In 2012, game designers Jens Drogemuller and Holge Ostertag brought us the hugely successful area control, civilisation builder that is Terra Mystica, winning a host of awards along the way, including the Spiel de Jahres Kennerspiel in 2013. In movie terms, any sequel to Terra Mystica would have to add more: more components, more actions, more rules, more weight…. more time? That sequel has arrived in the form of Gaia Project, and from first impressions, it has all the pre-requisites of a successful successor with a sci-fi theme added and Solitaire mode for good measure, but can it measure up to its big brother? Let’s find out.
This review certainly isn’t going to be a comparison between the two games, nor can I ever hope to explain every rule or nuance that Gaia Project has to offer, as there are so many of both, provided and beautifully packaged together by publishers Feuerland Spiele and Z-Man Games.
Gaia Project is essentially a massively heavy Eurogame which allows 1-4 players to score points through numerous different actions and locations. Players will choose one of 14 different races and lead them through a civilisation expansion in space by collecting resources, advancing up a technology tree, creating powerful federations whilst hitting round and end-game victory point conditions. Like Civilization: A New Dawn, the board is constructed through tiles of hexes that all fit together, meaning the playing surface will change from game to game. The tiles will have a number of space hexes and various different planets which players must transform into habitable planets for their species, such as volcanic, swamp or ice habitats. Between these planets is the vastness of space, which players must traverse using satellites, and ultimately large federations, which are several planets working towards the same cause.
Before the game starts, the victory board must be set up with 2 random end-of-game victory point targets and 6 round victory point targets. These targets may include having the most of a type of building, terraforming the most planets or having the most satellites in orbit. This is a grab-the-most-points style of game, with players trying to find the best strategy to achieve this.
The research board is then set up by randomly selecting minor technologies and placing them on the board below each of the six technology tracks. The minor techs will give players one-off resources or abilities, victory points or continuous resources from round to round.
Six advanced techs are then placed at the top of each track, meaning that the player who excels in that track will receive the benefit of that tech. As players move up each of the tech tracks, they will receive a plethora of benefits from resources to a speed up in certain actions, as well as the technologies already mentioned.
Players will also create a pool of round boosts that will offer several benefits to individual players throughout a round, and they are changed each round.
When a player chooses a race, they will take the corresponding coloured playing pieces and begin to set-up their player board. Each race will start the game with a varying number of resources which are knowledge, ore and credits, they may also have Quantum Intelligence Cubes (QIC) which act as another form of currency, essentially.
Players will place their buildings on their board, which include mines, trade centres, research centres, academies and a planetary institute. Starting with the lowest cost building, the mines, players will upgrade to other buildings, which in turn offers more options or benefits throughout the game.
Players will also get the chance to build Gaia Formers through research, and they are used to transform planets to your race’s liking. As the game progresses and players use actions to place these buildings on the board, each building space, once removed, will show a resource that adds to the player’s total and fuels the in-game economy: The more you build, the more you earn.
The game is split into numerous phases beginning with the income phase which, as you may expect, gives players the chance to count their available resources from their player boards and research boards and move their resource tracks accordingly.
The Gaia phase barely qualifies as a phase as the only action taken is to restore any used ‘power’ to pool 1. (I’ll explain power soon).
The Player action phase is the main body of the game and will give players a choice of eight actions to choose from, which include spending resources to place buildings, such as mines, to terraform a planet, upgrade buildings, found a federation or even pass, which counts as an action and can also give players benefits for future rounds, should they be the first player to do so. Turns will alternate between players until all have eventually run out of actions or most likely resources and have passed.
The Clean-up phase allows players to change their player boost with another from the pool, and the round marker advances to the next step.
The iconography laid over the Gaia Project is great; it’s colourful, simple and reliable throughout the various boards, as well as its rule book. At times, it can seem overwhelming and crowded, but after a few rounds, you’ll soon recognise what each symbol means and how it affects game play.
Secondly, I wasn’t keen on the whole ‘power’ situation; constantly moving tokens from one pool to another effectively charging your power before being able to spend it. For me, it seemed convoluted and unnecessary. I can’t see what treating power in the same manner as the other resources would have taken from the game.
One thing that is immediately apparent from set-up is that there is a ton of replayability in this game; from the number of races to the victory conditions to the randomness of the technologies, no two games will be the same.
The main issue that I found with Gaia Project is that you will only be able to play this game with a certain type of gamer, and even if you manage to convince a more casual gamer to play, they will lose. This is a game that I can see people literally studying for a long time in the pursuit of the perfect way to play, which further narrows the spectrum of available players. With almost no randomness whatsoever in the game (which I’m not saying is wrong), it almost becomes a science rather than a gaming experience. To be successful in this game, players need to take a long-term approach to it, they need to be able to plan actions several turns in advance or face the realisation of not being able to carry out some of the more complex aspects of the game, thus not completing objectives, meaning fewer victory points gained.
As I said at the start of this review, I can’t possibly tell you everything about this game, explaining the game’s economy could be a review all on its own. In short, players gain resources then spend them to grow their empire across the galaxy, gaining technology and victory points along the way. The designers will probably be incandescent at my 20-word description of their masterpiece, but the phrase ‘keep it simple, stupid’ comes to mind.
Designer: Jens Drogemuller and Holge Ostertag
Publisher: Feuerland Spiele, Z-Man Games