Thursday, October 3, 2013

Analysis Paralysis - The Board Game: "Terra Mystica"

Eurogame complexity is completely different then, say, wargame complexity. With wargames, difficulty is closely tied to realism, which, in turn, is linked to a veritable lungful of rules designed to simulate every possible variable in a battle. Complexity in a eurogame usually has less to do with replicating a theme and more to do with giving players a dizzying panoply of different options.

Although a game like Settlers of Catan might seem baffling to someone who's only played Payday, Clue, Monopoly or Risk, it's one of the easiest Eurogames out there since aren't a lot of choices to be made on any given turn. Players roll two 6-sided dice, the board automatically spits out a set amount of resources, you look at what Resource Cards you have available and then either build something, buy a Development Card or throw the dice at your opponent's head.  That's it.      

Contrast this with a game like Terra Mystica which offers an almost paralyzing amount of paths to pursue on any given turn.


The game's vast scale is barely hinted at in this deceptively-brief synopsis from original publisher Feuerland Spiele:

Terra Mystica is a strategy game with a simple game principle and very little luck involved: You govern one of 14 factions trying to transform the landscape on the game board in your favor in order to build your structures. On the one hand, proximity to other players limits your options for further expansion, on the other hand though, it provides some benefits during the game. This conflict is the source of Terra Mystica’s appeal.



Structures may be upgraded to provide even more resources, like workers, priests, money, and power. Build temples to gain more influence in the four cults of fire, earth, water, and air. Build your stronghold to activate your group’s special ability. Expand and build new dwellings to have a lot of workers at hand. Or make sure to have a constant flow of money by building trading houses.

The 14 artfully designed factions, each having unique special abilities, as well as the exchangeable bonus cards allow for a large number of possible game plays that constantly keep this game entertaining!

Funny thing is, I can't even slight them for claiming that Terra Mystica is based on "a simple game principle". I had no problem learning how to play the game. My biggest challenge was weighing the myriad of choices available to me and making the optimal selection.

Looking to read the full terraforming blueprint? Click on the following magical link to glean all of the trade secrets!    

***
A few weeks ago Game Night experienced a bit of a hiccup when new inductees Kris and J.P. couldn't make it out to Dean's place. No surprise since these guys are currently smack-dab in the middle of opening up Halifax's very first game cafe (The Board Room) and had to remain on-site to accommodate a local contractor. In lieu of this, they graciously invited us down to the still-in-progress cafe so that we might become the first people to actually play a game on the premises!

FACTION SELECTION     

Andrew...Green Witches
Me...Gray Dwarves
Jon-Paul...Black Alchemists
Kris...Yellow Fakirs
Mike...Blue Swarmlings


Andrew began by constructing a couple of Dwellings in the north-west quadrant of the board. He quickly put top priority on building his Stronghold which would allow him to plop down adjacent Dwellings at a cut-rate deal. Immediately he started to butt heads with Kris over territory. He also dropped his second starting Dwelling on the opposite side of the board but had precious little time to do anything with it. 

Intrigued by the Dwarves ability to burrow, I set about popping up all over the board like Bugs Bunny en route to Albuquerque. From my two initial starting Dwellings I quickly branched out, earning eight Victory Points and an early lead. By the end of my first few turns I'd upgraded one of my initial structures to a Trading House and constructed two new Dwellings. This also put me in direct competition with J.P. over the Eastern domain. After taking the 6-Coin Bonus Card I certainly didn't have any cash flow problems but I stall had a hard time securing enough Workers to do what I needed to do. A quick pass earned me a badly-needed bonus minion, three more Victory Points and enough authoritah to steal the Starting Player token away from Kris.     

J.P. attacked the game with the sort of self-assurance that only a previous play could allow, quickly renovating a Dwelling out East into a Trading House and then establishing another Dwelling right next to me, which earned him a four-Victory Point bump. Thanks to a Bonus Tile which gave him two free Workers, this operation went smooth as silk. 

Game instructor Kris also plunged head-first into his own formative strategy, using a key Bonus Tile to acquire two free Gold and a free Spade. With these building blocks he Terraformed a hex into a Desert Tile, which put him at loggerheads with Andrew and gave him an chance to exchange Victory Points for a Power shift. Pretty soon he'd upgraded his Trading House into a Stronghold, which made his Carpet Flight ability even more long-range. He also got a Priest up on-deck, poised to make a big splash amongst one of the four Cults.

As the Swarmlings, Mike started with a metric shit-ton of starting resources, giving him the jump on the rest of us. But instead of indiscriminately building structures everywhere, Mike quickly picked up on the intrinsic value of the Cult track and began to exploit it mercilessly. To aid in this goal, he spent his first few turns transforming one of his initial mid-board Dwellings into a Trading House and then into a Temple. After cranking out more fell Priests then Thulsa Doom, he started to occupy the highest echelons of the Earth and Air Cult Tracks. Just when he started to get tapped out for money the big jerk then took a Bonus Tile for 6 free Gold!


Taking note of Mike's first few moves, Andrew quickly indoctrinated two of his own Priests (one via a Bonus Card) and then jumped into the vanguard of the Cult of Air track. He also managed to upgrade both of his Dwellings to the northwest into Trading Houses, sparring with Kris for dominance in that region. Finally, he used his Faction's Stronghold ability to plunk a new Dwelling down on a Forest hex to the west.  

Blissfully laboring under the misconception that my incessant delving would eventually count towards Town-building adjacency my Dwarves kept a-diggin', using the free Spade Action from my Bonus Card to construct a third Dwelling off to the East. This same Bonus Card gave me a spare Worker which I held in reserve for a future turn. Noting the importance of lowering my cost for Spades, I sought to acquire some Priests by converting a Trading House into a Temple. (NOTE: After constructing this Sacred Structure I was supposed to collect a Favor Tile but I didn't get it. This totally sucks since it would have given me a +3 influence bump on any Cult track,  Boo-urns!!!)

After investing in two critically-important Spade proficiency upgrades, J.P. started to outpace my construction efforts out east. He started by procuring a timely Bonus Card for two free Coins and a Victory Point payout for every Dwelling. He did his best to fulfill that secondary benefit by upgrading an existing Trading house to a Stronghold and then Terraforming an adjacent hex to the south in order to plant a brand new Dwelling. J.P.'s' new Stronghold proved to be a real boon for optimizing Power, giving him twelve immediate transference points and then two more for every Spade he managed to secure. And with that, he breezed right past me on the Victory Point track.  

Kris picked a primo Bonus Card which provided two free Workers and four Victory Points for the construction of his Stronghold. He then went "Full Steppenwolf", using the Fakir's Magic Carpet Ride ability to leapfrog a new Dwelling across the River onto a Desert hex to the southeast. He also cranked out a couple of Priests and set them to task on the Fire Cult track.

Reaching the end of his starting coffers, Mike was forced to take the Bonus Card for six free Coins again. He put his cash to good use, upgrading his Temple to a Sanctuary which, in turn, gave him the ability to crank out double the amount of Priests. Without hesitation he put this mob of holy rollers to work on the Water and the Earth Cult tracks. The Sanctuary also proved to be a great launching point for his new developments, namely a Dwelling and a Trading House. These divine upgrades also gave Mike two valuable Favor Tiles, one boost for Fire and one for Air. Even after all of these moves, he still had five Workers left in reserve! Indeed, the Swarmlings are truly legion!  


Noticing how critical inexpensive Spades are for Terraforming, Andrew set about lowering his exchange rate. After winning six additional Coins from a Bonus Card, he kept leaning on his Stronghold's ability to generate new Dwellings on Forested Hexes. Over the next few turns, he placed a new Dwelling by his Stronghold, dropped another one smack-dab in the middle of the board and then upgraded a third out east to a Trading House. He also ushered a third Priest into the Cult of Air, nearly hitting the devotional apex in the process. Despite a pokey start, Andrew was starting to find his legs, evidenced by his surplus of six Workers and a nicely-coalescing Power pool.

Already behind the eight-ball for misinterpreting my special ability and neglecting to collect a Favor Tile, I decided to make it even harder for myself RE: Spade acquisition. I honestly thought that I had to pay two Workers, five Gold and a Priest to reach the first tier on the Exchange Rate track when, in fact, you start the game with this option. Awesome. After taking a Bonus Tile designed to give me a free Worker and two Victory Points for every Trading House, I hastily transformed one of my eastern Dwellings into a matching structure. After adding two new Dwellings and publicly declaring my intention to establish a Town on my next turn, I was gutted to learn that my underground maze out east wasn't valid for the purpose of adjacency. Double awesome. About the only I managed not to screw up that getting a Priest onto the Earth Track, which just behind Mike's devotional fervor. 

Steering deliberately clear of the highly-competitive Cult Track, J.P. used a Bonus Card free Priest to make some deft Power plays. His early investment in Exchange Rate improvement also started to pay off, quite literally, in Spades! Thusly equipped, he proceeded to Terraform no less then five hexes, adding two new Dwellings mid-board and then urban sprawling out east with four more! This was more then enough to declare Town status, the resulting reward Town tile giving him seven Victory Points and two free Workers! 

Kris also made some key moves, selecting a Bonus Card gave him four Coins and a handy one-tier bump on the Cult of Air track. He then proceeded to upgrade his Trading House to a Sanctuary which let him crank out a Priest destined to stoke the Cult of Fire. He continued his rampant growth up north, dropping down a new Dwelling. With that, Kris had just enough Building Power to declare a Town, which gave him a whopping nine Victory Points and yet another free Priest. Not one to rest on his laurels, Kris hopped onboard Persian Rug Airlines, took another jaunt out East and then established yet another Dwelling right where he landed. With that, Kris secured two Favor Tiles, which collectively gave him one Fire and two Air Cult bumps and also troweled on three free Coins and four Power moves at the beginning of every turn. Yikes!     

Mike picked a Bonus Card which gave him him two free Workers and a potential Victory Point windfall. In order to optimize this secondary perk, he upgraded his southern Trading House into a Stronghold and then added a second Dwelling up north. He then used his Stronghold's ability to transform these two northern Dwellings into Trading Houses, giving him enough resources to cut the ribbon on a new Town and win a five Victory Points *slash* six Coin Town Tile. This, in turn, triggered a three-Worker lottery win thanks to his Faction's Special Ability. Just like that, Mike managed to secure just enough resources to keep his momentum going! As an added bonus, one of the Town's new Priests managed to reach the pinnacle of the Water Cult while the other inched towards the top of the Earth track.  


Andrew might not have played a perfect match up to that point but at least he had the potential for a late-game rally. He began by selecting a very practical Bonus Card which gave him two Coins and highly-prized Spade. This was indispensable since, in order establish a last-minute Town, he needed to Terraform two hexes at considerable expense. After setting the groundwork in place he added two Dwellings to his westerly development and then linked everything together with a Bridge! He also cobbled together a seemingly-random Dwelling along the South Ridge and then upgraded his mid-board Dwelling into a Temple, netting him a three-point Earth Cult bump. Also, just to be a tool, he pushed a Priest one space up the Earth Track, tying with me for second place. 

I took a bonus Card which gave me a free Worker and also allowed me to shift around three Power. Now that J.P. had snatched up all the prime real estate out east, the only way I could pull a Town outta my ass is if I linked both of my settlements together with a new Dwelling. Unfortunately that plan was quickly dashed after both Kris and Andrew weaseled in on my turf and eliminated my one and only pathway. From that point on, everything I did was the equivalent of pissing into the wind. About the only thing I managed to accomplish was upgrading my Trading House into a Stronghold, which was clearly a case of "too little, too lame".  
   
Before J.P. set his end game in motion he laid down some prescient groundwork which virtually guaranteed maximum impact for his last few turns. He started by selecting a well-timed Bonus Card for a free Worker and two Victory Points for every Trading House he owned at the end of the round. He then kicked off a focused landscaping campaign by upgrading his Town's Trading House into a Temple. The resulting Favor Tile reward gave him a one-point hop on the Water Cult Track and three Victory Points every time he upgraded a Dwelling to a Trading House.

Wanna have a guess as to what he did next? That's right, folks, he managed to upgrade every mid-board and eastern Dwelling into a Trading House. Needless to say, the resulting Victory Point tsunami was pretty friggin' impressive.

After increasing his range with a step up on the Shipping Track, J.P. then brought his two settlements together by Terraforming a mid-board hex as well as a second space in the crook of a river bank. Two new Dwellings were placed simultaneously, creating an adjacency chain that spanned two-thirds of the board's length. Incredibly, this also gave him a combined mid-board Building Power of exactly seven points, just enough to incorporate a second Town. He then snatched up a killer Town Tile which gave him a free Priest and nine whopping Victory Points. After this stellar series of moves we couldn't help but think that his score was insurmountable.

Unfortunately for Kris, his existing infrastructure didn't lend itself to a similar eleventh-hour Victory Point explosion. Even after nabbing six Coins via his Bonus Card, Kris could clearly see that he'd been hemmed in pretty badly so he just used the Fakir's Air Power to place four new Dwellings in outlying areas around the board. But would it be enough to claim the eighteen-point Area Scoring award at the end of the game?

Given his Cult Track domination, Mike was still a major contender. Instead of blowing his now-limited resources on a bunch of new buildings, Mike stuck to his primary strategy. As such, he upgraded his Town's Dwelling into a Temple and then did the exact same thing for one of his Trading Houses up north. Bolstered by a flock of new Priests and a Bonus Card which provided a Cult boost and four Coins, Mike shot two spots up the Fire Track, one tier up the Earth Track and three levels up the Air track, this last increase courtesy of a newly-acquired Favor Tile. The second Temple upgrade gave him his fourth Favor Tile, this one designed to give him Victory Points for every Trading House at the end of the turn.


Unfortunately for Mike, there were no turns left! All that remained was a quick final points tally and a whole lot of hootin' and a-hollerin'.

CULT SCORING

FIRE
Kris...8 points
Mike...4 points
Andrew and Jon-Paul...1 point each

WATER
Mike...8 points
Andrew and Jon-Paul...2 points each

EARTH
Mike...8 points
Andrew and I...2 points each

AIR
Andrew...8 points
Mike...4 points
Kris...2 points

AREA SCORING

Jon-Paul had 12 connected...18 points 
Kris had 10 connected structures...12 points
Andrew had 6 connected...6 points 

RESOURCE SCORING
Andrew...3 points
Me...3 points
Mike...3 points
Jon-Paul...2 points
Kris...1 point

FINAL SCORES

Jon-Paul...112 points
Kris...82 points
Mike...78
Andrew...63
Me...46


J.P. wins!!!

***

Post-Game Thoughts 

My inaugural Terra Mystica performance was pretty abysmal, but not quite as bad as it looks. Here's a summary of my oversights, errors and asterisks to keep in mind for next game:
  1. To all prospective Dwarf players: your ability to tunnel two hexes away counts for endgame adjacency but not for validating Towns.
  2. Priority one: get your damned Stronghold on the board post-haste! This is particularly critical for the Dwarves, since it provides a huge construction cost savings.
  3. Even if I'd known that the "three Workers for one Spade" exchange rate is available to to you right from the start, it's still a pretty heft cost. In other words: you may want to improve this arrangement as soon as possible.
  4. If you build a Temple or a Sanctuary DON'T FORGET TO TAKE YOUR FAVOR TILE! 
  5. As Mike's final score clearly indicates, the Cult Track is a handy way to rack up some pretty hefty end-game Victory Points. Having said that, Kris and J.P.'s final tally goes to show that aggressive development is still a key component for victory. 
***

REVIEW

PROS
  • Components-wise, everything about this game is absolutely gorgeous. The game board is colorful, the art is charming, the terrain types are distinct, the iconography is clever, the counters are high-gage and at least six percent of Germany's Black Forest has been crammed into every box.
  • The rules are crystal clear, rife with examples and easy to reference on those rare occasions when you need to seek answers.   
  • The races play out quite different from one another. The Dwarves are natural masons and like to burrow, the Witches love the Forest and fly on brooms, the Fakirs have Magic Carpets, the Alchemists have the power of transmutation and the Swarmlings are, well... they're swarmy. All of this generates a surprising amount of thematic flavor for a Eurogame.
  • Options! Options! Options! As I've stated before, the game isn't particularly complicated or even fiddly but the surfeit of strategies might leave some board game neophytes paralyzed by indecision. Gaming veterans, on the other hand, will be intoxicated by all tasty and agonizing choices.
  • The game is tense right down to the wire and the final scores can really change depending on how well you've laid down your infrastructure. 
CONS
  • Not a one. Much like Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar, this is one of the deepest and most compulsively-playable games I've had the pleasure of trying lately.  
***

Okay, okay, so I'm not exactly sporting a poker face when it comes to this game. Terra Mystica is a delight from start to finish, a blast to play and almost as fun to contemplate after it's over. Needless to say, I've been chomping at the bit for an opportunity to improve on my first score. 

Which, as we've already established, wouldn't be a major accomplishment.

Terra Mystica SCOREZ ALL OF THA PIPZ!   


   
***

Burnt out on Settlers and looking to kick things up a (few hundred) notches? Well, you may have to cool your jets for a bit, at least until the game gets its full North American distribution via Z-Man Games.

In the meantime, you can keep tabs on Terra Mystica (and help out my blog) by enclickifying the pretty, shiny image below.  

2 comments:

  1. Excellent synopsis as per ushe (sp?). This game rocked, and would be completely different unless you played it a ga-jillion times!

    ReplyDelete