Terra Mystica Accessibility Teardown

Terra Mystica (2012) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameTerra Mystica (2012)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Heavy [3.95]
BGG Rank13 [8.18]
Player Count2-5
Designer(s)Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag
Artist(s)Dennis Lohausen
Buy it!Amazon Link (Commisions earned)

Version Reviewed

English/French first edition

Introduction

Terra Mystica is an overbearing monster of a game – one of those jovial pub psychopaths that is your best buddy one minute and then glassing you in the face the next. It’s a properly great game… for those that can ride the shockwaves of its design. For everyone else it’s a lot of work to get to the point you’re having a genuinely entertaining experience and there are many, many games that don’t make you try so hard to find your fun. We gave it three and a half stars, but you’d likely add half a star onto that score with every dozen play-throughs you undertook. I can definitely imagine that it would qualify as the best game ever for those that had the time to tame the beast.

If you cared about our opinion though you’d be off reading the review. Instead you’re here for other insights. Accessibility insights. You, much like me, probably have an Opinion going into the teardown but you never know – perhaps we’ll both be surprised. Let’s fondle these bowls of power until they spark out some magic.

That’s it.

Yes.

Just like that.

Colour Blindness

Colour choice is… problematic. Up to five players are supported at a time, and the different tokens provided for dwellings, temples, strongholds and sanctuaries overlap for each category of colour blindness.

Colour Blindness Terra Mystica Tokens

The board makes use of different textures for each terrain but these, at a distance, lack ease of differentiation. You can certainly tell the difference when you look at them closely but it becomes more difficult the farther away they are.

Colour Blindness and the Terra Mystica board

These issues, as you might expect, also manifest when it comes to tracking terraforming and score, but other tokens are more robustly coded with non-colour information.

However, it’s not quite as much of an issue as it might first appear, although the solution may not be entirely appropriate depending on player preferences. There is a set of coloured pieces for each faction, and it’s possible to select a blend of factions (limited by player count and specific flavours of colour blindness that must be addressed) that do not trigger clashes. However, that does require players to limit their strategic choices to what can work together well in a player setup and that may not work if players have particular favourites in terms of factions.

It would be possible for players to adopt a more traditional approach though – using different colours to indicate player rather than factional allegiance. The cognitive costs of that though are correspondingly greater, as they usually are when using game components in non-standard ways. That’s generally how I approach it though as I don’t really like having a colour choice foisted upon me as a result of a faction preference. A Terra Mystica player would undoubtedly be able to tell that from the images in the review and teardown.

There is another factor that should be taken into account here though – colour of pieces will match to a particular kind of terrain, making an intersection of colour and underlying texture that can add to distinctiveness. That is a kind of ad hoc double coding that, over time, can be just as good as the real thing.

That’ll be important because a big part of Terra Mystica is focused around area control and ensuring that you’re in a position to react well to the aggressive expansionism of your opponents. Contiguity of presence is an element of that, particularly when it comes to end of game scoring and town building opportunities.

We’ll tentatively recommend Terra Mystica in this category.

Visual Accessibility

There is a degree of tactility in Terra Mystica, and it does offer a lens on the game that might not be available in other games of this complexity. Unfortunately the guide-rails it offers for this are dependent on visual anchoring in a way that, for example, the player boards in Scythe are not. When setting up a player board the allocation of pieces is arranged directly onto the surface – new costs and bonuses are revealed or obscured as the game state changes.

Player board

As such, a player can feel along their board to tell how many dwellings, trading posts and so on are ready to be placed. The number of these will dictate bonuses obtained at the start of each round, but the actual information there is available only visually and it changes with each faction. For example, the Auren gain power and money from each trading post, but the amount of power they get doubles for the third and fourth of these. Morbancs on the other hand get two power and two coins for each trading point save for the last – that one gives three coins rather than two.

Everything from the ‘terraform wheel’ to the cost to build structures is faction specific and available only visually on the player board.

The good news there is that contrast is generally good and there is a compactness to the design that would make it amenable to close inspection. One would though have to be careful that pieces remained where they should. Nudging a dwelling a few centimetres by mistake would result in a very different view of what resources a player was supposed to be bringing in.

Witches player board

Along with this we need to consider the sheer number of information bearing tokens in game. There are town tiles, favour tiles, bonus cards, scoring cards, terraforming circles, bridges, dwellings, trading posts, sanctuaries, strongholds, three different denominations of currency, priests, worker cubes and more. They all have different form factors, which is welcome. However, they often come adorned with dense symbology. Sometimes players will be selecting between several of these and this has to be done in close synergy with the game state, the factions in play, and the pace of the rounds. Again, contrast is good so close inspection is reasonably straightforward if it’s an option, but there is a lot that needs to be taken into account with every action you take.

The main game board lends itself to tactile inspection, but only in terms of the specific kind of building in place and an approximate sense of where. Ownership of those buildings is indicated by colour only. Hexes cannot be distinguished by touch. Given the nature of the terraforming versus the faction colours it’s possible for the tokens to blend into their background context. This can make it difficult for those with even relatively minor visual impairments to get a fully rounded picture of game state without cross-referencing.

Main game board

All of this said, Terra Mystica is likely playable with support from the table for those with minor to moderate visual impairments. I suspect it remains playable for those with total blindness provided table support is correspondingly more comprehensive. In the end, Terra Mystica is a perfect information game. That means a lot of the issues we’d usually discuss in this section become within the competence of a table to minimise. I wouldn’t say Terra Mystica would be a fun game if every detail must be confirmed with the table, but I think it’s probably playable. Many of the issues with regards to the player boards will become less significant as familiarity with factions is built, but given there are fourteen of them in the base game that will likely take some time.

We can’t go as far as recommending Terra Mystica in this category. We’d still advise newbies go for other games in preference. If sufficient will and support is available it is likely a feasible, if sub-optimal, candidate for blind and visually impaired players.

Cognitive Accessibility

Let’s begin with the positives.

Terra Mystica is a perfect information game. There are no secrets or random state beyond setup. As such there’s nothing that needs to be remembered in terms of the game state. You can get a handle on every part of the game by examining what’s in front of you and in front of other players. That means that there’s a low burden on memory.

For that part of the game.

Everything else unfortunately is something of a horror show. The game is very complicated with a BGG complexity weighting of 3.95 out of five. The rules come in a twenty page manual that is brimming over with complex legalese that is often overridden by specific faction abilities. For example, here’s one section from page 11:

“Upgrading a dwelling to a trading house costs 2 workers and 6 coins*. If there is at least one opponent’s structure directly adjacent to that dwelling, you only need to pay 3 coins instead of 6. If the current scoring tile depicts a trading house, get 3 victory points for this upgrade’.

That star then goes to a footnote that points out that engineers and swarmlings pay more when upgrading trading posts.

But there’s more to it than this, because when an opponent builds an adjacent structure there’s an opportunity for everyone else to get power in exchange for victory points. The amount of power depends on how many adjacent structures are present, and you can’t take a portion of that power unless there are limitations on how much power can be held in your various bowls. So that one rule on upgrading actually connects to another rule about power, which connects to the wider mechanism of power management.

That’s just a subset of the rules that need to be taken into account to place a single building. Terra Mystica has eighteen and a half pages of other rules that cover all its various other systems. Remembering each of these specific situations is memory burden enough before you even add in the need to consider the implications.

As you might imagine, this extends to the accessibility of the game from a fluid intelligence perspective. Simply handling the rules is sufficiently burdensome to make the game completely inaccessible. That’s before you even start thinking about the intense depth and sophistication of the tactical and strategic lenses on the game. The rule-set alone is enough to warrant an F grade, and if we were taking into account the need to play competently we’d probably end up with an H grade if such a thing existed.

We absolutely do not recommend Terra Mystica in either of our categories of cognitive accessibility. Not even a little bit.

Emotional Accessibility

Terra Mystica rarely throws any surprises your way – it’s a perfect information game and nobody has the ability to truly ambush anyone else. However, that doesn’t mean that we get to take a day off here. Its till has a number of design elements that should be addressed in this section.

The first is that Terra Mystica requires players to be of approximately equal skill if one isn’t to end up being completely dominated by another. There’s a forgiveness in the design that novices can play reasonably well together by drowning in their mutual bafflement. Those with some experience and the ability to eke some performance out of the game systems will have a more interesting and nuanced battle over the landscape. Experts will be plotting their moves based on perfective arithmetic. However, it’s no fun to mix and match those approaches and as a perfect information game there’s nowhere to psychologically hide in the event of a shellacking.

Frustration is common in early rounds. Terra Mystica is built on a ladder of sacrifices where to gain income in one currency you must inevitably sacrifice others. Turning a dwelling into a trading post will earn money and power but you’ll lose workers. Turning a trading post into a temple will earn priests but lose power and money. Upgrades are important, but only when they’re timely.

This means that early turns tend to direct the game far more than later turns, and that’s exactly at the point where resources are hardest to come by. Mistakes will linger on the board longer than is comfortable. Not only is there no way to undo these mistakes, a single one can throw a massive wrench into the engine of play. The worst thing about this is that there’s a level of competence needed to avoid even the most obvious blunders – you don’t even necessarily know what you’ve done until a few rounds later and by then it’s far too late. It’s easy to use up all your money without having any income, or to waste workers on futile endeavours. It’s similarly easy to waste priests or shovels, or to have your own urban sprawl cut away at your future opportunities. Often the biggest opponent you have in the game is your own past self.

That’s not to say that you can disregard your opponents. Some people talk of Terra Mystica as a game of multiplayer solitaire, but I think that’s unfair. Much of what you do is going to depend on the activities of other players and you may well find, Catan style, that someone enacts your undoing with nothing more than a simple dwelling in an inconvenient location. They’ll rarely be in the position of being able to do you active harm but you’ll often find that the ferocious competition over board terrain has casualties.

An issue that cuts through all of this is that not everyone is going to get to have as much fun as everyone else. Poor performance in early rounds will seriously hamstring future opportunities. Play in a round continues until everyone around the table decides there’s nothing else they can (or want to) do. As such, if all you can do is one thing you might need to wait until four other people do a half dozen things each. All you get to do in those circumstances is observe and that’s never a lot of fun.

Most of the competition in Terra Mystica is over opportunities, but the cult tracks are explicitly a ‘first past the post’ system where previous advancement can be undone by someone else investing priests in a particular track. This is the only location, as best I can recall, where players can actively rob another of progress because all ranking in those tracks is relative.

We’ll tentatively recommend Terra Mystica in this category. The first few play throughs will be far more aggravating than the later ones, but it requires a certain strength of character to persevere in the face of a game so obviously passive-aggressive.

Physical Accessibility

The board that is set in front of each player is very fragile – pieces are perched upon it rather than slotted in place as they are in Scythe. However, the impact of disruption is minimal. It’s mostly straightforward to reconstruct game state, with the possible exception of which power tokens are in which bowls.

Power tokens in board

Terra Mystica also suffers somewhat from a board that offers little in the way of unambiguous referencing. The only landmarks and identifiers that are in place are those that the players themselves construct. As time goes by this will become less of an issue. Actions to be taken are similarly more cumbersome to describe than would be desirable. ‘Upgrade my dwelling to a trading post’ could potentially reference many different dwellings and there are implications that come along with which one is to be upgraded – particularly when it comes to opponents leeching power from an adjacent opponent. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but one that is deleterious to game flow.

If verbalisation is not required for play, other issues are relevant. The board can get very busy with bridges, dozens of settlements, terraformed land and so forth. Hexes are generously proportioned though and the material from which the board is made is reasonably frictive which makes it resistant to casual disruption. However, players will often be removing pieces and replacing them with others during the course of play and sometimes fitting terraform tiles into dense knots of other pieces. Precise motor control isn’t hugely emphasised but the more players, and the more aggressively players expand, the more of an impact it can potentially be.

We’ll tentatively recommend Terra Mystica in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

Of the fourteen factions represented in Terra Mystica, only three of them (Witches, Auren and Mermaids) are explicitly represented by women. The Mermaids and Auren are characterised at least to an extent by the amount of focus given to the cleavage, which is only offset a little by representatives of the male factions. The Fakirs after all are completely topless. It’s not a great balance though. It’s difficult, as it always is, to draw too many lessons about ethnic diversity – it’s easy to say ‘Oh, this fantasy race is clearly coded to be this real world race’ but often in that comparison you’re saying more about yourself than anything else. The manual doesn’t default to masculinity, making use of the second person perspective throughout.

Terra Mystica factions

Terra Mystica is basically a box full of a forest of wooden bits, and it has an RRP to match. It retails at £65 at full price, and supports five players for that money. It’s… a lot, but you do get an undeniably well produced and long-lasting game in exchange for the walletecotomy. Still though – the learning curve is a big reason why it likely won’t hit the table often for a lot of people, and there are other games for cheaper that are more instantly approachable and work with wider levels of skill.

We’ll tentatively recommend Terra Mystica in this category.

Communication

Players will definitely need to consult the manual a lot during play, and it’s very dense, full of complicated information, and lacking an index. There’s no explicit need for literacy during the game but it’s not a game where a rules explanation is going to do the trick. There’s just too much going on. That’s going to be an issue for those playing in a second or third language, which is a shame because almost everything else in the game is completely language independent.

We’ll recommend Terra Mystica in this category, but bear in mind you’re going to become intimately familiar with this manual and that’s going to need a degree of linguistic fluency that’s not necessary for a lot of games. It is though a temporary problem, it’s length determined by the time needed to internalise the ruleset.

Intersectional Accessibility

The only category in which we offer a non-tentative recommendation is in the communication category. As you might imagine, that makes this section pretty easy to write – any intersection is likely to turn a tentative recommendation into guidance to avoid the game. For example, the easily dislodged boards combined with an emotional control condition is almost certainly going to dial up the frustration. Similarly with an intersection of physical inaccessibility and colour blindness – getting up close to see secondary information indicators will be important and simultaneously harder to do if full freedom of movement is not feasible.

Terra Mystica is also a really long game. For two players you’re talking perhaps ninety minutes barring accessibility considerations. Game sessions of three hours or more are not unknown, and a lot of that may be spent in downtime. Players pass when they have nothing else to do, but the game continues on with those that still have options available. Someone that messes up early in the game may spend more time watching than they do playing, and that’s almost certainly going to be a problem if holding a player’s attention is a consideration. It’s easily a game that can exacerbate issues of discomfort or distress, and the complexity of the game state doesn’t lend itself well to saving between sessions.

It is possible for players to drop out and become a kind of ‘dead faction’ on the board but it’s not possible to do it cleanly. Setup of bonus tiles depends on player count. However, you could take the set of cards available, shuffle them, and remove the requisite number. That could hugely disadvantage those players building a strategy around the presence of a particular card, but that would likely be better than the impact keeping them all would be. Some form of house-rule for dealing with drop-outs is necessary, but otherwise it’s possible to continue on to the end.

Conclusion

This is not an encouraging teardown, but it’s still considerably more positive than I was expecting. I thought Terra Mystica would end up adrift in a sea of Es and Fs. It’s not though, even if we’re about as consistently tentative as we’ve ever been in an accessibility analysis.

Terra Mystica, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessC
Visual AccessibilityD
Fluid IntelligenceF
MemoryE
Physical AccessibilityC
Emotional AccessibilityC
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC
CommunicationB

Terra Mystica was never going to fare well in the cognitive section. The simple fact is that heavier games are less cognitively accessible, although the converse is not actually true as a universal rule. Nonetheless 20 pages of close-cropped bureaucracy about gameplay isn’t going to make for a game that works well in that category. Visually too there is so much information, and all of it so important, that it puts an excessive burden on visual processing of game state. There’s room to work around almost everything else.

We gave Terra Mystica three and a half stars in our review but I think you should interpret that rating as a mark of it at its most unforgivingly opaque. At its least enjoyable it’s still an obviously good game, and it gets better with experience. Careful cultivation of your expertise will yield much richer fruits than the star rating by itself might imply. Terra Mystica is as deep as a grave and you could well find yourself buried in its complexity if you were willing to take a step down into its redolent soil. It’s just a shame that you likely wouldn’t find much down there to appreciate in its accessibility profile.


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

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