Brutus scale: 3/10
Pairs well with: A selection of ales representing terrain types. E.g. dark stout for Swamp, pale ale for Grasslands, red IPA for desert, etc.
Terra Mystica roughly translates to English as ‘mystical earth’. What’s so mystical about it you ask? Well, for one, the fact that the laws of geography and biology don’t exist is pretty thrilling. And by thrilling we mean no-one cares. It’s another terrain-based board game with different ecologies represented by different tile designs in the style of Small World or Kingdom Builder. Also similar to Small World is that you play as a race/civilisation. Your choices are scantily-clad female races (such as witches), brutish large men races (such as giants), and sneaky stereotyped races (like the dark and plotting alchemists). Many of the available races fall in between these categories, but one thing’s for sure: it will feel like your flippant choice of race has way too much impact on the game.
Each race will have some varying starting resources, and will have a selection of different abilities that come into play throughout the game. This makes playing through as a particular race for the first time really fucking difficult, as three hours into a game you’ll spontaneously realise you should have built something in turn one, but didn’t. There is no way to save it. You’ll just have to suck it up and keep building single houses every turn until the game ends. You are a terrible leader of your people and they know it, and they resent you for it.
‘Sire, what shall we do to make our empire grander? More trade perhaps? Build a mighty cathedral maybe?’
‘No my poor peon, we shall build a small wooden house on a single tile. Forever.’
‘But sire, all of our people have houses, surely we should build something better –‘
‘- Houses! Forever!’
The mechanics of the game are mainly centred on job selection. This will provide you with some sort of resource, and/or an ability that you can tailor your turn to. Each race receives a board with around 5,097 wooden pieces on it, of which you play the wrongly-shaped piece often. In reality there are about 20 pieces, but still, that’s a lot of shapes under your control. Each of these pieces represents a different type of building, or worker, each with build costs that ramp up the better the building you want to construct. Once you’ve selected a job an action phase occurs. This is where the real meaning of the game title is revealed: your race can only settle on a particular type of terrain tile. In order for your city to expand you need to terraform different terrains into your own in order to build on top them. It’s like Civilization or Tigris and Euphrates only worse and a more frustrating drain on your resources.
Imagine you are a small band of settlers looking for the ideal place to begin your great dynasty. You’ve travelled all over the land to find the most fertile, most beautiful, most defensible place. But Gary decides that actually, maybe if we settled on some scorching, inhospitable lava plains, that might be better. Gary is pretty stubborn leader so we’ve had to go along with it. Typical fucking Gary.
The list of things you can do in your turn isn’t particularly well-structured either – you can more or less keep doing all of the things you want until you run out of resources (admittedly in some games this is a great thing, but you grow weary of the freedom rapidly). This makes competition with the other players minimal as no one can tactically end turns, or force extra resource spending. However one mechanic that is pretty good is ‘power’. Power is a physical resource in this game, which is purple and stored in some big dishes on your personal board. You can collect/receive it during turns or actions, which means that you transfer a little purple power pellet from one dish into the main dish. When you spend that power, you move the power pellet from the main dish to the beginning dish. In order to generate more power you have to move all of the purple pellets from the beginning dish to the main dish again in a little cycle. It’s a pretty neat cycle which requires forward planning, and allows unlimited but very tightly-constrained regeneration.
Unfortunately it’s only worth doing if you go heavily into a power farming strategy, or your race is particularly good at keeping power generated. For instance, Briony quite enjoys playing as the alchemists as their race ability, once the stronghold (a particularly important bit of wood) is built, generates a lot of power straight up. This means that you don’t have to compete for resources or jobs as you can mostly pay for everything with power, and you don’t have to keep putting a lot of effort into getting the power cycled around the dishes. She also enjoys this race as she’s spent almost every game playing as them, so she’s nailed the routine of what to do for the most effect. Then again she is the sort of person that can spend hours playing the first 100 turns of civilization over and over as one particular race to optimise strategy and timing. Bob simply cannot do this – she claims to enjoy fun.
As the game goes on your settlements begin to expand. Buildings are worth points, and once you’ve accrued enough your settlement becomes a city. This comes with a nice one-off bonus and also allows you to build a stronghold, unlocking a race ability. Along one side of the board there are a series of bonus tiles that offer a selection of lovely things e.g. extra victory points, some resources, a nice compliment about your hair. These are turned over once per round, and will state a requirement such as ‘Gain a buttload of power if you build five perfectly-domed city halls out of lava this turn’. This allows you to plan out your buildings to occur in rounds where you can get the most victory points from them. You can also imagine a giant stroking the bonus card seductively, clad in a leotard and heels for maximum gameshow effect. Whatever floats your boat.
In addition to this there is also an elemental temple track. In this there are four tracks representing each element. In order to go up in these tracks you must have a priest meeple (which can be gained by building certain buildings) or fulfill a job has that rewards you with that resource for free. Priests are sacrifically burned in the ‘totally-not a cult we promise, guys’ temple to push you up the track and also correspond to the bonus round tiles. For instance ‘if you are at least at level 4 in the Earth track gain a free visit from the Emperors of Xenu’*. We’re not particularly sure why this mechanic exists really. It’s adding an extra component to a game that already has a shit tonne of components, and to use would really take a lot of investment. Bob tried it once and even with a very cult-loving race it wasn’t really so much ‘viable’ as ‘fucking irritating’. We also aren’t really sure why they represent the elements… possibly because the earth is made from the basic four elements? Who knows, all we know is that that is bad science and the expansion will probably have a Helium and a Potassium track.
Once the game ends you get some final victory points that add to the ones generated throughout by your buildings or bonus’s. Points are awarded for the biggest city, how far up each track a player is, and some other excuses to have some points. It’s actually quite a nice way to end because it changes the scoring up, makes you feel good for getting more, and that you did better than you had originally thought. Overall the game has some really good mechanics – its downfall is that it has too many of them. This makes picking an effective strategy difficult and requiring a lot of experience with each race. We can’t help but feel that is doesn’t need quite that much stuff. There is a lot of it. Pieces, tiles, bonuses, tracks, races, resources, power, jobs, workers, buildings, giants in leotards – like the contents of a student’s bedroom floor (Nerds have ‘interesting’ university experiences).
That being said, the two player version of the game is surprisingly good as a lot of the extra guffin is taken out. As a result of fewer players, the game progresses much faster, and you tend to get a grip on your race more quickly. Certainly playing it two player a few times would be the ideal way to understand the game, technique, and races before diving into a monster 6 person epic. Don’t be too put off from playing this game kids, there are a lot of positive reviews of itout there. We just feel like it was so close to being a truly classically epic game, but it got a bit too ahead of itself. Less is more, Terra Mystica, you don’t have to keep putting on extra frilly bits to please your target audience.
*We respectfully request that the Church of Scientology, hallowed be your celebrities, please not sue us for these jokes. We haven’t got any money for you.
I love Terra Mystica, but not as much as I love this review of it. Well done, yet again. 🙂
We’re glad you enjoy it! .. secretly some of us enjoy Terra Mystica too *Shh*
Terra Mystica is great. Too many mechanics? Psh. It’s just “punishingly intricate”.