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.
Terra Mystica uses two more elements of internal balance that we described. Building your structures near another player’s makes them cheaper and can help you generate power, but it also limits your ability to expand and helps your opponent generate power, an example of a drawback. And the “bonus tiles” that are exchanged every round accumulate coins after they’re not taken in a compensation mechanic identical to the one used for role selection in Puerto Rico. As in Puerto Rico (and Small World), the financial incentive for a less attractive role choice will eventually outweigh the somewhat weaker mechanic.
Balance – External Balance
The initial faction selection and board placement is the greatest source of asymmetry in Terra Mystica, an example of wealth and spatial asymmetry. Every faction is assigned different starting resources and incomes, but an even more important external balancing mechanic has to do with where the initial dwellings are placed. As players get more experience with the game, the subtlety of how to coordinate faction with initial placement becomes an important strategic point, and certain factions’ colors are actually strengths or weaknesses based on the layout of the board. In other words, a particular faction’s abilities may appear weak compared to the rest of the factions’ but be in a better than average position because its color is inherently strong on the board.
Balance – Positional Balance
In terms of positional balance, Terra Mystica doesn’t employ any particular catch-up mechanics, though there are some subtle diminishing returns. Upgrading from a less powerful building to a more powerful one costs a significant amount of resources but often represents a change in resource income, rather than a straight increase. Gaining power from an opponent’s upgrade costs more victory points for more power: one power for free is always worth it, and two power for one VP usually is, but five power for four VP might be too costly. Finally, ending your turn first limits your number of actions that turn but gives you a choice of better bonus tiles for the next turn; in other words, the “penalty” for an especially long and productive turn is a slightly less effective bonus tile next turn.
As with many “point salad” games that feature many different ways to score points, the development of an engine isn’t particularly important to succeeding in Terra Mystica. Good play in a previous turn does lead to more opportunities in later turns, but it’s difficult to accumulate an insurmountable lead. A great comparison is Castles of Burgundy, which doesn’t need to employ any explicit positional balancing mechanics because runaway leaders tend not to occur. (We might call a “Markovian” lead–where a lead last turn is “only” as good as a lead this turn and doesn’t turn into a positive feedback loop–a proportional lead, rather than a runaway lead.)
Dimensions of Games – Complexity
There’s no hiding that Terra Mystica is a highly complex game. It has lots of rules, mechanics, and components–on BoardGameGeek’s “weight” scale, Terra Mystica is the very definition of a “4 out of 5” or a “medium-heavy” game–but that’s okay because the game is so strategically deep. Players look at the game and know what they’re getting into.
There are so many resources and currencies that the game can seem overwhelming at first, but they cycle so fast that you never realistically have more than 20 coins or 10 workers at your disposal. Power is naturally capped by the number of purple discs on your board. Relative to Kingdom Builder or Small World, Terra Mystica increases both complexity (cult track, upgrading buildings, power currency, multiple worker types) and depth (more optimization decisions to be made, greater variety of interactions between players, many methods to score points) to maintain a nearly optimal depth to complexity ratio.
Dimensions of Games – Player Count
Terra Mystica supports 2-5 players but is a “few-player” game at heart. It contains multiple paths to victory and doesn’t include any mechanics that require a certain number of players to work effectively (like an auction). The game scales by maintaining availability of actions (i.e., bonus cards) and score per player when increasing player number. It doesn’t try to maintain a constant game length (instead, it scales linearly with player number) or territory per player (like Small World does).
The scaling design is really a great achievement, as it spans 2-5 with only a very small rule change as player number increases. Many games that support 3-5 add a dummy player or extra role selection phase with 2, and most games that support 2-4 need to increase the size of the board with 5.
An unintended consequence of scaling by availability of actions rather than territory is that some of the factions may work better on one end of the player count spectrum. For example, a hypothetical faction that gets a lot of bonuses when other players build adjacent would excel in a 4-5 player game. On the other hand, factions that rely on spreading out and creating multiple disconnected settlements (such as the Witches or Nomads) are probably better with 2-3.
Dimensions of Games – Game Length
Terra Mystica ends at the right moment: players have been able to choose their path and accomplish things but haven’t yet accomplished everything, and the game hasn’t reached a saturation point where the it has overstayed its welcome. One area where the game excels is in the time efficiency of its turns. Allowing everyone to rotate taking turns doing one action from a menu of options until everyone has passed is probably the most efficient way to cram a lot of game into the shortest amount of time. Think of how much longer Terra Mystica would be if there was a “terraform, build, and upgrade” phase followed by a “improve your spades or shipping” phase followed by a “power actions” phase, and so on: each player would need to decide whether to accomplish each action, then actually do the action or formally pass. Allowing players to do any action in any order allows them to follow their own train of thought rather than the artificial script of a turn order.
Downtime might still accumulate for a 4 or 5 player game, especially if those players are prone to analysis paralysis and take several minutes debating every action of every turn. But Terra Mystica helps to mitigate the downtime that does accumulate by forcing players to pay attention during other players’ turns. Off-turn triggers, like earning power in Terra Mystica, are a great way to keep players engaged throughout the downtime that may arise.
Value – Monetary & Replay Value
This game is a monetary investment, but it has immense replay value mostly due to the sheer number of things that can happen. There’s no single dominant strategy (except for perhaps choosing a slightly more powerful faction) so there’s always a new way to play the game. And it’s flexible in that it doesn’t require an unusual number of players or an all-evening commitment. Terra Mystica is well suited to future expansions consisting of additional factions or even new maps.
Value – Collection Value
In terms of collection value, Terra Mystica is a bit like La Citta as a visually complex game with a lot of components (making it more expensive than an average game) and a slightly tweaked take on territory control as a central mechanic. It would likely occupy an “advanced tier” in most gamers’ collections, a game that would be a natural next step from Small World or Settlers of Catan for a group that wanted a more complex and strategically deeper version of a territory control and resource management game.
Value – Teachability
Even though Terra Mystica has the strategic depth to support its complexity, that complexity can make the game very difficult to teach. In particular, its heavily interconnected elements mean there’s no simple, straightforward way to learn the game from scratch. One of the characteristics we identified that makes a game easy to teach is the feasibility of playing a staged example turn. But it’s tough to give an example turn in Terra Mystica because there are so many things that might be done on a given turn, most of which are highly conditional and dependent on what else is happening in the game. For example, it’s tough to illustrate how a Sanctuary works because it takes a lot of explaining simply to get to the point where upgrading to a Sanctuary is possible.
Approachability – Familiarity & Purpose
Following the overwhelming success of Carcassonne, plenty of games have used the exact same “meeple” shapes in their designs, a great example of the Familiarity axiom of approachability. Now, when a gamer sees a meeple in a Euro-style game, he knows immediately that it represents a worker. Terra Mystica does something similar, using the “settlement” piece from Settlers of Catan for the Dwelling (the basic level of structure) and the Settlers “city” piece for the Trading Post (the direct upgrade from the Dwelling). Upgrading buildings to more advanced buildings is a familiar concept in both tabletop and electronic strategy games, and using an established visual design enhances that familiarity.
Two more successful applications of the Familiarity axiom in Terra Mystica are the selection of fantasy races with varying special powers (as in Small World) and the idea of restricting buildings to particular terrain type (as in Kingdom Builder). Both of those games are lighter-weight games that might be more familiar to a wider array of gamers. If the general concept of building according to terrain, or selecting a race with special powers, is already known to your players, then it will likely be easier for them to absorb the rest of the game.
One design choice that violates the Familiarity axiom is the concept of “direct” versus “indirect” adjacency. “Adjacency” is of course a common concept in many board games, though what practically every other game describes as “adjacent” is “directly adjacent” in Terra Mystica. Even after playing a few games, where most of the mechanics and basic strategy had started to make sense, “indirect adjacency” was the one concept in Terra Mystica that still remained confusing enough to need to refer to an illustration in the rulebook. For a mechanic that’s important to a few factions but not central to playing the game, adjacency is a little too complicated, mostly because of a lack of familiarity around it.
Approachability – Clarity & Navigation
Terra Mystica uses the “goal” tiles that provide a small bonus for completing a certain task in a given round as a means of Navigation. The goals aren’t necessarily designed to lead the players down the correct strategic path for their faction, but they do give players something specific to aim for. Even a new player (or a player playing a faction for the very first time) can use the goals to structure his actions in a given turn. In addition, the faction special powers and stronghold bonuses fulfil the Navigation axiom by providing a coherent set of actions and abilities that the players can exploit together. For instance, the Witches have a stronghold power that lets them spread out more easily than other factions, and their faction bonus gives them extra points for founding towns. Therefore, players understand that the Witches are all about establishing remote but well-developed settlements.
One area where the Navigation in Terra Mystica is less successful is in how it presents its “capstone” structures, the Stronghold and Sanctuary. Both are expensive to build, located at the end of the upgrade tree, and are represented by physically larger components than any other structure in the game. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that these are “supposed” to be constructed in the end game. Contrary to that perception, though, the Stronghold and Sanctuary can be critical mid-game structures to improving efficiency down the road, and for some factions (like the Giants) a first-turn Stronghold is almost essential to remaining competitive later in the game.
The Clarity axiom dictates that there should be a clear relationship between actions and outcomes, and in some ways this can be cloudy in Terra Mystica. Players expect a link between building up territory and scoring points, particularly those familiar with other territory control games likes Settlers of Catan, where structures directly translate to victory points. While increasing territory in Terra Mystica is a primary means of strengthening your position to be able to score, there’s not always a direct relationship between structures and points. Because the causative relationship between action and outcome is a little muddled through the intermediate mechanic of building, players might not be able to easily grasp exactly how their actions are helping them to win the game.
Approachability – Parsimony & Assurance
One increasingly popular design feature in Euro-flavored strategy games is the hybrid player aid (which tells you what you’re able to do) and player mat (which tracks what you have done), and Terra Mystica executes it particularly well, a great example of our Parsimony axiom. An especially useful feature is the information under a structure showing the income or reward for building that structure, only visible once the structure is off the player mat and built on the main board. The starting power listed in the appropriate bowls and the terrain wheel rotated so that each faction’s home type is at the top (and matching the background color of the mat) are additional nice touches that incorporate useful information into a functional design component.
An area where Terra Mystica might have improved on Parsimony is in the cult track. Although the cult track is connected in many respects to the rest of the game, the physical separation between the track and the rest of the game, and the completely different mechanics used on it, can lead to a mistaken sense that the cult track is a secondary part of the game. In particular, an inexperienced player might not give it the attention it deserves and perform worse in the game for neglecting it.
The Assurance axiom holds that players should feel confident that their actions are making progress towards their ultimate success in the game. Both the cult track and the territory board show visible progress towards some goal–pieces move upward on the cult track, and territory expands and buildings are upgraded on the board–which helps provide Assurance to new players in Terra Mystica. One final implementation of Assurance is that players are rewarded for doing plenty of things in the game: things like building temples and sanctuaries, accomplishing round goals and completing towns all help to encourage new players during their first game.
Approachability – The Learning Curve
The Learning Curve in Terra Mystica is quite gradual, as a player first has to learn the basic mechanics, then the specialized mechanics corresponding to the factions, and finally more subtle strategic points (like the interaction between a faction’s color and its inherent advantage or disadvantage on the map, or how two factions can play off each other’s abilities). To complicate matters, a given faction might be encountered in one game and not again for several more games, meaning that many games of Terra Mystica are probably necessary to encounter all of its design elements, let alone grasp their strategy.
Conclusion – Rating Terra Mystica
With its design thoroughly analyzed according to the framework we’ve established, one more question might arise: how good of a game is Terra Mystica? We’ve provided our personal review of the game in regard to our own preferences. We each use a grading scale catered to our own tastes which will result in a total rating from 0 to 5. Add Matt and Alex’s scores and we’ll have a grade on an overall rating on a ten point scale.
I’ve described how I tend to evaluate games in more detail before, but here’s a quick summary. I’ll rate a game in each of five equally weighted categories that cover most of our design analysis framework: aesthetics (sensory appeal, suitability of theme, integration of theme with experience and mechanics), flexibility (scaling, situational rule changes, replay value), fun per time (pure fun, game length, downtime, analysis paralysis), strategy (depth and complexity, balance in all its forms, multiple paths to victory), and mechanics (creativity, teachability, parsimony, integration of expansions if applicable). Here’s how Terra Mystica stacks up:
Aesthetics: Terra Mystica feels like a premium product, which is nice considering how much the game costs. The art and component design are fine if a little generic in parts. Graphics and visual design are wonderful, using informative iconography and executing the increasingly popular hybrid player aid/player board concept nicely. The game is full of suggestions of what the theme is supposed to be, and the thematic execution has flashes of brilliance. But the theme mostly feels like another layer of the game rather than something closely integrated with the mechanics.
Flexibility: The player range of 2-5 isn’t anything exciting, but Terra Mystica manages to navigate the whole range with no rules changes and only a slight difference in the setup. The initial game state is a little static, but varying goals and bonus tiles help to mix things up. Most of the game’s replayability comes from the fourteen factions and seeing the strengths, weaknesses, and interactions of each. Including rules for a beginner’s game is a nice touch to make the game less intimidating for new players.
Fun per time: This game is an absolute beast to teach, learn, and set up. Once you’ve botched your way through the rules once, teaching the game gets easier if not shorter. Terra Mystica can actually be a reasonably fast game to play, provided you’re in a relatively small group of people who are committed to playing quickly. Turns are broken up into small chunks of action, which helps mitigate downtime on one hand, but provides ample excuses for analysis paralysis to those so inclined. In terms of pure fun, Terra Mystica doesn’t provide the same unfettered delight that some of the best games do, but it’s a plenty enjoyable experience.
Strategy: With fourteen playable factions, an extensive map, and player interactions that depend on the faction, the turn, and the position on the board, the number of strategic decisions to make in Terra Mystica is almost too large to count. Terra Mystica hits a nice sweet spot by making all of your decisions seem meaningful but not punishing isolated miscues.
Mechanics: Terra Mystica takes a clever approach to currencies, establishing a very creative secondary currency in the power mechanic and using victory points and workers as tertiary currencies. All of the many complex parts of the game fit together and influence each other brilliantly, and there’s almost always a way to influence one aspect of your game by acting in another aspect.
Matt’s Verdict: 4.5/5. Terra Mystica is certainly one of the better “gamer’s games” that has emerged in the past few years. Creative mechanics support immense strategic depth, and there’s enough going on here that it’s difficult to imagine the game getting stale. Other than some gripes about how long and complicated the game is, my only real criticism is that Terra Mystica occasionally focuses on the “crunch” of gameplay to the exclusion of the “fluff” that makes games beautiful and immersive. Even that complaint would barely register as an issue to many gamers. While Terra Mystica wouldn’t quite crack a hypothetical list of my very favorite games, it has established itself as a fixture in BoardGameGeek’s top 10, and deservedly so.
I use an unnecessarily complex complex of seven categories, three are heavily weighted worth a maximum of one point each (Originality, Pure Fun & Replay Value) and four categories worth half a point each that represent my weighted preference for a number of other aspects of games (Theme, Strategy/Luck Ratio, Scalability, Parity).
Originality: Terra Mystica feels like a whole new world to explore. Sure there are some familiar mechanics but they are blended together with some uncommon ideas into an experience unlike any other game. One measure of originality might be “Do I feel likely I’m playing a different game?”. When I’m playing I see small reminders of other games but I’m firmly rooted in Terra Mystica.
Theme: I think its fair to say Terra Mystica is somewhere in the magic and fantasy spectrum of thematic choices. I’m not opposed to it but it does appear to be a convenient catch-all application of theme. The best I can do here is half credit because while it does demonstrate theme, it doesn’t go quite the length of telling me exactly what that theme is supposed to be.
Pure Fun: I’d never turn down a game of Terra Mystica simply because I’ve enjoyed every experience playing it. Unfortunately I don’t feel the same way about every aspect of the game. Some factions are far more enjoyable to play than others to the point where a few factions feel a bit tedious in execution. One of Terra Mystica’s strengths is that over the course of the game the enjoyment is slowly building and there is rarely a dull moment. At its peak, however, Terra Mystica doesn’t reach the level of fun I can find in other games.
Replay Value: What a fascinating puzzle that is constantly changing. As Matt described there is so much external balance in the game setup that few games will be very similar. Replay value isn’t simply variety between games but a matter of “Is it worth playing again?”. I believe Terra Mystica has uncharted territory to explore even after quite a few games and I’m always appreciative of the adventure.
Strategy to Luck Ratio: Terra Mystica doesn’t misrepresent itself, there isn’t any luck in the game and players don’t expect an external deciding factor to determine their fate. The most impressive aspect is that it doesn’t feel like a dry no-luck affair.
Scalability: Terra Mystica is an impressive display of scalability. At lower player counts it can be a friendly wide-open game of settlement building while at higher player counts it can be a tightly contested land grab. The beauty is it works at least adequately at every player count and the two extremes of the player count feel like slightly different flavors of a favorite dessert.
Parity: I’ve observed a few lopsided games of Terra Mystica but the vast majority of games feel within reach of most players into the final two rounds. The final scoring is generally reflective of well-balanced factions even though opponents took different routes to get there.
Alex’s Verdict: 4.5/5. Terra Mystica currently sits within my top 10% of ratings and for good reason. It handles a lot of ideas and manages to incorporate them together effectively. What few complaints I do have with the game (adjacency, several factions and the cult track) hardly impact the quality of the game overall.
Check back later this month for our thoughts on Stefan Feld’s Bora Bora. If you enjoyed this style of article please let us know in the comments!
Any of you have a similar games to suggest ? im a real fan and i look for more
Thanks for your comment Dave! Interestingly, Terra Mystica is so much its own game it is tough to find a strong comparison. If you prefer the special abilities of the different factions and are interested in more direct conflict, Vinci or Small World provide a similar experience in that area. If you prefer the empire building aspect of Terra Mystica, La Citta and Attika offer a comparable feeling while playing. I think there are plenty of us that would like more similar games, but that is probably driven by how novel an experience Terra Mystica can be. There is also the recent Terra Mystica: Fire & Ice expansion worth checking out if you haven’t already.
I recently played Concordia. While the mechanics are very different, I thought it had a similar feel to it.
I’d like to add some things to the teachability part of the article. Yes, the game is complex, but I still found teaching new players isn’t as much as a pain as, for example, Agricola. The main point is the player boards. In fact, I teach people how things work by having everyone setup the player boards together. This immediately teaches them the icons, the building possibilities, how to gain resources and what to spend them on. It’s really quite comprehensive. After that initial setup everything easily ties in to the rest of the game board and turn options.
To be fair… as you described the cult tracks doesn’t tie is as well to the rest of the game and must often be explained separately.
Great additions Yorick! Indeed, the player boards are a great resource to aid in teaching (some contrast to other games which can provide information overload to new players). They are well laid out and contain all the information a player might need in a convenient format. Thanks for the feedback!
I don’t play many board games these days (don’t have enough local friends) but this was an awesome read. Subscribing to your RSS now and hoping for more great content related to game design. Love it. :)
Thanks so much! If you enjoyed this one, we’ll be doing another one of these “design analysis” articles in the next few weeks and possibly some more later in the year.