Terra Mystica is one of my grail games. I loved the concepts of the game but when it came out it was hard to find and expensive so I didn’t get it immediately. Fortunately, I received it as a gift. Unfortunately, it languished on my shelf for a couple years. I built a foam core insert so that I could, at least, interact with it and, hopefully, encourage myself to get it to the table. There is always something new to get to the table and the complexity of this game has kept it from coming out. This year, we have decided it is time to put an end to our selection of un-played games, and Terra Mystica has finally been played.

This reaction is based on a live stream that you can watch here.

THE GAME

If you aren’t familiar with the game, in Terra Mystica you play as a race in this mystical world where, depending on your race, you must inhabit only a certain type of terrain. So you must work to terraform the land around you so that you can expand. As you expand out you will be building structures that give you different incomes or special abilities. You will also be competing to be the most influential in four different cults that exist in this mystical world of terraforming. The player who best balances their expansion efforts and cult advancement will win the game.

So what did I think of the (currently) #3 game on BGG?

WHAT I LIKED

  • Game depth – Terra Mystica is a game with (seemingly) lots of depth. This arises from all of the different gears that are turning at the same time layered with the variability that the different races provide. This makes Terra Mystica a very dense game – one that is hard to see all of your options much less make a plan more than a turn ahead – at least for the first play.
  • Interaction – Terra Mystica does not have combat in it. It sticks very close to its Euro roots here. But it doesn’t need combat to have great interaction. Adjacency on the board is very important to generate Power in the game as well as getting a discount on Trade Houses. This gives all players something to watch for and interact with even when it is not their turn.
  • Decision Tension – like many Euros, Terra Mystica does a great job creating tension when deciding what action to take. There is always more than one good option and it is very hard to see which is the best. There always feels like there is more you need to do than you have resources to accomplish. I like when a game can produce this feeling. I never feel bored.
  • Mechanism Variety – Terra Mystica is flush with mechanisms. Power bowls, terraforming, building structures, bonus tiles, area control, the cult tracks. They all work well and make for interesting decisions.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

  • Rules weight – because of all the mechanisms in the game the rules take a bit to digest. There are lots of exceptions and little sub rules that make it hard to remember all of your options. I am sure multiple plays will help this but you really felt the weight of the rules in your first play.
  • Setup time – Every player board has to be arranged before the game starts, tiles need to be sorted, etc. I even have a foam core insert built to make this easier and it still took some time.
  • Weak theme – Even with good art and races with different powers I did not have a strong sense of who I was in the game or what my motivations were beyond the mechanisms and getting a good score.

There are lots of exceptions and little sub rules that make it hard to remember all of your options.

EASY-TO-MISS RULES

  • End Game Scoring – be very aware of how the end game scoring works especially in the case of ties for area control. The top three players score points but, if there is a tie, you add the two places together and split the points.
  • Exchange Rates – These are on the player board under the power bowls but it took us a while to notice the priest to worker to coin exchange rate. And it all flows down. You cannot exchange coins for workers or workers for priests.
  • Sacrificing Power – If you need additional power you can always sacrifice X from bowl 2 (removing them from the game) to move X to bowl 3. This works even if you have power in bowl 1.
  • Town requirements – There are two requirements for towns. Number of Structures and total power value of those structures. You must have at least 4 directly adjacent structures and those structures must total 7 or more power to form a town.
  • Incomplete Terraforming – you are not required to terraform a space all the way to your terrain type. You can do it partially in one turn, then finish it in another.
  • Adjacency – be aware of the difference between direct and indirect adjacency and how it impacts scoring and towns.
  • Round scoring bonuses – each round has its own bonus scoring condition. Be aware of the current round for sure but also take a look at future round bonuses to better plan when you build things. Also, look at the culture bonuses at the end of each round.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Terra Mystica is a great game and I understand why it is ranked #3 on BGG. I had a lot of fun playing it and it presents lots of really good choices, both indicators of a good game. I want to dig deep and uncover the layers of strategy that seem present. Unfortunately, that won’t happen for a while since I don’t often get to replay long, complex games.

Speaking of complexity, this game has it in spades. I felt like I was in a fog for most of the game. I had a really good grasp on the rules and how the game worked but I never felt like I knew what I should do more than a turn ahead. This is one of those games that makes me wonder if it really is as good as its rating or if it is just so complex that everyone agrees that there must be something astoundingly good under all of its layers. (I do have it on good authority that the game stands up to multiple plays)

Terra Mystica is a game that rewards multiple plays. There is so much variety that I could see this game being fresh for a long time. That said, if you don’t play games repeatedly this one may not be for you.  Play someone else’s copy if you can. But if you want a Euro game to dive deeply into, this is it.

THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB

SHUCK

At first glance it seems that there is a lot going on in Terra Mystica…and there is. Lots of rules, lots of pieces, and a lot of choices.

Just opening up the rulebook is intimidating. There’s a lot to read and you’ve got to have a pretty good handle on it before playing or you’ll be lost. There’s just a lot to keep up with. Even between the four of us there was confusion with some rules. I think part of the problem was too many situations that were not directly identified in the rules and had to be assumed. Also, the rather large rulebook made it difficult to reference during the game. I wish there would’ve been some sort of index at the back.

Once you start playing you’ll immediately be overwhelmed with choices. Normally this doesn’t bother me but I found the additional Scoring Tiles (round trackers) highly distracting. They made me feel like I needed to pay attention to them to score more points. However, after a few turns I felt bamboozled or misled into doing the early action to get points. I wondered in the end if it actually hurt me more than it helped me. And this is where I have a problem: this game needs multiple play throughs to develop a decent strategy. Depth is great. Deception, though, is not fun. Combine that with the length of this game and it will require too much investment to get things suitable to your playstyle. Some may say this is a selling point, that Terra Mystica gives you multiple play experiences but I have many other games I want to play as well. I can’t devote all my time trying to “figure out”  only one of them.

Another thing I noticed with this game is that it reminded me of several other games.

     – Choice anxiety reminded me of Agricola but with less flexibility.
     – The player board reminded me of Scythe but with more restrictions.
     – The main board reminded me of Deus but with more interaction.
     – Building placement reminded me of Carcassonne.

What I mean to point out here is that Terra Mystica felt like a hodgepodge of mechanisms to me. The way things work and the reason behind them doesn’t mesh well. Only the temples, priests, and cult tracks seemed to integrate with each other. And while I liked the mechanic of moving power around in the bowls I have no idea thematically what is going on there.

While my reaction may seem very negative I don’t think Terra Mystica is a bad game. It does have a lot of things going for it but I would suggest that you try it out for yourself. I’m sure I’ll end up playing it again but right now I would rather play Agricola or Scythe which gave me a very similar feel.