pass. Seeing as this meant I got to go first again in the next round, I figured I was in a pretty good position.
In round two, the holes in my thinking began to appear. See, unlike in Settlers of Catan, the upgraded dwellings in Terra Mystica do not give you more of the same resource – instead, they give you money and magic (something used for special powers and actions when you get enough). And, also unlike in Settlers, upgrading has an additional cost: if you upgrade from a dwelling to a trading post, you actually lose a worker resource from your income. Seeing as these workers are needed for even the most basic terraforming tasks, I had shot myself in the foot by upgrading too early.
In the world of the game, there was probably some Occupy movement going on.
As a result, I had a fair amount of money, but no workers. Alex, on the other hand, had an organized workforce of 6 per turn, and Martha’s 4 workers wasn’t too shabby either. I had 3 – not enough to terraform and build in the same turn. So I did what any reasonable person would do – I turned to religion, upgrading my trading post into a temple, and would receive a priest my next turn. Priests are powerful, used to get certain upgrades or increase a player’s position on the cult track (another way to get points, and one that didn’t really factor into my first game.) I also got a blessing tile that permanently gave me more workers. Yay!
My priests have a way with the people.
As I watched Alex and Martha continue to build dwellings and upgrades across the now crowded middle continent, I planned to stick to part 1 of my strategy – stay as far away from the others as possible. My plan was to use my priest to increase my shipping next turn, which would allow me to build dwellings across rivers and spread out across the map. I passed, grabbing an upgrade that allowed me to build in swamps even further away.
I guess this is what I was envisioning.
From that part of the round on, I watched Alex and Martha exchange glares as they grew. Alex upgrades to a trading post. Martha builds another dwelling. Alex gets a temple. Martha gets a town. It made me feel even more behind – they didn’t even see me as a threat. Patience, I told myself, I’ll get back in this game yet…
Round three was exciting. I had some income, I had a plan, and things were going my way. I set up a dwelling across the river, then upgraded a dwelling to a trading post right next to Alex’s newly minted town. It was at this point I realized another fatal flaw to my strategy, and that was magic.
Damn! Not you again!
Terra Mystica’s magic system is really unique, involving mana that has to be charged up in order to be used on boons like extra gold or workers, each of which may only be used once per round. Mana became much more important than I realized, as it is the only way one can build a bridge to connect two towns across the water or get resources immediately outside of the income phase. One of the major ways one can charge mana is by having someone build next to you – depending on the buildings you have around, you will have the opportunity to trade points for free mana. As a result, building close to someone creates a major advantage, if you can risk them blocking you off from the territory you want. It’s an excellent mechanic, but one I didn’t grasp. By isolating myself as I would in Settlers, I wasn’t getting any mana at all. And it was starting to wear on me.
Just as isolation wore on another famous swamp dweller…
Alex used the magic (some of which I gave him by upgrading) to conjure gold and workers out of thin air, Martha used her magic to make a bridge and began building on the Southern continent. I struggled to catch up, getting a couple workers and using my special ability to get enough gold to build another dwelling. But by now it was too late. My resources were spent, and my silly mistakes had forced me well behind the others. There was nothing to do now but pass (again), take the first turn, and hope to finish the game with a shred of dignity.
Cue rendition of “Every Rose has Its Thorn”
I was out of the game by this point, and we knew we were going to end soon anyway. But I’m not the type to give up. Besides, I wanted my town. So that’s exactly what I got.
Welcome to Swamptown! Population: 4. Enter at your own risk!
After terraforming in the East for spite, I sat back and watched my much more successful compatriots build their empires. They began fighting over cultists and blocking each other by terraforming the world around their cities. They ended with pretty respectable empires and scores in the 70s, with Alex edging Martha out by 3 points (76-73). Needless to say, I didn’t do as well.
See that black dot? Waaaaayyy in the back? That’s me!
Sitting back on my gentlemen’s 53 points, feet soaking in the swamp, I had a chance to reflect on my failure. I had gone about this game as if it were a different one, and I had shot myself in the foot by doing so. You cannot upgrade too early, nor can you spread out too far. This game is about bristling up against your neighbors and spreading out your dwellings before moving into trading posts.
If I had known that, maybe I would have done better before we had to pack up the game and leave. Maybe the world wouldn’t have ended prematurely in a fireball summoned by an unruly Alchemist, unable to get the funding he needed to continue his experiments. I’d like to think there’s some justice in that.
And fire. Lots of fire.
- Last edited Mon Feb 2, 2015 7:27 pm (Total Number of Edits: 3)
- Posted Sat Jan 31, 2015 7:30 am
Just a note: you need at least four buildings to make a town, but you also need at least seven power worth of buildings.
Dist of Columbia
Yes, unless you have the fire 2 favor (6 power) or your Sanctuary in the town (3 buildings). Reading the rules has its benefits.
That was a fun read, thanks! One minor correction: you only found a town when you have at least 4 buildings with a power value of at least 7. Your buildings only had a combined power value of 5 (1 for each of the dwellings, 2 for the trading posts), so actually did not found a town.
Also, upgrading early isn't necessarily bad. A first-turn temple or stronghold can be very powerful.
Keep playing, this is a game that becomes better and better with more experience.
Michael Off The Shelf Board Game Reviews
Unless you have the favor tile.
Darnit I was Ninja'd!
- Last edited Sat Jan 31, 2015 5:22 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Jan 31, 2015 5:22 pm
I paid 100 Geek Gold so that you can read this! :-)
Very fun to read!
Note that both Nomad "towns" are also not towns as defined by the rules (well, the bottom one might be, if the Nomads have the Fire2 favor tile).
- Last edited Sat Jan 31, 2015 6:33 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Jan 31, 2015 6:31 pm
OoooOOOOOHHHHHH. That makes sense! I thought the rule read that cities were made "when any one of these conditions are met," not "when these two conditions are met." Makes it much harder to get one, and therefore much more interesting.
Thank you all. I still have much to learn. And more rules to study...
- Last edited Sat Jan 31, 2015 9:24 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Jan 31, 2015 9:17 pm
I played this yesterday for the first time and loved how simple it was to understand and how elegant the iconography was.
I thought it would be a beast to learn and difficult to play but it was very easy to play after learning the rules.
I want to play it again!
That was a fun read. Now that you have an understanding of how the game works, the rules are a lot easier to digest. In my experience, this game doesn't click with new players until about round 3 in their first game. Then, you have the fun of learning the strategies, something I'm still trying to figure out after 10+ games!
Then, you have the fun of learning the strategies, something I'm still trying to figure out after 10+ games!
Some of us are still trying to figure that out after well over 100