Terracotta Army Review
Not content with landing Tiletum on us this year, Board&Dice have another big-box heavy Euro to drop on our laps. Terracotta Army is based on the creation of the army of statues for the mausoleum of Qin Shi Shuang, who was the first emperor of China. In the game, the emperor has died, and you play the role of one of his craftspeople, tasked with creating the great army that will protect him in the afterlife. You’ll need clay – lots of clay – while you appoint your artisans to get to building some kick-ass statues.
If you’re not familiar with the Terracotta Army, it’s really worth reading up on. It doesn’t get as much attention as monuments like the Egyptian pyramids, but the scale of the army and the rest of the mausoleum is ridiculous. We’re talking about ~10,000 statues of various types and sizes, which are just part of a 100 km² structure built by nearly three-quarters of a million people!
Not a rondel
Now, the first time I heard about Terracotta Army, someone told me it had a mega-rondel on it. “It’s three rondels in one, Adam”. It’s no secret that I LOVE a rondel, so I was really excited to finally play it. I’ve got one message for those people who told me that – you’re all fibbers. What this faux rondel actually is, is three rings with various actions on each one. The rings move position from time to time, but when you place a worker you get the three actions in line with the segment of the wheels you chose.
It turns out that this is a really neat mechanism. There’s a certain amount of planning you can do because you know how far each wheel steps at the end of each round, but there are a lot of unknowns thrown into the mix. For instance, only one player can claim each segment of the wheel in each round, and you just know someone’s going to go for the one you had your beady little eye on. Is that a game-breaking problem? No, because you can hire artisans who let you re-use segments that have already been claimed.
So it’s actually a really clever action-selection mechanism in truth, and I love how much variety and chaos it brings to the game. But a rondel it is not. You don’t step around the wheel, you don’t choose how many steps you make, or anything like that. And a rondel doesn’t even have to be wheel-shaped. Look at games like PARKS. It’s a straight path, but that thing is a rondel by any other name. The problem – if that’s what you want to call it – is people see an action wheel and assume it’s a rondel. It’s not, it’s just a circle.
So now you’re thinking it’s an action-selection type game, and you’re correct. Well, you’re partially correct. You see, on the bottom of the board there’s a Masters section, and if you get some tokens in there, you activate new possible actions, as well as end-of-round cleanup bonuses. So it’s got some engine-building in there too. But then you cast your eyes over to that imposing box full of upside-down statue minis, and realise you haven’t even thought about those yet, and the third flavour of ice cream in the box.
The box with the minis acts as a cool storage solution for them which prevents them from getting damaged in the box. It’s a little odd that they’re all the wrong way up. It’s like some kind of bat party where you can only get in if you’re hanging from your feet. Once you’ve collected enough clay, you can start building statues and placing them in the mausoleum section of the board, and that’s where things start to get complicated.
Each of the different colours of statue triggers a different ability when you sculpt them, and when you add it to the board you sit it in one of the coloured bases supplied, to denote that you own it. Keeping an eye on the statues’ colours isn’t enough, you need to observe the bases too, and it’s something which takes a little getting used to at first, possibly less so if you cut your teeth on games like Tigris and Euphrates.
All of this is before you even look at the specialist statues, which score bonus points dependent on where certain statues are in relation to them. This whole area puzzle then throws in the concepts of presence and domination for scoring, and on top of that, moving the inspectors along the rows and columns to indicate which statues are to be scored in that round. Let’s not forget that the end of game scoring is different, too.
The whole package comes across like somebody really wanted to create a game in the style of Vital Lacerda (he of On Mars fame, review here). I love a complex game, but only when it’s done well, and Terracotta Army very nearly does it well. It just feels like there’s a little bit too much going on at times.
If you start your planning with the goal of making statues and work it backwards to see how you can make that happen, the dominoes that have to fall to make it happen are in a long twisty line, and it’s easy for someone to steal a domino along the way, forcing you to stand them in a different direction.
Figurative dominoes that is, the domino mechanism never made it into the game.
There are some of you reading this now thinking “There is a lot going on, this game sounds amazing!”, and if that sounds like you, then I think you’ll love it. If you’re more middle-of-the-road though, there’s maybe a bit too much going on, and I can see people not wanting to give it a second or third play, because of how broken their brains felt after the first game.
The biggest problem Terracotta Army has, in my opinion, is that it’s hitting store shelves at the same time as its stablemate, Tiletum. If you read my review of Tiletum, you’ll know that I love that game. Board&Dice games have traditionally been on that mid-heavy end of the complexity spectrum, so Terracotta Army fits in nicely there. My problem comes in recommending this game over Tiletum, if you only have the budget for one or the other.
It’s not to say it’s a bad game, because it isn’t. Terracotta Army is a good game, t’s a thinky, grindy, crunchy game. If those adjectives cause a stirring in your loins, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. What you probably won’t enjoy, is punching out the tiny squares in the middle of the cardboard coins. Publishers, please take note: We like the historical ties, but punching those out is a task reserved for someone you don’t like.
I can’t escape the feeling that the area control part of the game – placing and manipulating the statues – would have made a great, clever game in its own right. A spatial strategy game. Give me that game.
All of that said, if you’re a solo gamer looking at Terracotta Army, and you like games that feel like elaborate puzzles, I think it’s a great option (although you need to download the solo rules, here). I prefer playing it solo to multiplayer in fact, because I can take my time over it, and think my plans through. It’s mental gymnastics like these that introduce not-insignificant AP in multiplayer games. I like Terracotta Army, I really do, it just occupies a very specific spot on your shelves. The same sort of spot that games like Underwater Cities occupy, with their far-reaching planning, difficult decisions, and sometimes-lengthy games.
Review copy kindly provided by Board&Dice. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Terracotta Army (2022)
Designers: Przemysław Fornal, Adam Kwapiński
Art: Zuzanna Kołakowska, Jan Lipiński, Aleksander Zawada
Players: 2-4 (solo with rules download)
Playing time: 90-120 mins