Terra Mystica Review

Terra Mystica board game by Z-Man Games

An insanely popular game right now is Terra Mystica. So, when I was offered an opportunity to try it out, I gladly accepted.

In Terra Mystica, each player represents a fantasy race that is attempting to expand.  Unfortunately, only one habitat is viable for them to build upon, and so they must regularly terraform different parts of the world in order to spread out.  The game is played over six rounds, and in each round players first collect income, then they alternate taking actions, and finally, they collect bonuses.  The different actions can include terraforming and/or building  a dwelling, improving their shipping, improving their skill at terraforming, upgrading a structure, improving on one of the "cult" tracks, taking a "power" action, taking a "special" action, or passing for the round.  Each of these actions requires a different combination of workers, gold, and priests.  And many of these actions will give you victory points as you perform them.  At the end of the round, each player has the chance of gaining additional bonuses (like free terraforming actions) based on how far he has moved along one of the cult tracks.  At the end of the sixth round, players get extra points based on how far along they have moved on each of the cult tracks, and also for how many connected structures they have.  Whoever then has the most victory points is the winner!

My first pro for Terra Mystica is all of the different races.  And, I especially love the fact that each of the races is truly different.  There are 14 different races in the game, and though they can all perform the same actions, they each have strengths and weaknesses for you to exploit.  Some races will be able to upgrade structures very inexpensively, but will not have many workers that they can collect.  Others can move quickly up the cult track by allowing other players to gain "power" (something I haven't talked about yet).  One race is amazing at shipping, and can easily connect structures that are significantly far apart, whereas another race can convert money into victory points (and back) in order to give them the flexibility to do whatever they need on any given turn.  Now, with this pro, I will freely confess that, though the races seemed balanced when I played, I have not played the game enough to authoritatively say whether or not they are all balanced or if one of the races might be better or worse than some of the others.  Regardless, the different races in the game make it a much more enjoyable experience and help each game to feel unique.

Player board mid play for Terra Mystica board game
Player board showing resources and power pools
The next pro that I have for Terra Mystica is "power."  There are a few different ways that you can gain power in the game - either by collecting it as part of your income, or when an opponent builds (or upgrades) a structure adjacent to you.  When your opponent builds a structure that is adjacent to you, you have the option of gaining power equal to the "power level" of your adjacent buildings.  But, this power comes at a cost - you lose victory points equal to the amount of power gained minus one.  (So, if I gain three power, I lose two victory points.)  And, to track power, you have three "bowls."  When gaining power, you first move power from bowl one to bowl two; then, if bowl one is empty, you can move power from bowl two to bowl three.  When spending power, you spend it from bowl three and move it back down to bowl one.  This is a very interesting mechanic, because you can start spending power as soon as it is in bowl three - but if you do this, then you will make yourself wait a bit longer before you can "recharge" any power back into bowl three.  Alternatively, you can wait until you have a bit more power in bowl three so that you can do several power actions before recharging.  Ultimately, it still takes the same amount of power, but you have control over when the power is available to you.

The last pro that I will mention for Terra Mystica (there are several others that I'm skipping) is that I like the rewards of upgrading - and for that matter, I like the balancing of resources all together.  Based on what buildings you build, you get different resources.  If you build a lot of dwellings, then you will get a lot of workers; if you build trade houses, you will get money, and if you build temples, you will get priests.  However, each time that you upgrade a building, you return the previous building to your player board - and thus you lose whatever bonus you had for the returned structure.  So, if you upgrade a dwelling to a trade house, then you will no longer receive a worker, but you will start to receive money.  The upgrades that I especially like are upgrading to temples/sanctuaries, and to strongholds.  When upgrading to a temple (or sanctuary), you get a "favor" token.  These tokens give you bonuses in the game and can help you in a plethora of ways.  The strongholds, however, unlock something different for each race.  So, some races will do extremely well if they can build their stronghold quickly, whereas others will do fine building their stronghold on the last turn of the game.  The strategies that go into what to build, or when to upgrade, are critical decisions that will influence you in a number of ways.

Terra Mystica board during a game
These structures will now peacefully co-exist
Now that I've covered some pros, there is one thing that you should be aware of about Terra Mystica before moving on to cons - there is no direct conflict in this game.  From reading through the summary and such, I was really expecting that I would be directly engaging my enemies more in this game.  But, that is not the case.  There are definitely ways to affect your opponents - building dwellings where you see that they are planning to build, surrounding them with your own structures, and selecting various actions that they may be planning on taking.  But, with all that said, once you successfully build something on the map, it is going to stay there - your opponents will not be able to remove it.

Now that we've come to the cons section of Terra Mystica, there is only one con that really jumps out to me.  There is a lot going on in this game.  And, to a certain extent, you will probably ignore a fair amount of it, based on which race you are.  In the games that I have played, most players have never taken at least one of the different available actions.  For example, if you use the Engineers, then you will build a lot of bridges, and will probably never improve shipping.  Conversely, if you are the Mermaids, then you will very rarely have a reason to build a bridge.  Depending on your strategy, you may also never choose to improve your ability to terraform.  Now, some people may actually see this as a positive, as you have the ability to make different choices from one game to the next, and you aren't forced to do the same thing every time.  However, it makes me wonder if the game could have been a bit more streamlined, and thus played a touch faster.  This isn't a major problem with the game, it is simply something that I think might have been able to be improved.

Overall, I give Terra Mystica an 8.5/10.  I enjoyed my plays of the game and, though it is a bit longer than I normally prefer, it is a game that I can see myself continuing to play and explore.

If Terra Mystica sounds interesting, you might also check out Caylus, In the Year of the Dragon, and Notre Dame.

I would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing me with a review copy of Terra Mystica.

4 comments:

  1. I've heard Terra Mystica be compared to Small World.... but after reading your review, I pretty much don't see a similarity other than the fact that it includes fantasy races.

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  2. I'm pretty sure that I've compared Terra Mystica to Small World. It's basically a similarity of theme - fantasy races looking to expand. But, yeah - the play is vastly different.

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  3. If you accept the fact that there is no conflict, you will appreciate the mechanics of the power flow as well as the intricacies in keeping close to your neighbours while benefitting from when they grow their settlements. TM has a rich (14) set of pretty balanced races to play with, so plenty more resons to try it again and again. Plays OK with 2, better the more people :-) Do not get intimidated by the rules, after the first half-game, it feels very intuitive and hides no more secrets. From there you can start building real strategies... :-)



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  4. Agree - Terra Mystica only has a fantasy theme/multiple race motif that is similiar to small world, but ultimately, it's a resource management game that is brilliantly designed, relatively short to play and intriguing throughout.

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