When I first started getting into board games, I didn’t jump in with one of the usual gateway games like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride. I dove in head first with Puerto Rico. To give you an idea of what that entailed, imagine never having even played checkers before in your life, then sitting down to play chess. Most games are pretty linear with their decision-making. You’ve got some choices, but in, say, Monopoly, they’re pretty much limited to, “Do I buy this property I just landed on?” or, “How much do I want to pay for it?” Otherwise, you just do what the dice and the board and the cards tell you, and that’s it. In Puerto Rico, pretty much everything is your choice. There are rules, pretty simple ones actually, but there are multiple strategies, multiple ways to win, multiple options for actions you can take each turn.
And my first time playing, I tried to take damn near all of them. I did so much of everything, I pretty much accomplished nothing. I was so scattered in my focus, I never established any momentum. I missed out on obvious combinations of moves, missed obvious plays my opponents were making, missed … well, you name it. In a game where a decent score is usually in the forties or fifties, I scored in the teens. It was absolutely miserable. And what made it worse was having everything finally click into place about two turns before the game ended. Far too late for me to do anything about it, but enough time to make my incompetence achingly apparent.
As I’ve played more board games over the years, I’ve gotten better and Puerto Rico and games like it. I’m not a world-beater by any stretch, but I’m not embarrassing myself either. Until Terra Mystica came along. The choices in Terra Mystica make the choices in Puerto Rico look like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are five different kinds of buildings you can buy using three different types of currency, and twelve different races you can choose from that start with different amounts of those currencies with different prices for those buildings and slightly different effects after building them. There’s another resource you use to perform special abilities that you have to manage like you’re playing a game of Mancala, while you’re also trying to score points by building connected buildings and managing your status with various cults. You can build bridges to connect your territories or develop sailing to link them via sea or transform terrain around you to match that of your race, plus each race has a special ability particular to them. And there are tiles you choose from when you finish your turn that give you bonus abilities, plus tiles you choose from when you build certain buildings that do the same thing and I think my brain just fell out of my skull while I typed that. Thing is, it’s a great game. All these seemingly disparate elements do actually flow together in a sensible way. It’s just a little overwhelming that first time.
Which felt like that first game of Puerto Rico all over again. I careened from strategy to strategy, usually as I looked at my game board and noticed I hadn’t been using one. Every possible bit of synergy was lost on me, and I fumbled my way to an inept finish where once again I figured out what I needed to be doing while everyone else was polishing off their winning moves. The square that was the scoring track might as well have been a straight line as far as I was concerned, because I had no need for the other three sides.
But in both cases, I still had a good time, and wanted to play the games again. Some games I take to intuitively — I still have some kind of savant thing going on when it comes to 7 Wonders — but others require an absolutely disastrous play before I can even begin to resemble anything approaching aptitude. It’s like having to fall off your bike a few times before you learn how to ride it. Except there’s a really low score hovering over your head while everyone else has ridden a few blocks away.