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Subject: Gaia Project Review — more than Terra Nova rss

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Temirlan Tattybekov
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After playing every faction at least twice, finally scoring 200+ points in a game and gathering all my thoughts I feel like I am finally ready to review this gem of a game. I will be honest upfront: this is my personal favorite game of all time and a third “perfect 10” on BGG, alongside Terra Mystica and Through the Ages: a New Story of Civilization.

Obviously this review is going to be biased; I am not a professional reviewer and don’t claim to be one. I am a board game geek who loves this game and has a bit of a personal agenda: I want this game to sell well so that Jens and Helge will never have to work ever again, get incredibly rich, have all the free time in the world and make a new gem in five years, once again amazing us with intricate systems. In a world filled with shallow, bloated Kickstarter products, I feel like them and Vlaada are the only beacons of hope that push the medium further, innovating, refining but not overcomplicating one of my favorite hobbies.

Vlaada wasn’t mentioned in vain in this opening: as much as I love TTA, the transition from version to version was a work on mistakes and balance issues, along with quality of life improvements. Terra Mystica was perfect for me from the beginning and well, Gaia Project is something you get when you start with something perfect and despite the obvious contradictions, make it better. Better and different.

# The Superficial

The amazingly designed player boards are back and I couldn’t be happier. Everything is clear, concise, has a place and makes a ton of sense. The art direction is also back and personally I feel that is unfortunate, given how the theme has changed drastically. Some of the art in this game might feel out of place and it will never blow your socks off. But it is still high quality with 14 unique and recognizable faction representatives, which convey the general idea behind their play styles reasonably well. It is functional, solid, but is not something that will keep your eyes glued to it.

That said, the game is still an eye candy, especially in a 4-player game. Looking at the board filled with miniature buildings, you get a sense of awe, while still being able to understand what is happening and see the potential moves at a glance. I also don’t fully understand the debate between Wood vs. Plastic: all buildings in this game feel great in your hand, have appropriate amount of detail and the bigger ones, Academies especially, are downright gorgeous. I don’t know whether this level of detail could be achieved with wooden pieces, but for me the miniatures are a definite improvement.

That said, some of the components did feel a little on the “cheap” side. 31 games in, there are already small, but clear signs of wear on two of the player boards and one of the sectors. My player boards also used to curl up for some reason, but after a couple of days under some of my heavier books, they’ve straightened up and stopped doing it. I feel like when it comes to the cardboard bits, Terra Mystica was a little better produced, since it is still in a near-perfect condition after all these years and countless plays.

Also: Terra Mystica has a better box. And I’m not talking about the art, which is subjective. TM box was a lot more functional and spacious, having more spaces for player-added things like small token plates and organizers.

All of this, however, doesn’t matter one bit, because these pieces are merely a gateway to a magical world of incredible puzzles that simply never get old.

# The Game

I am not going to outline the whole rulebook trying to help people understand how to play the game, instead I will concentrate on the experiences I have while playing it, highlighting some of the brilliant things this game does.

It is a 0% luck game. Literally zero. Nothing in this game will make a worse player win or a better player lose. One could argue that the order in which you pick factions can create a bit of an imbalance, but this is a problem easily solved with a start-game auction, once players are familiar with the game.

In my book it is a major positive. I am a competitive player with an esports background who has a major distaste for anything involving post-factual randomness. I simply refuse to play a game where an outcome of some action can change depending on the roll of a dice or a draw of a card. And I am also a bit wary of games where card draws or dice rolls give you options, though I have to admit that there are excellent games in each category with “good” random (e.g. Terraforming Mars and Roll for the Galaxy).

Despite having no random at all it is still an incredibly variable game, with countless setup combinations, 15 distinct end-game scoring “goals” and a lot of player interaction.

Yes, I am the type of person who would argue that both Terra and Gaia have one of the highest levels of player interaction in the hobby — every single thing you do influences the other players in one way or another, but it might not be as clear for newer players. It isn’t “ha! I attack you here and then use this higher card I’ve drawn to win the fight” so many people confuse with meaningful player interaction. It is more of a “I will nonchalantly place this Mine here, allowing you to gain some power, and you might not feel the consequences of this action until two turns later, but you will feel it eventually”.

And that’s one of the beauties of the game — everything you do will both help and harm every other player, creating a natural comeback mechanic every single turn. You can’t be “out of the game”.

There is also very little “crisis management” in this game. You won’t be starved for food or need to “beg” for corn from the gods. In this game you are in a position of power, you are leading a race to glory and it is fully up to you, not chance, to make best of what you have. Where other Euros might force you to do something to prevent a loss of points, resources or family member, Gaia Project gives you a myriad of options to grow, expand and develop. It is an empowering feeling and a very dangerous one.

You see, the player with the highest point total wins the game and, obviously, you want to win. So you want to score more points. And every round there are opportunities to score bonus points and they might not necessarily align with your plan for the game. So you scrap your plan and go on a wild-goose chase after the points and you lose.

In your second game you are slightly more experienced and you understand the importance of a good economy behind the scoring. So you create a genius plan, ignore the bonus tiles completely and create an amazingly well-oiled economic machine that ends the game efficiently spending every single resource you’ve had throughout the six rounds. You still lose.

Next game you start compromising, doing a little bit of both. Suddenly, the game starts “speaking” with you. You begin to understand that you need a balanced approach. You start weighing your actions more heavily. You start to understand the importance of the order you take the actions in, since it is a competitive game with many players fighting for some scarce resources. You feel the flow, start reading opponent’s moves, start thinking of ways to disrupt them without sacrificing too much yourself, start thinking of VP deltas in some scenarios and you still might lose because someone at the table was better than you. And that is an infuriating feeling, but also a liberating one.

Because it was you who made every single move. No one bears responsibility for your loss but you. There wasn’t a bad draw, a bad roll. It was you. And if you are like me, it will jump your brain into overdrive. You will start thinking of things you could have done better. You will start seeing some patterns that led to a win by an opponent. You will learn to play the game and after 30+ games I’ve played so far I can honestly say that I am in fact still learning.

There is so much variation in this game it will require you to adapt and will present you with new scenarios and challenges every single game. No two games will ever be alike, but you can still use your experience to find better moves. Maybe not the best move, but a good one. And the factions in this game are designed in a beautiful way: they have very distinct abilities and features, but still remain balanced and, more importantly, open ended.

It will be you leading a unique faction to victory, not the other way around. They will play differently, but courtesy of a much improved Research Track, they are highly customizable and that allows you to shape them into what you consider to be the best version of them for that particular game.

And when your particular version of that particular faction for that particular game with these particular goals wins, you will feel euphoric. Because just like with losses, it was your moves, your decisions and it is you who deserves the praise for winning the game, not a good draw or a good roll.

# For players unfamiliar with Terra Mystica

You see this wall of text above ^. All this praise for Gaia Project, blablabla, better than Terra Mystica which is already perfect, blablabla...ooooh, so brainy, much depth, such wow… It all comes from a person who tried Terra Mystica once in 2012 after one of the players in our playgroup got it from BGG Secret Santa… and never wanted to play it again. I HATED the game. Honestly, it is probably possible for me to find a chat log where I was actively mocking Terra Mystica getting top 1 on BGG. I didn’t give it another chance until 2015, but then I kept playing Terra for two full years with a lot of live matches with friends on table and 300+ hours spent playing online on Tabletopia with random people.

Don’t let the game, especially Gaia, intimidate you. It might look heavy, it might seem complex, but in reality it is “elegant”. The border, the interface, if you will, between the player and the game is so thin, very soon you will stop noticing any admin and will be fully immersed in the puzzle. You will feel like you are in this game, you are the brain… that is why the first part of the review is called “The Superficial”... it doesn’t matter, it is not the game, it is the interface. Like with an excellent book, the actual game is happening in your head.

And it is highly contrasted with many current kickstarter “success stories”. Massive, intricately detailed miniatures will sell, and that’s pretty much their main and only goal. They look, feel and play like a commercial product, while Gaia Project stands out as a project of passion and love. I am not claiming there aren’t great games across kickstarter, but let’s be honest here — once the novelty of miniatures wears off, what you ultimately care is the actual gameplay and not how cool this mech might look next to a massive bear.

It is also a full product. There are 14 playable factions and 10 tiles to create unique maps in a single box, along with a wide variety of end-game goals. If there is an expansion to this game, it is going to be a delicious sauce or an extra side dish to a wholesome meal cooked by a professional chef who also happens to be your grandma. It won’t be a missing part of a heavily yolk-covered pie which glitters under the flashes of cameras, while being mostly potatoes and cheap sausage inside.

# For those who own and love Terra Mystica and aren’t decided on Gaia yet

I was recently a part of a conversation regarding the topic and I think Gaia is different to Terra Mystica and it is better. It is not “different enough to maybe buy”, it is full on different, with core mechanics intact, but put under circumstances where all your previous experience, while useful, won’t matter as much and you will have to learn, improve, adapt, improvise, be creative all over again. And for a lot longer this time around, since Gaia solves the main problem of Terra of predefined tactics for particular factions in two major ways: variable tech tile/research track set up AND open ended factions mentioned previously. On top of it, here is a quick list of 10 things that might seem similar, but are different:

1. Gaia is a good duel game. It is still best at 3+, but it is really good at 2.
2. Power is more flexible and has more uses. Also note that double shovel is at 5 and not at 6, meaning that it remains contested even with multiple players investing into terraforming.
3. No partial terraforming means that if you don't go into Terraforming Research Track, two planet types are completely out of reach for you. Allows for calmer planning, since you can be almost 100% certain a particular space will remain uncontested.
4. New "joker" planet type, which ease out the kinks in building progression.
5. Complete new mechanic for creating said joker planets, which is tied to power. Creates extra layer of depth to power management, since you don't burn this power, but it is tied for the round and next income phase.
6. More interesting Tech Tiles (blessings). Less VP and more customization options for the factions, which change game-to-game since they are a part of a set up.
7. Interesting Advanced Tech Tiles which can be as influential (or even more influential) than the end game bonus "goal tiles"
8. Two "goal" tiles in game randomized from a pool of 6. 15 potential combinations, which will force you to adapt in order to win. Or be really good at what you are doing.
9. Q.I.C. cubes which serve multiple purposes, such as extending your range, colonizing a Gaia planet or getting a special Q.I.C. action: a major improvement over TM's Priests.
10. Missing ore (worker) income under the third mine on every player board. First thought: “Why?”. Second thought: “Eh, don’t know, I guess I will have to live with this for some reason”. Third thought: “This is GENIUS”.

Honestly, go get it. It improves on Terra in ways it needed to be improved on, without adding complexity, while still adding depth. Would I play Terra now? Yes, it is a great game in its own right and it is probably slightly more aggressive. If given the choice between the two, I will always go for Gaia, however.

# Conclusion

I currently have 3 games rated 10 on BGG: Through the Ages: New Story, Terra Mystica and Gaia Project. I stand firm with all three games deserving a 10, but Gaia Project is on a level of its own. It is approachable, varied, smart, fun and fair. It is the game you can play more than a 100 games of and still learn something new.

It is also not for everyone. I don’t think the game is very “dry” or completely “themeless”, but it is not a fun romp through a magical land filled with forced “excitement” of dice rolls and an arbitrary winner. It is a strategy game and the losers will feel sorrow, the games might take a little longer and your head might actually hurt a little after a particularly intense match.

There is no instant gratification, no pats on the back, no hand-holding and fool-proof mechanisms. If you are not willing to learn and think, you will have a bad time. But if you put in a little effort: two games, maybe three and get past the point of fully grasping the rules, you are in for a very long ride.

And a very smooth one as well, since once they are in your head, rules will never get out. Once they click, they click and there will never be a need to run back and forth from the manual. And it is at this point the game truly starts to shine.

And I dare you to play enough to get to this point and then return to this thread and tell all of us you think Gaia is a bad game. Gaia Project — 10/10.
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Jennifer Schlickbernd
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You mean "more than Terra Mystica"? I've never heard of the game being compared to Terra Nova.
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Miguel Duran
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"10. Missing ore (worker) income under the third mine on every player board. First thought: “Why?”. Second thought: “Eh, don’t know, I guess I will have to live with this for some reason”. Third thought: “OMFG, THIS IS GENIUS. THIS SOLVES SO MUCH IN SUCH AN ELEGANT WAY”."

Great review for a game I've played only once and am anticipating receiving tomorrow.

The above quote interests me - what is it you feel it solves? I don't disagree; I just haven't had the light bulb go off for me the way it has for you as I've considered it.
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Sergio Perez
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I don't know that I've ever identified with a review so strongly. I'm so glad you wrote it. I considered making Gaia Project my first full-on text review, but I don't have to now. You said practically everything I would have said (probably better). I would simply add that the solo version included with this game is an excellent addition. I do not normally care for solo games, but this one is well executed and has really been helpful at assisting me in getting a feel for the various factions.

I agree; 10/10. This game is absolutely amazing! The changes made offer significant (yet elegant) improvements to a game that I already thought was one of, if not THE, best games ever.

Deterministic gamers rejoice! The new king has arrived!
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Nate F
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Excellent review that articulates quite well why you feel the game deserves such accolades. Well done.
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Jack Spirio
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one important change was also the trading posts income
in TM they were mostly really bad, but here the TP can give you enough Money income, that the 7 Money power action isn't always the automatic best
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Doug Johnson
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jschlickbernd wrote:
You mean "more than Terra Mystica"? I've never heard of the game being compared to Terra Nova.


I may be wrong but I think the author of the OP intended 'Terra Nova' - a sort of word-play implying a new 'Terra Mystica'. In other words, 'Gaia Project' is being portrayed as more than just a rehash of 'Terra Mystica'. This would certainly fit with the rest of the review.
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Peter S.
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jschlickbernd wrote:
You mean "more than Terra Mystica"? I've never heard of the game being compared to Terra Nova.
I took it as a clever pun, what with "nova" meaning "new".
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Temirlan Tattybekov
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JaydedOne wrote:
"The above quote interests me - what is it you feel it solves? I don't disagree; I just haven't had the light bulb go off for me the way it has for you as I've considered it.


One of the things that could happen in Terra Mystica was a crazy good start for certain races, where they could end up with a Temple/Stronghold and an extra dwelling on top of what other players would get in the first turn. That would allow them to snowball completely out of control, since it at the very least translated in 5 extra workers throughout the game. Catching up to Darklings or Nomads with this kind of start was close to impossible, since they simply had more resources than you at every point in the game and had an extra choice between blocking you or building themselves.

Third missing mine income ensures that if you go wide from the start you have to commit to it by at least an extra Mine/Dwelling, for it to pay off. Tall play therefore became more viable and currently I feel like the balance is in a really good spot.

Additionally, there are no hard-coded Terraform races except Geoden and Ivit, and both have extra resources (2 extra workers from free terraforming level for Geoden and a starting PI which saves 6 workers for Ivits).

So, it solves the problem of terraforming-heavy strats (which are 12 science investment for full effect more or less), while keeping them viable.

ErsatzDragon wrote:
jschlickbernd wrote:
You mean "more than Terra Mystica"? I've never heard of the game being compared to Terra Nova.
I took it as a clever pun, what with "nova" meaning "new".


Yup)Sorry, wasn't aware there is a game called "Terra Nova". Also thanks to everyone for the GG)
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boris p
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I've played over 20 games against Automa and it's more and more fun, especially you want to break your own record again and again. The only annoying thing at the beginning was building mines for automa. After a few games you can immediately see what to do. 10/10
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Fabrice Dubois
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bope1 wrote:
I've played over 20 games against Automa and it's more and more fun, especially you want to break your own record again and again. The only annoying thing at the beginning was building mines for automa. After a few games you can immediately see what to do. 10/10

Great news ! I have only 3 plays (all 2 players) under my belt and i am looking to dig the solo variant.

Oh, great and sounding review BTW !
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Jay M
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Got my first play in last night (my copy). Enjoyed it immensely. Tied for the win!

I'm not saying the game needs to be longer in terms of time, but it feels like you're constricted by getting things done within 6 rounds. After 3 rounds, I was like "Only three more rounds? I have so much I want to do."

For context, I have not played TM. I had been wanting to and wanting to, and so when GP came out it was the perfect development for me.
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Gergo Tothmihaly
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KawaiiSocks wrote:
10. Missing ore (worker) income under the third mine on every player board. First thought: “Why?”. Second thought: “Eh, don’t know, I guess I will have to live with this for some reason”. Third thought: “This is GENIUS”.
Why? And would this make any sense with TM?
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Maxx Cho
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!!! How could they have missed the name "Terra Nova"?? Tsk Tsk... it could've been a trilogy of Terra Mystica, Terra Nova, and Terra ____
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Flo P
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atonaltensor wrote:
!!! How could they have missed the name "Terra Nova"?? Tsk Tsk... it could've been a trilogy of Terra Mystica, Terra Nova, and Terra ____


I am still sad that they didn't go with the fan suggested "astra mystica"

Back to the op: excellent review, it outlines clearly where all the fascination of this game originates.
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James Wolfpacker
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bluesheep wrote:
atonaltensor wrote:
!!! How could they have missed the name "Terra Nova"?? Tsk Tsk... it could've been a trilogy of Terra Mystica, Terra Nova, and Terra ____


I am still sad that they didn't go with the fan suggested "astra mystica"

Back to the op: excellent review, it outlines clearly where all the fascination of this game originates.


Naw... Terra Mystica, Planeta Mystica, Stella Mystica.
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Dennis Ku
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I would have made it a game about developing pottery techniques and named it Terra Cotta.

But in all seriousness, great review. I enjoy the game immensely and have found it much easier to understand than Terra Mystica. Maybe it's the Research tracks?

Also, the Automa feels very well done. I don't know how closely it mirrors a good human player, and I assume it can't be that difficult if even I can beat it on my third play, but then again, I think I might have made unwittingly good moves.

If there is one thing about the game that still frustrates a fairly new player like me, it's randomly selecting the Round Bonuses at the beginning of the game and not seeing the one I think would work really well with my faction. Then again, a good player would be able to adapt their strategy, I would imagine. I'm just not there yet.

Last game, I had a round that seemed to go on forever for me. Every move led perfectly to the next move, and the Automa could do nothing to stop me. It was an amazing feeling to see my plan come to fruition!

My only complaint about the game? I like the theme, the gameplay, and everything. But no insert at all? Setup and teardown are more tedious than I thought it would be. So many bits to set up in different areas and piles and randomly chosen, etc.
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Jack Spirio
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futhee wrote:

If there is one thing about the game that still frustrates a fairly new player like me, it's randomly selecting the Round Bonuses at the beginning of the game and not seeing the one I think would work really well with my faction. Then again, a good player would be able to adapt their strategy, I would imagine. I'm just not there yet.


You select the round boosters before you choose a faction, so you can plan what faction, you would like to play
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James Wolfpacker
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futhee wrote:
If there is one thing about the game that still frustrates a fairly new player like me, it's randomly selecting the Round Bonuses at the beginning of the game and not seeing the one I think would work really well with my faction.


You actually try to pick a faction after you see the setup (map, round, final, tech) and pick one that matches it best. With you being a beginner it is difficult to correctly pick a faction so don't worry about it too much, eventually you'll start to see the patterns. The Automa faction choice can be random or one you pick and the nice thing about it is that it is not too restrained by the setup in order to score. It's more score restrained by the Automa cards that get played. The individual factions play differently enough as a faction plays and the way the deck is started plays differently enough to be like a different playing a different faction.
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Robert
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futhee wrote:
Also, the Automa feels very well done. I don't know how closely it mirrors a good human player, and I assume it can't be that difficult if even I can beat it on my third play, but then again, I think I might have made unwittingly good moves.
Yes, the automa and its solo mode is a great addition to a great game. Regarding beating the automa, you can always turn up the difficulty level. devil
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Dennis Ku
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Yep, sorry, I did know that I pick the faction afterwards, but with only three games under my belt, some of the factions are intimidating still. No matter what, I always feel like I need the +3 Build a Mine action Round Bonus because I never seem to be able to advance the range Research Track fast enough for my tastes.

Clearly, I am still a novice!
 
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Jack Spirio
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Just get enough QICs
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Jahz
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KawaiiSocks wrote:
Because it was you who made every single move. No one bears responsibility for your loss but you. There wasn’t a bad draw, a bad roll. It was you.


Well, if for the example you're playing at 3 players and the two others just focus on you not winning (they're fine with any of them winning), you'll most likely loose and still it was not you ? :)
I've not played the game (yet - because I really want to play it now that I read your review), but I would be surprised that on top of luck the game avoids alliance / kingmaking issues as well ? Is that even possible for games with more than two "teams" ?
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Jack Spirio
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I don't think this is really an option here
Yes you can hurt others, but not that much that the better player is not still winning
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James Wolfpacker
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Jahz wrote:
KawaiiSocks wrote:
Because it was you who made every single move. No one bears responsibility for your loss but you. There wasn’t a bad draw, a bad roll. It was you.


Well, if for the example you're playing at 3 players and the two others just focus on you not winning (they're fine with any of them winning), you'll most likely loose and still it was not you ?
I've not played the game (yet - because I really want to play it now that I read your review), but I would be surprised that on top of luck the game avoids alliance / kingmaking issues as well ? Is that even possible for games with more than two "teams" ?


It's still possible that given 1 better skilled player and 2 lesser skilled players that the 2 lesser skilled players could do this, but I don't expect this as much face to face because then the better skilled player would be pretty pissed at the other 2 for just being jerks. It's also more difficult to stop players in Gaia than it is in Terra. In Terra you can take hexes, cult spots, L10 cult, FAVs, BONs, Towns, and power actions away that won't be your best move, but are best for your opponents. In Gaia you can take away Adv Techs, L5, planets, power/QIC actions, Boosters, and Federations (more difficult due to 3x). Gaia is also more forgiving when these items are taken. If the skill gap is great enough then won't matter how many times the other 2 players take aim at the 3rd.

I played a couple in Terraforming Mars (5p game) and they did things like only attack me and then even played cards to give each other stuff that they couldn't give to themselves. I complained and said wow, I'm not playing y'all together in a game like this anymore. They apologized and agreed it wasn't fair what they were doing. Attacking me on the face was fair enough since I'm one of the best players locally (~85% win rate in TfM) and was doing well enough in the game to deserve it, but what I drew the line at was giving each other benefits.
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