Saturday, 4 October 2014

Terra Mystica

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Terra Mystica, published in 2012, is a heavy Eurogame that is very well received among gamers, winning many awards. I'm a bit late to the party in this, only playing it for the first time recently. In this game each player plays a unique tribe, and tries to expand his territory and upgrade his civilisation. There are 14 different tribes in the game, allowing many permutations. The game supports up to five players. One important aspect of the game is terraforming. There are 7 terrain types on the board, and each tribe can only build on one specific terrain type. So you have to terraform the lands next to your dwellings to the suitable type before you can construct a new dwelling there.

The game is played over a fixed six rounds. Every round starts with collecting resources, e.g. money, workers. Then players take turns performing actions, until everyone passes. There are many action types, e.g. terraforming and building dwellings, upgrading your buildings, spending magic power to perform special actions, upgrading your technologies, and sending priests to temples. There is a natural competition when you try to grow your civilisation. You fight for space with your opponents and it's annoying to bump into one another. However when your opponents build near your buildings, you get the chance to gain magic, so there's a little love-and-hate thing here. After everyone passes, there are rewards at the end of the round if you meet certain requirements.

You win the game by scoring points. There are a few ways to score points during the course of the game. Every round, one specific action type will give bonus points, e.g. building dwellings, or building large buildings. These round-specific bonuses are randomly determined at the start of the game, you can plan ahead for them. You will gain points for upgrading your techs. You gain points when you form a city, which is a group of connected buildings with at least four buildings and a total size of seven. Some tribes have special scoring abilities. At game end, there are two main ways to score points. The players with the largest connected territories score points, and you also score points based on your standings at the four temples.

The Play

I did a full 5-player game. Chee Seng and I were new to the game. Kareem, Ivan and Ainul had played before. There were quite many rules details to go through so the game-teaching took a while.

This was the initial setup. Since Chee Seng and I were new, we used the recommended setup for beginners, which is supposed to be quite balanced, and thus gentler for first-timers. The 6 tiles at the lower left are the round tiles, showing what actions would grant bonus points for the round, and what rewards would be given if which conditions were met. The row of parchments at the bottom show special actions which can be taken only once per round by one player. These cost magic power.

This is my player board. At the top left are the magic power tokens. They need to be fully charged before they can be used. You charge them by moving them first from the lower left bowl to the upper left bowl, and then from the upper left bowl to the right bowl. Only tokens in the right bowl can be used. At this moment I have none. The bottom left section are my buildings. You always start with building dwellings (the bottom row), and then you upgrade them to more advanced buildings. When a building is built, it is moved to the game board, revealing icons on the player board. Revealed icons indicate your income at the start of every round. So the more buildings you build, the more income you receive. The circle of terrain types show that my required terrain type is forests (green). The other terrain types are laid out to show how difficult it is to terraform them to become forests. E.g. to terraform from desert (yellow) to forests, I need to do terraforming three times.

The little table next to the terrain circle is my terraforming tech. I can upgrade it to make terraforming cheaper. The little table with ships is my ship-building tech. I can upgrade it to allow my tribe to travel further along rivers and to connect disjointed sections of my civilisation. The bottom right section is my tribe's unique ability - when I form a city, I earn an extra 5 points.

Kareem (red) was quickly hemmed in. Ivan (brown) was on one side, and I (green) was on the other. I expanded hurriedly, even building a bridge in the early game (which might not have been a good idea). I had terraformed one tile next to Kareem's building but had not yet built on it. The other players could have terraformed it to other terrain types if they wanted to, since I had not yet claimed that piece of land.

These are the cult four temples. You can increase your standing by sending your priests here. Priests are not easy to train. The highest positioned players at each cult temple score points at game end. During the game, when your marker passes those purple circles, you gain magic power (we called it charging up your magic - I couldn't help associating this with charging up my handphone).

Both Ainul (yellow) and Kareem (red) had built their fortresses, and they were intimidating! Not to worry, your opponents can't destroy your buildings in this game. It's a Eurogame in this regard. Chee Seng's (blue) tribesmen were good shipbuilders, and he was able to travel along rivers easily, allowing him to expand willy-nilly. He was all over the place!

I (green) had a major misunderstanding of the rules which screwed me up. At this point I had formed one city near the centre of the board. I had planned to form another city on the right side, by building a dwelling on the red terrain connected to my existing city, and then upgrading it. I had thought that once I had formed my first city, it would be sealed off and be considered a complete and isolated city. I didn't realise that if I connected more buildings to it, I would actually be expanding it. This meant I had to grow my second group of buildings towards the lower right (the yellow terrain) first, form my second city, and only after that I could try to link up these two cities to form a large connected territory. Eventually I only managed to form my second city, but not link it up to my first city, because Kareem swooped in to cut me off. Aarrgghh! What a costly miscalculation!!

Quite many players had cities at this point in the game - those four hex-shaped counters indicate cities.

My player board. For my building upgrades, I went for the left path only, i.e. dwelling to trading post to fortress. I didn't build any temple (round tokens) or the sanctuary (rectangular block). At the top right, I had fully upgraded my terraforming tech.

Close-up. Look at those three fortresses (huge cubes) near one another.

Near game end. It is amazing to see how much terraforming had been done.

Chee Seng and I were the newbies, and our aim was modest and simple - to not be the last player! We exchanged positions a few times during the game, but at game end he outscored me. I had committed much effort to fighting for the largest connected territory, but I ended up only tied for third place because of my mistake. I generally dislike area majority scoring, so I didn't feel like competing at the four cult temples. Another biiiig mistake! What was I thinking?! My only consolation is I can only do better in the next game.

Ivan won the game with a comfortable margin, already commanding a daunting lead by mid game. His tribe was the dwarves, and their special ability was they scored 1VP for each terraforming action performed. In one of the rounds he passed very early, saving his workers and resources for the next round, in which he made a slaughter by doing tons of terraforming and constructing lots of dwellings which was what scored points that round. After that point none of us were able to catch up to him.

Kareem the guru (as proclaimed by Ainul) was severely hemmed in, but still managed to beat the newbies - Chee Seng and I. This is a game with decent depth and little luck, and veterans will trample all over the newbies.

The Thoughts

I can now appreciate the richness in the tribes of Terra Mystica. You really do need to play to their strengths. The different combinations give much replayability. I like the spatial element in this game. Nowadays many Eurogames use the game board as a tracking tool or as an abstract way for players to compete. It is refreshing to see some solid old-fashioned physical on-a-map action. It reminds me a little of The Settlers of Catan, how you race to grab land and compete to build the best infrastructure.

The game has many moving parts. It's a gamer's game. It is challenging, and it gives me much to think about and to strategise over. It's a VP game, and I find that I'm constantly trying to analyse the situation and work out the most efficient ways to earn points. I need to make the most of the round-specific bonuses. I need to plan for the two main scoring methods at game end. I need to make good use of my tribe ability. I find that I'm thinking more about scoring points than about growing my tribe, advancing my civilisation and hindering my opponents. Because of this, I feel like a bean-counting accountant. It may be because this was my first game, so I spent much energy analysing how the game works and how to score points, and I didn't really get into the fantasy-world civilisation-building theme. The tribe abilities become more like cold mechanical tools to be used for maximising point-earning, as opposed to being the character and backstory of each unique tribe. Perhaps I don't quite get into the theme because I am not a big fan of the fantasy theme anyway.

Terra Mystica isn't something I would seek out to play, but I will happily play again if an opportunity comes up. There is still much I can experiment with, and also different tribes to tinker with - not just how to play a tribe well, but also how to play against a tribe well.

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