Review: Terra Mystica26 Apr 2017 5
Review: Terra Mystica
Released 20 Apr 2017
Terra Mystica has received much praise since its original publication in 2012. Born from many traditions and mainstays of Euro game design, it nevertheless innovated that same category through its implementation of asymmetrical player powers. It also bore more than a passing resemblance to Settlers of Catan. In less dry terms, Terra Mystica made waves because it staged mythical showdowns between Witches, Giants, Mermaids, Alchemists and many others in a fantasy setting, with each of these factions possessing unique advantages and special abilities.
Yet as mirific as that might sound, the game also stayed true at heart to Euro games: there are no dice or other sources of random outcomes, no direct player conflicts, and no hidden information.
There is however, a plethora of variable setup factors, from the fourteen possible factions in the base game to the bonus and scoring tiles. This modularity in the initial setup keeps the core question of efficiency variable and compelling across multiple plays. It is my singular pleasure to report that the app is an exhaustive and loving rehabilitation of the original.
As far as board games go, Terra Mystica sits among neither the longest nor the most complex of boardgames, but the fact remains that it's not the sort of thing you stumble into idly. There are a total of five structures and four resources (coins, workers, priests, and power). Players spend the six rounds jockeying for victory points, awarded for completing specific structures specified on a given turn's scoring tile, as for placement on the Cult Track and ownership of the largest cluster of adjacent buildings. A rounds consists of all players taking actions in order until they all have passed; thus some rounds will last longer depending on how many resources each player has stockpiled. The tutorial tells a new player everything they need to know to play a game, and the display has logically sorted the dense scoring information and scads of tiles and actions into several menus.
The app has created a thorough practicum for going through the motions; but as a returning player I wanted more theory. I eagerly searched for a complete written manual to refresh my memory of some edge cases in the rules, and was disappointed to find the app bounced me to an online pdf though a website rather than host the full rules natively. So while the learning aids are well-made and in all fairness rather excellent, the fact remains that none of these thoughtful furnishings will prevent bad plays from permanently gimping a new player's prospect of winning. New or lapsed players would be well-advised to play a few fresh games against the AI before venturing online.
The AI as of now only has three settings, each of which are labeled 'Easy' along with an estimated time spent contemplating each turn. Stronger AI guided by machine learning is in the pipeline but shouldn't be necessary for all but the most hardcore of devotees. I initially was excited to challenge three Sir-Think-A-Lots but had my spark quenched when one of them took ten minutes placing its second dwelling. Then the rest of the game proceeded smoothly and my jaw unclenched, my teeth un-gnashed. Still, I would recommend sticking to the easier, quicker of the Easy AI settings to familiarize yourself with the game. There isn't a great deal of difference in cleverness, and you'll gain the better part of an hour by the substitution.
Online play is exciting and a breeze. Games normally run on a 72-hour time limit per player moves; I opted for the fast play mode which limits each player to 10 minutes per move. Like the Sir-Think-A-Lot AI, fast mode is a laughably inaccurate misnomer. One game took about 40 moves for me. It had four players and lasted about four hours, longer than it would have in-person. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, but its one they invited and one I ultimately chose to forgive. Online play has in-game chat between all players.
The artwork is good and the overall presentation clean and deliciously functional, with one irksome exception. Each player's icon moves subtly; the Alchemist puffs smoke while the Mermaid swims lazily in place and the Engineer wags his wrench. These slight wiggling motions soon grew repetitive and lifeless. I should relish a the option in settings to turn them off in a future update. In more objective grounds for criticism, I also encounted a few nagging gameplay bugs during my online play: one that failed to rollover player turns properly while still running the clock and another that made shovels bought with power disappear if you tapped too quickly.
Terra Mystica features extensive online player profiles, tracking your individual match history and faction breakdown as well as ranking you competitively for matchmaking purposes and bragging rights. (It also syncs games across devices as is par for the course nowadays.) There are achievements for those of us who enjoy collecting those digital vanity plates, and more statistics than you could shake a stick at. I'm very glad they track each player's history by faction. Experimenting with the different factions is more than an exercise in impulsive curiosity: like with fighting games, sampling a variety will deepen your understanding of the game and improve your counterplay.
Having played the Chaos Magicians, I understand how important it is to block them in and divide and conquer the Cult Track to keep them from making a clean sweep of its points. I also understand how difficult to assemble and tautly wound the Engineers' scoring engine is, how quickly the Mermaids race to their first town, and how ferociously the Witches expand across the board's forests like demented youthful Baba Yagas. While each faction has a default playstyle and toolbox, the variable turn scoring tiles and bonus tiles, as well as the competition for board space and spell actions prevent any one strategy from stagnating or becoming too dominant.
Still, this is not the game for the faint of heart. It is an excellent vehicle for thoughtful social experimentation, where players might feel as if they are mutely cultivating immaculate gardens in isolation, but will soon find their hedges overlapping and themselves embroiled in rancorous and internecine arguments. Terra Mystica is challenging and rewarding in equal parts, and the app represents a new way to play a long-standing favorite.