Terra Mystica (Z-Man Games) is one of those games that always seems to be near the top of any board game rating chart. Despite its popularity, it’s not a game for everyone. It’s what people describe as a “brain burner” where players are constantly having to plan ahead to optimise the point scoring potential of the various different resources that they are juggling. Gaia Project (Z-Man Games) is by the same designers as Terra Mystica (Jens Drogemuller and Helge Ostertag) and it’s billed on the box as “a Terra Mystica game”. It generated a lot of excitement at October’s International Spieltage (Essen), to the extent that copies were quickly sold out.
So is the hype justified?
How does Gaia Project compare with Terra Mystica?
Well, for starters, Gaia Project transposes play from the Terra Mystica fantasy world to the environs of space. The game comes with a bunch of modular boards that dovetail together, so, once you finish with the recommended set up illustrated in the rules, the layout you are playing on is certain to differ with every play. From the start, this provides a very different dynamic to a game that is played on a fixed board that does not vary between plays. If you are familiar with Terra Mystica, however, then there will be a great deal you will recognise as a reworking and may even think of as a reskin from the earlier game.
In both games, players each have their own player boards which start off with all the buildings available to the player. Whenever a building is built (by meeting the build requirements), its removal from the player board unlocks the space it was covering. In most instances this means that the resources forming the player’s income will increase in subsequent turns.
Both games utilise a similar convoluted energy generation mechanic that involves circulating power tokens around three reserves.
Just as the 14 different fey factions in Terra Mystica have asymmetric powers and special abilities, so too do the 14 alien races in Gaia Project. In both games, players start off with one special ability but they have the option of earning a second special ability later in the game as a reward for constructing a major building. The different factions and alien races do better in some environments than others, and they have to transform unfriendly environments so that they can build on them. Though it is a very similar mechanic in both games, this plays especially well to the theme in Gaia Project as, rather than digging up swamp terrain, it here involves players in transforming planets. Forget Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games) and Venus Next, in this game there’s a virtual infinity of worlds to terraform!
Gaia Project: a game of skill?
Gaia Project comes in a hefty box. If you’d managed to find one at Essen, it would have taken up a fair chunk of your baggage allowance stashed in your suitcase on the flight home. The reason for this is the mind numbing quantity and variety of components. There is a lot of cardboard and a staggering quantity and variety of plastic in the box. That means this is a game with a huge number of moving parts. Although individual actions are reasonably straightforward, there is an awful lot to keep track of, and across several boards – not just your own player board and the expanse of space. If you’re happy just to play for the experience, then you’ll enjoy this. You won’t win, however. The game will always be won by the players who work out a careful strategy and time their every action to maximise the various resources at their disposal and, more to the point, maximise their points score. There’s a running joke in my games group that whenever I win a game I declare “it’s a game of skill” and whenever I lose “it’s a game of luck”. Win or lose, there’s no hiding place in Gaia Project: there are no dice to roll; there’s no random card draw; there’s no hidden information. The randomised set-up offers exactly the same challenges and opportunities to all, so this is a game with a zero luck factor.
It’s all about the theme
Ultimately, Gaia Project comes down to being a “points salad” euro game. All the layers of complexity inevitably boil down to finding the best route to earning more points than the other players. The same, of course, can be said of most other euro games but the difference here is that this feels thematically sound all the time you are playing the game.
Contrast this game, for example, with Pulsar 2849 (Czech Games Edition), which also appeared at Essen in October. Both are ostensibly space-themed games where players are finding different ways of racking up the most points. In Pulsar 2849, however, you always feel that you are playing an essentially abstract game. I have it on good authority that the theme for Pulsar 2849 was indeed ‘pasted on’ because the original concept for the game had been planned around medieval cathedrals. Given the many very close similarities between Gaia Project and Terra Mystica, it’s pretty certain that the theme here is equally contrived. No matter. You just don’t feel it. With Gaia Project, you are quickly caught up in the theme. Yes, you’re trying to earn those all-important points but, in doing so, you have a genuine sense that you are developing your space-faring civilization and building your federation of planets.
Once learnt, this is not a game that you’ll tire of playing any time soon. More so than its predecessor, Gaia Project has a very high degree of replayability incorporated into its design. The set up of cards and the modular board mean that no two plays will ever be exactly alike. And since the key to winning in this game is achieving the most optimal timing for your actions, then you’ll always need to adapt your strategy to take best advantage of whatever appears where in the starting set up.
There’s something about the theme of alien races in space that tends to lend itself to 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) civilization games. Though Gaia Project has several elements of a civilization game, including the development of research and technology, it isn’t a 4X game. Think of it as a 3X: although you are competing for territory with other races, you are not sending fleets out to obliterate one another. The game does, however, have much of the scale of a typical 4X game, not least in the sheer amount of table space it demands. In addition to the individual player boards and the central modular board showing the various planets, you’ll have to set up several smaller boards and tracks. This is not a game you can expect to be able to set up in your local pub, unless of course they are prepared to allow you to colonise one of their full-size snooker tables for the evening!
Gaia Project is heavy in both senses of the word. There’s a lot to learn – especially if you’ve never played Terra Mystica – and, even once you’ve assimilated all the minutia of the rules, a game could well run to three hours. It can be played as a two-player game but it is better with three or four. A big bonus though is that Gaia Project comes with a well-designed ‘automata’ that facilitates solitaire play. The automata also works as an excellent learning tool for those who want to hone their skills and master rather than merely play this game…
Despite the strength of the theme, there’s no denying that the various mechanics in Gaia Project are virtually all enhanced clones of those seen in Terra Mystica. Do you need both? The honest answer is, probably not. If you know Terra Mystica well, almost everything in Gaia Project will be a modified version of what you’ve seen before. But even if it is more of an upgraded reskin than a sequel, that won’t stop Terra Mystica’s legion of hardcore fans from buying it. Perhaps it’s due to the theme, or perhaps it’s due to the quality of the components and the greater variability of setup, but Gaia Project does feel like a significant improvement on the earlier game. If you don’t have either – buy this one. If you already have Terra Mystica, you’ll probably want to buy this one anyway just because you love the game. Its complexity means that, like its predecessor, Gaia Project is not going to be a game for everyone but it does what it does very well and there’s no denying that it is a very good game. It earns a well-deserved 9/10, but be prepared to invest the time needed to fully get to grips with its intricacies. Or just go along for the ride – enjoy the experience of playing the game but be prepared to be trounced by the players who have made themselves experts at strategically exploiting every little point scoring advantage.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.