As interest in board games continues to rise, so too does the interest in exploring new ways of playing those games. One such way is through digital ‘ports’ of those games – translating them PCs, consoles, phones, and tablets.
While digital versions may not exactly replace the feeling of a physical board game, many add subtle tweaks that such as for solo play, campaign modes, online competition, or simply as a more portable way to enjoy the game. This is new territory to explore. Welcome, to the Pixel Provinces.
Since its appearance in 2012, Helge Ostertag and Jens Drögemüller’s game Terra Mystica has collected a number of awards and earned a place in many fans’ hearts. As it makes the jump to a digital screen, will the strategic charm and complexity that made this game so loved still shine through?
In Terra Mystica, players take on the mantles of factions competing to terraform the land and build up their towns. Each round players receive their resource income, which they then use to complete a variety of actions. Bound by their own faction’s terrain type, players expand by placing dwellings, which can later be upgraded to more specialized buildings such as Trading Houses, Strongholds, Temples, and Sanctuaries to increase and diversify their resource income. In addition to competing to rule over more area than their opponents, players can also move up on the cult track or improve their efficiency by upgrading their player boards. Thanks to the swath of player options and tactics, Terra Mystica is an endlessly replayable, albeit complex, game that provides a fun exercise in strategic thinking.
Terra Mystica’s tutorial sequence is organized into six sections. Five of these cover the rules of the game, and one links to an outside PDF of the physical game’s rulebook. Each section of the tutorial walks you through the major aspects of the game, with your Chaos Magician mentor explaining your actions as you play through a series of practice scenarios. These scenarios are rather choppy and only touch on the major moments that you would see in an average game, but that’s to be expected when an average game of Terra Mystica takes anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes to complete. Terra Mystica by its nature is complicated, and condensing its 20-page rulebook into a comprehensive, five-section tutorial is a daunting task, but the app does a decent job of explaining the major components of the game in easy to digest chunks.
That being said, since the tutorial only covers the broad sweeps of the game, it naturally leaves out some of the smaller details. The most pressing of these omissions is the explanation of the game’s iconography, which can result in a steep barrier to entry for new players. While experienced players will feel at home with the game’s translation of the original iconography, given how reliant Terra Mystica is on icons, new players may get lost in the intricate player boards, which can drastically increase their learning time. The app also automates most of the game’s background upkeep, like scoring, so the tutorial glosses over those intricacies as well.
To compensate for these broad strokes, the tutorial links out to an aforementioned PDF copy of the game’s full rules. Access to a copy of the rules is a good resource to have when overviewing the game’s finer details, but the 20-page document can still be intimidating to players having their first experience with the game.
Terra Mystica works very hard to streamline the process of the game and fit it comfortably on a small screen while retaining the original gameplay. This includes automating all resource conversions, which drastically decreases game time by cutting out personal number crunching. It also provides an action wheel as an alternative to tapping on the board when taking your turn. This helpful action wheel displays all of the actions you can take based on your available resources, simplifying the turn-taking process and further cuts unnecessary downtime.
The game also comes with a redo button that lets you retake your turn if you feel that you didn’t make the best decision. This is a great tool for new players trying to get a handle on Terra Mystica’s complexity, as well as a good safety net for anyone who accidentally taps on the wrong action.
Terra Mystica comes with three play options: local, casual, and ranked. Local games can be pass-and-play games with friends, single player games against the AI, or mixing the two by adding AI into a pass-and-play game. Currently the only available AI difficulty is easy, but medium and hard difficulties are in development. The easy AI is segmented based on how long it takes it to complete a turn, with four different options: one, five, ten, and fifteen seconds. If you opt for a pass-and-play game with friends, any of the AI options can be mixed in to provide more competition. Plus, if you aren’t able to complete a local game in one sitting, the app has a handy save function that will let you revisit games whenever you want to come back to them.
You also have the option of choosing a casual or ranked game when playing online. Casual games let you invite online friends to informal matches, whereas ranked games affect your online stats. Each ranked game is set on a 72 hour timer per each player move, and is usually played out over a few days. These games are a great option for players who want to play a little here and there without committing a full 90 minutes or more in one sitting. The online mode also comes with a small set of trophies you can earn through in-game accomplishments, which is a nice touch for players who enjoy collecting achievements.
Terra Mystica’s original gameplay and mechanics weather the transfer to a digital screen extremely well. Its focus on piece placement, resource management, and board alteration adapt easily to the action wheel and screen tapping system present in the app.
The game’s overall layout and menu options are well organized and easy to navigate, and that organization is essential to the app’s gameplay merit. The physical version of Terra Mystica is rife with tokens and other various pieces, but the app de-clutters the space by automating most of their functions, such as terraforming land.
However, the size constraint of a phone screen versus a tablet or computer is definitely a hindrance considering how many different aspects you need to be aware of on your turn. Yet the game mitigates this somewhat with a series of tabs organizing each of the game’s main aspects, which you can toggle on and off during your turn. It takes some adjusting at first, especially for experienced players that are used to seeing everything set out on a table, but flipping through the tabs becomes almost second nature after a game or two.
Where the game cuts down time through the resource automation and action wheel functions, it increases time with AI turns. The AI speed option you choose has the potential to drastically increase the time you take between turns, and picking a slower AI can lead to a frustrating amount of downtime. Setting the speed of the game to ‘fast’ in the app’s settings will help ease the issue, but the best option for cutting down time is to simply play against the one second speed AI. There isn’t an especially discernible difference in the AI’s playing capabilities based on its speed, and choosing the fastest option will get you to your turns much quicker.
Terra Mystica’s physical version is a fun and challenging game that rewards strategic planning, and it’s clear that a lot of care went into adapting it for a digital platform. While the game suffers from some heavy size constraints, its strict organization and automated actions streamline the gameplay process and reduce downtime between turns. The AI choices are limited but have room to grow, and the online and local modes allow for plenty of game options. The physical game’s mechanics and strategic roots transfer well to a digital landscape, and are faithfully represented in this worthwhile and impressive digital adaptation.
Sara Perry is a contributing writer and aspiring game designer with a love for games both physical and digital. Also cats. She can be best reached via Twitter.
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