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Factions in Terra Mystica

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Introduction and Categories
One of the things I like most about Terra Mystica is the breadth of the strategic space. I talked a little bit about this in my review, Magical Earth (which I highly encourage you to check out), but I felt it was worthwhile to write about the strategy space that I see each of the Terra Mystica factions existing in, and how they interact with and overlap with each other and the bonus and round tiles.

Terra Mystica features 14 factions, each of which has its own combination of abilities, building costs, initial positions, and incomes. While each one is distinct, there are some particular commonalities that allow the factions to be dissected, categorized, and effectively compared.

Faction special abilities cover pretty much every aspect of the game, with each faction having a set of abilities that appears to be largely thematically consistent. However, even with the diverse combination of way that makes each faction unique there are a few particular aspects of the game that seem to have more attention focused on them than others.

Modification of the game’s rules on terraforming is one of the more common way the factions are differentiated, with the Darklings, Giants, Halflings, and Nomads all having special abilities related to it. Darklings change the cost structure of terraforming by making it so each terraforming action requires a single priest. Giants change the spade cost structure by making it so that all terraforms require 2 spades, no matter what the distance. Halflings get cheaper terraforming tech, victory points from terraforming, and free terraforms from building their fortress. Nomads get to circumvent the terraforming process entirely through their fortress.

Considering that the challenge normally associated with terraforming, the fact that all of these factions, except perhaps the Giants, have an easier time of it makes them quite attractive in a general, competitive sense. While I have not come to any particular decisions about which of the factions is the strongest, both the Darklings and the Halflings are in the running due to the flexibility of their terraforming capabilities; they have more control over what the board will look like then any of the other factions.

Extended Range
Five factions also feature the ability to ignore the normal rules about where you can build. Dwarves, Engineers, Fakirs, Mermaids, and Witches all have the ability to more effectively build a rather sprawling set of dwellings breaking them away from the normal limitations on expansion while also giving all of them, except the Engineers, the ability to turbo-power their income in ways that most of the other factions are unable to do.

Dwarves and Fakirs are the two most similar factions in the game, with each featuring the ability to ignore one adjacent terrain hex when building new dwellings. The costs of this action is different for each faction, with the Dwarves needing to spend 2 workers and the Fakirs only 1 priest, but both also get victory points for using this travel ability. Their fortress differentiates them as the Fakirs are able to go up to 3 hexes away while the Dwarves are able to reduce the cost of their tunneling. Unfortunately, the rest of their differentiation is in ways that make me wonder if the Fakirs are either the weakest faction, or at least one of the weakest. The first part of this is the fact that the Fakirs only get 5 power in their 2nd bowl and 7 in their 1st, greatly weakening their ability to get as good of a start as the other factions. They also lack the ability to increase their terraforming capability beyond the 2nd level. While this is only a marginal problem, moving past the first level seems worthwhile only infrequently, it still reduces the ability of Fakirs to build towns and consolidate their territory. They also have one of the most expensive strongholds in the game. I hope that these restrictions indicate that the Fakirs would simply be too powerful without something to hold them down, but as it stands I intent to watch them closely so that I can try to understand why the designers and developer’s felt a need to hold the Fakirs back.

The Auren, Cultists, and Chaos Magicians all have abilities that make them particularly well-suited to dominating the cult tracks, with the Auren and Cultists both having abilities that directly interact with the track while the Chaos Magicians have abilities that give them extra favor tiles, which also help with Cult track advancement. These bonuses give these factions a leg up on competing to dominate the cult tracks for scoring victory points, true, but I think the best thing about these factions is the ability to get extra use out of the bonuses that come for being far enough along a given cult track in any given round. None of these factions have the ability to expand efficiently as a default, but with enough bonuses gained from the cult tracks they can gain just as much board position as the rest. Unless you are the Chaos Magicians, of course. The Chaos Magicians should not expect to expand very far at all.

Faction by Faction

Core Ability: Convert victory points to money, better money -> VP conversion (money)
Stronghold Ability: 6 money; one shot 12 power; every spade gives 2 power (money; power)
Secondary Ability: Better money for 2nd, 3rd Trading Post (money)
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Fire, 1 Water

The Alchemists are unique in how focused they are on many and their lack of abilities focused on any of the big three categories mentioned in the previous section. Their core abilities are weak enough (money for victory points and a better money to victory point conversion) that I really think of their stronghold ability as their real special ability, as it is strong and very helpful. Most other factions get either two or four power per turn from their stronghold, and 6 money a turn provides the alchemists with a level of flexibility that a lot of the other factions lack. This flexibility is further compounded by the fact that they get 2 power every time they use a spade. With the fact that Alchemists should be (relatively) swimming in money and the bonus they get from power, the Alchemists are one of the few factions that I think should seriously consider going to the top of the Terraforming track. This puts them into a good position to compete for largest settlement too. Even if you pursue other avenues, the additional money from the fortress and the later trading houses is sufficient that it gives the Alchemists plenty of flexibility and power.

Without a strong reason otherwise, you should try to build the Alchemist’s fortress early. If not the first round, it should definitely be something you are shooting for in the second round. So much of their position is tied to their stronghold that you should try to maximize your use of it.

Core Ability: None
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 1 favor tile; action to move up 2 on 1 cult track (Cult)
Secondary Abilities: More expensive sanctuary
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Water; 1 Air

The Auren are another faction that gains a big bonus from their stronghold, and should try to get their fortress in the first round or the second round in most games. This is because the only thing that distinguishes them from the more common races, is their fortress’s capabilities. Playing without is like playing at an intentional handicap.

With their fortress, they have a unique and flexible ability, gaining an extra action that lets them move up two spaces on any cult track. While you can, and should, use this to dominate as many of the cult tracks as possible, the true strength of this ability is in its effectiveness in controlling the per round income from progress on the cult tracks. With this, some priests, and your periodic favor tiles you should be able to get one or more levels of bonuses every single round, allowing you to potentially pull ahead of the players even without any abilities that get you extra cubes, terraforming, money or anything of the sort.

Core Ability: Cult Advancement When Power Taken (cult)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 7 Victory Points
Secondary Abilities: More expensive fortress and sanctuary
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Fire, 1 Earth

The Cultists’ special ability encourages them to build in a way that is very different than other factions. Rather than constructing your settlements such that you force other players into hard decisions about whether they want to sacrifice victory points for power, you want to make it as easy for them as possible. That way they are more likely to help you, giving you an advance on a cult track because of the juicy, juicy power you are giving them. Generally, you want to take advances you are given to take advantage of round bonuses, in much the same way that the Auren do. However, I would probably not worry too much about trying to dominate the cult tracks, except for during very specific situations, your bonus is so inconsistent that you are better off trying to take advantage of it for as many short term gains as possible.

The Cultist is one of the two factions that I think are strictly inferior to other factions that are available. For more experienced players, who are less likely to want to give you an advantage in exchange for free power, it seems like the Auren are better, as it seems unlikely that you will get more than 10 advances out of them for the entire game.

Chaos Magicians
Core Ability: 1 Initial Dwelling
Stronghold Ability: 2 cubes; take 2 consecutive actions
Secondary Abilities: 2 Favor Tiles from Temples and Sanctuaries (Cult); Less expensive stronghold; more expensive sanctuary
Unique Initial Allotments: 4 workers; 2 Fire

Chaos Magician’s biggest special ability is found in their secondary abilities: the fact that they get 2 favor tiles from each temple and sanctuary. This is very strong but is also paired with one of the biggest disadvantages in the game, the fact that you only start with a single dwelling on the board. It is very easy to either lose out on the opportunity for free power or get blocked in with this single dwelling, so it is important to be careful about its initial placement. Specifically choosing to stick with a smaller footprint is also an option, and the Chaos Magicians have perhaps the easiest time of any faction in staying small but still doing well thanks to all the options that they have for extra income.

Chaos Magicians also have an expanded ability to compete on the cult tracks. They will be getting lots of “free” cult track advancements, and it can be helpful to use these to either strategically compete for position or to claim end of round bonuses.

Core Ability: None
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; convert up to 3 workers to priests
Secondary Abilities: More expensive sanctuary; 1 priest = 1 spade; sanctuary produces 2 priests (terraform)
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 worker; 1 priest; 1 Water, 1 Earth

The Darklings have a very strong focus on priests but, due to their need to use them for terraforming, they are much less likely to aggressively compete on the cult tracks then the other factions. In many ways this is an advantage, as it allows them some additional flexibility; they can take the valuable favor tiles that offer a much lower amount of cult advancement with little impact to their overall game plan. Darklings in general should focus on having most of their structures are dwellings and temples, with the first temple coming out during the first round. These will directly feed off of each other, as the priests coming from the temples will allow the Darklings to terraform and build more dwellings. This is not to say you should ignore their fortress or trading posts, both of these items give you interesting opportunities, but I think they are of secondary importance to the overall temple -> dwelling cycle.

Core Ability: Build 2 Hexes away for 2 worker (extended travel)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; Build 2 Hexes away for 1 worker (extended travel)
Secondary Abilities: Extra Money from first and last Trading Post (money)
Unique Initial Allotments: 2 Earth

Dwarves should always be in competition for the largest settlement bonus. With the ability to build two spaces away for the cost of 2 workers (or 1 worker) compounded with the fact that they get victory points every time they spend cubes in this manner, they should be able to spread across the board more effectively than any race except for the mermaids and, maybe, the Fakirs. This ability is only enhanced by the construction of their fortress, so this should be built as soon as possible, it will allow you to expand even more aggressively than before, particularly since you should only have to terraform more than one step in the most unusual circumstances.

You should be careful not to get so distracted by this capability that you ignore the benefits of building a town, but I would argue that Dwarves, thanks to the significant amount of victory points gained by their extended range ability, can afford to ignore the town bonus more than most other races. Getting one is still worthwhile, and there are several parts of the map that have helpful one step to mountains terraforming locations on them, so it should not be too difficult unless one of the other, terraforming-happy factions end up setting up in one of these neighborhoods.

Core Ability: Build Bridge for 2 workers (extended building range)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 3 VP/bridge connecting two engineer structures at the end of each round (victory points)
Secondary Ability: 5 power income for 2nd temple; less worker and money cost for Dwellings, Trading Posts Temples; less worker cost for stronghold, sanctuary; less worker income from dwellings
Unique Initial Allotments: 9 power 2nd bowl, 3 power 1st bowl; 10 money, 2 cubes

Engineers have a tough time of it. Their reduced cube income means that they have difficulty terraforming, and desperately need to get access to the spade generating bonus tiles and power actions. Having the ability to get extra cubes is also key. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am unlikely to even play the engineers unless the 2 cubes per turn and the one spade action bonus tiles are in play, it is just too difficult to get started with them otherwise.

They, like the Chaos Magicians, benefit particularly well from building compactly. They can build up much more effectively than the other factions thanks to their exceptionally cheap buildings, and the lack of income from many dwellings is enough to push them towards alternative paths. This is particularly true of they can get some of the victory income from their fortress going early enough in the game. This is not to say that you should push for the fortress in all games, just that if you are able to successfully get two bridges running that it is extremely worthwhile to build the fortress and get the three victory points per turn.

Even with this bonus though, the Engineers are tough to play. I would strongly avoid playing them as a new player, and would recommend that even experienced players avoid them unless they are both at the right spot in the initial turn order (later is better) and have the right bonus and round tiles (spades = victory points is usually a no go) out. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for a loss.

Core Ability: Build 2 away for Priest (extended building range)
Stronghold Ability: 1 priest; Build 3 away for Priest
Secondary Ability: Only one level of terraforming advancement; More expensive stronghold
Unique Initial Allotments: 5 power 2nd bowl, 7 power 1st bowl; 1 Fire, 1 Air

The Fakirs are the second faction that is similar to, but strictly inferior to another faction out there, with the other faction being the dwarves. I am now going to go into great detail as to why they are inferior, as I discussed it a bit, above under “Extended Range”. Beyond that though, you want to play them very similarly to the dwarves, expanding as useful to increase your overall worker input, and backfilling as necessary to get the town bonus. This is hurt by the fact that priests are significantly more difficult to get then workers, but after you construct your fortress you should have even less of a need for terraforming then dwarves thanks to the extended range. I remain deeply skeptical about the Fakir’s overall power level though, and if someone can explain to me how they are in any way better then, or even comparable, to the dwarves I would appreciate it.

Core Ability: All terraforming requires 2 spades (terraforming)
Stronghold Ability: 4 power; Terraform with 2 spades + Build (terraforming; power)
Secondary Ability: None
Unique Initial Allotments: 1 Fire, 1 Air

Giants are one of the factions whose special ability is really a restriction. Being able to transform hexes that are normally only cost three spades for two is an advantage, but it is strongly outweighed by the cost of needing those two spades for ones that would normally only cost one, meaning that even a basic terraform will cost six cubes. That is a lot. This means that the giants are especially dependent on the double terraforming location on the power action spots and in their fortress. The Giants require their fortress ability more than any other faction, and while others benefit greatly from getting their fortress first round, the Giants actually need it.

On the bright side, once you do have it, you do have a great deal of flexibility as to where to build. You should never fear putting an initial dwelling near other players, as once you build up to your fortress, you should have a bigger impact on their ability to successfully expand then they will on yours. This should also provide you with plenty of power, as they will be upgrading near you, and that, combined with the good power income of your fortress, means that you could potentially get two no-cube terraforms in most rounds. I would suggest burning down to six power with them as soon as possible, and to keep your power income high enough (probably through the 4 power per turn favor tile or any of the power generating income tiles) that you are able to cycle it back to the third bowl as much as possible.

Core Ability: 1 victory point per spade (victory points)
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; 3 spades (terraform)
Secondary Ability: Less Expensive Terraforming Tech (terraform); More expensive stronghold
Unique Initial Allotments: 9 power 2nd bowl, 3 power 1st bowl; 1 Earth, 1 Air

Halflings are one of the factions that it is easiest to play well. Their cheap terraforming tech advancement allows them to more flexibly transform terrain than any other faction. Additionally, they get victory points every time they use a spade, this is particularly strong when the round tile that gives 2 victory points for every spade is in play, resulting in very high scoring rounds for the Halflings, particularly if they can successfully build their stronghold. There really is not much more to them than that. They are as straightforward as they are strong.

Core Ability: May ignore one river space when building town (Town)
Stronghold Ability: 4 power; Advance 1 on Sailing Track (extra building range)
Secondary Abilities: More expensive sanctuary, Extended and Improved Sailing Track (extra building range)
Unique Initial Allotments: 9 power 2nd bowl, 3 power 1st bowl; 2 Water

Mermaids are another straightforward, yet powerful faction. Their extra sailing technology enables them to engage in a minimal amount of terraforming while still expanding their income, and their ability to ignore one river hex when building a town enables them to construct towns easily and in configurations that no other faction has access to. Mermaids stronghold ability is helpful, but is flexible enough that there is not real pressure to build it any particular point in the game, building it when you can get bonus victory points out of it is probably the best idea but if there are instances when getting the advancement on the sailing track, and the 4 power income, are more important than it is not a major loss if you build it too early, unlike other factions. The fact that they start two positions up on the water cult track is also helpful, as it makes it an obvious place to specialize and compete for scoring purposes.

Core Ability: Start with 3 Dwellings
Stronghold Ability: 2 power; Convert adjacent hex into desert (terraform)
Secondary Abilities: More expensive stronghold; Extra Money from Trading Houses (money)
Unique Initial Allotments: 2 workers; 1 Fire, 1 Earth

Nomads share both the flexible terraforming capabilities of the Halflings and the disruptive capabilities of the giants. Since their fortress-based free terraform allows them to ignore the normal terrain costs they are able to terraform easily while also effectively disrupting their opponent with minimal opportunity cost to themselves. They lack the cheap costs of the Halflings, and do not have the ability to potentially perform two disruptions a round like the Giants, but they still have a nice middle ground and have the added bonus of having extra money from their later trading houses and a greater board presence on top of that.

Core Ability: Get 3 workers for completing town (Town)
Stronghold Ability: 4 power; Upgrade Dwelling to Trading Post
Secondary Abilities: All structures cost more; Additional worker income; Trading Post, Sanctuary produce extra resources
Unique Initial Allotments: 8 workers; 20 money; 1 on each cult track

Swarmlings are, in many ways, the mirror image of the Engineers. Where the Engineers get less cube income, but also less costs for their buildings, Swarmlings get (slightly) more cube income, and quite a bit more power and money income but make up for it in increased costs. At least they do until they reach the point where they get their Stronghold, at which point they can make one upgrade from a dwelling to a trading post per round for free. This creates some interesting opportunities for them, particularly in games where trading post scoring rounds tiles are out or they are able to acquire one or both of the bonus point tiles for Trading Posts. These should probably be part of any Swarmling strategy, though whether one or both of them is acquired will depend on when in the game they receive their first bonus tile.

Towns should be a priority for Swarmlings, simply because completing them allows the Swarmlings to power through with further building and terraforming. Getting more then two in a game seems likely to be difficult, but getting those two should happen every time.

Core Ability: 5 victory points for building a town (Town)
Stronghold ability: 2 power; Place dwelling for free on forest tile (extended building range)
Secondary Ability: None
Unique Initial Allotments: 2 Air

In many ways the witches are the mirror image of the Swarmlings. Both have town-based abilities, and both have an action based on their fortress that allows them to put down buildings for free (in the Witches case, it is free dwellings). The Witches are much more vanilla then the Swarmlings however, as beyond their Stronghold ability and their bonus for the town, they are pretty close to the Terra Mystica average. This is not a bad thing however, as workers are the most commonly used resource in Terra Mystica, and Witches have the potential to get a lot of them. Their ability to place dwellings on any forest on the board, also allows them to have the greatest capability, outside of perhaps the Nomads or Mermaids, of building multiple towns over the course of the game.

I do not have any strong inclinations about which of the factions are the best and the worst yet, but I do think it is pretty easy to divide them into “more difficult” and “less difficult.” It is good that the “more difficult” factions are not clearly better then the “less difficult” factions as that would perhaps give too much of an advantage to skilled players. As it is, it is easy to determine how much difficulty you want out of a particular game and then choose a faction to match. That, plus the dynamism that comes from the various faction and available tile combinations is one of the reasons I like Terra Mystica as much as I do. Seriously, give it a shot.
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