Heavy Euro and Fantasy in the Same Sentence? Blasphemy! - Terra Mystica Review

When I first caught wind of a game described as a heavy Euro with a fantasy theme, believe me was I sceptical! If there's anything I know from Euro games in the past, theme is usually a light affair at best, particularly with heavy ones. And for that theme to be a fantasy one is practically unheard of. However despite this I have yearned for a strategic Euro to incorporate a theme that I can get into easily. I like sci-fi and fantasy genres in movies and games alike, but usually I'm restricted to playing Ameritrash, RPG's and Miniature games to scratch that itch. My favourite Euro's will usually consist of a unique theme or mechanic that sets it aside from the rest, such as Agricola with farming or Kingsburg with "dice workers". 

So does Terra Mystica scratch my fantasy itch while still remaining a solid Euro game? Read on!


"There's enough in that cover to pull me in! And enough box weight to remove the need for a gym session"

Designer: Helge Ostertag (2012)
Publisher: Z-Man Games
# of Players: 2-5
Ages: 12+
Play Time: 120-180 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: #7/8.27
Dice Tower 2013 People’s Choice Rank: 54
Category: Euro with Area Control and Resource Management

Terraforming Your Way To Victory

This game has a LOT of stuff going on. The rules themselves aren't that complicated, but you have a plethora of options available so my rules summary won't be able to cover everything.

The object of the game is to obtain the most victory points (big shocker there right?) and to do so you will take control of one of the races and build up your towns across the hexagonal map whilst also building up a religious cult following in the four elements (air, water, fire, earth) represented by a separate cult track. However you can only build on terrain that matches your chosen race (river, farmland, desert, mountain, etc) and so you have to terraform the landscape to suit your needs using a variable amount of "spades" as a resource depending on the terrain.

"Each represents a type of terrain and replaces a hex on the board"

The game takes place over 6 rounds and on each turn you take it in turns to perform actions. The only limit as to how many actions you can take is your available resources of workers, money, power and priests. Actions range from building dwellings, upgrading said dwellings to improved buildings, upgrading your technologies, spending your power (think of power as magic) on special abilities.

On each round there is a randomly selected objective tile which presents a one time only victory point and resource bonus if you can meet the conditions. Alongside that you have access to a bonus tile which change every round that provides resources or extra actions. It's similar to the bonuses received at the start of T'zolkin but every round and you will be competing against the other players to grab the tile you want most.

Building dwellings will provide extra workers (cubes, again shocker!), but upgrading these buildings will provide a mix of resources for your race:
  • Trading Houses - provides money and power
  • Temples - provides priests and cult blessings
  • Stronghold - provides a unique bonus and special ability unique to your race
  • Sanctuary - provides priests, cult blessings and the chance to build a town using less buildings.
"Lots of different things you can acquire and build - though not your most detailed of models"

However there is a balancing act to bear in mind. Upgrading to one building to obtain a different resource means you will receive less of the previous resource. You could go for mass money hoarding, but this would be at the potential expense of not having many workers to perform actions with. Where you build is also important as the trading house is cheaper to upgrade if you build next to an opponent and if an opponent builds next to you, you can potentially gain power at the cost of victory points. How much you are willing to help each other out has a big effect on the long-game. 

Cult blessings are favours from the elements.........or gods.....or Tesco's, I'm not entirely sure, but they provide special bonuses for your race and move your religious influence further up a particular element on the cult track. They're very useful and can rarely be ignored - in fact one race hinges on abusing them, but I'll get to that later. 

"These provide very useful bonuses and you can even tailor your strategy to some of the victory point ones"

As you expand your civilisation, you will be able to found towns, which require a particular amount of buildings present. This provides one-off victory point and resource bonuses chosen by the player.

The power resource is the most unique mechanic in the game. You have three "bowls" where your power is charged up. As you receive more power you have to first empty all the tokens from Bowl I into Bowl II, then move them into Bowl III. Once they are in Bowl III, you can spend them like any other resource on various special actions shown on the board to gain more resources. However these actions are one-use only per round so you have to decide whether to quickly grab these before another player beats you to it. They're all very popular actions and in high demand. 

Game play carries over for 6 rounds as you plan out whether you're going to go for mass area control, dominating the cult tracks, or obtaining victory points off the objectives, bonus tiles and racial abilities if applicable. There's a lot of options available each round and many paths to victory. The winner is the player with the most victory points after gaining rewards for having the biggest settlement or most prosperous cult following.

A Ton of Bricks. . . . Or Wood

And breathe! There's a lot going on as you can see and I didn't even cover every potential option, but that's the general gist of the game. Next I'm going to mention components as they deserve recognition here. All the tiles and boards are incredibly sturdy and tough and every building is a 3D wooden basic model. The resources are a set of various tokens and my only nitpick is that the power tokens are quite small and purple. You have to be careful when manipulating these as good luck trying to find one if it falls on the floor. Being a Z-Man game, you'll also find a lot of spare component bags in the box so it's easy to store away and set up.

"Gooooorgeous and highly detailed board - just don't be colour blind!"

The boards are just gorgeous though. The main map is a mix of colours across the board and I'm so glad they didn't just go for "plain" colours to represent the terrains. Each type has enough detail on the art to give the hexes more depth - i.e. desert actually looks likes sand, not just yellow. The main board as well as the cult tracks are very clear and concise with actions and victory point conditions in large-scale view so you can't miss them.

"Power bonuses are gained from rising higher up the tracks"

But my hat goes off. . . . . . . well my scarf, I don't wear hats. . . to the player boards. There are 14 races in the game, yes 14! And each race is represented by a colourful board which shows a picture of your race, and all the charts which keep track of your buildings and resources as well as the costs of terraforming and power bowls. They are incredibly detailed yet there's no "tiny text" issues as it's all shown with iconography which is fairly intuitive and easy to take in (certainly easier than 7 Wonders in that regard). And to top it off they are double sided so 14 races are available on 7 boards (2 races per terrain type) - none of that white/black background cheap look. 

"Bright, colourful and very easy to follow - all resource costs and upgrade routes are shown clearly"

In general it's just so colourful when the game gets going - granted colour blind people "may" have an issue potentially but I think the hexes are clear enough to distinguish terrain types without the colours with assistance. Well worth the price hike for component quality, but I do think the worker cubes and power tokens could be improved (replace with meeples and brighter, larger tokens respectively).

"The power "strepsils" are a bit fiddly so do NOT drop them!"

So Much To Do, So Little Time

I say the rules aren't complicated and they are not. The rulebook isn't that large, is very colourful and has plenty of diagrams including different setup spreads. It even has introductory setup rules for new players (utilising simpler races and a set list of tiles) and these worked well in my teaching game. But boy is there a complex set of options you have on each turn and there is the danger that this could overwhelm new players who aren't accustomed to heavy Euro's. You could build a dwelling, transform a hex, upgrade a building, use a special action, use a racial ability, upgrade a technology, improve your shipping so you can cross the river and so on and you can perform each action as many times as you like providing the space is available or you have the workers.

Even with an element of Analysis Paralysis, you're not sitting there doing nothing as you've got plenty to consider in your strategy and work out. Also actions are resolved in turn order one at a time as opposed to the whole player's list of actions so downtime is kept fairly low for a heavy Euro game. At extreme levels of AP, it can cause problems, but is that any different from other Euro games?

The objective and bonus tiles are a neat feature as these are drawn at random at the start of the game so some tiles aren't in play for the whole game and depending on the combinations you draw and the order that the objective tiles appear, it can drastically change how you approach the game. For example if there's a shortage of bonus tiles that give extra money, you're going to have to be more careful at managing your income or build more trading houses to compensate.

"The reference card in the middle is good. . . . if you like lots of icons"

The objectives and some bonus tiles have ways to gain further victory points so you can try to incorporate these into your main strategy or ignore them for a long-term goal - again more paths to victory. The bonus tiles follow a similar "incentive" mechanic to Lords of Waterdeep's buildings where by the longer the tile sits there without a player taking it on a turn, the more money that accumulates on it. So you might opt for a less helpful tile solely for the money. It's this level of options and tactical thinking that make every game fresh and different for repeated plays.

What About Your Previous Blasphemous Claim?

Ah yes, the fantasy element. Well that's represented in the races that are available. There are 14 in total, of which 2 apply to each of the two terrain types. You can't have two players using the same terrain which makes sense, but other than that you have a lot of choice available.

Each race is pictorially represented on the player board and at first you think they're all the same bar starting resources, the racial ability and the Stronghold building bonus, but look again. Across the range you'll notice some differentiation in building costs or temple rewards or technology tree replacements. Engineers build for less money/workers, Halflings upgrade terraform technology for less and Darklings (my first game and victory!) sacrifice priests for spades . . . . . . and I have to admit I couldn't stop laughing every time I tried to justify how that worked.

The changes are subtle, but they add up to a lot of variation in the game. On the whole to date they seem fairly balanced as well, but obviously there will be some races that are easier or harder to use than others. The Alchemists in particular are pretty simple and strong for beginners and I would say the Chaos Magicians & Cultists are a little weak and require experienced players to use properly, but you have to expect some asymmetrical nature when you're using 14 races. It hasn't created any major balance issues though in game and you can always give the veteran players the "harder" races.

In terms of fantasy theme, it is pretty light, but the game itself is more about the strong mechanics rather than the theme. But they do make sense to the abilities they have and the terrain types they are associated with. Mermaids go with water, Auren go with Forests, Nomads go with Desert, Engineers (which do look like gnomes) go with Mountains and so on, so the theme fits in that regard.

I LOVE the variation in the races and some of them are really cool looking.You can even roleplay to an extent, I did enjoy the cracks at sacrificing priests for spades and as Halflings, I couldn't help but run a few "shire" based jokes in. That been said, the theme is pretty light in this game - it's not tacked on, but in a similar manner to Lords of Waterdeep, if you took the theme away, you could replace it with another and it would still be a very strong mechanical game.

The Cult tracks and blessings are also cool in how you can vary your strategy or meet your desperate needs by cherry picking the blessings you need. Do you opt to boost your influence on the track as high as possible or do you reduce that influence to gain a useful special ability? I can't help feel that the Cult was tacked on as a last minute consideration though. I like the Cult tracks don't get me wrong, they play a big part and you can't ignore them entirely, but thematically it seems odd when looking at every other aspect of the game.

"See my 13.11.2013 Portsmouth On Board post for more details"

Euro Style Interaction and Timing

Most Euro's tend to suffer on the interaction front - you may be playing your own solitaire game not really caring about the opponents. Terra Mystica raises the bar a little bit, but not to high levels. You're competing for the map, but you're also fighting for power actions and bonus tiles and the incentive to build near an enemy for cheaper trading houses and bonus power creates further interaction. You also can't really ignore the other players if you find they are rising up the points track or following a similar strategy to you. Granted you can't beat an Ameritrash game for interactivity among players, but for a Euro and a heavy Euro at that, it makes a really good effort. Even the race choices can affect the game and how it plays.

However the group dynamic can have an effect in a big way. Interaction with the other players on the map is generally recommended to an extent for the reasons mentioned above - however there are times when one player may be left out of the running because other players will avoid him or when two players effectively fuel each other without realising the extent of the consequences of doing so. You're trying to give a little, but gain a lot, but players sometimes blunder into offering far too much power for their own good. Players learn this eventually, though not usually in their first game and players can sometimes feel alienated particularly in 3 player games. Four players is an optimum level, but even two works well.

The game box boasts 30 minutes per player to play the game. This is perfectly do-able if all players know the game. My first experience with the game took 3 hours for four players but three of us were new and the owner of the game had only played it once. Subsequent plays reduced this, but it depends on the person telling the rules I think. I played a game at the last Portsmouth On Board meeting where I taught two new players and the third had only tried it once ages ago. It took me 20 minutes to explain the rules and the game only took about 2-2.5 hours to finish. Ignoring rules explanations that's very close to the 30 minute per player claim. I've played games of Agricola and Power Grid (shudder......ugh I don't like Power Grid) that have taken longer than that.

Verdict

Rank #7 on BoardGameGeek and a high debut of #54 on The Dice Tower People's Choice 2013. That's some impressive stats right there - this game has received a lot of praise among gamers. And I'm going to join them. I love this Euro game, possibly more so than Agricola and that's saying something. There is a high amount of variation, a healthy amount of interaction and a huge depth of strategy in every game. As a bare minimum, there's 14 games in the box as you will want to try every single race at least once. And that's assuming you haven't thought of 3-4 alternative strategies to use with each one. 

It's a high price tag though - £50-£55 depending on supplier, but you're getting a lot of components and a lot of plays in the box so you're going to get your money's worth. Granted it would have been nice to have had some better building models, but that's a nitpick. It also has room for expansion in the future with more races, bonus tiles, objective tiles, etc. I don't know if this is being planned, but T'zolkin went down a similar route with Prophecies recently so I wouldn't be surprised and I think a larger selection of tiles could boost the game further. T'zolkin would be a good comparison in terms of complexity and options and if you were to ask me which I preferred - I'd opt for Terra as the scoring is more balanced than in T'zolkin, which seems to be skewed in favour of those who complete all of the temples.

If you want a Euro game with a twist that's going to do a serious number on your strategy brain cells, look no further, this is a hit right here, just make sure you know the rules by heart when explaining them.

0 comments: