Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Terra

Design by:  Bruno Faidutti
Publisher:  Days of Wonder
3 – 6 Players, 20 – 30 minutes
Reviewed by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #24 

French designer Bruno Faidutti has teamed-up with Forum Barcelona 2004 and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to produce a game that highlights the many crises facing today’s world, as well as providing solutions to these problems.  Further, the effort is not just an exercise in “feel-good” politics, as $1 dollar (or Euro) of every copy sold is donated to HOLOS, an organization which helps support the goals of Forum Barcelona.  That, of course, may or may not be a good thing, depending upon your view of the organization.  That, however, is a topic I will avoid in this review!  Rather, I’ll stick to the far-less-controversial topic of discussing the game and its merits. 

Terra is a card-based game that forces an element of cooperation between the players in order to stave-off worldwide chaos.  Throughout the game, military, environmental and socio-economic crises emerge throughout various regions of the world, causing players to scramble in attempts to defuse and solve these flare-ups.  Players must cooperate in order to successfully eliminate these problems.  However, there is a strong incentive for players to hoard away their resources, for if the world is saved (so-to-speak), then the player who has amassed the greatest amount of personal wealth emerges victorious.  Ahhh … capitalism!

The deck of 108 nicely illustrated cards contains 18 crisis cards and 90 solution cards.  Crises come in the three different varieties mentioned above, each color-coded for easy identification.  Further, each contains a number from 10 – 16, which is the difficulty or threat level of that crisis.  The higher the number, the more difficult it is for the players to solve.  Finally, each crisis affects a particular region of the world, which is clearly highlighted on the card. 

Solution cards also come in three types corresponding to the three types of crisis.  Solution cards carry a value of 1 – 6, as well as pleasant artwork depicting the type of solution or aid the card is providing.  Unfortunately, the meaning behind many of the illustrations aren’t readily obvious, so players must constantly refer to the explanations in the rules to fully understand them.  More on this later. 

Completing the components is a round board depicting an imperiled world, with a score track surrounding the ailing globe.  Each player also has scoring and matching identification token. 

Initially, all of the problem cards are removed from the deck and players are dealt from2 – 4 solution cards, depending upon the number of players.  The problem cards are then shuffled back into the deck and play begins. 

A player’s turn is quite simple. 

Phase 1 – Draw a card.  The player takes the top card from the deck.  If it is a solution card, he keeps it in his hand and proceeds to Phase 3, skipping over Phase 2.  If, however, the card is a problem card, the card is revealed and play immediately moves to Phase 2 as all players have the opportunity to help deal with the “impending crisis”. 

Phase 2 – Impending Crisis.  Beginning with the active player, each player has the opportunity to play an appropriate solution card to help solve this new crisis.  A solution card must match the type of crisis (military, socio-economic or environmental) in order to be played.  Players are NOT forced to help solve the crisis, but if the elect to do so, they may only play one card. 

If the total value of all played solution cards equals or exceeds the threat value of the problem card, the crisis is solved and all of the cards are removed.  There is great rejoicing and much merriment.  The player who initiated the action to solve the crisis (i.e., the player who played the first solution card) receives 3 victory points.  Likewise, the player who contributed the greatest amount of resources to help solve the problem (i.e., the player or players who played the solution card with the highest value) receives 3 victory points. 

If, however, the total value of the solution cards played is less than the threat value of the problem, efforts at solving the crisis have failed.  There is much grief, moaning and wringing of hands.  All of the solution cards played in attempts to solve the problem are discarded and the problem becomes a full-blown crisis.  The problem card is set beside the central board as an ever-present reminder to the players.  

A check is now made to see if the game ends as a result of a collective “loss of control”.  This can occur if one of the following conditions exists: 

a)      Three full-blown crises in the same region of the world; or
b)      Four full-blown crises of the same type around the world; or
c)      A total of seven full-blown crises around the world. 

If any of these conditions exist, the world collapses into utter chaos and folks head for their survival shelters.  ALL players lose … as does the world. 

If the world does not collapse, then the active player returns to Phase 1, drawing another card and repeating this cycle. 

Phase 3 – Playing cards.  After the active player has successfully drawn a solution card, he has the option of playing cards to any or all full-blown crises that he desires.  The player may only play at most one solution card to each crisis.  The idea here is to build-up enough points beside a crisis in order to successfully solve it, thereby removing that problem card from the game.  The player who plays the final card which solves a crisis receives 5 victory points.  Since only this player receives points, there is a persistent hesitancy amongst the player to play solution cards that will bring a particular crisis within range of one card being able to solve it (6 points).  However, if players procrastinate in solving crises, things are likely to spiral out of control quickly and cause a complete collapse.  A problematic, yet tasty dilemma.   Of course, a player may elect to not play any solution cards, preserving his solution cards and maintaining a precarious world situation.  

If the player does elect to play at least one solution card, he then has the opportunity to hoard some of his solution cards.  These hoarded cards will be worth victory points at the end of the game IF the world is saved and does not collapse into chaos.  So, there is a significant element of risk here.  If a player hoards too many cards, he ability to help deal with arising crises will be significantly restricted.  If, however, he does not hoard enough cards and opts to be a goodwill ambassador, he will likely lose the game.  Striking a delicate balance is the key. 

In order to hoard cards, specific 3-card combinations must be formed: 

a)      Same value, same color; OR
b)      Same value, one color each; OR
c)      Same color straight; OR
d)      Three color straight. 

If a player meets one of these requirements, he may place these three cards face-down in front of him.  He can never retrieve these cards back into his hand, so deciding when to hoard is a critical element of the game.  It also had a tremendous psychological impact on the other players, as if they see a particular player hoarding too many cards, they may opt to abandon efforts to solve world problems, fearing that if the world is ultimately saved, they will be the big loser anyway.  I find this aspect of the game to be quite tense, exciting and clever. 

Once a player has completed Phase 3, he must discard down to 8 cards, then the next player repeats this cycle.  This continues until either the world collapses (as described above), or until the entire deck of cards is depleted.  At that point, the players have successfully prevented the globe from spinning off its axis, even though there still might be some nagging problems persisting in various regions of the world.  At this point, each player reveals their hoarded cards, tallying their numerical values and adding these totals to their total score on the track.  The player with the most victory points is named “Friend of the Earth”, is elected President of the U.N. and receives a Nobel prize.  Not bad.  

First, let’s analyze Terra in terms of its advantages and flaws as a game.  First, there is a large cooperation aspect.  Players must cooperate in order to solve crises.  Otherwise, things will get out of hand swiftly and the world will collapse into chaos, causing the game to end and all players to lose.  No one wants to be blamed for causing the world to collapse; that doesn’t look good on a resumé.  However, unlike Reiner Knizia’s ground-breaking Lord of the Rings game, there is compelling reasons NOT to cooperate here.  You see, if the players are ultimately successful in dealing with the various crises, the player who achieved the greatest number of victory points is victorious.  So, there is an individual winner.  It’s not just a big “group hug, aren’t we all happy?” affair.  The main complaint I leveled against the Lord of the Rings game was that there was absolutely NO incentive NOT to cooperate.  So, it simply became a matter of helping out as much as you possibly could each and every time.  I simply didn’t find that very exciting.  

Terra certainly corrects this situation with a vengeance.  Now, while there is a strong incentive to cooperate – the world will likely collapse if you don’t – there is also ample reason to hold back a bit:  you likely won’t win if you are too generous in your support.  Finding the correct balance between cooperating with your fellow players and selfish greed is one of the key ingredients of the game.  And this is one mighty tasty ingredient.  

There are numerous other choices and decisions facing a player.  When a crisis first appears, the choice to play solution cards to help deal with the problem or not can be a tough one.  Of course, there is the urge to conserve your cards in order to build the required sets.  This selfish motive is confronted, however, with the fact that problems must be dealt with lest they spiral out of control.  If the world already has numerous full-blown crises, the urgency to deal with an impending crisis is even greater.  If a player does decide to help deal with a new crisis, deciding which card to play is also a major decision.  The active player must decide whether to play a low valued card in order to entice others to participate in the solving of the crisis, or play a card with a mid-range value so that folks will see that he is serious about dealing with the problem.  Playing a card with too high a value, however, might discourage others from participating as they may feel they will be unable to equal or exceed its value and thereby be shutout of any victory points earned from dealing with the crisis.  Playing a “6” could easily discourage subsequent players from participating unless they, too, have an appropriate solution card with a value of “6”.  Very interesting choices, indeed.  

Now, let’s talk about a potential game-breaking tactic.  If one or more players insist on playing completely selfishly, hoarding cards at every opportunity and refusing to contribute solution cards to help solve crises, the game can completely fall apart, ending in world collapse every time.  This is particularly acute when playing with 4 or less players.  With six players, it is possible for the other, less selfish players to still deal with the arising crises.  However, if they are successful in this monumental task, in all likelihood the selfish player will accumulate the most victory points due to his excessive hoarding of solution cards.  It’s a lose-lose proposition.  

There are two ways to deal with this potential game-breaking problem.  First, thoroughly explain the nature of the game to all of the players before beginning.  Let them know that cooperation is required of all players and that if one player plays refuses to cooperate, the game will collapse.  Most sportsmanlike folks will understand this and play in the spirit that is intended.  If this fails to work, however, an interesting variant has been proposed along the lines of that used in Reiner Knizia’s High Society.  That is, if the players are successful in saving the world, when the hoarding stacks are tallied, the player who hoarded the greatest value of cards is eliminated from contention.  I think this is an excellent idea and I plan to use it in my future games. 

One more matter deserves discussion.  Both Bruno Faidutti and Eric Hautemont of Days of Wonder have commented that one of the main objectives of the game is to get people talking about various world crises and the potential solutions as espoused on the solution cards.  The intent seems to be to cause lively and in-depth discussion amongst the players on these topics.  Although other groups have reported that this has occurred, it failed to materialize in the seven games I’ve played so far.  Oh, we did look-up the explanations of the solution cards in the rules and even chuckled over a few of them, but not once did we engage in detailed discussions over the merits of these solutions or other UNESCO programs.  I certainly consider myself to be reasonably politically astute with some strong political and moral beliefs, but I really didn’t feel the urge to discuss these matters with my game mates.  I’d like to blame it on the fact that political discussions can often grow heated and cause bruised feelings, so I tend to avoid such topics when playing games.  Perhaps that played a factor, but I think the overriding factor is that we simply wanted to play the game and not discuss its inherent politics.  That may not be what the designer or manufacturer intended, but we had fun anyway! 

I was very pleasantly surprised by Terra.  There is a very good game here, evoking lots of banter:  pleas for assistance, berating for failure to help solve a crisis, shock at the hoarding of an opponent, etc.  The game is exciting, tense and lively, even if you don’t dive into the shark-infested waters of political discussion.  The one potential major flaw in the game is fairly easily dealt with, and the political motives behind the game are easily overlooked.  Terra has got to be one of the biggest surprises for me in a long time.  That’s a good thing.  Now, let’s save the world!

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