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Review: Gaia Project

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Your alien race is getting the expansionist itch, so it’s time to take to the stars! Unfortunately, there aren’t many planets that are well-suited for your race’s unique needs, but it’s nothing a little terraforming can’t fix.

The problem that’s harder to fix is just how small the galaxy is, and just how many other alien races there are.  There are benefits to being close neighbors, but it’s harder to snatch the planet you want when you’re that close. It just doesn’t seem neighborly.

How It Works

Gaia Project is a complex Euro game for two to four players. Players control unique alien races and try to colonize the galaxy with their buildings. The player with the most points wins.

To begin, each player receives a unique alien race, represented by a faction board. The modular board tiles are arranged, and the technology tiles are randomly assigned to the nine spaces on the technology board. A random advanced technology is assigned to each technology track, two end-game scoring conditions are randomly chosen, one round-scoring bonus tile is randomly assigned to each round, and round boosters are randomly chosen based on the number of players. Players set their buildings on their individual faction boards, choose starting locations on the main board, and in reverse turn order choose a round booster for the first round. The first player begins.

The Terrans faction board in Gaia Project. (Note that all pictures in this review are provided by Alex, @BottomShelfBG.)

The game is played over six rounds. A round in Gaia Project consists of four phases: income, Gaia Project, actions, and cleanup. In income, players get resources based on which buildings they have on the board, their technology tiles, and certain technology tracks. In the Gaia Project phase, players’ Gaia Projects transform planets. The bulk of the game happens during the action phase, when players take actions, one per turn, in turn order until every player passes. On a turn, there are eight possible actions:

  • Build a mine (colonize a new planet)
  • Upgrade a building
  • Start a Gaia Project
  • Move up a technology track
  • Form a federation
  • Use a once-per-round “power action,” making it unavailable to other players
  • Use a once-per-round, player-specific special action
  • Pass

There are four main resources in the game: ore, credits, knowledge, and “quantum intelligence cubes” (or QICs). Players have to carefully manage their resources to accomplish their goals. Each player also has a separate power cycle of renewable energy that can be used to buy the four main resources in the game or to take special actions on the board. Players charge their power cycle through income and by being in close proximity when other players build or upgrade.

In Gaia Project, mines are the only new buildings that may be built on planets, and in order to build on a new planet, the planet must be in range and the player must first terraform it to fit their race’s unique needs. If players want to place their bigger and better buildings on the board, they must upgrade their mines to trading stations and then upgrade their trading stations into other buildings. Each race has a “planetary institute,” which unlocks a unique power for the race when the player upgrades to it. There are also science buildings, which grant new technology tiles to the player. (Technology tiles advance players on technology tracks, which unlock new abilities for the player, and give them either one-time or ongoing bonuses.)

Most planets are differently terraformable for each race (that is, each race has planet types that are more and less accommodating to them), but green Gaia planets are equally terraformable for each race. There are also purple “Transdim” planets that are uninhabitable without using the titular Gaia Projects.

The technology board with technology tiles and tracks. The score track goes around the perimeter.

There are six technology tracks in Gaia Project, which grant players abilities the farther they climb them. The terraforming track makes it cheaper to make planets inhabitable; the navigation track extends a race’s range for colonization; the artificial intelligence track rewards players with QICs; the Gaia Project track allows players to use Gaia Projects; the economy track boosts players’ income; and the research track boosts a player’s knowledge, which can be used to move up technology tracks.

Players earn points primarily by forming federations (linking their buildings on the board),  climbing up technology tracks and taking technology tiles, working toward the end-game objectives, and scoring the round’s bonus. Each round, a new scoring opportunity is available to players that rewards players for doing something during the round (for example, climbing a technology track, placing a mine on a Gaia planet, or upgrading to their planetary institute).

The game ends after the sixth round. Players score end-game points for how far they’ve climbed up the technology tracks, for leftover resources, and for their position in the end-game scoring objectives. Whoever has the most points wins.

Space Jam

Gaia Project clearly builds on the model of Terra Mystica, one of the highest-ranked board games on Board Game Geek and also one of my top ten favorite games. Yet Gaia Project both is and isn’t just Terra Mystica in space.

Note: If you’ve never played Terra Mystica, you may want to skip to the bolded sentence later in the review.

Players who already know and love Terra Mystica will know more or less what to expect with Gaia Project. The bones of the game are the same: players are trying to expand their influence by building small buildings and upgrading to better buildings, and the buildings placed on the board provide some kind of income each round, and each player represents a race with a unique player power that breaks the rules of the game in their favor in some way. So far, so familiar.

But Gaia Project departs from Terra Mystica both by making some things more complicated and by streamlining some other aspects of the game.

While buildings are on the board, they provide income each round.

One of the more complicated parts of the game is the added currency. Workers from Terra Mystica become ore in Gaia Project; priests are replaced by knowledge; coins are credits. Easy peasy. But now there are also “quantum intelligence cubes” (or QICs), which are a shortcut to terraforming Gaia planets and also allow players to build farther away than their position on the navigation track would allow. QICs can be spent in powerful once-per-round actions as well, similar to power actions.

The game also offers players a new action, the titular “Gaia Project,” which allows players to transform the uninhabitable Transdim planets on the board into Gaia planets. This process involves some explanation, and it can also be unclear to players who are learning the game what the benefits of Gaia Projects are. “Why would I gaiaform a planet, which hamstrings my power flow, if I can just build on another planet?” (Never mind that the resource necessary to terraform–ore–can be scarce.) To me, this is the biggest barrier to new players. The Gaia Project step happens in every round, but it’s easy to ignore if you’re not participating in the gaiaforming track. In one game, a new player used the Terrans race, which receives bonuses for using Gaia Projects, and he barely gaiaformed all game. The next game, I decided I would be the Terrans to show other players the benefits of Gaia Projects. Instead, they still ignored them and called the Gaia Project step the step where I got to do things. Since Gaia Projects aren’t “necessary,” and since they are hard to understand, my experience is that new players ignore them. (Perhaps including the Gaia planet scoring condition would alleviate this? Then again, it could make it worse.) In any case, the complexity in this step is one of my least favorite parts of the game.

One of my favorite parts of the game, however, is Gaia planets themselves. As in Terra Mystica, there’s a “wheel” of terraforming, and each race has three rings, so to speak, of terraforming neighbors, types that are one, two, or three steps away. In Gaia Project, Gaia planets are a new planet type, removed from this ring, that is equally terraformable to all races. Add to this the multiple scoring conditions that target Gaia planets, and these planets are a hot commodity. I like that all the players are competing over one thing as it adds more interaction to a game that could devolve into solitaire play if the players let that happen.

Gaia Projects allow players to transform purple Transdim planets into Gaia planets. (Blue has already done the work here.)

I also like that in Gaia Project the fiddliness of terraforming is removed. In Terra Mystica, players could terraform spaces partially, or terraform without settling, and a new terrain token was placed on every space that was terraformed. These terrain tokens were double-sided, and it was often a pain to find the right token to place there. In Gaia Project, while partial terraforming is a thing of the past, so too is searching for the right token to place on the board. Players can place their mines on any planet, provided they pay the cost. I find this so much simpler, and it also opens up new scoring opportunities as players can be rewarded for settling on several different kinds of planets. Gaia Project also removes some fiddliness in the way it handles resources. While individual QICs are handed out, all other resources are recorded along a track on each player’s board. While I typically like hoarding a small pile of resources, the tracks in Gaia Project are cleaner and easier to use.

Adjacency is somewhere in the middle as far as complexity goes compared to Terra Mystica. On the one hand, there are lots more empty spaces on the board in Gaia Project, making your initial navigation (similar to shipping) seem paltry, but it’s clear enough during the game what is adjacent, and Gaia Project eliminates the direct/indirect adjacency rules that sometimes confused first-time Terra Mystica players. Forming federations (“towns” in Terra Mystica parlance) is also made simpler and clearly marked on the board using satellites, which players pay for by removing power from their power cycle. I think I prefer Gaia Project’s simplification of adjacency here, even if the gaps between planets make it harder to terraform at the start of the game.

It’s easy to see where federations have been formed because you place satellites on the board to connect planets.

Back to the power cycle, that gets a huge revamp in Gaia Project. In Terra Mystica, each race starts the game with twelve power in their cycle, and power can only be removed during the game. Here, the amount of power each player starts with varies by the race, and while removing power is required for some actions (e.g., placing satellites), it is now possible to increase the amount of power in your cycle, both through income and through one-time effects. For players who liked the power cycle in Terra Mystica, the puzzle is more interesting to manage in Gaia Project.

Gaia Project follows the Terra Mystica: Fire & Ice expansion in offering an optional pass track (players take turns in the order they passed in the previous round instead of clockwise from the first player who passed) and new game-end objectives that differ from game to game.

Instead of collecting discrete pieces, faction boards now have resource tracks. You can also see the Terrans’ power cycle.

Perhaps the biggest revamp from Terra Mystica, though, is the technology board. The cult tracks of Ye Olde Terra Mystica have been combined with the shovel and shipping tracks that were on individual player boards into a new technology board with six different technology tracks: terraforming (~shovels), navigation (~shipping), artificial intelligence (get QICs), gaiaforming (for Gaia Projects), economy (boosts to income), and science (more knowledge income) . Rather than favor tiles always corresponding to one cult track, in Gaia Project, the different technologies (nine in all) are randomly assigned to the different tracks, with three technology tiles offering a boost along a track of the player’s choosing. There are new advanced technology tiles, one assigned to each track, that a player who reaches high enough in the track can claim only if they cover a basic technology tile with the new ability. For me, these tracks simultaneously streamline and complicate the game: they streamline it by making the technology tracks more integrated with the rest of the game, offering a single place to look for both technology and abilities, but they complicate it by offering more options to players. To me, I prefer this aspect of Gaia Project, as it seems to fit better into the overall narrative arc (such as it is) of the game and world.

If you’ve never played Terra Mystica before and are wondering if Gaia Project is for youunderstand that this is a complex game that can be difficult to learn. I’m pretty decent at explaining games, and it took me around twenty-five minutes to explain this to players who had played Terra Mystica before and around forty minutes to explain it to players who hadn’t. The rulebook is long, and while it includes lots of diagrams and examples, it is dense with lots of niggles to remember.

Each faction has a unique ability that unlocks when the planetary institute is built.

Aside from being difficult to teach, Gaia Project is a game that revels in its immensity. It is a game designed to get lost in. There are fourteen alien races and more scoring conditions, round boosters, and advanced technologies than appear in any given game, as well as a modular setup. Even without these things, there’s a lot to explore in the game. There’s a reason you read about players on Board Game Geek logging plays of Terra Mystica in the tens, hundreds, or even thousands–there’s a lot in the game and a lot to explore in that game, even without the added variability of Gaia Project. The flip side of that, though, is that it’s not a game to casually play. One player I taught the game to said that the game didn’t repay the investment, and I think that’s true if you play just once. In some ways, if Gaia Project were introduced fresh and didn’t have its Terra Mystica pedigree, I wonder if it would catch on–there’s a lot to learn cold, and it seems that in the flood of games released each year, many hobbyists flit from game to game rather than drinking deeply of any one. So if you haven’t played Terra Mystica, know that Gaia Project, even more than its predecessor, is a game that probably isn’t worth investing in unless you are willing to drink deeply. Not necessarily hundreds-of-plays drink deeply–I think you can enjoy it without that–but I would expect this game needs to be a nickel or dime in your annual rotation to make it worth your while.

With these caveats out of the way, if you like heavy Euro games, and especially if you like resource-management games, run, don’t walk–you will love Gaia Project. Despite its complex rules, the game is surprisingly elegant once you understand what’s happening. There are eight options each turn, but they’re not too difficult to parse. There is interaction galore in the game without direct conflict. (Although when someone claims the planet you’d been eyeing, you will understand how competition can sometimes feel like conflict, and you’ll wish you had some sort of laser to wreak havoc on your enemies.)

The map for Gaia Project is modular. This makes each game unique.

And every game will be different. As I mentioned earlier, there are fourteen distinct races and ten board tiles in the game, making each setup unique. The technology is placed below tracks randomly each game, and new advanced technologies appear each game. There are more round boosters than appear in any one game, so these can switch out, and the scoring conditions (both for the round and end game) vary from one game to the next. Variety in itself isn’t a virtue, but here it is a way to grant you extra mileage with the game because you have to adjust your strategy if you want to maximize your score.

Gaia Project is a meaty game in which even when other players are taking their sweet time to make a decision, there is always something for you to think about. The resources in the game are tight, and every time you upgrade a building, there’s a trade-off: you’re uncovering one bonus by re-covering a different one. You have to juggle four currencies and six distinct technology tracks, which sounds like a lot, but your unique player race gives you some guidance in which way to go. That being said, the unique race ability doesn’t box you into a single strategy. You have to weigh the strengths of your race against the scoring bonuses on offer in the game. The planetary institute for each race usually unlocks a strong ability for the rest of the game, and it’s within reach in the first round of the game, but players have to look at the round bonuses: is it better to upgrade early and have the ability all game (while also hamstringing your resources)? Or is it better to wait until you’re on strong financial footing, possibly reaping point bonuses along the way? The game is full of these interesting trade-offs, and again, what’s good for one race isn’t necessarily the right decision for another. I’m not always a fan of asymmetry, but I love it in Gaia Project because it brings new trade-offs to the fore in each game.

Each time you form a federation, you get to take a federation token. These grant points and usually resources, and they’re used to advance to the highest stages of the technology track or to claim advanced technologies.

Despite being a heavy, brain-burning game, Gaia Project doesn’t feel overlong. Granted, this is in the eye of the beholder–the learning game with four players in which I was the only experienced player took, with rules explanation, a little over three hours. But to me, there is always something interesting to think about, always new schemes to devise, so the time as you play has a tendency to fly by. Again, if you like heavy Euros, this is as good as the genre gets.

That being said, aside from rules complexity, Gaia Project is a little dry in the lore department. The rulebook makes no effort to explain the races of the game to players, or the various technologies, or…much of anything that would imbue the game with thematic interest. This game has the trappings of a space opera, but it’s much more the slow, plodding 2001 than Star Wars. The alien races are hidden behind a cloak of unintelligible consonant clusters that mean nothing (as these races, with the exception of Terrans, don’t appear under that name anywhere else), which can make referencing them difficult from game to game. As much as I usually don’t care about theme in the games I play, Gaia Project takes “not caring about the theme” a little too far. There are “quantum intelligence cubes,” which the game makes no effort to explain in terms of lore–all you know is they help you terraform Gaia planets and boost your range when you need to. Similarly, there are “Transdim” planets that are uninhabitable without the titular Gaia Projects, but Lord help you if you ask what that means. One alien race has a “brain stone” that is similarly unexplained. Again, the lack of a coherent universe–or, rather, the absence of explanation for the coherency of the universe–makes the rules difficult to explain in game terms. But your table company will still sound like huge geeks when you say things like, “I’m going to gaiaform that Transdim.” So you get the embarrassing vocabulary without the knowledge to know what the heck you’re talking about.

It gets harder to expand as the game progresses.

The components here are great, with a few caveats. When I first saw the illustrations for the game on Board Game Geek, I was disappointed. I’m usually not a fan of Dennis Lohausen’s artwork, anyway, but without the large beards we’ve become accustomed to in his illustrationss, the futuristic sci-fi looked downright cartoonish and ridiculous. Seeing the illustrations in person, though, I’ve come around to them. They’re fine. They’re not bad, and (a huge virtue in a game with this much going on) they don’t distract. I think the game looks attractive on the table (especially the main board), and the player boards are clearly laid out, a feat in itself given the amount of information they have to convey. I do love the wooden pieces in Terra Mystica (hard to take the Euro out of this gamer), but the plastic pieces included in Gaia Project fit the space theme better, and they are sturdy and well detailed. They’re nice plastic pieces. The boards in my copy came pre-warped, and for the first several games, even after placing them under books before the game, they curled slightly when I started to play. This is annoying, but not a deal breaker–it’s not as dire here when buildings slip as when your cubes shift in Terraforming Mars. And I should say that my boards now lie completely flat–likely a combination of placing heavy things on them and their acclimating to the humidity level in my house. (They seem to have acclimated on their own–I had given up trying to straighten them.) The QIC cubes are super cool–it’s amazing that a resource that tiny has so much detail on it. There is a ton of cardboard and a good deal of plastic in the box, including colored components for all seven races, even though only four can play at any given time. I’m quite satisfied with the build quality of everything provided. There are also ample components in the box for every game situation I’ve encountered. I know a $100 MSRP is hard to swallow, especially for a Euro game, but I think this one earns its cost, even if the components were much worse than they are. This is a game that you will want to play again and again, and it should stand up to the many plays you demand of it. I do wish that the new Kickstarter fad of including a custom insert were applied to this game. While I haven’t purchased third-party inserts in the past, I likely will for this game, as setup is a bear with the provided plastic baggies.

Gaia Project comes with a solitaire “Automa” system in-box, which I have played a number of times while I’ve waited to achieve the right number of opponents at game night. The Automa system shines in that it provides a difficult opponent with minimal upkeep, and the opponent feels like an opponent, not just a ghost on the map. The Automa rules, in skeleton, are easy to understand, but there are a few niggles that can be difficult to remember. Thankfully, the player aid is good here, although the danger is in feeling like you understand the game enough to go “off aid” before you really are ready. The hardest rule to remember is the order of operations when the Automa builds a mine, but even these rules become more or less second nature the more you play. All told, this is one of the best AI “opponents” I’ve seen in a game, and the opponent has several difficulty settings, which should satisfy most players. (I have a hard time beating the easy one so…well, I haven’t explored the other ones.) For me, after setup (which probably takes ten to fifteen minutes), I’m able to complete a game in around fifty minutes, which is a satisfying length. I like the solitaire version. I don’t think I’d buy this game for solitaire play alone (although that’s something I would say about virtually any game), but now that I have the game, I have and will continue to play it that way.

Points are tracked with cylinders around the outer edge of the technology board.

I will also say that I’ve played the game with one, three, and four players, and it works equally well at all of these counts. I haven’t played with two (I don’t usually play heavy games at that count), but from what I can see of the scaling in the rest of the game (most notably in the Automa), it should work well.

For owners of Terra Mystica, the question you are probably asking is, Should I get Gaia Project if I already enjoy Terra Mystica? That, obviously, is an open question for each person. While Gaia Project and Terra Mystica are different games, they’re similar enough that I’m only keeping one. I plan to keep Gaia Project because the fantasy trappings of Terra Mystica were a turn-off for some of my groups whereas they’re more forgiving of a space (even a generic space) theme. I also like the customizable bits and how the game involves a little less fiddliness with resource tracks and no terraforming discs. I prefer the integration of the new technology board to the cult tracks and favor tiles of Terra Mystica. I’m a little less keen on the added play time (although this should come down with practice) and the added complexity of Gaia Projects, but the changes to Terra Mystica that I like outweigh these niggles. It helps, too, that I have a friend who already owns Terra Mystica and have the Terra Mystica app. That being said, the game is expensive ($100 MSRP), and if you are only an occasional player, you’re probably better off keeping what you have. However, if Terra Mystica is your favorite game and you’ve played it over and over and over again, you’ll probably like the new challenges in Gaia Project, and you’ll almost certainly get your money’s worth. Everything in this box is designed to go the distance.

Gaia Project is a bit of a table hog. Be prepared to sprawl when you play.

Gaia Project, to me, is an excellent new direction for Terra Mystica. It streamlines the game in ways that make sense while opening the system to new strategic avenues. Yes, the game can be long (probably two and a half to three hours with a full table of experienced players); yes, it is complex; yes, it is a game that rewards skill and repeat play. But if you are looking for a new gaming world to explore, one that offers new strategies and game situations in each game, and especially if you like your meaty Euros with a side of bacon, you will love Gaia Project. Don’t expect it to tell your stories for you: it requires effort to learn and to become immersed in its charms. But its charms are manifold, and it should repay your investment in the long term.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing us with a copy of Gaia Project for review.

  • Rating: 10
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Summary

Pros:

Takes what fans love about Terra Mystica and doubles down on it
Lots of variety and opportunities to customize
Deep game that will stand up to many, many plays
A full box of excellent components give options and justify the expense

Cons:

Expensive to buy and difficult to learn--players have to be committed to learn it
While not bad looking, it's not a "showpiece" game that will arrest players with its beauty
Not for beginners in complexity or duration

10.0 Mystacular

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. High praise! It’s a mighty fine game indeed, but I’m not entirely sold on some of the changes made from Terra Mystica, particularly the theming and the openness of map. There’s nothing to latch onto with these aliens whereas the races in Terra Mystica are easy to identify. The guys with carpets can fly, the dwarves dig and the swarmlings swarm. And the map isn’t as cutthroat as I’d like because the planets are far away and QIC’s give you more options to expand. That said, almost everything else of the game is an improvement (except the art, imo).

    The problem for me is that Terra Mystica came first. I have more experience with it and so do the people I play with. Do we want to put the effort into learning it or stick with Terra Mystica and spend the time we would use exploring Gaia Project to explore a completely new game. What a hard life I have.

    • I agree about the lore: I do miss the easy identification of one race with another. When we played one game, another player, once he learned what all our powers were, told us who we’d be in the Star Trek universe. This was helpful for him, at least.

      As for the openness of the map, it doesn’t bother me as it still feels hotly contested, and it introduces another wrinkle: do I spend these precious QICs to boost my range, or am I better off spending them to do something else? Should I work to move up the navigation track? And I like the streamlining of adjacency: it makes it much simpler to determine which settlements are connected.

      That’s a good point: is it worth the investment to switch at this point? My group is still on the front end of Terra Mystica, so it’s not too much for us to switch over. It might be for some groups. Then again, for those groups, the additions of Gaia Project aren’t too bad.

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