Siren’s Song or Witch’s Brew? A First Visit to the TERRA MYSTICA

By Doug Mann, Easter 2016

Over a year ago I succumbed to popular opinion and skyrocketing online ratings and bought a copy of what is now the reigning champion of Eurogames – standing #3 overall on the Board Game Geek – Terra Mystica. Since then it’s remained a brooding curiosity at the bottom of a pile of more frequently played games, unappreciated and underplayed.

Its big piles of wooden pieces and many colourful components occasionally called out like a siren’s song, beckoning me to take it out and learn it. Yet whenever I approached I heard a fearful witches’ cackle, its complex iconography seeming to point to an equally complex set of game mechanics. A sense of rules vertigo kept me away.

So over a holiday weekend I decided to ignore this cackle and heed the siren’s call, watching several introductory YouTube videos then giving it a whirl in a series of 2- and 3-player solitaire sessions. What I found was that although its reputation for strategic complexity is well deserved, its rules aren’t any harder to learn than my favourites Kemet or Fury of Dracula. Further, it’s a richly engaging game, a real brain buster, even given its paucity of theme. Though the witches weren’t entirely wrong, I should have listened to the sirens all long.

I’ve since played it with others, which confirms my conclusions here.

It’s easiest to think of Terra Mystica as a mashup of Ticket to Ride (borrowing the idea of the longest route), Small World (sharing the idea of asymmetrical races), and Lords of Waterdeep (a fantasy-themed game where you place wooden pieces on a map).

Here are the basics. Terra Mystica, designed by Helge Ostertag and Jens Drögenmüller and published in North America by Z-Man Games in 2013, is a worker-placement game for 2-5 players that clocks in, according to the box, at 30 minutes per player, though with experienced players I would imagine this would drop to 20 minutes per. You could make it into a crowded 6-player game just by buying a set of twenty small purple cubes from the dollar store – the rest of the components needed are already there.

The first thing you notice upon cracking open its heavy box are large bags of wooden pieces representing five types of structures (buildings) in seven colours each, along with smaller bags of plain wood cubes (workers) and small purple wafers (power). Also in the box are eight turn-based scoring tiles of which you randomly choose six and place them on the board (they also function as a turn record), nine long thin bonus tiles, 28 oval-shaped favour tiles, and a collection of hexagonal town and action markers.

Yet the center of the game is a map covered with large hexes colour-coded as seven different types of terrain: lakes, swamps, mountains, plains, forests, wastelands and deserts, along with normally unpassable river hexes. Players build structures on this map to gain resources and victory points, the latter being, in the Euro tradition, the goal of the game.

Terra Mystica 10 cult board
The Cult Board: Elementary, My Dear Mystican!

In addition, there is a Cult Board with four vertical columns of rectangles numbered 0-10 representing control of the Fire, Water, Earth and Air cults, which gain players both power and victory points. Each player has an initially daunting-looking player board geared to the race of beings they’ve chose to play – e.g. Giants or Witches, Halflings or Dwarves. There are seven boards in seven colours keyed to the seven batches of wooden pieces that come with the game. Each board has two sides, thus giving players a wide variety of 14 races to choose between. Since each race’s starting resources, building costs and special powers are different, the game has plenty of replayability.

The main resources used early in the game are workers and gold. Later, magical power and priests are added to this mix.

Most players start with two “dwellings”: like all structures, they must be placed on your race’s native terrain. To pick an easy-to-play starting race to use an example, the native terrain of the Witches is forests. To increase your mystical empire, you must terraform hexes adjacent to those you already control before placing new dwellings on them. Your player board has a mystic roundel of terrain types that indicate how many “shovels” you have to buy to convert such a hex to friendly terrain. For instance, at the start of the game the Witches have to buy one shovel (costing three workers) to convert a lake hex, two for a swamp, three for a desert. So a key tactic in your initial placement is choosing local terrain that’s friendly to your race.

In addition, each player board has three power “bowls.” To spend one or more of your starting twelve power wafers, you need to first move all the tokens from Bowl 1 to Bowl 2, then move some from 2 to 3, from which you can spend them (returning the used tokens to Bowl 1).

The game consists of six rounds, the core of each made up of multiple single-action player turns which continue until everyone has run out of resources and passes. Each round consists of three phases:

  • Income Phase: Players collect workers, gold, priests and power from uncovered parts of their player board and from bonus and favour tiles. This phase is easy to do once you get a handle on the game’s iconography: an open hand means “here’s some income for you.” The two initial dwellings get you one worker each; to get money and power, you’ll have to build trading houses; for priests, you’ll need temples. The trick here is that once you upgrade one structure to another, you place the original structure back on your board, covering up last turn’s income type. So a key element of the game is balancing your supply of workers (easy to get), gold (you start with some, but it soon runs out) and power (you’ll need upgrades for this).
  • Action Phase: This is the meat of the game. Players take turns choosing one of eight actions, the starting player decided by whoever passed first in the previous round.
  • Cleanup Phase: Players now score cult bonuses listed on the scoring tiles along the left side of the board (these change every game, and are public knowledge), get their action markers back, and add one gold to unchosen bonus tiles, like the buildings in Lords of Waterdeep.
terra mystica 11 witches x
Double Double, Toil and Trouble: The Complex Iconography of the Witch Board

After placing their starting dwellings, collecting starting resources (which varies by race), and choosing a bonus tile, players take their income and prepare for the first round’s Action Phase. There are four actions players are likely to use throughout the game, four others that are rare until mid-game. Here are the early-game gambits:

  • 1. Terraform and Build a Dwelling: Players can convert one adjacent hex to their native terrain, then (if they can afford it) place a dwelling on it. For instance, on their first turn the Witches could pay three workers to terraform a lake hex, then one worker and two gold to build the dwelling, leaving them only one worker.
  • 2. Upgrade Spades Track: To cut down on the number of workers it costs to terraform terrain, you can upgrade this track twice. It would cost the Witches two workers, five gold and a priest to upgrade this one level, reducing terraforming costs to two shovels per terrain level while also giving them a bonus of six victory points.
  • 3. Upgrade a Structure: Players can convert dwellings to trading houses (power level 2), which give them gold and power instead of workers. From there, they can upgrade “politically” to strongholds (power level 3), which give them power and a special ability, or “religiously” first to temples (level 2) then to a sanctuary (level 3), which give them priests and favours (presumably from the gods of this mystical land). The stronghold and sanctuary upgrades are costly but important. The favour tiles give their owners a one-time boost of 1-3 levels on a specific cult track plus ongoing income or victory point bonuses.
  • 4. Pass: If you choose this first, you get dibs on available bonus tiles (always important) and get to move first in the next round. Once everyone passes, the round ends and the remaining bonus tiles are divvied up.

The game incorporates a weird synergy: if you build a trading house next to an opponent’s structure, your gold cost is halved; but your opponent has the option of trading victory points (all start with twenty) for power at a -1 discount if you build any structure next to them them by adding up the power levels of their adjacent structures.

If a player accumulates four structures totaling seven or more power levels in a single settlement, they immediately place a town on a hex of their choice, giving them a hefty victory point bonus of 6-9 along with an influx of either power, gold, workers, a priest, or a +1 on all cult tracks.

terra mystica 12 tiles x
The Bonus Tiles (top), Scoring Tiles (bottom) and one of many Favour Tiles

Though each game is different, these actions don’t tend to pop up until rounds 3 or 4:

  • 5. Upgrade Shipping Track: Since river hexes interrupt hexes being adjacent for the purpose of building and end-game scoring, you can add 1-3 points of ships that allow you to skip over this number of river hexes.
  • 6. Power Actions: At the bottom of the main map are six fixed power actions that can be chosen only once per round. They cost 3-6 power tokens from taken from Bowl 3, and give their choosers either a priest, two workers, seven money, a bridge, or one or two shovels. Later in the game, as players accumulate more and more magical power, these are key stopgaps to fill up on much-needed resources. At the same time you can “convert” power to priests, workers or gold, though the exchange rates are not good (e.g. a priest costs 5 power). You can also permanently trash power wafers from Bowl 2 to move an equivalent number to Bowl 3, or down-convert a priest to a worker or a worker to a gold coin.
  • 7. Climb Cult Tracks: You can permanently assign a priest to one of four empty spaces at the bottom of each cult track to move your cult marker up 3 (first priest) or 2 (later priests) spaces. You can also “visit” a cult with your priest, getting only +1 on that track, then returning him to your supply. There are a lot of victory points tied up in the cult board, 32 total if one player dominates all four cults. Each track also distributes up to 8 power to whomever can climb to the top of the stairway to mystical heaven. A warning to all acolytes: ignore the cult board at your peril!
  • 8. Special Actions: Lastly, there is a variety of gold-coloured special action hexes on bonus tiles, favour tiles and uncovered stronghold spaces on player boards. These provide either resources, victory points or a special building ability. For instance, the Witches get to place a free dwelling on any forest hex once their stronghold has been built.

At the end of the game the players with the three largest contiguous set of structures get 18, 12 and 6 points respectively; the players with the three highest ratings on each of the four cult tracks get 8, 4 and 2 points per cult. So in a three-player game a player who dominates two cults would get 20 points (8+8+2+2), roughly matching the obsessive builder. There are thus multiple paths to victory in Terra Mystica.

This leads to one of two main critiques: given the many paths to resources and victory points the game offers, analysis-paralysis looms large – at least until your resources run dry. Like chess, if your opponents start thinking three or four turns in advance, you’re in for a long night.

Second, though the art is quite nice and the rules play up differences between the races, the theme is quite thin: the mystic land could easily be converted into a horrible dungeon or alien solar system. Admittedly, the special powers of most races do make sense: the Fakirs have flying carpets, the Dwarves tunnels, the Engineers bridges, the Giants reduced terraforming costs. The same can be said of the mythic synergy found in the choice of most races’ native terrains (e.g. mermaids like lakes).

The three-dimensionality of all those differently shaped wooden pieces, not to mention the riot of colours in the pieces, on the map and on the player boards certainly liven up proceedings. Having said this, its depth of theme is only a fraction of that seen in The Fury of Dracula or A Game of Thrones. It’s a Eurogame, albeit a rich one. What theme there is seems more like thick paint covering a huge clanking mechanical engine than living, breathing ludic theatre.

Terra Mystica 02 full game
The Grande Finale of a Three-Player Game: Halflings in Brown, Engineers in Grey, and Darklings in Black (of course). The Halflings Win by 6 Despite Darkling Control of 3 out of 4 Cults.

Third, a minor quibble: the names of some of the structures were lost in the translation from German to English. To start with, why not call them “buildings”? Why not call the basic structure a “house” rather than the more nebulous “dwelling”, which sounds like we’re in graduate seminar on Heidegger? Why not call the stronghold a “castle”? What is a “stronghold” anyway? Calling the basic religious building a “temple” is fine, but why is the superior structure called a “sanctuary” instead of, say, a “cathedral”? To my mind a sanctuary is a small seedy house run by social workers or some poles and perches where wild birds can get a free meal.

Terra Mystica is the worker-placement and resource-management game turned up to 11. It’s a thinker’s game. No scorpion riding or leaving rats in your wake to distract vampire hunters: it’s all about figuring out how to convert a variety of resources into victory points. One can almost see the steam coming out of players’ ears as they gaze at their player boards, a puzzled frown on their faces. Ambrosial steam, that is.

The player interaction is minimal: no trading, no bidding, no real negotiation. It’s a good example of what I have called elsewhere on this site a semi-solitaire repressed conflict game: you will compete for dominance on the cult track or to be the first one to grab a key power action or bonus tile, but you can’t attack anyone, or even play an annoying mandatory quest to temporarily block the leading player’s future worker placements. So unless all the other players ignore their own interests and pile on, an experienced player should be able to milk enough victory points out of the Mystica cow to beat most rookies.

On the plus side, it’s a pure strategy game with only the negligible luck generated by the choice of special scoring tiles at the start of the game. And unlike say Stone Age, there aren’t obvious moves like going to the love shack or tiling the field. Within the Euro canon, it’s easy to understand why it’s at or near the top of most “best of” lists, though if I had my druthers, I would rather play a Euro like Tikal with a stronger theme and cleaner mechanics. But its siren’s song still calls to me from its mounds of coloured wood and complex tactics like some long-lost Teutonic banshee.

Here are my ratings of the game out of 6:

  • Complexity: 4 Warm (actual rules), 5 Hot (player choices)
  • Strategy: 6 Blazing (as much as any Euro I’ve played)
  • Luck: 1 Frigid
  • Aesthetics: 4 Good
  • Player Interaction: 2 Cool
  • Level of Conflict: 2 Cool
  • Strength of Theme: 2 Cool (unless you have a big imagination)
  • Overall: 5 Very Good

Summary: If you love semi-dense Euros, this is a must have. If you’re into frothy party games, skip it. If you are a theme junkie, you would probably prefer to spend your money at the Matagot or Fantasy Flight stores, though you might want to visit these mystic lands on someone else’s wagon to sniff all that ambrosial brain steam.

Terra Mystica by Me 07 halflings board

Appendix: The Races, Home Terrains and Special Powers of Terra Mystica

Green (Forests): Witches (get 5 bonus VP for a town) and Auren (no basic special power).

Blue (Lakes): Mermaids (can skip 1 river space when building) and Swarmlings (start with 8 workers and 20 gold, get 3 bonus workers for a town, but have increased building costs).

Black (Swamps): Alchemists (may trade 1 VP for 1 gold or 2 gold for 1 VP) and Darklings (need to use priests to terraform, but get lots of these with level 3 structures)

Brown (Plains): Halflings (get 1 VP for every shovel bought and have cheap shovel-track upgrade costs) and Cultists (if your neighbours take power when you build next to them, you get +1 on one cult track)

Grey (Mountains): Dwarves (can tunnel under any hex for +2 workers, get 4 VP for doing so) and Engineers (can build a bridge for 2 workers, dwellings cost only 1 worker + 1 gold).

Red (Wastelands): Giants (all terraforming costs 2 shovels) and Chaos Magicians (start with only one dwelling, but have cheap stronghold costs)

Yellow (Desert): Nomads (start with 3 dwellings) and Fakirs (can use a priest and a “magic carpet” to skip one terrain space when building).

Recommended races for new players, in rough order of ease of play: Nomads, Engineers, Halflings, Witches, Mermaids.

Avoid the Auren, Chaos Magicians and Darklings until you learn the game. Beware the Giants – they pay two shovels for all terra-forming, so it’s easy for them to fall behind early in the game.

 

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