Terra Mystica (TM) is one of the most renowned games in the world, ranking 4 on the overall and strategic Top 100’s on BGG. Helge Ostertag, one of its authors, kindly answered our questions about co-designing games, his future plans, and the reason for the world-wide success of Terra Mystica.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do in “real life”, that is besides designing board games?
My profession is Art Therapist, I work in a psychosomatic hospital in Frankfurt, Germany.
In my daily work I meet a lot of different people which is quite interesting and diversified. Since March I am learning to play Cajon (“wood box drum”).
How did you meet with Jens [the other author behind TM] and decide to make a game together? How do you think, is it easier to design a game single-handedly or in collaboration?
Uwe Rosenberg introduced Jens to me as a play tester. After a lot of tesing session together Jens suggested to join me as my co-designer.
The advantage of designing a game together is, that you look from different angles towards the game and its mechanics and how it feels to play it and the feedback and the conclusions you draw from each testing sessions are multiplied.
So you have at least two persons willing to test the game, which is very useful when you are in an early state of game development, where a lot of changes happen. You don’t want to to weary your test players.
What games do you work on now? What can we expect from you?
At the moment we are working together on our game for 2017: “Terra Mystica: Gaia Project”. TM in space, with new twists, new technologies, new factions that expand their civilisation in outer space.
When an aspiring designer approaches you, what is one tip you could
Do a lot of play testing and simulation of plays on your own, before you reach out for possible play testers: You need to keep them interested in the game, so you should have sorted out all the basics, does it work the way you expected, are there snowball efffects, is there something, that is too redundant?
After a test play, ask for feedback, what did the other players like, what did they dislike?
Terra Mystica Questions
TM is not your first game, but by far the most successful and renowned. What do you think is the secret of its worldwide success and appeal to players?
TM has a lot of variety, depending on the setup and decisions of the other players you try to get the faction, that is most promising to be successful in this game.
I think just to play every base game faction at least once is a big incentive, but to improve your skill level is even a greater incentive.
The importance of the map as a core part of the game is maybe one of the more underestimated ingredients of TM‘s success.
What did you feel when TM became one of Top 5 games on BGG 100?
I was really happy about it and wondered, how far to the top the game would make it.
How much time did it take to design this game? What was the hardest part?
The designing process started 1996, but there were long pauses in between, it became intense from 2009 to 2012. The hardest part was to balance the factions.
Is there parts of the final game that either author can say: “It was my idea”? How did the game benefit from having two authors and not just one?
Jens joined the designing process when it was all about refining the game mechanics and the game elements. Uwe Rosenberg made some suggestions as well, also Frank Heeren, the publisher, contributed to the refining process. Jens had a great part in the way the powercycle works and he helped a lot in finding the different factions abilites.
Terraforming, building, shipping, the map, the player boards, the basic idea of bonus tiles, the basic idea of favor tiles, the round scoring tiles, etc. These are my ideas, also the idea to get power, if someone builds next to you.
Were there things you had to cut from the final design of TM and why?
Some faction ideas were spared for a possible expansion.
What is your favourite faction to play?
Yetis, if the setup fits.
Digital Boardgames and Tabletopia Questions
The world around us is changing rapidly with digital board gaming platforms, digital applications for smartphones and tablets appearing every day. What is the future of board gaming?
That is hard to predict, if I knew, I could make a fortune 😉
What are your thoughts on digital board games in general? Do you play any digital board games yourself?
It is great possiblity to play together with people from all over the world. From time to time I play digital board games, though I prefer to meet with my regular gaming group or to meet for testing sessions.
What do you think about Tabletopia? What are some things you like about it?
I think it is an interesting approach to play in virtual space. A platform like Tabletopia is also very nice for game development, because I could get in touch with players from all the other countries.
So far, I have not used it, because the play testing in real life for my game projects takes a lot of time but I will change this soon!
We’re very grateful to Helge for taking time to talk to us. And while we all are waiting for Terra Mystica in space, you can play “classic” Terra Mystica for free on Tabletopia now!