As someone who loves board games, one of the hardest questions to answer is “what’s your favourite game?” This question is tricky enough on the best of days: how can you choose just one in a world of thousands of board games? But the funny thing about this question is that it usually comes from someone who your answer will mean nothing to, like when you’re casually talking to a co-worker about how your weekend plans are to play board games. Their interest piques and they ask that god-forsaken question.
So now I’m going to tell you all the things I love about Terra Mystica that I couldn’t tell my co-worker without their eyes glazing over. And because this is Meeple Mountain, why not do it in a Top 6 List?
1. Engine building
I love building up an engine in a game. In Terra Mystica it’s especially thrilling when you become powerful enough to complete your goals because it’s not necessarily easy. While there is some standard engine building, like gaining additional income through favour tiles or upgrading your shovels to get better at terraforming, for the most part the Terra Mystica engine is give and take. In order to get new building types on the board, you need to upgrade existing buildings. If you choose to upgrade to a trading post, you’ll get an extra coin but will be missing out on worker income the next round because you’ll have fewer dwellings on the board. This sacrifice makes it even more exciting when you are suddenly pulling in a ton of money and workers. From rags to riches, you’ve made it in the Terra Mystica world.
2. Long-term strategy and perfect information
Terra Mystica is a perfect information game, meaning that from the start everything is visible to you: there won’t be any secret objectives or events. Because of this, I often plan my entire game in the first turn depending on the different round-based goals. I am, of course, flexible for different potential outcomes, but all the information is there. If you really wanted, you could calculate almost everything you could do in a game.
This has some challenges, like when another player does something you really don’t expect. Then you have to move to plan B, or C, or even D…you get the picture. While some people may find this idea tedious or boring, I find it very exciting!
Ultimately, the fact that you know what’s coming up means that you can weigh the pros and cons of all of your decisions (if you so desire), and when you choose to do them. Maybe you really want to get your stronghold out on the first turn for its cool power, but is it really worth it if you’re going to get an extra 5 points if you wait until the next turn?
3. Multiple paths to victory
While there are ultimately some things that players aim for if they want to win (having the most connected buildings for example), hitting these goals doesn’t guarantee you the victory. I’ve seen players get almost no end-game points and still win because they went hard on the round-based bonuses. I’ve also seen the opposite and everything in between. One thing I like to do if I’m playing with new players is try a strategy I’ve never done before. The game allows you to explore alternative ways of getting points with round-based scoring, end-game scoring, and faction-specific bonuses.
This ties into how you choose to allocate your resources. Since there are so many options, you may find yourself trying to decide what’s best. Maybe you want to spend power to help you reach your goals, but you can’t decide between dollars or priests because both could be helpful. It’s an adventure every time.
Without even touching on the expansion content, Terra Mystica has a ton of variability in each game. For starters, there are 14 different factions that you can play with. Fourteen! Each with their own different powers and challenges. How exciting! I’ve played all of them, and I still don’t know what my favourite is; however, there is something very satisfying about the witches’ stronghold power (magically placing a dwelling on any forest tile).
Next there are the round-based scoring tiles. Depending on which tiles come up, different strategies will emerge. Finally there are the bonus tokens cards (which aren’t actually cards at all, but hey that’s what the rulebook calls them). Since these are randomly chosen each game, you may have one game where there is no quick and easy way for anyone to get money if they don’t get their trading posts up and running. It can really pose some interesting challenges.
Since the gameplay of Terra Mystica doesn’t involve luck, these randomized elements feel even more important. Every game becomes a new puzzle to solve. I’m not just grappling with the other players; I’m testing my own abilities against a brand-new game state.
5. Five players
Okay, this one is kind of a gimme. But really, why are there so few heavy strategy games for more than four players? Sometimes you and four other people just wanna get your think on.
I like having this option because I have a few consistent groups of five. I know for some people the idea of a five-player heavy strategy game is daunting, but when everyone knows the game it really doesn’t take that long to play. Besides, even if the game lingers a bit I only play board games with people I like. What’s an extra half hour among friends? That’s how lasting memories and inside jokes are formed.
Do you remember the first heavy strategy game you played? I don’t (I bet you weren’t expecting that). But what I do remember is the first heavy strategy game I wanted to play again and again and again. For me, that was Terra Mystica.
And while I may have only discovered this wondrous game 5 or 6 years ago, a lot of things were different then. I had this group that I’d play games with every week at the local board game cafe, and each week we’d discover something new and exciting thanks to the super knowledgeable staff. As we became regulars they’d start pulling out the heavier titles like Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica. It was definitely a nice feeling to know that we’d graduated to the level of heavy games.
I’ve discovered a lot of great heavy strategy games since then, but something always brings me back to Terra Mystica. It holds a truly special place in my heart. There was a time where it was known among my friends that I’d pretty much never say no to a game of Terra Mystica. This led to games of Terra Mystica starting much later in the night than I would advise and after plenty of wine. To give you an idea of how late, and how many glasses of wine: I once famously forgot what colour I was playing. No regrets.
There are always plenty of reasons for me to play Terra Mystica. Recently it gave me a lot of joy to see one of my friends discovering the game with the same love and excitement that I first had. She even came up with this great idea: “you know how some people on YouTube do something every day for 30 days . . . what if we played Terra Mystica every day for 30 days?” And while we haven’t yet, I can’t say I’m not tempted. The wonderful thing is, I know that even after 30 days of Terra Mystica, I will still love this game.