Dec 17, 2012

Pro's and Con's Review: Terra Mystica

Format: Board Game
Designers: Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag
Publisher: Z-Man Games

I recently attended the Ludo Outaouais event in nearby Gatineau where I got to play Terra Mystica, a brand new game from Z-Man Games that's been getting a fair bit of buzz.

Terra Mystica is a city building and resource management game with a hint of terraforming that combines elements seen in multiple other games into something unique but ultimately more complex than it needs to be.

Read on for a short review of my experience with the game from a professional and consumer point of view.

Professional's Take:
Most rules you encounter in Terra Mystica are going to remind you of something else you've played. You'll be reminded of Puerto Rico's roles when choosing a bonus for your next turn, perhaps Hansa Teutonica or Eclipse will come to mind as you reveal income on your player board by removing buildings you are placing on the main board or maybe you just won't be able to get over upgrading your little Catan towns into little Catan cities. All this to say that if you play a lot of euro games, you'll find most of what you'll be doing in this game, at least somewhat, familiar.

A couple of design elements that were neat was the way your magic resource is handled and the way building different buildings influences your income. The unique thing about the way you manage magic as a resource is that "reservoirs" of markers need to be emptied into one another in order to pass your magic from a spent state, to an interim state and finally to a ready state. Using magic will move markers back into the spent reservoir, forcing you to empty them into the intermediate reservoir before being able to move them into a ready state again. Once you get a hang of it, it introduces an interesting wrinkle to its use by forcing you to plan ahead, lest you find yourself unable to use your precious magic when you need it most. Building onto the centre board also affects your strategy in an interesting way by affecting your income. Like some other recent games, Terra Mystica has you take buildings from your personal board and place them onto the centre map when building them. Doing this reveals income information that was previously hidden by the building. It's a good way of keeping the player informed but also has the neat side effect of making it possible to lose income by upgrading buildings. You see, when you upgrade a building, you, essentially, switch a lower rank building from the map with a higher rank building from your board. By doing this, you reveal new income previously hidden by the larger building but you must cover one of the appropriate income spaces with the building you just removed from the map. In other words, building a city may give you magic and money every turn, but you will no longer receive the supplies you were earning from the house you had previously built. What's interesting about this is that it forces you to manage what you build, often forcing you to find new ways to get the resources you once had in excess.

Ultimately, though, the game may be too complex for its own good. It's one of these games where almost none of the elements are handled in the simplest way possible. It's like it was designed so everything you do in the game is done in an "interesting" fashion. I do think some of it's more extraneous design elements could be stripped out or simplified without significantly harming the depth of gameplay. One such example is the four scoring tracks where players compete for majorities during final scoring. It seems this elements could have been abstracted out to simple points without having to be, yet another, game within the game.

Consumer's Take:
This game looks amazing! The bits are your standard "euro-wood" but do the job nicely and every bit of printed material in the box is gorgeously illustrated. Its beauty is, also, more than skin deep as the iconography is really clear and helpful as well, making it that much easier to keep the games many rules straight.

Speaking of its many rules, as mentioned above, the game can be fiddly. Its many rules, bits, tokens and bookkeeping tasks can make it feel like a bit of a juggling act. We found ourselves forgetting to take secondary and tertiary effects of rules into account every few turns as there are simply so many of them to keep track of.

If cost is a concern for you, there are a number of games I would recommend before Terra Mystica. Board Game Geek currently lists the game's price as over $100 from Funagain games. This is pretty much in line with what I heard at the event. Ultimately, a small print run and a box full of wood and cardboard were pointed to as the causes of the steep asking price, but this, ultimately doesn't change the fact that I've got to really love a game to plunk down that kind of scratch.

So, to wrap things up, Terra Mystica is not for me. It's longer that what I typically enjoy and certainly tries harder than it needs to to give players a bunch of moving parts to play with. That being said, it does what it does well. So if longer games with many interwoven systems is what you are into, then give Terra Mystica a try if you get the opportunity. Given the price, though, I would certainly suggest a try before you buy approach, keeping in mind that with so many small rules, you'll probably need to play it a few times to memorise them all before games really flow.

Image from Z-Man Games via Board Game Geek


  1. $100! The art and game bits look fabulous, but that's a ton of money for a board game. This is a good example of the conundrum that designers face managing the production costs of their game. Top-tier art and tokens put this game out of my price range.

  2. I just bought this game last week, it was 65$ (Cdn). I got it in my local gaming store. I LOVE this game. Played it once so far, going to have another chance at a 5 player game tomorrow. I love the way the magic works, it's like you have to power up before you can spend it. The first couple rounds you feel a little limited because of the resources, but as you build more you get more resources in the income phase which really helps to get things moving in later rounds.