Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dave Reviews: Terra Mystica... In Space!

Gaia Project

Terra Mystica is an all-time classic board game. The flaws in it are those of complexity rather than bad design, which is to say there are aspects that make sense but take multiple playthroughs to understand. Gaia Project isn't a mere re-skin of Terra Mystica--after five years, I would hope they could come up with more than a new coat of paint--but you'd be forgiven for asking the question when you first look it over.

If you don't know anything about Terra Mystica, there are somewhere between a bazillion and a hojillion descriptions and reviews that explain how it works better than I can. Once you've read some, or if you already know TM, here's what's the same in Gaia Project:
  • Player boards. Each board is double-sided, with a different species on each. The fourteen species each have abilities that are more or less complicated to use, but which you'll need to understand to play them well. There are still five types of buildings split among three levels of strength, with the same upgrade paths. The purple power dots that cycle between three pools at the top of the board are also there.
  • Seven types of terrain (planets).
  • Each species can only build on one type of planet and must put resources into terraforming to build on anything else. Depending on your species, different planet types cost different amounts of resources, and with the correct upgrades terraforming can be made cheaper.
  • The ability to make cities (federations) with groups of buildings that total seven or more in power.
  • Different colored tracks to follow, with only one player being able to take the last spot on each track. You still need a federation to reach the last step.
Basically, all the core mechanics of Terra Mystica have come over to Gaia Project. The differences are more minor, so these are some of the more noticeable.
  • Terraforming is not permanent. You use terraforming to change a planet into what you need it to be the same turn you build on it.
  • Two types of planets exist outside of the core seven. Green ones require a QIC (green cube, new type of resource) to build on them, rather than terraforming. Purple ones require a gaiaformer (don't look at me like that, I didn't name it), which requires research to obtain, and a certain amount of power to be spent. The turn after that's done, the purple planet turns green and can be built upon by the gaiaforming player.
  • The colored tracks are no longer cults, but research. There are six tracks instead of four, and each one offers different advantages. Moving up the track takes knowledge, a generated resource, rather than a maximum number of priests. There are advanced technologies at the top of each track which can be taken instead of moving to the last step (this requires a federation, just like moving to the last step). They also score differently as well--four points per step on the top half of the track, regardless of whether you're ahead of people.
  • Species start with fewer power dots than in TM, but there are ways to add more to your pool.
  • Federations do not require adjacency among the planets that are part of it (it would be almost impossible to make them if it did). Instead you choose the planets and connect them with satellites. Each satellite requires you to discard (not merely spend) one power, so you generally don't want to use too many. However, the lines that create a federation cannot be crossed; if you put a satellite in the right place, you may block an opponent's ability to make a federation.
Terra Mystica vets will nod their heads at acknowledgements that the game takes multiple playthroughs to understand. You are going to bork something the first time through, because the way the systems work together at the deepest level will not be apparent until you've made a play that, even if not particularly bad, isn't as efficient as it needs to be for you to keep up with the more knowledgeable players. Gaia Project is not too different, but one of the main differences is that it's managed to streamline some of the wonkier parts of TM without particularly affecting the game's depth.

  • Adding the ability to put power into your pool is a huge plus. I'm sure there will be some old-school TM players who prefer having to deal with your pool and decide when to discard power very carefully, but with all due respect to them, it's not as strong of a mechanic. Offering the ability to add power gives Gaia Project the freedom to fiddle more with how much power any given species starts with, as well as adding mechanics that let you discard power, since you can be a little more free with it. Overall, it makes power usage much more accessible than TM, so it's easier for people to play with.
  • The research tracks are certainly more useful than the cult tracks. Between the tech tiles and various bonuses on teach track, research can point your species towards a particular type of victory if you focus hard enough on one or two things. And you'll want to focus, because you need to get into the top half of a track to score bonus points. In addition, because Gaia Project plays with a maximum of four people, and there are six tracks, the decision to give flat bonuses to people for moving up a track, rather than comparing their positions, is smart. It's so easy for players to avoid competing with each other for research position that putting in a mechanic where they compete with each other based on position doesn't make a lot of sense, and frees players to tackle any type of research without concern for losing out on any points just because one or two people beat them to it. Keeping the competition limited to the final point on the track works fine.
  • Likewise, removing the limited number of priests and adding a knowledge resource is necessary under this setup. Having the option to focus your empire on something other than resources and buildings is good and done well here.
  • The terraforming change is the... strangest? Most questionable? It certainly doesn't make sense from a thematic perspective. I'm assuming that because the board contains a lot of black space, and isn't completely made up of buildable hexes, they may have found that there was too much potential to spend terraforming points only to screw up the ability of opponents to build there. The game is probably better for the change, but it's important to know the change going in so you don't plan ahead like you would in TM and screw yourself over.
Gaia Project really is Terra Mystica in space. Everything is familiar enough that TM players should have little trouble getting acclimated, but it's still going to take a game to suss out the new possibilities and learn how to read the player boards (a lot of the symbol-based explanations are not at all obvious). It's an attempt to make TM better; it doesn't quite do that, but staying on the same level is still quite good.

Score: Six lonely satellites floating in the ether out of seven.

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