Meinland – Terra Mystica review

The Judge is excited. Very excited. See precisely why below as he talks Terra Mystica…


It seems almost cruel to be reviewing a game that is currently unavailable – but to hell with it! I have my copy and you lot can get one when Z-Man get around to the re-print which is currently scheduled for Q1 2013. The other reason I felt compelled to put my thoughts down is that Terra Mystica is the BEST game of 2012, and one of my top 3 of all time.

I am a devout member of the Cult of the New and tend to move on relatively quickly from one game to the next.  Terra Mystica has bucked this trend and has been an almost permanent fixture on various gaming tables since I bought it just after Essen in October.I can just remember one another thing that changed my perception and trends relating to the trading world are the latest Bitcoin Trader! This automated trading robot made me realize that trading practice is completely doable even for the beginners and that too if it involves the trading of the nascent cryptocurrency! Ok, let’s see what else Terra Mystica made me realize!  There are many breakdowns of the rules on Board Game Geek so I shan’t repeat them again here, but for the sake of context, here’s a very brief overview of some of the most interesting concepts and why I feel they work together so well.

First of all, variety. Terra Mystica includes fourteen player races that are selected at the start of the game.  Each of these races has subtle and not-so-subtle differences in terms of special powers, unique abilities and variable costs for improvements.  The race that you choose will change the way you play the game to maximise your victory points, as with many other games.  The twist here, and something that will not be relevant for perhaps your first half dozen games, is that the ‘proper’ way to play is to set up the board (with the bonus scoring tiles randomly selected etc.) so that players can choose the race that they feel will be best positioned given that set-up.  Going even further, if you are the third player along to choose, say, you have the board layout AND the selections of two previous players to consider.  This selection process is an important strategic decision before the game even gets started.

Next, area control. The crux of the game is to transform territory to your own races preferred landscape (sea, swamp, mountains and the like) to facilitate expansion and development of your settlement on a large, hex-based map.  In many area control games, you need to carve out a chunk of the world to build and grow your settlements and in Terra Mystica this concept is no different – EXCEPT that it is equally important to have neighbours. Power (one of the most versatile resources in the game) is generated by other people building adjacent to you.   There are also significant cost reductions when some buildings are constructed adjacent to an opponent’s settlements.  This tug-of-war between needing your own space and having to rely on others makes placement decisions even more interesting.

Number three: economy and prioritisation: Similar to Eclipse (which coincidentally was my game of 2011) you have to manage a simple economic system to ensure you can achieve your aims for the turn.  The buildings that you have in-play dictate the resources that you will receive at the start of each turn.  Need more coin? Well you should build Markets.  Need more workers? Then make sure you have Settlements.  Also worth considering are the bonus VPs that can be claimed for achieving the round bonus such as “+2 VPs if you build Settlements this turn”.  But I need to build Markets?! Damn you Terra Mystica! In the game’s defence, however, all of these objectives are visible at the start of the game, so if it’s gone wrong then it is probably my fault.  O.K, it’s definitely my fault.  Let’s move on.

Terra Mystica in play at Essen 2012. Picture by Daniel Danzer (duchamp) from BGG.

Terra Mystica in play at Essen 2012. Picture by Daniel Danzer (duchamp) from BGG.

Also interesting is how the game allows Victory Points to be spent as a resource.  The ‘Power’ generated by having opponents build adjacent to your settlements costs 1 victory point less than the power available – and no half measures – you either take all of it or nothing!  This ends up with a recurring decision along the lines of “Do you want 3 power for 2 VPs?”. Well yes, obviously, because Power is awesome and lets you do stuff.  But when do you say no? When does the Power become less valuable than trying to win the game? Just another tricky decision that the game forces upon you.

I could go on and on…and my gaming groups would tell you that I do, but let’s try to bring this together.

I play a lot of new games and plenty of dry Euros where you convert stuff to other stuff and get points. Some of them I like (Village / Macao / Trajan) and some I would rather plunge my head into a fryer than play again (Noblemen / Prêt-à-Porter). Through a certain lens, if you strip away the theme and just look at mechanics, Terra Mystica could be described as a straight Euro game or more precisely, several Euros pasted together. What holds this all together and elevates the entire experience is the theme.

For me, this light fantasy theme helps all of the disparate elements work together and make sense.  You’re not abstractedly converting red cubes into blue cubes – you’re spending workers and money to dig the terrain and build settlements.  The more you sacrifice and donate to the God tracks, the more power they will award you.  It turns a difficult rules explanation into something people understand and can appreciate.

Regarding the races, the game feels fresher than many of its peers by avoiding most of the stereotypical Tolkein-esque Orc, Goblin and Elf tropes, instead exploring Mermaids, Giants & Lizard-like Swarmlings.  I also enjoy how the in-game abilities work thematically; Mermaids cover water particularly well, Halflings specialise in digging and the unique abilities all complement in fun ways. I particularly enjoy the Wizard of Oz inspired Witches’ power to land buildings anywhere on the map.

Like Indiana Jones hunting for the Holy Grail, I have been searching for a great game that bridges the gap between an engaging thematic experience and strong mechanisms: Terra Mystica is that perfect Thematic Euro and is brilliant.  There is just enough player interaction to keep it interesting without ever descending into ‘take that!’ histrionics and even after more than 20 plays, every time has felt like a unique experience.  It constantly surprises.  Simply playing with new people who look at the toolbox in front of them and do something unexpected forces you to react, change your plans and evolve your strategy.  Terra Mystica is awesome.

Ok.  Enough gushing.  Just go buy a copy.  When it eventually comes out…  No, you can’t have mine.

Terra Mystica was released in 2012 by Feuerland Spiele. Designed by Jens Drogemuller and Helge Ostertag, between two and five can play with games taking around two hours.  And yes, now I want a copy too. Don’t forget to follow Stuart “The Judge” Platt on Twitter: @Judge1979