Virginia Gigli and Flaminia Brasini, two of the three designers behind Terramara, have their names on some top notch games from the past few years – Grand Austria Hotel, Lorenzo il Magnifico, Coimbra… so I was very excited to see what they would come up with here. Terramara, quintessentially a worker placement game, has some intriguing prospects, such as a modular board, and action spots which limit availability of workers in future rounds.
Terramara has a real “quest for fire” vibe to it – you lead an ancient tribe, exploring, creating, trading and invading. With artwork by Michael Menzel, the visual appeal of the game is undeniable, but does it offer enough interest to compete in a modern saturated market?
It’s worth taking a moment to describe how the board in Terramara is set up. The “frame” of the board is fixed – this includes a number of progress tracks, which shape the engine building element of the game. The interior of the board comprises a number of strips corresponding to the rounds in the game. All strips are drawn from a random pool, with the pool for later rounds having more evolved actions available on them. All strips are two sided, because as the game progresses they are flipped, to reveal different action spots which are only available once specific objectives have been achieved. In this way there is a definite sense of the board evolving, rather than just growing, throughout the game. This has further significance to gameplay, which I will come back to later.
Terramara plays over five rounds. It’s a worker placement game, with each round having its own dedicated worker placement spots, as well as some more generic spots available every round. At the beginning of the game, the spots which are available are fairly basic – collect one basic resource, upgrade a basic resource to a refined resource, move one step on a specific progress track, etc.
The action spots from later rounds are available for worker placement, but – and this is where Terramara stands apart from other games – that worker is no longer available until that round has been passed. So it’s an investment (rather like taking a loan in other games). The worker spots available in the final round are much more powerful (collect multiple upgraded resources for instance), but the penalty for using them early can be too great a risk.
The progress tracks around the outside of the board all have important gameplay functions:
The Road gives players access to specific worker placement spots on the boards which have already been flipped. Through taking various actions in the game, players will be able to progress their caravans along the road. Moving caravans past places on the road which correspond to flipped strips from previous rounds makes extra worker spots available (remember that spots from previous rounds will no longer be available).
The River gives players access to artifact cards. These typically have in-game bonuses, although some will give end game scoring bonuses according to the other artifact cards that the player has acquired. Artifact cards can be acquired (created) or reserved in every round, but players will have limited artifacts available depending upon how far along the river they have progressed.
The Military track represents a clan’s military strength. A clan may execute a raid against all other clans, stealing resources from them, but taking a penalty against their military points as a result. Military points are also important in determining which action spots are available.
Lights, Camera, Action
Action spots for the current and future rounds are available to all players (with a few exceptions), even if the spot has already been occupied by another player. However, a player may only place a clan member on an already occupied action space in one of two circumstances: if they occupy a higher position on the military track than the player who already occupies that spot, or if they are placing their chieftain. So having a high military score is important in making more spaces available.
Terramara also comes with a handful of Character cards. These are unique player abilities which, just as the board does, evolve during the game. At the beginning of any chosen round, a player may choose to flip their character to the experienced side, giving them access to a different, but related, unique ability. The rule book recommends not playing with the character cards initially. But this is by no means a light game; anyone who can cope with the decisions throughout the game is unlikely to be overwhelmed by a simple decision or ability such as those on the character cards. I would say use them from game one.
One – not insubstantial – complaint about Terramara is the way it handles fewer than the maximum number of players. The non-player workers are integrated into the game as dummy players, making those worker spots more difficult to use. Further, some placement spots are rendered unusable. Whilst these are selected at random, it may have the unfortunate consequence of making some resources especially difficult to attain through the game. This can make a three- or two- player game especially unsatisfying.
Once the game is underway, Terramara can feel remarkably like an older worker placement game. The evolution of the board sets it apart from other games, and certainly makes it worth trying. Set up can feel fiddly, especially the first couple of plays, as it may not be immediately obvious where to place the strips. The game can be a real brain-burner, as decisions on how to acquire the resources you really want have to be offset by the risk of losing action spots, artifact cards, as well as making sure that you have enough military points to place your workers where you want to.
The big bugbear with the game is at two or three players, where the dummy player placement and blocked spaces makes the game feel very frustrating. If you can see past this, however, it is a rewarding game to play, and is quite a diversion from other games by the same designers.