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Board Game Review – Terra Mystica

2016 July 31
by Michael Schroeder

The following is a resurrected post. It was originally posted in 2013 but I’m refreshing it for those that missed it.

Review copy kindly provided by Z-Man Games.

I’m going to come out right now and say it, Terra Mystica is one of my favorite games I’ve played in the first half of 2013. Keep reading to learn what I mean…

Terra Mystica from Z-Man Games

Terra Mystica from Z-Man Games (image logos are different from US product)

Designer: Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag

Number of players: 5

Age: 12+

Time: 100 minutes

What’s the game about?

A description from the publisher…

In the land of Terra Mystica dwell 14 different peoples in seven landscapes, and each group is bound to its own home environment, so to develop and grow, they must terraform neighboring landscapes into their home environments in competition with the other groups.

Terra Mystica is a game with very little luck that rewards strategic planning. Each player governs one of the 14 groups. With subtlety and craft, the player must attempt to rule as great an area as possible and to develop that group’s skills. There are also four religious cults in which you can progress. To do all that, each group has special skills and abilities.

Taking turns, the players execute their actions on the resources they have at their disposal. Different buildings allow players to develop different resources. Dwellings allow for more workers. Trading houses allow players to make money. Strongholds unlock a group’s special ability, and temples allow you to develop religion and your terraforming and seafaring skills. Buildings can be upgraded: Dwellings can be developed into trading houses; trading houses can be developed into strongholds or temples; one temple can be upgraded to become a sanctuary. Each group must also develop its terraforming skill and its skill with boats to use the rivers. The groups in question, along with their home landscape, are:

  • Desert (Fakirs, Nomads)
  • Plains (Halflings, Cultists)
  • Swamp (Alchemists, Darklings)
  • Lake (Mermaids, Swarmlings)
  • Forest (Witches, Auren)
  • Mountain (Dwarves, Engineers)
  • Solitude (Giants, Chaos Magicians)

Proximity to other groups is a double-edged sword in Terra Mystica. Being close to other groups gives you extra power, but it also means that expanding is more difficult…

Basic idea in my own words…

In Terra Mystica, you are trying to get the most points by building and upgrading your faction across the playing board. To give you an idea of what the game feels like, I’d say, think, Small World, Settlers of Catan and Eclipse. But don’t let me limit the game just off those games, Terra Mystica is much better than those games, in my opinion. The game is certainly a Euro in my opinion but due to the number of factions with different abilities, it certainly lends a slight Ameritrash feel to the game. With the 14 different factions, the game certainly has a high replay ability  and sense of variety.

How do you play…

Terra Mystica in action

Terra Mystica in action

You first determine everyone’s faction. Each color board has a faction on each side. Your stats, abilities and other information is kept on these faction boards.

Witches Faction Board

Witches Faction Board

During set up as well, you will have an initial dwelling(s) placed on the board to serve as starting points. Each player also start with a specified number of available workers, money, power tokens, etc.

In addition to expanding ones faction on the main playing board, there is a supplementary game board that is the cult track. The cult track is a way to players to get more bonuses and points in the game.

Cult Board

Cult Board

The game takes place in number of fixed rounds, 6 to be exact. During each round, play proceeds clockwise around the table and each player takes all the actions they can afford and want to take. Finally each player will pass, upon which the cleanup phase happens and the game proceeds onto the next round. There’s a lot of actions a player can take in this game. I’ll go over them in this section and with these actions, these represent the bulk of how to play the game.

  • Phase 1 –  Income – During the income phase, each player earns workers, power tokens, priests, money and other resources based off what they have built. For instance, the more dwellings you have built, the more workers are available to you in the game. The income you earn is all illustrated to you on your faction board.
  • Phase 2 – Actions – Player actions represent the bulk of the game. They are illustrated immediately after this section in this review.
  • Phase 3 – Cult Bonuses and Cleanup – In phase 3, players earn bonuses based on their positions on the cult tracks as well as any other clean up on the board like removing used tile markers, etc.

Actions in detail (this is what you’ll care the most about) – 

  1. Transform and build – this is what I consider the primary action in the game, it’s the action you use to expand your position on the game board. A primary rule in the game is that, your faction has a home terrain and you can only build on your home terrain. Well, there’s many different terrain types all over the board and you have to terraform different lands so you can expand. You will start the game with 1 or more dwellings on a home terrain and you can only build in an adjacent hex to one of your own buildings/bridges. The game has a unique mechanic about how to pay for terraforming. Here’s an example. Let’s pull up the witch faction board again.
    Witches Faction Board

    Witches Faction Board

    Pay close attention to the circle or wheel in the upper right hand corner of the board. This wheel shows you what it costs you to obtain spades. Spades are needed to terraform. You’ll see that since we are witches, the forest terrain is larger and highlighted at the top of the wheel. This means there’s no spade cost to you to terraform on a forest space. But say there’s a desert space next to an existing dwelling of yours, well, you first have to terraform that desert hex. That would cost you 3 spades. How do you get these spades? Well, from special action spaces on the game board, and or through trading workers in for spades. Look at the spade conversion chart to the right of the wheel. It illustrates how many workers it costs to get a spade. Once you have the necessary amount of spades, you can take a forest tile from the pile and put it on the desert space. Then you then have the option of building a dwelling on this space. Or you may not. If you build a dwelling on this space, the cost of the dwelling is on the far left bottom of the faction board, in the dwelling row. It costs 1 worker and 2 dollars/gold. Now you don’t have to build a dwelling but if you don’t when its somebody else’s turn, they may terraform over your previously terraformed space. So as long as you’re not near anyone, your more safe to choose this option. *Note, there’s no game marker for spades and they cannot be carried over, you get them as you need them.

  2. Advancing on the Shipping Track – The purpose of the shipping track is be able to skip river spaces on the board and still be adjacent to your own structures. If you look back up at the witches board, below the terraforming wheel, there’s a small chart that will have a wooden marker on it to indicate your current position on the shipping track. The number on the ships, indicates the number of spaces you can jump. Utilizing the skipped spaces from the shipping track means you may be “indirectly adjacent.” There’s a different of direct and indirect adjaceny in this game. At the end of the game, when going for points, indirect adjaceny counts for points so this is quite important. Having a decent shipping track really enables you to expand on the map and keep you open and not stuck in a corner. So, as this action, all you do is pay the required resources (1 priest and 4 dollars) and move up one space on the track. Oh yes, and you’ll also receive points!
  3. Lowering the Exchange Rates for Spades – I don’t think I mentioned that it costs 3 workers (cubes) to get a spade. Well, if you want to be more efficient at the exchange, you can pay resources to move up on the track. Very similar in mechanism to action 2 (moving up on shipping track). You pay a priest, 5 dollars and 2 workers to move up one space on the track. You’ll receive points and your exchange of workers goes down to 2, then 1. This is quite an important action to take. Believe me, you’re going to get tired of calculating and trying to afford being able to terraform.
  4. Upgrading a Structure – Upgrading a structure has a cost on the very left side of the respective row. And there’s some arrows to indicate what building can be turned into what. For instance, a dwelling can only be turned into a trading house. You take this action, then you have another dwelling back on your faction board, which means you’re getting less income, but also means you’ll probably get some points and can earn a different type of income because now you just freed up a trading house on your faction board. Your faction board illustrates what buildings can be turned into what. Depending on your situation and faction, you will want to upgrade certain structures. But I tend to want to have the best buildings out because the bonuses are great. For instance, favor tiles. I should mention, that in addition to this action, whenever you build, you have to notify your neighbors of the build. The reason for this is because based off the number of buildings they own adjacent to your upgraded or built building, they can earn power tokens. Power tokens are the purple discs that are located in the upper left side of your faction board. These power tokens also add another unique mechanic to the game. I’ll explain more about those later.
  5. Send a Priest to the Order of a Cult – As an action, you may send an available priest of yours to a number below a cult track. What this does is immediately move your counter on that respective track that many spaces. Note though, that you can’t get these used up priests back. But these spaces are extremely helpful for moving up the cult tracks. Each track represents the 4 elements in nature. Which is for game flavor only, it really has no meaning from what I can see so far. Let’s pull up the cult track again.
    Cult Track

    Cult Track

    You can see there’s x1 3 space and x3 2 spaces on the tracks for moving up. So if you want to get ahead, use this action sooner rather than later. You’ll see from the cult tracks, that there’s purple power tokens throughout. Once you pass these spots, you immediately earn a power token. The importance of the cult tracks, is at the end of the game, points are earned based off position for the top 3 positions, as long as you’re not on 0. Only 1 player can be at the 10 spot on each track. In addition in order to be able to get to the 10 spot, you need at least 1 town for each 10 space advanced to.

  6. Power Actions – Power actions are special actions that you spend power tokens to use, and as long as these spaces are available. There’s a number of power actions on the board. You can take one of these actions, such as get a priest or get spades. You spend your power tokens and resolve the action. Then place a token with a X on it over this space. This action cannot be used until the next round.
  7. Special Actions – Special actions are represented by hexagons with an orange background. These can also be taken once per round. These are on favor tiles, bonus tiles and special spaces under build structures like strongholds (depending on the faction).
  8. Passing and New Starting Player – If you decide you want the first player marker for the next round or you have no actions to take, then pass. When you pass, you turn in your bonus marker and receive any passing rewards and take the starting player marker.

Power Tokens:

The power bowls and power tokens are one of the unique mechanisms in the game. Each player takes 12 power tokens at the begging of the game. This is all you get. Instead of losing power tokens and turning them into a central bank, you move the tokens around in the 3 power bowls you have. If you look back at the witches faction board you’ll see bowls, 1, 2 and 3. You may only utilize power tokens on the right bowl (3). If you have none on that bowl, you must move them from the top left bowl. So in the game when you earn power tokens or resources, you earn them by moving them from the top left bowl to the right bowl. But there’s a catch, you can’t move any tokens from the left bowl to the right, until all tokens are out of the bottom bowl. The bottom bowl is used the same way as the others. All the used up tokens from the right bowl get moved into the bottom bowl. Then when you earn more tokens, you move them from the bottom bowl to the top bowl.

If there’s an instance where you need tokens and you can’t simply get any, you may sacrifice tokens from the top left bowl. Say you want 3 tokens, you move 3 of them into the right bowl, but you must permanently lose 3 tokens from the same bowl and remove them from the game. In addition, at any point when you need resources in the game, you may convert resources. There’s a conversation chart in the power tokens section of the faction board. This does not cost an action to do so.

Also on the note of power tokens. In this game, there’s a trade-off to building adjacent to opponents. When you build next to opponents, when you go to build a trading house, it costs you 3 less money but the benefit to the opponent is, that they can sacrifice points for power tokens.

Bonus Tiles and Round Markers – 

The game consists of 6 rounds, and each round has a bonus that’s effects last the round. These are randomly set up at the beginning of each game. These bonuses can extremely swing how players play each round. For instance, in a round, I may get 2 points for building a trading house. So I may want to focus on building trading houses that round. In addition at the end of the respective round, players earn bonuses for how far up a particular cult track they are.

When a player passes each time, they take an available bonus marker. Bonus markers just provide extra income at the beginning of next round and or provide one time actions or bonuses. When you pass, you turn in this tile and take another. For the bonus tiles not taken in a round, a dollar is placed on them to make them more appealing to take (similar to Small World).

Game End:

The game ends at the end of round 6. On the game board on the upper left there’s two large charts that tell you the point distribution. Players are awarded points for their amount of adjacent structures, so the more connected you are, the better. Then players go over points based off the cult board. This ends the game!

If you’re interested in purchasing this title, visit my store at Meeple Village! We throw in an extra goody in each order and the more you purchase, the more discounts you’ll receive!


Components: 5/5

The component quality is top-notch. the box is nice and big, the thickness of the chits is that what you would expect. The rulebook is full color and illustrated. The boards are very well illustrated to lend to the theme.

Theme: 4/5

Even though this game deals with factions, at its core, the game is a euro where almost any theme could have been slapped on. But the theme of factions having different abilities works well here. The rulebook even takes an extra step to write a mini story and have tidbits about each faction. While it’s not my favorite theme, due to its nature of being a Euro of building with indirect conflict, I have no qualms about it.

Luck Factor: 1/5

There’s some luck in the game, such as what actions another player takes can effect you, but there’s no cards in the game and no random-ness that I can think of.

Strategy: 5/5

There’s a lot of strategy in this game. There’s tons of calculating to maximize your points and how to screw over your opponents at the same time. This game encompasses what I love, many paths to victory but trade offs between all of these choices.

Overall Feelings: 5/5

I absolutely love Terra Mystica. Terra Mystica is one of the freshest and rewarding games  that I’ve played possibly all year. The game is quite complex but after you get the hang of it, the game moves pretty smoothly. The turns aren’t that bad, the game says it lasts about 30 minutes a player. The production quality is great and most importantly, the game is a lot of fun. Terra Mystica offers you a lot of choices to path of victory and its your job to maximize on those opportunities. This is definitely a gamer’s game, I wouldn’t introduce it to my parents, that’s for sure. But if you are a board gaming hobbyist and love a challenge that’s rewarding at the end, I highly recommend picking up Terra Mystica from Z-Man Games!

Note: Thank you in advance for whomever I borrowed the images from of Terra Mystica!

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