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Terra Nova Game Review February 1, 2008

Posted by ficial in games.
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Terra Nova was designed by Rosanna Leocata and Gaetano Evola and published by Immortal Eyes

Overall: Terra Nova is a good game, bordering on great but not quite there. I would generally play it if someone else suggested it, and might occasionally even suggest it myself. It is for two to four players, and plays differently with each number. The suggested age range of 13 and up seems quite appropriate – younger players are not likely to find it much fun.

If you like Go, Blokus, Chess, Dvonn, and that sort of game, you’ll probably enjoy Terra Nova quite a bit (once you get over the rich artwork), especially if you’re looking for a slightly lighter game that can include three or four players at once. If your preferred games are Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, San Juan, and the like then you’ll probably find this game a bit spare, though perhaps a nice foray into the world of abstract games – watch it or play it a bit before buying it.

Terra Nova has a fair amount of replay value, assuming one likes this sort of game to begin with. It’s a game that could be played and enjoyed many times, but probably not one you’ll reach for every gaming session.

Play Overview: Terra Nova is a game about claiming territory. The board has regions, and the regions have spaces. Players start by putting their markers on the board, then take turns moving their markers and placing tokens to sub-divide the board. To score points the sub-divisions must have three or fewer regions (the fewer the better), and the points go the player or players with the most markers in that region. Play continues until either board is completely subdivided or only a single player can move, at which point the player with the most points wins.

The Pieces: Terra Nova has very nice physical pieces. The quad-fold board has a very pretty depiction of a land with different kinds of regions (lake, mountain, forest, etc.). It has a visible, but not interfering, grid of hexes laid over to denote spaces. The players’ markers (‘settlers’) and dividing tokens (‘stones’) are wood, decent sized, and nicely colored. The box is sturdy and has nice cover art.

It falls a little short on the story side of things. The game setting is explained as groups of settlers sent to a new land. Each group of settlers (controlled by a player) is trying to fence off as much territory as it can. This story suggests certain elements of game play that aren’t there – the type of landscape doesn’t matter (barren mountains are just like fertile plains), the colonists start spread out and intermixed across the whole land rather than all together at a particular landing point, the rules for what makes a subdivision and how to score it make little or no sense in the context of that story, and finally the story of settlement suggests some sort of infrastructure or economic system, both of which are completely absent from the game.

The Rules: Terra Nova has very elegant rules. There are very few of them, they’re easy to understand, and they provide for complex, interesting play. They result in a system that feels like an combination of Go (placing pieces to define and claim territory), Carcassonne (worry about how many markers each player has in a given territory), and the old pencil-and-paper game Lines and Boxes (closing off sections to score points, and thereby shrinking the board).

An action is moving a settler (in a straight line as far as desired, but stopped by a stone or another settler) or placing a stone adjacent to a settler that moved this turn. Each turn each player gets three actions, the first of which must be moving a settler, the others of which can be more moves (the same settler again, or different ones) or placing stones – all moves are done before any stones are placed.

The value of a territory is determined by the number of space and the number of kinds of spaces that area. A territory is created when an area containing three or fewer kinds of spaces (i.e. land types) is enclosed / sub-divided. If the area has three kinds of spaces, each space is worth 1 point, if it has two kinds of spaces then each space is worth 2 points, and if it has only a single kind of space then each space is worth 3 points.

That, plus a little bit about setting up the game, is it.

Usability: Terra Nova is better than average in this regard, but definitely less than ideal. On the plus side, the pieces (made of wood) are all clearly distinguishable, and large and sturdy enough for easy handling. The scoring track integrated around the board edge and the separate scoring markers (discs, instead of the person-shaped settlers) are nice touches. The spaces are appropriately sized. The rule book is well written – easy and fast to read and understand. However…

  • The settlers come in specific, limited numbers, which forces you to play particular color combinations with two (red and yellow), three (and blue), or four (add green) players.
  • The board is very pretty, but the detailed artwork can be distracting and even a tad confusing – it’s surprisingly easy to miss the one hex of a different type in the corner of an otherwise uniform territory.
  • The scoring track the track only shows even numbers, which can be confusing.
  • There’s no marker to show which player is what color, which in a three or four player game is important information.
  • We came across a situation which the rule book does not cover – how is one supposed to handle any covered spaces in a territory? Are they worth any points? We decided not, but had to do that on our own – other players or groups might choose differently.
  • Finally, as mentioned above, the story doesn’t really fit the game. Terra Nova is really more of an abstract strategy game about sub-dividing the board and claiming area rather than a game about settlement. From a sales stand point the art and story are probably very good, but from a play standpoint the game would probably have been better off with and an even shorter, simpler story and more iconic board art (perhaps even just designating regions with flat colors) to match the abstract play.

None of those issues prevent one from playing and enjoying the game, but they do make the game less than it could be.

Fun: Terra Nova is a surprisingly fun abstract strategy game, but a fairly dull game if one is expecting any of the spice commonly associated with euro-games (exceptions, hidden information, some minor element of randomness, that sort of thing). It’s a bit of an odd-ball in the way it straddles that line. In this sense the rich story does it a disservice, leading people to expect different things from the game than it’s actually providing. Treating it as a part of the Go genre rather than the Carcassonne genre, this game offers a lot of fun.

However, there are some quirks worth mentioning. First of all, the initial settler placement is tricky. There’s clearly some strategy to it, but it’s not at all clear what. Rather than making players spend time thinking about where to put their pieces it may be better to just set them out randomly, at least the first few times playing. Second, the game goes from just-getting-interesting to done surprisingly quickly – it will take you a few plays through to get used to the tempo of the game. It takes a while to get enough stones on the board that territories can be divided off and scored, but once that process starts it goes very quickly. Third, the more people playing the more the board changes between your turns and the less you can do long term planning – you’ll have more fun if you treat it as a tactical game more than a strategic game in that case. Fourth, the game is fairly susceptible to king-maker problems, where one player is guaranteed not to win, but can determine which of the other players does win.

It also has the time issues common to all turn based games- the more players the longer the wait for each player. Terra Nova is neither uncommonly good nor uncommonly bad with respect to this.

Terra Nova is probably best approached as a light-weight abstract strategy game. Though it could be played very carefully with lots of thinking, it’s better suited to faster, looser play. If you’re inclined towards the former then you’d enjoy this game more sticking to the two player version.

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