Gaia Project Review

21 April 2018

After playing every faction at least twice, finally scoring 200+ points in a game and gathering all my thoughts I feel like I am finally ready to review this gem of a game. I will be honest upfront: this is my personal favorite game of all time and a third “perfect 10” on BGG, alongside Terra Mystica and Through the Ages: a New Story of Civilization.

Obviously this review is going to be biased; I am not a professional reviewer and don’t claim to be one. I am a board game geek who loves this game and has a bit of a personal agenda: I want this game to sell well so that Jens and Helge will never have to work ever again, get incredibly rich, have all the free time in the world and make a new gem in five years, once again amazing us with intricate systems. In a world filled with shallow, bloated Kickstarter products, I feel like them and Vlaada are the only beacons of hope that push the medium further, innovating, refining but not overcomplicating one of my favorite hobbies.

Vlaada wasn’t mentioned in vain in this opening: as much as I love TTA, the transition from version to version was a work on mistakes and balance issues, along with quality of life improvements. Terra Mystica was perfect for me from the beginning and well, Gaia Project is something you get when you start with something perfect and despite the obvious contradictions, make it better. Better and different.

# The Superficial

The amazingly designed player boards are back and I couldn’t be happier. Everything is clear, concise, has a place and makes a ton of sense. The art direction is also back and personally I feel that is unfortunate, given how the theme has changed drastically. Some of the art in this game might feel out of place and it will never blow your socks off. But it is still high quality with 14 unique and recognizable faction representatives, which convey the general idea behind their play styles reasonably well. It is functional, solid, but is not something that will keep your eyes glued to it.

That said, the game is still an eye candy, especially in a 4-player game. Looking at the board filled with miniature buildings, you get a sense of awe, while still being able to understand what is happening and see the potential moves at a glance. I also don’t fully understand the debate between Wood vs. Plastic: all buildings in this game feel great in your hand, have appropriate amount of detail and the bigger ones, Academies especially, are downright gorgeous. I don’t know whether this level of detail could be achieved with wooden pieces, but for me the miniatures are a definite improvement.

That said, some of the components did feel a little on the “cheap” side. 31 games in, there are already small, but clear signs of wear on two of the player boards and one of the sectors. My player boards also used to curl up for some reason, but after a couple of days under some of my heavier books, they’ve straightened up and stopped doing it. I feel like when it comes to the cardboard bits, Terra Mystica was a little better produced, since it is still in a near-perfect condition after all these years and countless plays.

Also: Terra Mystica has a better box. And I’m not talking about the art, which is subjective. TM box was a lot more functional and spacious, having more spaces for player-added things like small token plates and organizers.

All of this, however, doesn’t matter one bit, because these pieces are merely a gateway to a magical world of incredible puzzles that simply never get old.

# The Game

I am not going to outline the whole rulebook trying to help people understand how to play the game, instead I will concentrate on the experiences I have while playing it, highlighting some of the brilliant things this game does.

It is a 0% luck game. Literally zero. Nothing in this game will make a worse player win or a better player lose. One could argue that the order in which you pick factions can create a bit of an imbalance, but this is a problem easily solved with a start-game auction, once players are familiar with the game.

In my book it is a major positive. I am a competitive player with an esports background who has a major distaste for anything involving post-factual randomness. I simply refuse to play a game where an outcome of some action can change depending on the roll of a dice or a draw of a card. And I am also a bit wary of games where card draws or dice rolls give you options, though I have to admit that there are excellent games in each category with “good” random (e.g. Terraforming Mars and Roll for the Galaxy).

Despite having no random at all it is still an incredibly variable game, with countless setup combinations, 15 distinct end-game scoring “goals” and a lot of player interaction.

Yes, I am the type of person who would argue that both Terra and Gaia have one of the highest levels of player interaction in the hobby — every single thing you do influences the other players in one way or another, but it might not be as clear for newer players. It isn’t “ha! I attack you here and then use this higher card I’ve drawn to win the fight” so many people confuse with meaningful player interaction. It is more of a “I will nonchalantly place this Mine here, allowing you to gain some power, and you might not feel the consequences of this action until two turns later, but you will feel it eventually”.

And that’s one of the beauties of the game — everything you do will both help and harm every other player, creating a natural comeback mechanic every single turn. You can’t be “out of the game”.

There is also very little “crisis management” in this game. You won’t be starved for food or need to “beg” for corn from the gods. In this game you are in a position of power, you are leading a race to glory and it is fully up to you, not chance, to make best of what you have. Where other Euros might force you to do something to prevent a loss of points, resources or family member, Gaia Project gives you a myriad of options to grow, expand and develop. It is an empowering feeling and a very dangerous one.

You see, the player with the highest point total wins the game and, obviously, you want to win. So you want to score more points. And every round there are opportunities to score bonus points and they might not necessarily align with your plan for the game. So you scrap your plan and go on a wild-goose chase after the points and you lose.

In your second game you are slightly more experienced and you understand the importance of a good economy behind the scoring. So you create a genius plan, ignore the bonus tiles completely and create an amazingly well-oiled economic machine that ends the game efficiently spending every single resource you’ve had throughout the six rounds. You still lose.

Next game you start compromising, doing a little bit of both. Suddenly, the game starts “speaking” with you. You begin to understand that you need a balanced approach. You start weighing your actions more heavily. You start to understand the importance of the order you take the actions in, since it is a competitive game with many players fighting for some scarce resources. You feel the flow, start reading opponent’s moves, start thinking of ways to disrupt them without sacrificing too much yourself, start thinking of VP deltas in some scenarios and you still might lose because someone at the table was better than you. And that is an infuriating feeling, but also a liberating one.

Because it was you who made every single move. No one bears responsibility for your loss but you. There wasn’t a bad draw, a bad roll. It was you. And if you are like me, it will jump your brain into overdrive. You will start thinking of things you could have done better. You will start seeing some patterns that led to a win by an opponent. You will learn to play the game and after 30+ games I’ve played so far I can honestly say that I am in fact still learning.

There is so much variation in this game it will require you to adapt and will present you with new scenarios and challenges every single game. No two games will ever be alike, but you can still use your experience to find better moves. Maybe not the best move, but a good one. And the factions in this game are designed in a beautiful way: they have very distinct abilities and features, but still remain balanced and, more importantly, open ended.

It will be you leading a unique faction to victory, not the other way around. They will play differently, but courtesy of a much improved Research Track, they are highly customizable and that allows you to shape them into what you consider to be the best version of them for that particular game.

And when your particular version of that particular faction for that particular game with these particular goals wins, you will feel euphoric. Because just like with losses, it was your moves, your decisions and it is you who deserves the praise for winning the game, not a good draw or a good roll.

# For players unfamiliar with Terra Mystica

You see this wall of text above ^. All this praise for Gaia Project, blablabla, better than Terra Mystica which is already perfect, blablabla...ooooh, so brainy, much depth, such wow… It all comes from a person who tried Terra Mystica once in 2012 after one of the players in our playgroup got it from BGG Secret Santa… and never wanted to play it again. I HATED the game. Honestly, it is probably possible for me to find a chat log where I was actively mocking Terra Mystica getting top 1 on BGG. I didn’t give it another chance until 2015, but then I kept playing Terra for two full years with a lot of live matches with friends on table and 300+ hours spent playing online on Tabletopia with random people. 

Don’t let the game, especially Gaia, intimidate you. It might look heavy, it might seem complex, but in reality it is “elegant”. The border, the interface, if you will, between the player and the game is so thin, very soon you will stop noticing any admin and will be fully immersed in the puzzle. You will feel like you are in this game, you are the brain… that is why the first part of the review is called “The Superficial”... it doesn’t matter, it is not the game, it is the interface. Like with an excellent book, the actual game is happening in your head.

And it is highly contrasted with many current kickstarter “success stories”. Massive, intricately detailed miniatures will sell, and that’s pretty much their main and only goal. They look, feel and play like a commercial product, while Gaia Project stands out as a project of passion and love. I am not claiming there aren’t great games across kickstarter, but let’s be honest here — once the novelty of miniatures wears off, what you ultimately care is the actual gameplay and not how cool this mech might look next to a massive bear.

It is also a full product. There are 14 playable factions and 10 tiles to create unique maps in a single box, along with a wide variety of end-game goals. If there is an expansion to this game, it is going to be a delicious sauce or an extra side dish to a wholesome meal cooked by a professional chef who also happens to be your grandma. It won’t be a missing part of a heavily yolk-covered pie which glitters under the flashes of cameras, while being mostly potatoes and cheap sausage inside. 

# For those who own and love Terra Mystica and aren’t decided on Gaia yet

I was recently a part of a conversation regarding the topic and I think Gaia is different to Terra Mystica and it is better. It is not “different enough to maybe buy”, it is full on different, with core mechanics intact, but put under circumstances where all your previous experience, while useful, won’t matter as much and you will have to learn, improve, adapt, improvise, be creative all over again. And for a lot longer this time around, since Gaia solves the main problem of Terra of predefined tactics for particular factions in two major ways: variable tech tile/research track set up AND open ended factions mentioned previously. On top of it, here is a quick list of 10 things that might seem similar, but are different:

1. Gaia is a good duel game. It is still best at 3+, but it is really good at 2.
2. Power is more flexible and has more uses. Also note that double shovel is at 5 and not at 6, meaning that it remains contested even with multiple players investing into terraforming.
3. No partial terraforming means that if you don't go into Terraforming Research Track, two planet types are completely out of reach for you. Allows for calmer planning, since you can be almost 100% certain a particular space will remain uncontested.
4. New "joker" planet type, which ease out the kinks in building progression.
5. Complete new mechanic for creating said joker planets, which is tied to power. Creates extra layer of depth to power management, since you don't burn this power, but it is tied for the round and next income phase.
6. More interesting Tech Tiles (blessings). Less VP and more customization options for the factions, which change game-to-game since they are a part of a set up.
7. Interesting Advanced Tech Tiles which can be as influential (or even more influential) than the end game bonus "goal tiles"
8. Two "goal" tiles in game randomized from a pool of 6. 15 potential combinations, which will force you to adapt in order to win. Or be really good at what you are doing.
9. Q.I.C. cubes which serve multiple purposes, such as extending your range, colonizing a Gaia planet or getting a special Q.I.C. action: a major improvement over TM's Priests.
10. Missing ore (worker) income under the third mine on every player board. First thought: “Why?”. Second thought: “Eh, don’t know, I guess I will have to live with this for some reason”. Third thought: “This is GENIUS”. 

Honestly, go get it. It improves on Terra in ways it needed to be improved on, without adding complexity, while still adding depth. Would I play Terra now? Yes, it is a great game in its own right and it is probably slightly more aggressive. If given the choice between the two, I will always go for Gaia, however.

# Conclusion

I currently have 3 games rated 10 on BGG: Through the Ages: New Story, Terra Mystica and Gaia Project. I stand firm with all three games deserving a 10, but Gaia Project is on a level of its own. It is approachable, varied, smart, fun and fair. It is the game you can play more than a 100 games of and still learn something new.

It is also not for everyone. I don’t think the game is very “dry” or completely “themeless”, but it is not a fun romp through a magical land filled with forced “excitement” of dice rolls and an arbitrary winner. It is a strategy game and the losers will feel sorrow, the games might take a little longer and your head might actually hurt a little after a particularly intense match.

There is no instant gratification, no pats on the back, no hand-holding and fool-proof mechanisms. If you are not willing to learn and think, you will have a bad time. But if you put in a little effort: two games, maybe three and get past the point of fully grasping the rules, you are in for a very long ride.

And a very smooth one as well, since once they are in your head, rules will never get out. Once they click, they click and there will never be a need to run back and forth from the manual. And it is at this point the game truly starts to shine. 

And I dare you to play enough to get to this point and then return to this thread and tell all of us you think Gaia is a bad game. Gaia Project — 10/10.