Terra Mystica is the name of one of the most highly regarded modern board games. Thematically it is also a virgin land with a multitude of biomes that are nourished by a network of affluent rivers. This land has long been sheltered from the advances of civilization, but this will change soon. The world of Terra Mystica is populated by many upright beings (with a single exception). Some may draw associations with the fantastic world of swords and sorcery, and they may be forgiven for that. But, unlike other fantasy worlds, the species, races, and factions of Terra Mystica respect others' right to exist and never engage in violence. That's not to say they don't like competition. Having just established their first settlements among the land of many rivers, these different factions will need to compete for living space, the golden rule being: first come, first served.
In this digital adaptation of the board game hit of 2013, you and up to four more players (or AI's) will each take on the role of a unique fantastic faction and compete to establish settlements and to grow them into valuable cities while also paying close attention to the multitude of other scoring opportunities.
The overall strategy in Terra Mystica is to find the quickest and the most cost-effective way of expanding and growing your settlements while also gaining the most points in the process. There are multiple types of buildings, most of which are upgrades, which unlock all sorts abilities and yield resources. The basic settlement provides the much-needed worker. Settlements can be upgraded to trading houses, which provide money and power. These, in turn, can be overbuilt by temples, which generate priests and unlock various abilities. One trading house can become the faction stronghold and unlock a faction specific ability, while a single temple can evolve into a sanctuary. The sanctuary is not much different than a regular temple, but makes establishing a city easier and gives your priests something to brag about at the annual cult convention.
Life would be easy if only these priests could conjure up the skill of adaptability. But unfortunately, the factions are very rigid when it comes to their living environment. There are seven types of terrain and every faction prefers only one to expand on. Generally speaking, you can only expand in adjacent spaces, and since the map looks like a patchwork where mountains meet deserts, forests meet marshes, and lakes meet wastelands, the workers must toil for generations, planting forests, draining lakes, and raising mountains just so that the occupants could feel comfy. So much of the effort of colonization sits with the ability to transform the terrain into the type that your people can live in. Transforming land is very costly, but there are ways to make your worker's life easier (which is a euphemism for "spending fewer cubes"). You can either take advantage of certain abilities and bonuses or invest in advancing your transformation skill.
Running out of space and getting landlocked would be a common occurrence if it weren't for bridges and the shipping skill. The bridges allow your settlements to reach over streams and continue expanding on the other side, while shipping lets you skip one or more water spaces to build settlements on new shores.
There are six rounds in total. In each round placing a particular type of building will be rewarded, so plan your strategy accordingly. it might not seem like it, but Terra Mystica is played on two game boards. Besides the main board, which contains the map, there is also a cults board that holds the four cult tracks of fire, water, earth and, air. Each track has ten steps and climbing on each one will yield power and more bonuses.
I've mentioned "power" twice, but I think I should also expand on it a little. Unlike the other resources (workers, money, and priests), power is not spent nor it is gained. It is cycled. Each faction starts with 12 power pellets (more or less) which are distributed between three bowls (or bowels, as I like to call them). Bowl number one holds power pellets that can be used, bowl number two holds power pellets that are almost ready to be used, and bowl number three is where the power ends up after being used. In order to be used again, the power needs to be moved back from the first to the third bowl. This mancala-like metabolism is slow at first but can get rather speedy later on, especially if you take advantage of the second bowl's ability. You can sacrifice any amount of power from bowl two to move the same amount into bowl one, giving you a quick fix, and lessening the load at the same time. However, the more you do this, the less power you will have, which can render you unable to perform several valuable actions for the rest of the game!
But here's where neighbors come in. Even though you'd generally want to be left alone to expand at your leisure, the game almost forces you to be a 'good neighbor' and build adjacent to your opponents. There are two reasons for this. One is that the Trade Post, which is a prerequisite and included in the price for all other advanced structures, is 50% off. Another is that whenever an opponent expands or upgrades next to your buildings, you get to cycle power. In this way, no matter how many players there are, this system ensures that the board is never 'too big'.
You might wonder about the purpose of all this. As I've mentioned, there are victory points to be gained. You can obtain points during every round, but there are also a couple of bonuses at the end of the game. The first three players who've managed to create the biggest clump of buildings (also counting over water) will split a huge point bonus according to place. On a similar note, each cult track is also scored separately. These bonuses combined can sway the result considerably and are usually something that you'll always keep in mind as you play.
Even though this was a lot to talk about, I'm still only scratching the surface here. Terra Mystica is a rather deep and heavy strategy game. The rules aren't that complicated, but the learning curve is steep because you'll need to familiarize yourself with multiple game concepts from the get-go.
As for the app itself, the interface is well done. The main screen contains a lot of compressed information around the faction portraits. The app also features a permissive control scheme that allows you to perform the same actions in at least two ways, depending on your preference. For example, you may upgrade a building by selecting the action from the action menu, or by tapping on that specific building on the game board. The illustrations and animations are nicely done although some screens look a bit unpolished and the animations can become a drag after a while. Sounds are comprised of ambient noise as well as short musical segments for each race.
You can play Terra Mystica against the AI, which comes in three difficulty levels (at the time of this article only the Easy AI is available), or locally against your family and friends. You can also play online in ranked matches through Goolag Play.
With very little in terms of chance, Terra Mystica is a strategist's delight. You can (and probably should) outline your entire strategy for the game even before you choose a faction. The extremely large pool of options that unfolds as you play, as well as the various faction (14) and bonus (19) combinations can turn out thousands of original set-ups and guarantees a high replayability despite only having only two boards to chose from. There is also an expansion in the process of being digitized. The Fire & Ice expansion adds six new completely atypical factions. The app is not the cheapest one around, but it's several times cheaper than the physical game and it provides the same depth of play, anywhere, anytime. Being one of the best 100 board games of all time¹ as a basis, Terra Mystica is one of the most solid game apps that you can purchase in the Play Store. I thoroughly recommended it for any tablet owner who seeks a solid self sufficient strategy game that isn't marred by IAP.
If you're excited by the idea of various fantasy races and different abilities, but find Terra Mystica to be a bit too intimidating, then may I suggest you take a look at Small World?
¹As ranked on boardgamegeek.com