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There’s a lot of blah blah blah to get through before you’re fully ready to play Terra Mystica. Lucky for you, Ryan’s got blah blah blah in spades.

(click to view transcript)

Hi! It’s Ryan from nights Around a Table, and this is Terra Mystica, an economic area control game for 2-5 players. Let me show you how to play.

In Terra Mystica, you and your friends each play one of 14 different fantasy factions vying for territorial control over a magical realm. You’ll be terraforming the different land hexes to make them habitable for your faction, and then building and upgrading various structures in an attempt to go forth and multiply better and more broadly than your opponents. But each new building you construct tips an economic teeter-totter and adjusts your income. You can use magic to get the job done faster, and most factions have one or two special abilities that tend to give them a competitive edge. At the end of six rounds, the faction that has dominated the map and has risen the highest on these magical cult tracks will earn huge point bonuses towards winning the game.

For all its moving parts, Terra Mystica is a surprisingly simple game to play, but it requires some upfront investment learning its iconography and various mechanics before you can dive in. Remember as we go that each faction behaves a little differently – they have different costs for the various actions, different powers, different disadvantages, and certain factions are completely missing certain gameplay mechanics!

We’ll start by looking at your player board. These are the structures you can build to the map: dwellings, trading houses, temples, and two special buildings: your stronghold, and your sanctuary. Most factions have two special abilities: one innate ability that you have at the beginning of the game, and one extra ability that you can unlock by building your stronghold.

Most factions start the game with two dwellings on the board. You can only ever build dwellings; every other structure you construct starts with a dwelling, and gets upgraded. Dwellings upgrade to trading houses, trading houses upgrade to temples, and a temple can upgrade to a sanctuary. You can also upgrade one of your trading houses to your stronghold.

Terra Mystica features a mechanic that i call “peekaboo powers.” The buildings pieces cover up stuff on your board, and when you construct those buildings, you reveal and receive those previously hidden benefits. Most of the time, it’s income that you’ll earn at the beginning of the next round. This open hand symbol means income. So if you construct a dwelling for this cost, it comes off your board, and you reveal this space, which means you’ll get an extra white worker cube at the beginning of the next round. If you upgrade that dwelling to a trading house by paying this cost, you have to take the original dwelling back and cover that spot up again, which means no more extra worker cube as income. But, by building the trading house, you’ve uncovered this space, which gives you 1 magic power and 1 gold as income at the beginning of the next round. It’s a constant trade-off.

PLAYING A ROUND

The anatomy of a round looks like this: It starts with income. Anywhere you see that open hand icon, you get stuff: white worker cubes, purple power, yellow gold, or priests in your player colour. You start the game with some of these goodies to get you going. Then, beginning with the starting player and going clockwise, everyone either takes an action from this suite of seven possible moves, or passes. The closed scroll icon means “when you pass.” The round concludes with a clean-up phase where a few bonus points may be awarded, and then you’re onto the next round.

Let’s drill down and see what each of these actions does.

Action 1 lets you terraform and/or construct a dwelling. You can only build a dwelling on an empty non-river hex that doesn’t already have a structure on it, and only on the land type that your faction favours. Giants like wasteland, nomads like deserts, and so on. The trouble is that for most factions, everything you build after the setup phase has to be adjacent to your existing dwellings, which means your dwellings are surrounded by inhospitable terrain. Before you can build a dwelling, you need to change that terrain into your faction’s preferred land type.

You do this by using spades, which is a kind of currency in the game that isn’t represented by any physical token. Each faction has a wheel depicting how many spades it costs to terraform a chunk of land into something liveable. In order for the mermaids to transform swampland into the lake that they love, they need one spade. Likewise, terraforming forest is one spade away. It costs two spades for the mermaids to terraform either plains or mountains, and three spades if they want to turn desert or wasteland into a lake.

The cost of a spade is here. At the beginning of the game, the mermaids have to pay 3 white worker cubes for every spade they need, but they can work towards a better cost ratio, as we’ll soon see. You don’t have to transform a space into your own terrain type – if you can’t afford the spades, maybe you can only get it part of the way there. The risk is that if you don’t make it habitable, you can’t build a dwelling on it, and any space that doesn’t have a structure on it is fair game for anyone else to transform and build on.

Let’s talk about adjacency. Terra Mystica has two types of adjacency: direct and indirect. Direct adjacency is easy: hexes are directly adjacent if they’re touching, or if they’re connected by one of your three bridges. Indirect adjacency is a little trickier. Certain factions can skip over hexes to build their structures: the dwarves can tunnel underground, and the fakirs can fly over terrain tiles using their magic carpets. For everyone else, there’s shipping.

A shipping value of 1 means that tiles separated by one river tile are indirectly adjacent. So if you had a dwelling here and level 1 shipping ability, you could transform and build on this hex across the river. Increasing your shipping range means you can skip over more and more river spaces.

So during this action, you can either transform a directly or indirectly adjacent tile, or pay the cost to build a dwelling on an adjacent tile that matches your faction’s terrain, or both. When you build a dwelling, you always take the leftmost structure off your board.

The second action you can take on a turn is to improve your shipping range. You pay the cost here, which is usually 4 gold coins and a priest, and slide the token to the next level. Improving shipping usually earns you some points right away. Some factions, like the dwarves and the fakirs, don’t have a shipping ability.

The third possible action is to lower the cost of spades. Pay the price listed here, which for most factions is 2 workers, 5 coins, and a priest, and move the token up. Then claim any victory points listed in that bracket. From now on, whenever you need to pay for spades, you’ll be paying that new and improved rate.

Action #4 is upgrade. You can pay the price listed on your board to upgrade a dwelling to a trading house, a trading house to a temple, or a temple to a sanctuary. One trading house can alternately be upgraded to the stronghold, which usually unlocks your faction’s second special ability. When you upgrade a structure, you remove it from the map and put it back on your board in the rightmost slot, and then put the new structure on that same hex. By doing this, you’re losing the income the first building granted you, but gaining another type of income that the new building provides. Remember: you don’t collect that income until the beginning of the next round. But if you upgrade to one of your sacred buildings – either a temple or your sanctuary – you get to take one of these favour tiles, which we’ll look at later.

The fifth action lets you spend a priest to advance your marker on one of these four cult tracks. The four tracks – fire, water, earth, and air – all have these round spaces beneath them, and each space can hold a single priest. You can take action #5 to put one of your priests on one of those spots to bump your token up that many spaces. Doing this sacrifices the priest, though – you can’t ever get it back, like you would if you had spent it on upgrading your shipping or spade ratio. If you want to move up, but you don’t like the idea of losing a priest for the rest of the game, you can spend a priest to move up one space on any track, and the priest stays in your supply, where you can earn him again later. If you’re unable to move as many spaces as your spent priest allows you to, either because you’re at the top of the track, or you don’t have a town key to let you in there (which we’ll learn about later), it’s still ok to play that priest and move up as much as you’re able to.

Action #6 lets you spend your power to get a special benefit.

Every faction has three bowls filled with purple power. The power has to charge up before you can use it, though. It’s pretty much dead in the bottom bowl. It’s getting charged up here in bowl number II, and in bowl number III, it’s ready to rock. Whenever you gain power, either through income or some other means, if you have any tokens in bowl number I, you first have to move them into bowl number II. Only when bowl number I is empty can you start to move tokens into bowl number III when you gain power. When you spend power out of bowl number III, they cycle back down to bowl number I again, where they have to get charged up.

So as an action, you can spend fully-charged power tokens out of bowl number III to buy one of the perks at the bottom of the board: 3 power to build a bridge that’s adjacent to at least one of your structures, wherever you see these little broken bridge pictures; 3 power to gain a priest, 4 power to get two worker cubes, 7 bucks, or a spade, or 6 power to get two spades. When you buy one of these perks, you cover up the octagon with a token to indicate it’s been used; that means that these abilities can only be purchased once per round, and are common to all players, so they’re first come, first served. And if you want to, you can spend your power to use up the action and not actually take the benefit, if you’re just looking to screw an opponent out of that option.

If you buy two spades, but you only need one to transform an adjacent tile to your home terrain, you can split them up and use the extra spade to terraform a different tile. If you’re short spades with either of these abilities, you can pay worker cubes to top up to the number of spades you need… but if you do spend workers, you can’t split the spades into multiple terraforming actions. You can also pay to build a dwelling on the tile you terraform, but not on the second tile if you bought two spades and split them up. And you can’t transform, build, and transform – the transforming happens first, so if you transform here, you can’t transform here in the same move because you don’t yet have a dwelling here, so you don’t meet the adjacency rule.

There are a couple of other ways you can use your power. These are over and above taking your single action on your turn, and you can perform them either before or after taking your action, as much as you like. This conversion chart shows that you can spend 5 power to get a priest, 3 power to get a worker, and 1 power to get a coin. You can also convert a priest to a worker, or a worker to a coin.

If you don’t have any charged-up power tokens in bowl number III, you can slide tokens in from bowl number II, but every time you do this, you have to sacrifice a power token from bowl number II by kicking it off your board for the rest of the game. So if you have 9 tokens in bowl II, you can sacrifice up four of them, and move the other four into the charged-up bowl III. Since the last token is indivisible by two, that’s as much power as you can sacrifice at this time. You can sacrifice power tokens like this even if there are tokens in bowl I.

Action #7 lets you exhaust an orange octagonal special action elsewhere in the game by placing one of those action tokens on it. Some factions unlock these once-per-turn abilities by building their strongholds, and some of these abilities show up on bonus and favour tiles, which we haven’t talked about yet. Unlike spending power to use an action along the bottom of the board, gaining the benefit of these special actions is not optional.

The 8th and final action is to pass. If you’re the first player to pass, you take the first player marker and change the turn order for the next round. You also have to trade your bonus tile for one of the three remaining ones. Everyone gets one of these bonus tiles off the top of the game, and there are 3 left on the table. When you pass, you have to swap your tile for one of those three – you can’t hang onto it for the next round, no matter how amazing it is. At the end of the round, these bonus tiles will accrue gold coins the longer they’re left sitting there, so when you trade your tile in, you get to keep any coins that have piled up on the new one, if any.

Make sure to look around your player board and your bonus and favor tiles for this scroll symbol, which means “when you pass” – you might get some extra perks or points for passing. Once you’ve passed, you stay inactive until all other players have passed, and the next round begins.

The first Terra Mystica expansion introduced a variable turn order mechanic, which devoted players recommend for the base game, since it’s easy to implement. You can use terrain tiles to keep track of who passed first, who passed second, and so on, and use that as the turn order for the next round, which is a bit more fair – otherwise, the player to the left of the first passer automatically gets to be second in turn order just by virtue of the seating arrangement. Ordering players by order of passing cuts down on the luck factor of the game, and if there’s one thing hardcore Terra Mystica players dislike, it’s luck!

ROUND END

As long as you haven’t passed, you can keep taking as many actions as you like, once per turn, even after all other players have passed. The round ends when all players have passed.

These six tiles mark the six rounds in the game. The left side of the tile pays out point bonuses during that round when you meet certain objectives – so for example, this one gives you five points for building your stronghold and/or sanctuary this round. When the round ends, you hand out the cult bonus on the right. This bonus pays out repeatedly, depending on how high on a given track you’ve climbed. So this one means that for every two steps up the air track everyone’s token has climbed, they receive a worker cube. That means if you’re all the way at step #8, you get four workers as a bonus for that round!

Some of the round tiles give you a use-it-or-lose-it spade bonus. Unlike earning spades on a power action, you can’t top up this spade count you receive by spending workers, and you can’t build a dwelling on a tile if you successfully use one of these round-end spades to terraform an adjacent tile. If you get more than one spade as a bonus at the end of a round, you can split the spades up to transform multiple tiles.

Next, you kick out all the action tiles, wherever they may be, so that those octagon abilities are available again next round. Pay down the remaining three bonus tiles with 1 coin each. Flip this round’s scoring tile over, and start the next round with the income phase. Whoever passed first in the last round is the first player in this round.

EXTRA THINGS

Well done! That’s almost everything you need to know to play the game. There are just a few more key concepts to wrap your head around, and you’ll be ready to play Terra Mystica. The first is an important one: proximity when building.

The game encourages you to get in each other’s way by dangling perks in front of your noses. First off, if you upgrade a dwelling to a trading house that’s directly adjacent to one or more of your opponent’s structures, you only pay half the coin cost.

The structures themselves are also imbued with a certain amount of powery. Structures from this row are at power level 1, structures along here have a power level of 2, and the big guys have a power level of 3. You don’t get power when you build things – quite the opposite. You give it.

When you build or upgrade a structure, you have to look to see if you’re directly adjacent to one or more opponents’ structures. Then you have to tell them you’ve got a new building going in, and tally up the power level of all of your opponent’s directly adjacent structures. So here, you build a dwelling, and it’s touching the witches’ temple. Temples have a power level of 2. So the witches can gain 2 power, if they want to. The drawback for the witches is that they have to lose victory points to get that power – always one point less than the power they gain. So here, you upgrade to a trading house, and it’s touching the witches’ dwelling and sanctuary. That’s a power level of 3 for the sanctuary plus 1 for the dwelling, for a total of 4 possible power to be gained. So the witches can choose to gain 4 power, and lose 3 victory points. That’s why all players begin the game with 20 victory points – so they can afford to lose some. If the witches choose to gain the power and lose the points, it’s all-or-nothing – they can’t gain some of the power and lose some of the points – unless there aren’t enough tokens in bowl II for the witches to move over. In this example, instead of taking 4 power and losing 3 points, they can take 3 power and lose 2 points.

Notice that your trading house is also touching this giant’s dwelling. So when you upgrade, the giant can gain 1 power, and lose zero points… which is a pretty good deal for the giants.

TOWNS

If you have a group of four or more directly adjacent buildings – meaning that they’re either touching, or connected by bridges – and those buildings have a combined power level of 7 or more, you can turn them into a town. By doing this, you get to take one of the available town tokens of your choice and reap the rewards right away. Put the town token under one of the structures in that town.

If you add structures to a town, you don’t get to make it a supertown or anything. And if you have a group of buildings that you connect to a town, nothing happens, so that might be a bad play – it’s better to turn both groups into towns first, and then connect them, so that you get two town tokens.

If you build your sanctuary, you unlock an ability that lets you form a town from a group of only three structures instead of four. The sanctuary has to be part of the town, and the structures still need to be at a power level of 7 or more.

Only direct adjacency counts for building towns- so edges that touch, or bridges. Indirect adjacency, including shipping, dwarven tunnels, and fakir flying carpets, doesn’t count.

FAVOR TOKENS

If you upgrade a structure to one of your sacred buildings – either a temple or a sanctuary – you get to take a favor token of your choice. These tokens immediately move you up 1, 2, or 3 spaces on one of the cult tracks just once, and they may also give you some sort of benefit. Some of these benefits are income that lasts every round for the rest of the game. One tile has this reusable octagon power that lets you move a token up one space on any cult track. These ones pay out points for building dwellings and trading houses, and this one means you only need a power level of 6 to form a town. If this means you’re suddenly entitled to a town, you can take a town tile and then move up on the fire track, even into the top spot if applicable. This tile pays out extra points for your trading houses whenever you pass, for the rest of the game.

When you pass certain spaces on the cult tracks, you earn power. This top space on each cult track is reserved for only one player – whoever gets to it first. And you can only enter this holy of holies if you’ve built a town. You need to have built one town for each top cult space you occupy.

END GAME AND SCORING

There is no cult bonus after the final round of the game, and that space gets covered up by this token to remind you. At the end of the 6th round, you score points for your standing on the cult tracks. The top player in each track gets 8 points, second place gets 4, and third place gets 2 points. If two or more players tie, you add up the points for those placements, and divide them evenly, rounding down. So here, two players tied for the top spot. That’s 8 points plus second place – 4 points… so 12 points, divided by 2, is 6 points each. Here, three players tied on the fire track. First, second, and third place are 8, 4, and 2 points respectively. Add them up and you get 14, so each player divides those up and gets 4 points apiece.

Next, you award points for having the biggest network of structures. Unlike founding towns, indirect adjacency does count, so shipping and tunnels and flying carpets all play in. The player with the biggest reach gets 18 points, and then 12 and 6 points for the runners up. Scoring works the same way as the cult tracks – you add up the prizes and divide them evenly, rounding down, for any tied players.

Last but not least, you get a victory point for every 3 coins you have, rounded down. You can sacrifice power at this point to spend it on coins if it’ll help your score out, and you can also melt your priests down into workers and your workers into coins. If the game ends in a tie, multiple players share in the victory.

FACTIONS

Here’s a rapid rundown of the different special abilities each faction has.

The Darklings pay priests instead of workers to buy spades, and for every spade they use, they earn 2 points. When they build their stronghold, they can trade up to 3 workers for 1 priest apiece, and they receive double the priest income when they build their sanctuary.

The Alchemists can use this chart to convert points into coins and vice versa, at these exchange rates. When they build their stronghold, they get 12 power, and another 2 power any time they gain a spade for the rest of the game. They gain 6 money as income here, instead of the usual 2 power.

The Giants must always use 2 spades to terraform land to any other terrain type. When they build their stronghold, they unlock this octagonal ability, which gets them 2 spades, and their stronghold income is 4 power instead of 2.

The Chaos Magicians start the game with only one dwelling instead of two, and they place last in the setup phase, after everyone has picked their spots. When they build their stronghold, they unlock this octagonal ability that lets them take a double turn… so, 2 actions in a row. Their stronghold income is workers instead of power, and their stronghold is a little cheaper to build. Whenever they build temples or their sanctuary, they get two favour tiles instead of one.

The Cultists’ ability lets them move up one space on a cult track of their choice whenever at least 1 opponent gains power when the cultists build or upgrade next to them. That’s 1 movement even if more than one opponent gains proximity power. An online addendum to the rules states that if all players refuse to gain power, the cultists themselves gain 1 power. If nobody was in a position to gain or refuse power, the cultists gain nothing. When the cultists build their stronghold, they get a one-time bonus of 7 points.

Every time the halflings gain a spade, they get a point to go along with it. When they build their stronghold, they get a one-time bonus of 3 spades. Their spade upgrade costs less money than usual.

After everyone has chosen their starting terrain tiles, the Nomads get to place a third dwelling somewhere. When they build their stronghold, they unlock an octagonal ability that lets them terraform an adjacent space to desert once per round.

When they take the transform and build action, the fakirs can pay a priest to fly a magic carpet and skip over one tile, gaining 4 points if they do. When they build their stronghold, they can carpet fly over two tiles to transform and build. At the end of the game, any structures on tiles accessible by magic carpet count towards their biggest group – regardless of how many priests they have. The fakirs’ stronghold is muy expensivo, and Fakirs don’t have the shipping ability. They’re also unable to upgrade to a 1:1 worker to spade ratio.

The Witches get 5 bonus points every time they found a town. After building their stronghold, they gain an octagonal power that lets them warp, once per round, and put a free dwelling on any empty forest tile on the map. Their flying ability doesn’t come into effect when tallying up points for the largest group of structures at the end of the game.

The Auren don’t have a base ability, but when they build their stronghold, they get a favor token, and they unlock an octagonal ability that lets them move up two spaces on a single cult track, once per round.

The Swarmlings get three worker cubes whenever they found a town. When they build their stronghold, they unlock an octagonal ability that lets them upgrade a dwelling to a trading house once per round. Their expensive stronghold pays out double the magic power, and their pricier sanctuary pays double the priests. Their dwellings are straight-up more expensive – it costs a lot of money to build on a lake – but they have a higher starting and ongoing income.

The Mermaids get to found their towns across a river space. The town tile goes on the river space they skipped. When they build their stronghold, they get a free boost up on their extended shipping track.They also start with a leg up on shipping.

If the dwarves pay 2 more workers than usual when they transform and build, they can tunnel under a terrain or river space to skip past it. They get 4 bonus points whenever they tunnel. Dwarves have no shipping. When they build their stronghold, they only have to pay 1 additional worker instead of 2 when they tunnel. They get more money than usual for building trading houses.

The Engineers can spend an action paying 2 workers to build a bridge, instead of relying on this special power ability. When they build their stronghold, every time they pass, they get 3 points for every bridge they’ve constructed that links two of their structures. Their dwellings are slightly cheaper than usual, but they don’t all provide income, and their big building costs are slightly skewed. They get lots of power as income from their second temple.

SETUP

To set up the game, put the main board on the table and the cult board nearby. Stack the favor tiles in an array like this. Put an action token above each of these spaces. The worker cubes, money, and town tiles go nearby.

Now, each player has to pick one of the 14 factions. The rulebook recommends a beginner setup for different player counts, along with specific bonus cards and scoring tiles to use. It even tells you where to place your first dwellings. The first player is whoever has most recently been digging around in their garden. That person takes the starting player marker.

If you’ve played Terra Mystica before, then in turn order, each player can take turns choosing a faction board and figuring out which side to use. Or, you can distribute them randomly. Some high-level players like to hold a faction auction, using their starting victory points as bidding currency. More on those starting victory points in a second.

Shuffle the scoring tiles and place them on the board randomly, from the top down. If you wind up with a spade on the left side of one of these tiles in either of these top two spaces, get rid of it, randomly place a different tile, and then shuffle the spade tile back in with the rest, and keep going. Then, block off the rightmost side of the round 6 tile.

Randomly set out player-count-plus-3 bonus cards.

Take the wood pieces that match your faction, and cover up all the spaces on it with your dwellings, your trading houses, your temples, your stronghold, and your sanctuary. Add the correct number of tokens to your power bowls according to what’s printed on your board. Put your priests and bridges next to your board to form your supply.

You’ve got 7 cylindrical markers. Put them on your lowest spade ratio, your weakest shipping spot, and at the bottom of the four cult tracks. Of course, keep in mind that these setup steps can vary depending on which faction you chose. The dwarves and fakirs don’t even have a shipping track. Your last marker goes on the 20 victory point space.

Terra Mystica has an active player base that plays by tournament rules, and they’ve tracked stats for tens of thousands of games. They’ve discovered that not all factions are created equal, and so the publisher has released a table of starting victory point counts for all of the factions, to handicap the statistically stronger ones. I’ll post that table in the description below the video for your reference.

The top right section of your board depicts your starting income, so grab all that stuff. Some factions get a head start on various cult tracks; if that’s you, move your marker up accordingly.

Beginning with the starting player and going clockwise, each player places one dwelling on any tile matching their native terrain. Then, in reverse order, everyone places a second dwelling. If you’re playing the nomads, you get to place a third dwelling after everyone else has picked. If you’re the chaos magicians, you only get one dwelling, but you get to wait until everyone else – including the nomads – have placed their starting dwellings.

Starting with the last player and going counterclockwise, each player chooses a bonus card.

Once all that’s done, it’s time to start the game! Take stock of all the income you’re due from the uncovered spaces on your player board, and maybe on your bonus card, and bring it all home!

And now, you’re ready to play Terra Mystica!

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Get Your Own Copy of Terra Mystica

i don’t know too many “full information” games like Terra Mystica that have almost zero luck. Chess comes to mind. But you can’t play chess 4-player, and it doesn’t have any dwarves in it. Unless you like to think of your pawns as little dwarves. Spare yourself this exhausting use of your imagination and buy Terra Mystica instead. Use the Amazon link below, and i’ll receive a small commission!

Terra Mystica


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