The Daily Worker Placement

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

TERRA MYSTICA: Small World for Grownups

by | published Wednesday, April 26, 2017

With this week’s release of the Terra Mystica app by Digidiced it seemed timely to revisit this mighty design, currently sitting at #4 on BGG. It’s hard to believe the game is almost five years old. It was designed by Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag; Drögemüller’s only other design of note was 2004’s Sceptre of Zavandor and Ostertag had worked on just a handful of other games before 2009. Clearly then much time and sweat was put into Terra Mystica, and it shows.

In my mind Terra Mystica inhabits a similar thematic universe as Philippe Keyaerts’ 2009 classic Small World: a world of fantasy beasts (each with unique powers) competing for space in a cramped phonebooth/world. Side note, for those who care: Small World was a reskinning of Keyaerts’ previous game Vinci, which was set in Europe in the age of the barbarian invasions. Clearly his decision to re-theme the game was the right one, as Small World and its expansions and sequels have gone on to much more success.

Where Small World focused on conflict and combat, Terra Mystica is all about building, transformation, and the (ab)use of magical power. There are fourteen (!) races to choose from, including witches, giants, mermaids, halflings, and rug salesmen—er, fakirs. Each has its own starting resources, abilities, and advantages, absolutely demanding different strategies. Whichever player makes best use of those advantages over six rounds wins the game.

There are a lot of moving parts in this game, with at least four kinds of resources to manage: money, workers, magical power, and priests (essentially an elite and non-renewable species of worker needed for the more powerful actions in the game). Magical power is the hardest to manage, a sub-system of its own involving shoving little purple power discs back and forth between three Bowls of Power (you can’t make this shit up)…suffice to say that, as always, you never have enough of it when you need it.

While there are many paths to victory for each faction, all involve the construction or upgrading of various buildings which increase your resource incomes, give you bonuses, or (in the case of the Stronghold) activate your faction’s major ability or VP engine. Constructing buildings also enlarges your territorial holdings, which can eventually lead to the founding of Towns (triggering more yummy bonuses), as well as being worth a humpty’s amount of endgame VP’s if your hood is larger than anyone else’s.

There is a catch—there is always a catch. In this case, you can only construct buildings on a certain type of terrain—witches can only build in forests, for example—and since most of the board is not your terrain, you will need to spend actions and resources to “terraform” spaces to make them liveable. (Yes, that is the terminology in the rules and yes, I was going to reference Terraforming Mars in the subtitle, but since I literally just wrote about it I thought I would abstain.)

As if that weren’t enough, you’re also competing for favour in four elemental cults which you ignore at your peril, since you get VP’s at the endgame depending on where you stand viz a viz your opponents, on top of which there are end-of-round bonuses (different every game) which might, for example, give you bonus workers for every two steps up you are on the water cult track.

Each round players take one action at a time around the table until you run out of stuff and you have to pass—and then oh goody, you have another decision to make, because you have to choose a Bonus Tile which will affect your income next round (and hand in your current Bonus tile, which may or may not give you VP’s).

Yet another twist in the design is an elegant mechanism which encourages players not to turtle up in their own corners of the map. Basically, if an opponent builds or upgrades next to one (or more) of your buildings, you get a chance to cash in some VP’s for some magical power. You don’t always want to take advantage of this rule, but there are times when jumping on it gives you the extra bit of mana you need, so you want to build near other factions—not to mention hem them in.

Still with me? Well then, well then, well then, if you can manage to keep all this (and more) in your mental buffer then prepare for a couple of hours of weighty pondering and exquisitely-painful decision-making. And if you somehow get bored, there’s the 2014 expansion Fire & Ice which adds 6 more factions, a new board, new endgame scoring, and other variant rules.

With the release of the Terra Mystica app, Digidiced have done a great job, I think, in porting the game to tablets. There are several tutorials to gradually immerse players in the game and the GUI, and the game plays quickly and smoothly. The AI’s that come with the game, though rated easy (the medium and hard versions are coming in an future update), are not pushovers—I have yet to win once, but that may be due to the fact that I don’t have a ton of plays under my belt. That is why the app is useful, providing opportunities to hone skills and try out strategies when hew-man opponents are unavailable. Because, let’s face it, it’s not an easy game to bring to the table. Plus the set-up and take-down—phew!

The app has also given the designers an opportunity to introduce a pretty significant change to the game in the form of faction-balancing starting VPs. In other words, after five years of monitoring play on the unofficially-sanctioned online version, the designers have acknowledged that some factions are easier to win with than others, and want to reflect this by handicapping accordingly. This decision has, understandably, been met with different reactions from the fanbase, as you can read from this thread. As a relative n00b myself, I have no strong opinion, but note that it appears that several of the most experienced players on the scene (those who have played literally hundreds of games online) think it’s the right thing to do.

Terra Mystica is not for sissies—but it is hugely rewarding if it is your cup of tea. There is a heady mixture of short-term and long-term planning on several fronts. On the other hand, there is no randomness in the game and no catch-up mechanism, which means making a mistake in the early game dooms you. Its standing on BGG is a testament to its design and replayability. I would not buy it for someone just starting out in the hobby, or even someone who is looking to move beyond gateway games. On the other hand, if you have a friend who liked Small World but was looking for something less cartoon-y and more think-y, you might want to give Terra Mystica a shot.


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

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