Game Design Analysis – Terra Mystica

Written by Matt Pavlovich


Image courtesy of BGG User MarcelP

From January through May, we published article series on game balance, the “dimensions” of games, means of assessing the value of games, and approachability in games.

This month, we’re going to try something a little different and apply our design analysis to some of our favorite games from the past couple of years. Up today is Terra Mystica, which was released in 2012, nearly won the Kennerspiel des Jahres (and did win a host of other awards) in 2013, and I finally got to play for the first time a couple of months ago. We’ll be taking a critical look at Terra Mystica to evaluate its design decisions in further detail, according to the framework we’ve developed over the past few months.

Balance – Internal Balance

Probably the most striking feature of Terra Mystica is its fourteen factions, which provide fascinating study of both internal balance (in that the factions enable and encourage different actions during the game) and external balance (in that the factions represent significant asymmetry in terms of starting location, abilities, and income). Although the factions do drastically different things, the game’s multiple currencies help to support its internal balance: one faction might be great at generating power, and another might strongly incentivize building Dwellings, but both might be paths to acquiring workers.

It is certainly possible to make suboptimal decisions in Terra Mystica, but very few false decisions plague the game. One exception might be the Fakir faction, understood to be the weakest faction and owning a victory rate a few percentage points less than the rest of the factions over a very large sample of online plays. (The Darklings, in turn, own a win rate a few percentage points higher than average.) But the rest of the twelve factions win games at nearly identical rates, suggesting that although they make use of different mechanics, each one represents a viable path to victory.


The Role of Playtesting in Game Design

Written by Matt Pavlovich

In his article about vanity, Alex mentioned the importance of playtesting and acquiring useful information from playtests. In this article, I’ll give some examples from the recent open playtest of the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons and how the principles applied there carry over to strategy game design. While the goals in designing a roleplaying game aren’t the same as for making a board or card game, some of the lessons learned in the D&D Next playtest are valuable ones for all sorts of game design.

Quality Control

First, well designed games can (nearly) be played right out of the box. One of the key lessons that the design team learned was that players have certain pre-conceived notions about how a game ought to operate. In a strategy game, these ideas might be based on the game’s theme, its genre, or even its designer. Players might expect a game about empire building to reward controlling a large amount of territory on the board, or a game with colorful cards to contain a set collection mechanic, or a game by Stefan Feld to involve a menu of available actions based on rolling dice.


Vanity and the Downfall of Aspiring Game Designers

Written by Alex Harkey

Analog game design has grown steadily, or at least has appeared to grow steadily in recent years. Emergent paths to publication via crowdfunding and print-on-demand sources have given rise to a growing interest in boardgame design. Still, we face some recurring questions from new game designers which may indicate a concern I’d like to address.

What if someone steals my game idea?
How long does it take to get my game published?
How can I get more people to support my game on Kickstarter?

Idea Theft

All of these questions are common and entirely reasonable from a newcomer to game design and inspire generally positive and helpful responses in game design forums but seeing a flurry of these questions that included “I”, “My” or “Me” recently sparked an idea for this article which I hope you’ll find useful in your worthwhile pursuit of publication.

Avoid the greatest downfall of an aspiring game designer: the Ego.

Approachability – The Learning Curve

Written by Matt Pavlovich

The Learning Curve

Our third article in the Approachability series focuses on the learning curve. Once you’ve gotten your players in the door and interested, how do you set them loose on the game? Can someone learn the rules and strategy over the course of the game, or does it take three games, or ten? And what’s the best design strategy to make the replay as approachable as the initial play?

To answer those questions, we’ll revisit the clarity and navigation axioms of approachability. Clarity, as we established at the beginning of our approachability series has two forms. The first type, as we covered in an earlier article, dealt with turn-scale clarity and how players were able to understand how their actions lead to results. The second type which we will cover in this article is game-scale clarity which is how a game can ensure a player comes away from a game with an understanding of their performance and how to improve in future sessions.


Approachability – Captivate A Captive Audience (Part II)

Written by Alex Harkey

CaptivateWhen we left off last week we were looking at Clarity which helps players by providing context to their available actions. We finished by looking at Navigation which provides short-term goals to new players to mitigate a lack of experience. We’ll pick up where previously left it by covering Parsimony and Assurance followed by a conclusion which brings all these concepts together.

If you missed Part I, read it here.


Many of our Approachability axioms assist new players by providing additional resources or mechanics at their disposal. Our axiom of Parsimony deviates from the others by subscribing to simplification which can decrease the overall burden on players. Parsimony is more than just an arbitrary statement like “get rid of the excess stuff” and actually an advocate for addition by subtraction.


Approachability – Captivate A Captive Audience (Part I)

Written by Alex Harkey

This month we are exploring Approachability, the process of removing barriers to entry for new players. Last week we wrote about the invitation phase of approachability and how games can ease the daunting aspects of a new game. This week we’ll look at how to build on this foundation using theme, mechanics and structure. The result is a series of ideas that can help acclimate a beginner to the game and encourage them to achieve the intended game experience.

In a two-part article we will dive in to four more of our axioms of approachability:

Clarity: What can I do and why should I do it?
Navigation: Give players a push in the right direction.
Parsimony: Ease the cognitive burden on players and remove distractions.
Assurance: Reward the player for participating through positive reinforcement.