Transform the World
Windy is a terrible person. He takes unnatural delight in his cult practices, hidden away in dank basements or shadowed groves in order to perform his profane chants and adulations. I can only assume old, musty robes and plenty of candles are involved. I do know that this communion is with the most vile and unholy spirits because it–without fail–interferes with my chances of victory.
The contributors of somewherepostculture (barring one by her own volition for which we shall all shame her) have been obsessed with a little German game called Terra Mystica. I am not certain how to describe it. Kait says it’s ‘ugly.’ I don’t know if that’s really a good, qualitative assessment but when you first open up the box, it does look intimidating. My first encounter with the game was during one of our many forays to a board game cafe. While waiting for significant others to arrive, Derek wanted to give a game a spin that would certainly be less enjoyed by the fairer sex while he had the time.
Two hours later we were buried beneath a mound of little pieces trying to puzzle out how to get our respective race/factions to trot further along the victory point (VP) border while I madly searched for a way to wage war against my counterpart. There isn’t any, outside of actual physical aggression and this game is certain to inspire a little of that. But in a good way.
The closest analogy I can give for Terra Mystica is the game Settlers of Catan. Every player is trying to create the best infrastructure on a limited map with only so many resources to go around. There aren’t any outside threats and the only random element is during the game’s initial set-up. Not a dice is to be seen, which is a quality that always piques my interest. So there is no robber running around to grab your sheep and there’s no sitting forlorn as turn after turn goes by without any of your damn forests producing wood.
Another large departure from Settlers is the multiple avenues for generating VP. There are two scoring qualities at the end of the game (three with the new expansion Ice and Fire where the third is, once again, randomly chosen at the start). Players are ranked by how large their connected settlements and towns are and how far they’ve advanced in the earlier mentioned cults. The first three players get descending point rewards for their efforts. Connections and infrastructure scores better than taking the lead in the cults but there are four cults which have the potential to score you more if you dominate them.
Potential is the keyword here. For it is quite easy for your opponents to muck up your plans. There is no way to wage bloody combat on your nemesis and thus the game focuses around the scramble to gather the limited pool of resources and hexes upon which you build your fledgling outposts. The last major departure from other games is that Terra Mystica features asymmetrical game play. For every different terrain hex in the game, there are two factions which call that landscape home. The ultimate goal of each faction is to transform the world into their preferred environment, like tourists immediately descending on air conditioners wherever they vacation. Each faction brings different strengths and abilities to the table. There are the dwarves, renown for their tunneling ability and to pop out of the ground to raise mountains out of molehills where once you thought they were cut off. There are the mischievous darklings who delight in nothing more than sending their priests out to convert all those wonderful rivers and plains into delicious, delicious swamps. Or there are the engineers who would rather not fuss around fighting for scraps of land but like to concentrate their efforts on raising magnificent bridges to connect their homes in awe-inspiring design.
The trick (because there always is a trick) is that the terrain transformations cost different numbers of spades depending on how different your detested land is from your home land. If I love swamps, then it only takes one spade to change rivers and hills into them (presumably because they’re already wet?). However, it takes three spades to change wastelands and mountains. Spades, by their nature, are incredibly hard to come by (unless you’re those rascally halflings) and thus factions will naturally steer away from the lands of their complete opposites. The game doesn’t allow factions of the same land in the game, so even in your choice of who to play there exists a strategic element. Do you want to be the neighbourly auren and fight those dwarves for their precious mountains or choose the cultists and politely avoid much conflict over terrain?
There’s a further complication in planning. Every faction has five different kinds of structures they can erect with each providing different bonuses. Dwellings provide homes for more workers. Temples give you favours from the divine and train priests. Strongholds unlock a special ability for your faction to demonstrate your true might or make your inherent ability even better. The dwarves are able to use less workers to create their tunnels when they have the awesome might of their fortress to inspire their drunk asses.
And resources are scarce so you’ll never have enough coins or workers to build what you want. You also need shipping levels if you want to cross those pesky rivers bisecting the map and there’s your ‘dig level’ to upgrade if you don’t want to throw legions of workers at that damn mountain to turn it into more pleasant desert. Each round also rewards building different structures. When a Dwelling Bonus round turns up, you can expect a massive explosion of homes from every faction across the board. But do you hold off building your dwellings for those bonus rounds or do you plunk them down for more return in your investment as well as staking your land from would be thieves. You can’t lost any hex you’ve built on which is the only assurance you have in the game.
It’s a complicated game, that’s for certain. However, that initial overwhelming sensation when you dump the thousand pieces out of the box belies the game’s simplicity. The core mechanics are pretty simple once you get a hold of them (with the sole exception of the niggling rules for your power bowls) and the hardest part of the game is all the different factors coming together for each turn. There’s a lot of cognitive load to balance when you take an action. Do your enemies have enough resources to block your natural expansion? Are they going to take the bonuses that you need in order to get your temples up on their bonus round? Will Windy ever stop taking the damn cult tile?!
Terra Mystica is a fantastic game. For a board game, it’s pretty complex but compared to something like Magic: the Gathering or Netrunner it seems positively straightforward. However, after eight games I still don’t grasp the best nuances of its strategy. And the more players you add, the more you have to wiggle around their petty plans. There’s something to be said where your rise and fall is solely determined by your ingenuity and ability to predict the actions of your opponents. It’s the kind of game play that gets you coming back week after week to face your friends. With so many different factions and even new boards (in the expansion) there’s so much variety that ‘the perfect strategy’ is never clear and always changing.
After all, exploitation of your enemies needn’t be so blatant as a cudgel. You can instead figure out their goals, let them commit their resources to expanding their network, then snatch that last bridge or hex before they’re able to connect it all and leave them with two disjointed and pathetic settlements and no other alternative for getting victory. Assuming, of course, they stop sending their priests to that damn air cult!
Even civil engineers can be uncivil.