15th Jul2019

‘Gaia Project’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

gaia-box

Re-implementations are common in the board gaming world, but with a game as classic as Terra Mystica, the decision to release a follow up must been a challenging one. In 2017 though, designers Jens Drogemuller and Helge Ostertag teamed up again to iterate their original design and release Gaia Project, a more or less direct sequel (in a mechanical sense) to the original game, albeit set around an entirely different theme. Gaia Project, as the name suggests, focuses on the seeding and cultivation of perfectly habitable planets all over the galaxy.

As always in a eurogame, what that really means is that the player who collects the most points in Gaia Project will win, although when I put it like that, it oversimplifies the scope and scale of this ambitious game by quite a long way. Gaia Project is, according to many, actually one of the heaviest and most complex modern board games to navigate, which is demonstrated by its Board Game Geek weight of around 4.30 (out of a possible 5.) This rating far exceeds the average for a typical eurogame and even other games that are considered heavy are considered as much as twenty five percent easier to pick up and run with.

Despite this rating, Gaia Project isn’t actually that complex at a mechanical level, it simply asks an awful lot from the players in terms of foresight and planning, as well as moment to moment decision making. It’s a relatively simple thing to simply endure a three hour game of Gaia Project and reach the end, but it’s an entirely different prospect to choose a faction (from the fourteen fairly unique options), identify your optimal way of winning and then driving that plan to fruition – whilst at the same time handling the inevitable spanners thrown by your opponents.

Putting aside the fact that Gaia Project really just cares about points (which are gained through various methods during the game and then during an end game scoring phase,) we should talk about what you’ll actually do in the game. Briefly, each faction is looking to expand their influence onto the unoccupied planets across the galaxy by terraforming and building on them. At the beginning of the game, terraforming is expensive and the range that players can travel to is limited to a single space, so to a certain extent, the early turns are spent building up some infrastructure.

Mines are the cheapest structure and the precursor to all other buildings. Mines increase ore production by one (in most cases, as depicted by the spaces they leave behind on the board) whilst the next building up – the trading post – increases money production. Building a trading post replaces the mine, whilst building the even more advanced buildings such as the planetary command centre or the science lab also replaces the trading post. As such, planning which buildings to place and when is key, since advancing too quickly can cripple ore production, whilst not doing so will leave the players penniless.

Science, which is generated fairly slowly unless a player invests heavily in it, can be used to buy upgrades on a series of tracks on one of Gaia Project‘s numerous boards. Aside from points both during and especially at the end of the game, these tracks result in various upgrades that relate to some of the features I’ve already mentioned. One track cheapens terraforming, which is important because every faction has three tiers of planet (over and above its own default preference) that cost varying amounts of terraforming actions. Others add production of ore, gold or allow power to be cycled.

Whilst we’re talking about power, this is perhaps the most important resource in Gaia Project, having replaced the magic of Terra Mystica. One of the first things that players who know both games will call out as a key difference between these two games is the fact that unlike in Terra Mystica, players actually have the ability to regain power once it has been spent. In Terra Mystica, spent magic is gone forever, making it a very powerful resource that must be used sparingly. In Gaia Project, it’s actually more important not to have too much power, since the use of active power relies on cycling power tokens through three stages of readiness – only one of which can be used. In short, having too much power will mean that you spend a lot of time cycling it through the unusable spaces.

Power is really important, because alongside ore and money, it is the driving force behind most of the powerful actions in the game. In particular, terraforming requires power, as does transforming a certain class of planet known as “Transdimensional” into planets that can be occupied in a similar way. The increased access to power that players have goes hand in hand with the natural flow of the game, since during the early stages, players will each be focused on the planets that they can terraform quickly that are close to them, but later, more competition for marginal planets and “Transdims” will begin to emerge as the board gets more and more tightly packed.

Interestingly, there is a bit of a benefit to being close to other players as it happens, for at least two key reasons. Firstly, when building trading posts, the setup cost is halved whenever a rival planet is within two spaces – thematically because trade between different nations is inherently more interesting for everyone. Additionally though, there’s a more subtle benefit for this adjacency. Each time a player builds or upgrades a building within the same two space distance of a rival building, then that rival will be able to cycle energy in exchange for a small cost in victory points. Doing so is expensive, but when you are that rival, knowing when to do this is crucial for setting up your own next turn.

There are a few other things that players can do on their turn, and in fact, players are free to take as many actions as they want (or can) before passing. The turn structure of Gaia Project is simple – you just take your turn and then play moves onwards around the table in the current player order (which is not always directional) until someone passes. When this happens, that player becomes the first player for the next round (as indicated by a handy little tracker) and they must then trade in their round bonus token and take one from those that are available in the middle of the table. Each player to pass after them will be next in order for the following round, and will also be able to take a bonus token, which may include the one previously discarded by the last player.

After all the players have passed, a production phase kicks off each new round. At this point, the players tot up each of the different kinds of production (ore, money, science and power) and add it to their player board. They will also perform any other actions assigned at this point, such as power cycling abilities (if they have them) for example. There are loads of ways to influence production (most of which are on the actual player board) but the tokens claimed from advancing science tracks, placing research stations and from the round bonus token can all add bonuses. As you can imagine, manipulating these things to achieve your aims is an essential part of the strategy in Gaia Project.

Just as important as balancing all these different elements and really, really key to setting out your plan is what faction you have chosen. The Terran’s, for example, can terraform planets more easily than other species and regain power after converting a Transdim planet immediately – which no one else does. This makes them able to expand fairly rapidly with minimal science investment. The Itars, on the other hand, can obtain technology tiles by spending energy, and tech tiles always result in powerful benefits to production or even points. The Taklons come with a power crystal that is worth three normal power tokens on its own, meaning that they are incentivised to cycle power efficiently and to keep their overall number of power tokens relatively low.

With all of this said, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on in Gaia Project, and that, I think is where it gets its reputation from. There are also powerful cuboid crystals called QIC’s which can be exchanged for powerful actions, and there are several board setup variants from the basic one I’ve shown in these pictures to entirely random ones. One expert variant gives the last player to choose their faction the ability to rotate the board tiles as suits them in order to minimise the advantage of the players going earlier. No matter how complex it is, you can never say that Gaia Project isn’t balanced and one thing is obvious – it was play tested to the nth degree.

There’s no doubt that Gaia Project could easily be the one very heavy game you add to your collection. If the theme appeals to you ( or even if it doesn’t – I’m not mad keen on space expansion of this kind) then it’s a game that you could play a hundred times and still not have fully explored. It’s a superb game to play with the same group of players time after time, experimenting with different combinations of factions, starting conditions and map layouts, or even one to introduce to players looking to move onto heavier games. Most importantly, Gaia Project is relatively easy to teach and understand, even though it’s hard to master. This, combined with its inherent balance and robustness makes it a pleasurable experience for anyone sitting down for a game – just make sure you have at least three hours set aside for the privilege!

****½  4.5/5

Gaia Project is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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