I remember Terra Mystica.
Much earlier this year, it was busted out at a board game night. I had no idea what I was doing. I was playing the Aurens, I think, and I remember making many significant mistakes. An ill-timed use of a bridge made it impossible to make a second city. And then there was the last turn where I bumbled about doing nothing, futilely trying to get biggest settlement chain because I didn’t realize the difference between directly and indirectly adjacent.
It was a mess, but it was a mess equally spread out amongst all the new players, and I ended up tying for first with the giants. But more importantly, by the end of the game, I actually understood how to play and how to do well. And that gave me a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling, because in order to do well in Terra Mystica, it is all about making the right plan. Plans are just the best.
Terra Mystica is a heavy, complex game and I don’t particularly feel like delving too deeply into the mechanics, but the crux of it is that you are trying to build settlements on piece of land shared by other players – somewhat similar to *cough* Settlers of Catan, but the trick is that you have a specific race that can only build settlements on a specific terrain tile. So the game consists of turns where you expend resources to first terraform tiles to the correct color, then build settlements on them, then upgrade those settlements into better buildings.
What is really magical about the game, however, is that buildings aren’t directly worth any points at the end of the game. There’s some game-end scoring involving who has the most favor with each of the four gods (or cults or whatever they are) and who has the largest contiguous group of settlements, but most of the points players get will be situational, which comes in the form of the bonus tiles assigned to each of the six rounds, some of the income markers every one will chose at the beginning of a round, and certain favor tokens you can accumulate by building religious buildings.
For example, perhaps the bonus tile for the first round says that you get 2 points every time you terraform that round, plus you’ve got an income marker that says you’ll earn 1 point for every settlement you own at the end of the round. That is good incentive to start terraforming and building as many settlements as you can that first turn, because you’ll get at least 3 points every time you do so. By contrast, someone who shoots for a temple on their first turn, and then builds settlements on the second turn may miss out on those points.
So, like I said before, in order to do well, you’ve gotta look at the order of the round bonus tiles and make a plan on what to build when. Except it’s not just as simple as that because you’re also playing a unique race that can have various special abilities. Darklings need priests to terraform, so they should probably shoot for a temple or sanctuary first. Giants really suck at terraforming unless they have their stronghold, so they should probably shoot for that first. Plus you’ve gotta finagle around this hex grid and contend with other players taking your spots, except you’re encouraged to build next to each other to get building discounts and extra spell power. And then you’ve gotta jockey to get the right income marker that you want for each round, which may require you to pass at a specific time, as what tile you get is highly dependent on when you end your previous turn.
So the plan you have to make is not a simple plan, and it can easily be disrupted by the other players. But if you can knuckle down and get it done, properly reacting to the unpredictability of others, you are rewarded with a sweet, sweet waterfall of points, and life is just glorious. In this way, I find it a lot like Agricola, where you get a hand of improvements and occupations and have to come up with a plan to use the random set of cards in the most efficient way possible, all the while competing with other players to get the right actions at the right time. It is why I love Agricola so much, and it is why I love Terra Mystica. It’s all about making the plans.
So, anyway, I was pumped, I was primed, I was ready. After one play, Terra Mystica was already in my top 10 games, and I needed to play it again. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen for, like, ever. I’m not sure why it never appeared at game night again. Always other stuff to play I guess. But my desire festered, and this week we finally broke it out again. It was even more glorious than I remembered.
I…I just can’t explain to you how good of a time I had. The darklings looked interesting with their priest terraforming, so I picked them up. The other three guys ended up with witches, nomads and halflings.
Now I knew what I was doing, though. I was able to make a proper plan, and execute it to wonderful effect. I felt a little bad because it was 2 of the guys’ first time playing, and I ended up more-or-less doubling everyone’s score with 150 points. I built all my stuff at the right times, got massive points from the income markers and ended up first in 3 of the cult tracks and biggest group of settlements.
I’m not sure what else to say except that this is a wonderful game, and after a second play it is now solidly in my top three favorite games. You get to make a plan and navigate some really interesting, balanced mechanics to build the best civilization. And there is so much variety not just with the various races (some of which are unfortunately underpowered), but also with the random order of the bonus tiles, since they have such a huge impact on the game, so it likely won’t get old for a long time, much like Agricola’s giant stack of improvements and occupations keep the planning in that game fresh.
It’s, well, it’s just great.