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Meinland – Terra Mystica review

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

TerraCOVER

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. 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

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International Velvet – Snowdonia review

I’ve been thinking a lot (dangerous, I know) about Spiel 2012 – and more specifically, the games that were released there. Since I got back on Monday I’ve had a LOT of emails asking the usual stuff; did I have fun (yes), how many interviews did I do (just about fifty) and – the biggest question of all – what was my Game of the Show?

In all honesty, this is a very difficult one to answer. As I was running around like a mad thing for most of the show I didn’t actually get a huge amount of time to do much in the way of playing during the four days of Spiel. Sure, there was a fair few games in the evening at the hotel but it’s only really now, post event, that I get to sit around the table with friends and play all those boxes I dragged home. Suburbia is certainly up there on my hotlist, as are Tzolk’in, Space Cadets and the very lovely new version of Sentinels of the Multiverse, but I think I’ve finally decided.

Snowdonia by Tony Boydell is, in a word, wonderful. A middleweight Euro for between one and five players, the premise sees you building a railway up the side of Wales’ finest, foggiest mountainside. Rubble must be cleared, stations need to be built and… well, that’s about it for the story. However, the game itself is packed out with a depth that is rarely so easy to get your teeth into.

Each turn you’ll be able to take a couple of actions (potentially three if you’ve planned ahead well) that will help you in your quest to get that railway constructed. If you boil it down, Snowdonia is essentially a race for points, but the theme is reflected in the opportunities available to you. With only seven different possibilities, you may initially think that the game is somewhat limiting but the realisation kicks in soon that it’s all about building the most efficient engine as quickly as possible. Iron ore is changed into steel bars that can be used to lay track or get your hands on a train (more on that shortly) while rubble can be compressed into stone then used to build stations. Almost everything you do in Snowdonia can score you points, but you’re not going to win this game without some rather lucrative contracts.

These cards set out precisely what you need in order to get some very hefty bonuses. Whether it’s collecting a huge pile of rubble or making sure that you’ve built a decent amount of tracks and buildings, completing them often sets you on the path to victory. As well as points, they also offer you the chance to bend the rules each turn – many can be triggered during certain action phases and will bestow benefits on you and your opposition, so choosing the right time to use them is a major part of the game.

Another way to turn things in your favour is to pick up a train card. They’re costly – most will set you back a couple of steel bars so they can eat into your resources – but will give you a permanent bonus. Whether it’s getting an extra resource each turn or simply more points at the end of the game, choosing the right one is hugely influential. They also allow you to spend a coal cube before each turn in order to get a third worker out of the pub – a great way to get more and more stuff done and work your way along the stations.

Snowdonia in all its cube-driven glory! Click to embiggen.

Of course, this being Wales, you’re going to be slaves to its ‘glorious’ weather. An ingenious little system shows what’s happening meteorologically and this does actually effect how the game plays out. The backs of the contract cards show whether it’s sunny, wet or foggy and by seeing what’s coming up you’ll be able to hopefully plan ahead. Work can progress when it’s bright or raining but should the fog descend everything grinds to a halt – the perfect time to stock up on resources or send your surveyor further up towards the summit; the higher the better as he can again pull in some decent points at the end of play.

Once track has been laid to the final station, the game draws to a close, points are tallied and a winner is declared. Play steams along at a decent pace, especially when you get into gear and start putting your plans for domination into place. A system has also been built in where the game will start laying track and finishing off stations by itself, so hoarding resources and turtling up will do you no favours! You’re forced to get on with it, spend freely from the very beginning and get your presence on the board sooner rather than later, especially in a game of four or five players.

It’s well known that Tony is a fan of Agricola (just look at his slightly deranged blog right here) and you can certainly see Uwe Rosenberg’s influence on Snowdonia – both have a simplicity and straightforward manner of play, and fans of medieval farming will easily slip into the ways of mountainous railway construction. While there’s a lot of information going on in the game, everything is clearly presented and you’ll never get overloaded with detail; another sign of an excellent design.

Also included in the box is a whole new scenario which switches up the gameplay and adds yet more replay value to the package – work is also apparently going on by certain other designers to produce new card sets too, so it looks like Snowdonia is going to be well supported for some time to come. I’d suggest you get in early, grab a copy and get playing before this one starts picking up awards and it becomes hard to find. Who’d have thought that hard labour could be so entertaining? It’s bloody marvellous.

Snowdonia was designed by Tony Boydell and is published by Surprised Stare, Lookout Games and uplay.it. Between two and five can play, with a slightly different set of rules available if you fancy some solo action. It’ll cost you around £32 for a copy, but Gameslore have it available for £26.99. GET IT. NOW.

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Disc-overy – Discworld: Ankh-Morpork review

Let’s go back into the days of pre-history, also known as the late 1980s. While the lads would play football on the school field and the girls wandered about in terrifying gangs, I spent the vast majority of my lunch breaks in the school library. Me and my best mate would help out the librarian by covering books in sticky backed plastic, polishing our prefect badges proudly, talking about what we’d been listening to, watching on telly and – of course – reading.

One day he brought in something for me to check out. The cover was ridiculous, huge orcs gazing down on some sort of chest with… are those legs? I read The Colour of Magic in less than a day and moved on The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites and more. A long time adoration of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was born that still lives on. The books may well have gone years ago, but they’ve been replaced by a stack of files on my Kindle.

Now I have another love: games. When I heard earlier in the year that a couple of games based on the Discworld were due for release, I had to get them on my table. The first to be released was the rather splendid Guards! Guards! from Z-Man Games – but now I also have a copy of Discworld: Ankh-Morpork. And goodness me: it’s really quite excellent.

The... ahem... 'fragrant' city of Ankh-Morpork, in which we make our play.

Designed by the legendary Martin Wallace, the game isn’t actually based on any of the books in the series – a new backstory has been created specifically for the game. Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, has gone missing. Rather than wait for him to return (which he does, as he’s actually just hiding), some powerful characters throw themselves into a struggle to take control of the proud yet pestilent city.

The seven potential roles you'll begin the game with. Different objectives mean you'll need to get thinking quickly as you try and work out what everyone else is up to.

The game begins with every player taking on a role, each of which has a secret objective. Manage to attain that in your turn, be it having a certain amount of money, control over regions of the city or just running the card deck out and victory is yours. As always, it sounds simple – but this is the Discworld! Nothing is easy in such a chaotic environment…

The game is driven by a deck in which each card has one or symbols at the top. These icons signify what each card will allow you do, the trick being to combine as many as possible to gain an advantage over your opponents. Be warned though – you’ll only be allowed to play more than one card if you have a symbol that allows you to do so!

Other symbols allow you to place new minions (needed to take control of the areas on the board) or assassinate them. You can put up buildings (which allow you to pull a bonus ability card for the area you’ve built in), gain extra money, clean up trouble – more on that in a minute – or perform the text action that’s on the card. These are all optional though; you work your way across the top of the card from left to right, performing or skipping the actions in order.

Check out the symbols at the top of the cards - they make up the engine that drives the game.

There’s one symbol you can’t ignore: the Star. It represents a Random Event and if you play a card with a star showing, you immediately draw from the small stack of cards marked with the same design. These cards are Officially Not Good – every single one has an effect on the game, some minor, some ridiculously brilliantly awful. There could be a dragon which swoops down and wipes out everything in a single area. Perhaps trolls or demons will invade the board (though these can be treated like minions and moved by players). Perhaps worst of all is the Riot card which automatically ends the game if there’s too much trouble in the city…

Trouble is a very important thing in Ankh-Morpork. If you move a minion into an area where another one already resides, you automatically add a Trouble marker to that space. This is both a good and bad thing; an area in trouble means that a player may assassinate an enemy minion if a played card allows it. However, while trouble’s afoot, no buildings can be constructed. Timing and planning are key – you need to wipe out the opposition and build in an area before anyone else can because those advantages are really very useful.

A selection of Random Events, many of which are bloody horrible. Riots are especially bad - too much trouble on the board and they can kill the game immediately!

Gameplay rattles along at a decent pace, especially once you know what the various symbols represent – thankfully crib-sheets are included in the package to assist. As with many games of this style, getting a lock on which cards will help you achieve your objective is pretty useful, but those of us who are more than a little forgetful aren’t at a huge disadvantage – just check out what you’ve got in your hand and manipulate the cards however you can to try and get that edge.

As you’d expect from a Martin Wallace game, it’s solid as anything to play. Folks who aren’t fans of Terry Pratchett’s stories will find a well put together strategy game, but if you have even the slightest interest in the Discworld you’ll appreciate it so much more due to the incredible effort that has been put in to the artwork and use of characters. Every single card in the draw deck has a different person (or group or place or… thing) taken from the universe realised in beautiful style by a truly talented team of artists.

The best thing though? That board. The moment I first saw it a few months ago at the UK Games Expo, I wanted one for myself. Not a board to play on but one to put in a big frame and put on my wall. Now, however, when I pull it out of the box I realise that not only is it beautiful, it’s actually part of a great game that brings me back to those days in the library. It reminds me of my first forays into Terry’s books, those characters he has created that entertained me so much (and still do today).

Without that link, Ankh-Morpork is an entertaining game that many people will certainly enjoy. With even the smallest connection though? It’s elevated to something superb, helping you recall stories enjoyed by countless millions as you try to wrestle control of the city where so many of those tales take place. One of my favourite games of the year so far.

Ankh-Morpork was designed by Martin Wallace with artwork from Bernard Pearson, Peter Dennis, Ian Mitchell and Paul Kidby. Released in 2011 by Wallace’s Treefrog Games in conjunction with Esdevium Games, it’s available now at around £30 / $40 for the standard edition – though Gameslore have it for £25! Two other versions of the game (Collectors and Deluxe) are also available for pre-order from the Treefrog site, but this Standard edition is perfect if you just want to get on and play now. So go get it!

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Loving the Alien – Alien Frontiers review

I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never get to go to space. Despite Richard Branson’s best efforts, the $200,000 it’ll cost to get myself on board the VSS Enterprise is somewhat beyond my reach. Watching grainy footage of moon landings as a kid, I always dreamed of one day breaking away from Earth and seeing what was out there. After learning that you need pretty good eyesight to become an astronaut, I cursed my glasses and picked up my books filled with tales of new worlds and new civilisations. I’d have to rely on my imagination, not shuttles and rockets.

It’s a wish that still remains, albeit one tinged with “never going to happen, Michael”. However, the moment I opened up the package that held Alien Frontiers, my mind immediately went back to those days of wonderment. The glorious retro artwork on the box cover gave me a severe attack of the warm fuzzies, while rifling through the contents, the cards and that beautiful board brought me back to the days of reading piles of old Dan Dare comics in Eagle. Forget it, Branson. I can fly further than you’ve ever dreamed. All I need is a Clever Mojo’s latest release and a fistful of dice.

The game itself is pretty simple – roll your dice, each one representing a space ship, place them around the board, perform the actions, move on to next player. Simple! As your dice stay on the board until it’s your next turn they take up valuable space, so you can never truly plan on what your next turn will be. You need to make sure you have a couple of ideas as to what to do, and even then a crappy dice roll can scupper you. Alien Frontiers is a game that is dependent on rolling dice – the true skill in the game comes from your ability to use what lands on the table in front of you and still be victorious.

Early in the game, no-one's really done anything yet...

Each location has a limited number of spaces and a different set of requirements that need to be met in order to get the action represented – Solar Fuel is easy to come by, for example, as all you need to do is place a dice in there to claim some (a 1 or 2 gets you one fuel, 3 or 4 two, 5 and 6 three). The other resource, Lunar Ore, is trickier to claim – any dice placed there must be equal to or more than the highest one already at the location – players putting a 6 in there can really mess up opponents’ plans! Meanwhile for the really mean, should you manage to roll a straight (two – three – four, for example) you can put them in the Raiders Outpost and procure any combination of four resources or a single Alien Tech Card from another player – nasty but fun.

The resources are needed to use most of the other locations on the board (in conjunction with more specific dice rolls). New dice/ships can be bought from the Shipyard using doubles, and considering you only start with three it’s a good idea to build up your fleet as quickly as possible. Roll a double (hopefully a low one) and you can trade that amount of fuel for ore cubes at the Orbital Market – useful if there’s no space at the Lunar Mine and you have no high numbers. You can also get your hands on Alien Tech Cards by rolling a combination of eight or more and putting them on the Alien Artifact area. These bestow bonuses that allow you to bend the rules, but if you don’t like what you see you can cycle the three on display and get new ones by putting a single die of any value in the space.

Launching colonies, the main thrust of the game, can be done in one of three ways, all of which also require resources. There’s the slow and steady way, pushing them along the Colonist Hub track, each space costing you a die of any number – get it to the end of the track, pay an ore and fuel, then off it goes to the planet’s surface. Next there’s the jammy/expensive way, requiring you to roll a triple to put on the Colony Constructor and spend three ore that allows you to place a colony immediately. Finally there’s the crazy/expensive route – the Terraforming Station –  requiring you to sacrifice one of your ships that rolled a six. Again, you get to place a colony, but come the next turn you’ll be one ship down. A hefty price to pay, but sometimes worth it – especially towards the end of the game when you’re racing to get a final colony on the board.

But where do these colonies go? In the centre of the board sits a large planet divided up into sectors. Develop a colony dome and you get to choose into which sector you place it, scoring yourself a point. Should you happen to have the most colonies in that area, you’ll also get a bonus point and (even better) a special ability that only you may use. This could be anything from paying less to get resources to picking up an extra dice, known in game as the Relic Ship – and being able to use seven ships in a single turn can really give you a huge advantage. The moment a player’s final colony hits the planet, the game ends – as usual, the highest wins. As the game is scored in real time, it’s easy enough to keep an eye on those who are in the lead (and who needs to be taken down a peg or two). There are bonus points available from certain Tech Cards, so just because you’re in control of a few areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean that winning is assured.

Another game, another ass-kicking for Michael.

I have been having a ridiculous amount of fun with Alien Frontiers. For me, one of the signs of a really great game is that no matter what the end result is, you enjoyed yourself playing it. I’ve been on the end of some utter hammerings but there hasn’t been a single time I’ve walked away from it with a frown. Admittedly the game is not for everyone – it’s the very dictionary definition of a dicefest – but even the most staunch Eurogamer would do themselves well to give this a try. It challenges you to think creatively about what you need to do to stay ahead of your opponents, even if you’re having a poor run with your dice. The game is well balanced too – even if you don’t manage to get your hands on extra ships early on, with judicious play (and good use of the more aggressive Alien Tech Cards) you’ll easily keep in contention with other players.

Considering this is the first large-scale release from Clever Mojo Games, I was blown away by the production quality. Components are sturdy and of a high standard. The art throughout the game is gorgeous, reminiscent of schlocky sci-fi novels from the 1950s. As with many games that I return to again and again, there’s loads of little things that bring a smile to my face that combine to add to the experience. The face that the planetary bonuses have little dotted lines linking them to the facility they effect (that took a few games before I noticed it). The ‘Assembled on Earth’ tagline on the back of the scoring track. The simple iconography on the board and cards that help make everything really easy to remember. The fact that a semicircle is cut out of the side of the box so it’s easier to get the board out! Amazing!

Obviously, these tiny decisions would mean nothing if the game wasn’t any good, but thankfully it’s beyond that. Alien Frontiers has won many accolades since the release of the first edition late last year, winning fans around the world – and there’s a simple reason for that. Alien Frontiers is a brilliant game, a pile of fun that appears light and throwaway at first but reveals a deeper game as soon as those first dice are thrown. Do what you can to make sure you add a copy of the third printing to your collection the moment it’s released. This, seriously,  is a must have title.

Alien Frontiers was originally released in 2010 by Clever Mojo Games. Designed by Tory Niemann with art by Mark Maxwell, between two and four players can live out their dreams of planetary domination in around 90 minutes. Copies of the second printing are still available in very limited quantites for around £30-35 – the third printing will be available later in the year.

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