Age of Innovation is the fourth game in the Terra Mystica series, and it follows on from the original game, its sci-fi sequel Gaia Project and the more recent, lighter Terra Nova. Whilst each of these games is well-respected and arguably excellent in its own right, there is little doubt that Age of Innovation takes the best of the two core games that preceded it (ignoring Terra Nova for a moment) and adds new features and ideas that combine to create a definitive experience.
First released in 2012 and updated several times via expansions, promos and the latest Big Box edition, Terra Mystica carries an overall rank of 26 on BoardGameGeek — meaning that it is considered the 26th best game ever made. To reach that rank, a game needs to have received tens of thousands of ratings from BGG members, and in turn, will almost certainly have been played literally hundreds of thousands — and potentially millions — of times.
With that context, Age of Innovation is a sequel that shares a similar visual style with artwork from the same artist and most of the same iconography as Terra Mystica, and it also shares almost all the same actions as the game that inspired it. There are some major differences however, with perhaps the main ones being the new way in which a completely unique and asymmetric faction is drafted during the setup, and the addition of an innovation and certifications board.
The importance of this new approach to setup cannot be overstated as both a key game mechanic and a fundamental part of any successful strategy. During this step of the game — before the game itself even begins — players will take turns to choose their terrain association, their faction, their palace bonus tile and their first round bonus tile. In the standard rules, players do this in circular turn order and can choose any one of the four components on offer, assuming that they haven’t already taken a piece of that choice.
In a popular variant which I used, the choice of pieces goes clockwise once, then anticlockwise (giving the last player two choices in a row) and then back again until everyone has one of each component. I should also mention that not all terrains, factions and bonus tiles will be available in every game, and there are fewer based on your player count. This helps prevent definitive “alpha” strategies that result from repetitive, very powerful combinations.
Bear in mind that this is before we even get into the game, and I already want to tell you how much I love this feature of Age of Innovation. Every terrain comes with its own player board that includes unique bonuses such as a greater income, a higher sailing track or some other significant benefit, and every faction is similar. Some have reduced costs for certain actions, whilst others may generate power or even begin the game with an extra building. Palace tiles won’t be used until the player actually builds their palace, but the benefit chosen needs to synergise with the other pieces they either have, or hope to take.
Once the game begins, it is very similar to Terra Mystica, albeit with the addition of the innovations and certifications which I’ll come to shortly. For the uninitiated, players are competing for the highest score via the placement of their own buildings onto the map. Placing buildings together can result in the whole group being recognised as a city, and whilst there is pressure with other players for the best spaces, players also want to be close to each other because some buildings are cheaper when built next to an opponent, and the opponent benefits in turn by receiving some power generation.
Age of Innovation and all of the other games in this series are relatively complex, so placement of buildings is not as simple as I may have made it sound. A player can only build on terrain of their own type (as decided during setup) but because the board is made up of seven different kinds of terrain, there is a mechanism to terraform terrain from one kind to another, with the cost of doing so (measured in shovels) being one, two or more depending on how far the terrain you want to terraform is from your own home terrain on your player board.
Adding more complexity is the fact that players can only build adjacent to their existing buildings (two of which are usually placed during setup) and rivers cannot usually be crossed. Factions which have built up their sailing capability can count up or down rivers and build on the other side, however, whilst others may choose to build bridges which allow them to treat the destination hex as adjacent to their building on the other side.
Whilst terraforming is paid for in shovels (gained either from action spaces or via the cost shown on your terrain board) placing buildings will usually cost tools and/or money depending on the building type. In general, players will also need to upgrade buildings in stages — returning the building that was superseded to their player board when the new one is placed. This takes careful planning, as the lowest building (workshop) creates tools as an income, whilst the second (guilds) provide power and money. Players need to balance their income after round one, and must also note that once the guild is upgraded to a school, university or palace, it will provide no basic income (although it might provide a scholar, or some income linked to the palace tile etc).
Whilst trying not to jump around too much, but also because I am touching on scholars, let’s discuss the Science Display. Where Terra Mystica had Guild Tracks (which did little more than provide end game points) and Gaia Project had Technology Tracks (which offered small upgrades such as bonus shovels or bumps on other tracks), Age of Innovation has the Science Display — which sort of does both and then some.
The Science Display itself is just four tracks — each representing a different scientific focus such as Banking, Law and, erm, brown… Placing a scholar onto a free space on any track will advance your marker that many spaces (two or three) and passing certain points will give you some power. Having a city (which provides a key symbol) will allow players to pass a threshold to score big points and unlock access to an additional income (of a type shown on that track).
In Terra Mystica, scholars (which were called priests back then) were the only way to move up the Guild Tracks, but in Age of Innovation, there’s a much more interesting way to do it — via schools. When upgrading your guild to a school, you immediately take one of the available competency tiles from the display (in addition to unlocking a scholar for your upkeep in the next round) and this will also provide you with up to three hops on the Science Display. Suddenly, you’re now getting a significant bonus for building a school and gaining scholars on an ongoing basis, which makes this whole mechanism feel so much more rewarding.
Even better is the books mechanic — where books are a new, advanced resource that you’ll only find on specific actions (including competencies), faction abilities and palaces — as well as for the cost of power as a “basic” action. Books come in the same four colours as those on the Science Track and can be spent on up to three of the available innovations — which are all major, game-breaking tiles that add powerful passive effects or unusually strong single abilities.
There is so much happening in Age of Innovation that it is hard to describe it all — but where it really succeeds is in bringing all of these elements (and more) together in a really structured way. I loved both of the other games in this series, but for different reasons I struggled to fully click with the way the systems flowed together. In Age of Innovation, science and advancement (innovation, if you will) are themes that stand out loud and clear and they align to the actions that you’ll take in the game.
Building up your city feels like a project — with tough decisions. The action itself is expensive, the upgrade path for buildings prompts thought because as you may advance one income, you’ll reduce another — and then there is the placement. Do you go closer to this player, or that one? Which one is less likely to compete for spaces that you want, or more likely to build next to you to drive your power engine forwards?
With buildings on the board and perhaps one or more cities established, how will you advance your science? Will you focus on getting your schools out quickly to benefit from certifications? Will you go for your palace bonus early (perhaps it gives you an additional terraform action worth 2 shovels), or can it wait until later? What about innovation tiles — can you generate enough books to pick exactly what you want earlier in the game and deny your opponents?
Tough decisions are what Age of Innovation — right from the outset. Before you even begin the game you have to think about what tiles to draft and where you’ll place your pieces once you have them. Then you need to think carefully about how to expand, and how to build your cities — will you build then tall with advanced buildings quickly, or will you go for a land grab, making space for yourself and bumping up to your opponents to give them even tougher choices.
Age of Innovation is a very large box experience that is very heavy — and therefore not for everyone. It has a dedicated, well done solo mode that will help you learn at your own pace, but for novice gamers it is still a hell of a chunky proposition to try and chew through. However for fans of the other games in the series, Age of Innovation is surely an absolute must have.
I am already debating whether I still need Terra Mystica or not because I think Age of Innovation completely replaces it — whereas I hope the random board and sci-fi theme might still be enough to save Gaia Project. Whatever your perspective, Age of Innovation is undeniably another masterpiece, and I would be very surprised if it didn’t climb rapidly up the ranks of the BGG top 100 over the next few years.
You can purchase Age of Innovation on Amazon.