The central conceit of Terra Mystica is that mystical creatures are reliant on geography, in the sense that witches hang out in forests, halflings love a well-fertilized plain for planting pipe-weed, nomads roam the desert, chaos magicians build their crazy towers in the wasteland (where else?), and dwarves mine the mountains. And because each race is only interested in their own geographical feature, they’re bent on terraforming the entire world until it’s just one unending forest or rolling plain or scorched desert.
Which sounds awful, now that I think about it. Not that it’s going to keep me from transforming as much of the world as possible into lakes so my mermaids can frolic until the end of time.
There are two ways of looking at Terra Mystica, and one is far more satisfying than the other.
The first is through its setting, which Terra Mystica really wants you to get into. As you might have already inferred, you start with this great big varied and unspoiled fantasy realm, divided by a system of rivers and all sorts of diverse biomes, and it’s your goal to spread your race far and wide, terraforming lands so they match your chosen type. Each race has their own powers and peccadilloes. You might play as the Swarmlings, for example, who generate lots of workers and love building big towns, but their buildings cost more to build. Maybe because they have to house so many Swarmling babies? On the flip side, the Engineers don’t generate or require many workers and love to build bridges all over the place, the Nomads have an extra starting space and can magically spread its desert terrain, and the Alchemists transform their money into victory points.
Which is to say, there are lots of races (fourteen!) and even more special powers, and at this point Terra Mystica sounds like it has one of the coolest settings ever put to cardboard. Cultists! Fakirs! Darklings! So many neat things rolling around the box!
The thing is, this way of looking at Terra Mystica isn’t quite as successful as it might sound, because no matter who you play as, your method of interacting with other players is always roughly the same — by terraforming and occupying a hex before someone else does. The Giants might be able to terraform all land types for the same cost, but their only way of irritating other players is exactly the same as how the Mermaids go about doing it, though the Mermaids will use lakes instead of wastelands. If someone is getting ahead, you build in such a way that it blocks them, and that’s about it.
Not that this is really a complaint; it’s just that Terra Mystica isn’t quite the theme/setting/mechanics Kwisatz Haderach it would have you believe.
The better way of looking at it is as an engine of iconography and interconnected systems; a sort of super-Euro, if you will. Which, yes, is something of an oxymoron, because just like “civil war” or “awfully good,” it’s sort of a contradiction in terms. If Euros are usually defined by their tightness, their laser focus on a compact set of mechanisms, then Terra Mystica revels in how it has the same tightness, but spread across a whole bunch of oodles of masses of stuff.
For example, let’s look at those interlocking systems. It isn’t enough to merely terraform lands. You’ve also got to upgrade your dwellings into more impressive structures because then they provide different resources each round, like priests and magic (more on those later). So you upgrade your dwelling into a trade house, which costs workers and gold, and then into a stronghold because it unlocks your team’s second special ability, or into a temple because temples give you priests and special favor tiles, presumably from the gods. But now you’ve replaced your dwellings with grander structures, which means you aren’t recruiting workers each turn — your empire has become too advanced for its own good.
But before you even get to worry about that stuff, you have to terraform the land itself. So you need to be adjacent to the hex you want to terraform, or at least have a bridge or enough shipping points to reach it across the water, and then you require enough workers to generate spades (on the assumption that your workers-to-spades ratio has been upgraded to a tolerable level) in order to do the actual terraforming. Maybe you need magic to provide the last few workers or gold, so make sure to keep an eye on your three magic “bowls” to see if your third bowl has any magic left, which upon being spent is sent back to the first bowl, and…
…and then there are the priests! Holy men who you can dedicate to upgrading your spades or upgrading your shipping, or sent off to one of four cults — which, by the way, are really only useful for generating the occasional point of magic when you move up the track and for points at the end of the game, so if you think worshiping the fire cult will get you a spell to burn down that obstructing trading house your opponent plopped down in your path, you’re dead wrong.
Well. Look, there’s a lot going on, and it takes a game or two before the way everything interconnects really clicks. As an exercise in maximizing the revolutions-per-round of your points-generating engine, Terra Mystica sings. It’s got things to do, people to see, hexes to occupy.
You can use some of your magic to build bridges to cross the water and create towns, clumps of settlements that bring extra victory points and other goodies. You can manage your magic pools so as to give yourself an epic turn that leaves everyone at the table jealous. Or balance your structures until you have enough workers, gold, magic, and priests pouring in each turn.
And there are some things I really love about Terra Mystica, like how its victory parameters are entirely deterministic. Each round there’s an objective, different each game, like “get points for building fortresses and sanctuaries this turn” or “build lots of basic dwellings this round,” and since you can see the requirements for each of the game’s six rounds, it’s possible to create these far-reaching plans that won’t come into effect for a long, long time. And that’s very cool.
I don’t even mind that games of Terra Mystica tend to turn into these drawn-out mathy slogs, with every player ruminating over how to maximize their victory points this round, when to take a particular action, whether to accept that bit of magic for a few subtracted points. I even enjoy it now and then. Enjoy it a lot.
By this point, I’m sure this review is confusing as all hell. “Do you like it or don’t you?” you’re probably asking, aloud, like a nerd.
Well, I only have an unsatisfying answer for you, because Terra Mystica tickles one part of me while leaving the other half sitting around like a non-ticklish baby, staring at you with those drooling lips and nonplussed eyes. On the one hand, I love calculating points and examining the best way to use a set of limited resources as much as the next gamer. But on the other, one of the main reasons I play games in the first place is because they let me interact with people. They let me make friends with them, or betray them, or just be a general dick about how they should have taken a better turn. And Terra Mystica isn’t particularly interested in that.
Take from that what you will. Lots of people love this game, it’s ranked insanely high on BoardGameGeek, and a very tangible part of me gets that. But ultimately, it doesn’t indulge the other part of me, the one that actually sits down to play games.