Review: Terra Mystica

There are a lot of really comprehensive reviews of Terra Mystica out there. This is not one of them. Terra Mystica is a game of incredible depth, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. So far I’ve only had a chance to try out seven of the fourteen available factions, which each come with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. On top of that, the strategy from one game to the next can also vary significantly depending on your opponents’ factions, as well as the randomly chosen bonus tiles and scoring cards. There are enough combinations that you could play Terra Mystica every day without encountering the same game twice. And that’s not even including the Fire and Ice expansion!

Surveying the landscape of Terra Mystica

So if you’re already familiar with this great game, you probably won’t learn anything new from me. But regardless, I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about why this game has been one of my favorites so far on my quest to play the entire BGG Top 100. First, a very brief overview for those not already familiar with TM.

About Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica is a game of area control in which 2-5 factions seek to terraform and colonize a foreign (some might even say mystical) world. There are seven different types of terrain, and each faction has their own unique preference.

The Nomads, pictured here, prefer the yellow desert terrain.

Some factions excel at expanding over vast swaths of terrain quickly and efficiently, but victory is not so simple as who has the most space. Victory points can also be earned through gaining status in one of four elemental “cults”, upgrading your infrastructure, or founding a ‘town’ made up of adjacent buildings. Perhaps most significantly, a large chunk of the points earned in any given game depend upon the randomly selected bonus tiles and scoring cards.

Along the way, each player must strategically oversee the use of four key resources — gold, workers, priests, and power — in order to build their empire into a well oiled victory point guzzling machine.

My Thoughts on TM

To me, the thing that sets Terra Mystica apart from most other games on the BGG Top 100 is that it arms you with perfect information. Once the setup is complete, there’s absolutely no element of randomness, and nothing hidden from view. The only unknown is what your opponents will choose to do.

For those who like Chess or Go, you likely understand the allure of a perfect information game – with luck removed from the equation, it’s simply a crunchy, delicious battle of wits between you and your opponents.

From this point forward, there’s no luck – only skill.

But Terra Mystica goes a step further. With its highly variable setup and wide array of unique factions to choose from, it’s a different game each time you play. Any one setup could take ages to master, yet you’re unlikely to ever encounter the same setup twice unless on purpose.

There are detailed strategy guides available on BoardGameGeek and I’ve enjoyed skimming through many of them. From what I can tell though, for all of the advice on how to play one faction or another based on the chosen opposing factions and bonus/scoring tiles, it’s all in the realm of educated theory. Terra Mystica has not been ‘solved’, or close to it. In the official Terra Mystica app, the ‘Medium’ level AI is still under development.

One of the specific features of Terra Mystica that helps to yield these incredibly mind-bending strategic choices is the ‘power’ resource. Each player has a finite pool of power, and as power is accrued it shifts from dormant, to activating, to fully charged. Power tokens can be converted to other resources, or used for extremely handy special actions. Each special action can only be used once per round though, so if you wait too long an opponent might ruin your plans.

The purple power tokens are shown here.

Luckily for you, power can be redeemed early, before it is fully charged. But like a mystical 401k, the Terra Mystica power pool has an early withdrawal penalty. It’s okay (and even advisable, I think) to jump the gun sometimes, but if done too frequently you might not have enough power left when you really need it.

The design behind the power resource leads to a constant palpable tension, a game of cat and mouse with your opponents as you weigh the cost of cashing in early against the risk of being preempted by someone else. It’s simply brilliant stuff.

And while power is the most obvious example, there are timing trade-off dilemmas scattered throughout the design of Terra Mystica. Almost every action you take results in some opportunity cost, some reason for you to second guess your decision.

Some games as crunchy as this might deal with a problem of analysis paralysis. But I really haven’t experienced that to be a major pain point with Terra Mystica. Because of the perfect information and the ability to analyze each choice ad nauseam, there’s always an engaging puzzle to chew on while you wait for your turn. It’s certainly not a short game, but for those who don’t mind heavy games, in my opinion Terra Mystica is not one that will bore you.

I also do not mind that the factions are not perfectly balanced. Sure, some factions are harder to play than others, but this provides an opportunity to level the playing field between beginner and intermediate players. And for experts, the auction rules for drafting factions appear to be pretty widely accepted. And from what I’ve seen so far, it does not appear that any single faction is so overpowered that it is always the top choice.

The Halflings, pictured here, get a bonus each time they terraform.

Of course, I can’t just gush about how great Terra Mystica is without pointing out any negatives. For one, I would have liked a modular board rather than just one map (plus another in the expansion). Additionally, the “cult” tracks are a little bland, and I feel like the designers could have added some character and variety to these rather than making them all basically the same. Apparently the designers of the brand new TM follow-up Gaia Project agree, as both of those features have been implemented. (Note: I haven’t played Gaia Project yet, and as such I do not have an opinion on which game I like better.)

In conclusion, Terra Mystica is a best-in-class game of perfect information that has vast replayability. I definitely agree with its top 10 ranking on the BGG list, and think it’s a must-try for any board game aficionado.

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