Terra Mystica: This Game is Intense


Ladies and bros, in the last column of Dice Vice, I was all, “Games are fun! It’s a nice way to challenge yourself with new skills! Here’s a game and how to play it! RAINBOWS!!!”

This is not that column today. Today’s column is about how sometimes our hobbies and the fun things we like to do seem so hard that we want to rage quit them and never try anything like them again. Nope, you think. Can’t do it. Sometimes it feels like there are too many rules, and it’s too insurmountable. You listen to the rules and about half way through the hour of explanation you just want to flip the table and scream, FUCK ALL OF THIS! GAMES ARE FOR CHILDREN!

This game is . . . intense.

This game is … intense.

This is how I felt trying to learn Terra Mystica. When my friends showed me the game a few months ago, I immediately shot down the idea of playing it. It had a huge box, too many pieces, and the rule book is the size of a novella. I liked the premise of different fantasy races trying to terraform a planet into land that is most hospitable to each group of people, but I was put off by the complexity. Interestingly, Wikipedia‘s rule explanation is deceptively simple:

“The game is split into six rounds during which players take any number of actions to improve their society. Improving a society may involve settling new spaces, improving existing buildings, improving infrastructure like shipping, or moving up a cult track to show devotion to different religions.”

Oh Wikipedia, you think you’re so cute.

When we finally did sit down to learn it, I knew I was in over my head. I know that it’s a game, and that it’s supposed to be fun. The point of playing games for me is to challenge myself and maybe even trick myself into learning better. But it’s also to have fun with my friends. I do plenty of stuff that is challenging on my own, like work or teaching myself to sew or trying to read the “important” books everyone thinks I should read. But board games serve the purpose of teaching me how to try, how to be patient, and how to do all of this around others. It’s one thing to cry out of frustration in your office when you don’t understand something, but it’s another thing entirely to feel like doing that in front of your friends.

Deep down, I know it’s not necessary, but I feel like I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that I am not dumb. Maybe I have imposter syndrome like every other woman in their 20s, or maybe it’s just my years of lazily impressing people with stupid trivia that has finally caught up to me. It sounds so petty and even petulant, but I just don’t want people to think I’m stupid. I read, I went to grad school, and I can sometimes think quickly enough to toss off witt bon mots at parties. But sometimes I just don’t feel it. Learning Terra Mystica was one of those times when I felt like I was having an internal battle between the part of me that was encouraging and kind and the part of me that asserted I was dumb as a rock.

There’s this thing I do when I get frustrated at myself for not living up to my admittedly high standards for myself: I call it the Shame Spiral. For example, a Shame Spiral is when I got grumpy at myself for not immediately understanding the many and complex rules of Terra Mystica, and then I got mad at myself for being grumpy about not understanding. Then I got annoyed that I couldn’t just let myself learn and frustrated that it mattered so much to me that I had to understand the game instantly.

Terra Mystica

Just look at all the pieces!

Then I would Shame Spiral even more when I thought about who I was playing with: my friends. These are not some people that I’m trying to impress like my boss, or my boyfriends’ parents, or even the cool tattooed girl at the coffee shop. I had known these people for years! They know me; they know that I am a smart, bright, multitude-containing-woman, but at that moment I felt reduced to my ability to understand one board game.

Eventually, I realized that the only person who was making me feel that way was me. The Shame Spiral kept on spiraling until it spiraled out of gas. I was in control; I could choose to have fun, or I could continue plummeting downward. I tried to suck it up, swallow my fear and my insecurities, remind myself that it was a game that I was playing with my friends, and tried to stop that spiral.

It mostly worked. I certainly didn’t win, and I even missed out on some points because I waited fifteen minutes to ask a question that would have helped me two turns earlier. I thought it was a stupid question or something I missed in the explanation. Turns out it was a special case, and I could have been doing better in the game if I just spoke up.

In the three hours that it took to get through one game of Terra Mystica I didn’t have fun until the third hour. The rules took up the whole first hour.

Let me say that again: the rules took up the Whole. First. Hour.

Then the second hour I felt like I was muddling through, trying to grasp the general concept and the round by round play. This was prime Shame Spiral time, and if my friends noticed, they were gracious and loving enough to only ask if I was ok a couple of times and move on.

The third hour? Yeah, I did eventually have fun, but it was a bit of a long haul.

I got to play as these nomadic people! They had camels!

I got to play as these nomadic people! They had camels!

I won’t give you the hour long rule explanation, because I’m nice and I honestly don’t remember. Rather, here’s a short version: Each turn a player gets to take a number of different actions; each action requires a certain amount of workers. The amount of workers you need is based upon the race you are playing as, how many buildings you have built, and some other arcane knowledge that I never quite figured out. You can terraform spaces near you into land that your fantasy race prefers, build buildings, and send some of the workers to join a cult. The “cult” track is something that I struggled with all game. It’s basically a way to earn points at the end of the game by spending some of your turns to advance up a counter in different elemental cults. Each of these actions: building, terraforming, and the cult track get you points. Each game only has six rounds, but there is a ton you can do each round, so that’s why it still takes two hours to play.

If you read this far, you may be thinking that I wouldn’t recommend Terra Mystica, but I do. Once you get it, it is quite fun! Give yourself plenty of time, plenty of good friends, and plenty of booze to get you through. You may find it easier to understand than I did, and that’s okay. Or if you understand it perfectly on your first try and then you are well on your way to fantastical land development. I raise my glass to you.

Maybe the lesson I should be learning is to not base my worth on how smart I think I am or someone else thinks that I am. I know that I should learn to be content with who I am and the things that I am interested in. And I know that I should challenge myself to think and act outside my comfort zone. I do like it; I just sometimes need a reminder that when I make myself, I like new things. Again, I know my hardship is because most of the time I actively avoid the difficult choices. I seek out the tasks that I already know that I can accomplish and most of the time that’s good. I play to my strengths and know my skills but that can also be a crutch. It’s really hard to try; it’s such a risk. Sometimes I feel like one little failure in something as inconsequential as a board game might crush me.

I guess sometimes all that I can hope for that is maybe I’ve learned a lesson about asking questions or perseverance that somewhere down the line will help me. On good days I think it will. I hope that attempting to figure out a stupidly complicated game from hell will be useful to me. Someday the experience of getting frustrated, feeling insecure and not understanding will be useful to me. I hope it will teach me empathy to be kinder to others, but mostly, kinder to myself.

Until next month, when I decide if I want to finally stop avoiding Settlers of Catan or play something else!

Series Navigation<< Dice Vice: Saving the World with PandemicDominion: Have Fun Almost Immediately >>

About Author

Anna is a teen librarian North of Boston. She runs, sews, eats cookies, and is so obnoxious she names all of her D&D characters after 19th century New England whaling families. Tweetsies: @lcarslibrarian

1 Comment

  1. The first time I played Terra Mystica, it took me at least halfway through the game session before i had any notion of what I was doing. And I had the impression that everyone I was playing with could not have thought highly of my intelligence (I was playing the game at a boardgame night at a coffee shop with people I did not know). I was hesitant to ask questions, because I felt stupid doing so, but I really should have just asked.

    It is a complicated game that is not easy to explain how to play clearly and concisely. I read the rules myself afterwards, and everything made much more sense. It is not really a casual game. It is one that, based on the rewards each round, you can largely plan out a strategy for the entire game from the first turn. There is very little luck involved, and I think that is why the game has been very well received.

    An enjoyable read, that brought me back to my first time playing the beast of a game!