Review: Gaia Project

a bloated boxer, a wibbly purple, a wonky illustration, interstellar nutella
Quinns: Everybody, stand up from your chairs! Pull up your pants. Spit out that gum. An esteemed classic has returned.

We reviewed fantasy town-building game Terra Mystica back in 2013 and found ourselves submerged in strategic nirvana. Today 28,000 people have rated it on BoardGameGeek, awarding it in an average of 8.3 out of 10. That’s shockingly high considering just how complicated and odd Terra Mystica is, with its challenging puzzle squished in between ugly mermaids and magic bowls. But there you have it! It’s just that enjoyable.

This week we’re looking at the sequel, Gaia Project, which is a big deal in more ways than one. As well as swapping Terra Mystica’s musty fantasy for a sci-fi backdrop, it’s more expensive, more complicated and demands significantly more table space. All set up, you’re looking at an asteroid belt of iconography.

After playing Gaia Project we actually went back and played Terra Mystica as part of this review. The good news is, Terra Mystica is still a ton of fun! The bad news is, while Gaia Project is a perfectly fine game, I can’t see a single reason why I’d buy it over the original.

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About 90% of the Terra Mystica’s rules make it over to the sequel intact, so an explanation of how Gaia Project works sounds a bit like I’m describing an alternate reality. It’s like eurogames meet the Mandela Effect.

In Gaia Project each player picks a different species, each one with their own rule-breaking power, and tries to spread their property across the galaxy like so much interstellar nutella.

The problem is that constructing mineshafts and terraforming planets costs ore (which comes from mineshafts) and money (which comes when you upgrade your mineshafts into markets). You can also upgrade mineshafts into research bases (costing more ore and money), which gives you knowledge, which you can use to advance up the multifaceted research tracks seen below, unlocking fabulous rewards and discounts that would make building your empire so much easier if you could just find the time to do it.

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There’s also the option of upgrading a marketplace into an expensive “planetary institute”, thereby unlocking your race’s superpower! But will the benefits outweigh the setback to your economy? Because here’s the twist in Terra Mys– I mean, Gaia Project. Whenever you upgrade a building you put the old miniature back on your player board, so you no longer get the income from it. Oh, and don’t forget to build clusters of buildings close together so that you can link them into federations for bonus victory points!

For a more detailed explanation of how Gaia Project works you can literally watch our old video on Terra Mystica. There’s hardly an area of the design that hasn’t been tweaked, but the experience of playing is the same- Gaia Project is a rewarding test of how best to invest and re-invest your resources into growing your holdings but with all sorts of pesky variables to consider. Set-up of the game is randomised (much moreso in Gaia Project), your race demands a special playstyle, and your friends will always get in the way of your plans.

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Sitting back and researching technology is great, unless your friends are snatching up all the planets around you like tasty Skittles, erasing your plans for future expansion. Likewise, being the only person learning the secret of transforming the wibbly purple “Transdim planets” into habitable worlds is excellent, but less so if everyone’s learning it. From turn to turn, the question’s always the same: Do you push out and take the territory you want now, or do you have time to turn your economy inward and unlock some tremendous new power?

Where Gaia Project differs from Terra Mystica is that there’s just… more of it. Where before there was one map, now there’s a broad jumble of randomised hexes. Where before developing your terraforming and your ability to reach new hexes couldn’t be simpler, now “research” is a giant board depicting a brawl of iconography. Where Terra Mystica had 9 “spells”, Gaia Project has 17.

All of which inarguably makes Gaia Project the more complicated game. It’s harder to learn and harder to master (and, of course, harder to teach). To the fraction of Terra Mystica fans who played that game forty times and are looking for a tougher challenge, Gaia Project will feel like a boxer who’s put on 30lbs.

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But here’s the thing. I don’t think those 30lbs are muscle, but fat. In places, Gaia Project is so irritatingly obtuse that it had me and my friends laughing at the manual. “A planet with a Gaiaformer does not count as colonized by the faction owning that Gaiaformer; therefore, that planet cannot be used as a “starting point” to access another planet (Transdim or otherwise).”

Wasn’t this game hard enough to learn before the designers started inventing words? A game’s “theme” is more than just quaint set-dressing. Familiar imagery helps us to internalise rules. In Terra Mystica, it’s easy enough to remember that mermaids travel down rivers. In Gaia Project, the Taklons get a brainstone and the B’al T’aks can move a Gaiaformer to their Gaia Area to gain one Quantum Intelligence Cube, and they’ve removed the lore from the manual that tells you why anything is how it is.

Why would you make the game the game that much trickier? Ooh, I’m getting worked up. Let’s take a trip back to 2013…

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Terra Mystica has a variety of features that earned it the love of the community. There’s the marvellously cramped board which means everyone cares when anyone builds anywhere. Likewise, your resource collection is so finely balanced that choosing to replace one building with another is always rewarding and agonising. A hurried construction makes you feel clever as often as it makes you feel you just threw your wallet into a river, and the decision of when to sacrifice victory points (or even power itself!) for access to a magic spell always feels like a tough call.

Yes, Gaia Project adds all sorts of new features, but since not a one of them is as entertaining as those refined choices in the original game, it feels like it’s diluting that magic. Most importantly, by increasing the size of the board Gaia Project loses that exciting tautness of Terra Mystica, so much so that a 2 player game of Terra Mystica feels more cramped than a 4 player game of Gaia project. And by adding knowledge as a means of gaining resources in addition to buildings and power bowls, the systems that make Terra Mystica unique feel that much less important. Did you build the wrong thing? Not to worry. In this haze of rules you’ll probably find a way to make up for it, somewhere…

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Simply put, yes, Gaia Project is the more complicated game, but it’s more work for less fun. You have more options to learn and consider, but selecting the right action for your turn feels a shade more underwhelming.

And now I’ve been a good boy and talked about the game for 900 words, can I please talk about what they’ve done to its look!?

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I might not have called Terra Mystica a pretty game, but especially returning to it in 2018 it seems classy and confident. The wood feels nice under your fingertips, and watching the three-dimensional board emerge over the course of two hours, complete with little bridges and towns of like-coloured pieces, is charming. Even Dennis Lohausen’s wonky illustrations kind of work, as if you were leafing through a fantasy novel from the 1970s.

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Putting the games side by side, Gaia Project’s aesthetics are kind of a disaster? The plastic feels cheap and the sci-fi re-theming is miserable to me. Lohausen primarily illustrates historical games (most recently the charming A Feast for Odin) and I don’t think he’s put to good use in a sci-fi setting. The futuristic iconography that you rely on as a player is neither stylish nor readable, there’s no ‘life’ in watching the board fill up with plastic and even the planets printed on the map look out of place. Though that’s ok, because once you’ve put buildings down you can hardly see them.

Maybe if Gaia Project wasn’t more expensive than Terra Mystica, or maybe if it didn’t lower the maximum playercount from 2-5 to 1-4, or if it was at least a better-looking game I’d be able to be a shade more cheerful about it. Instead, I’m going to have to take my positivity where I can get it…

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Here’s a photo Matt doesn’t know I took. See how he’s smiling? There’s freezing rain outside, it’s nice and cosy in my house and he’s playing Terra Mystica for the first time and loving it. Absolute bliss.

Don’t think of this as a review telling you not to buy Gaia Project. Think of it like our hero fending off the latest contender. Shut Up & Sit Down still absolutely recommends Terra Mystica. If you really want to spend some money this month, why not pick up the Terra Mystica expansion, Fire & Ice?

In fact, I think I’m going to do that right now…