Bonus Actions

Terra Mystica

We played Terra Mystica last night.  It’s one of my favourite games and it seems it’s a favourite for a lot of other people as well as it’s currently 4th on Board Game Geek’s highest ranked games of all time.  If you’re not familiar with it, it has a very loose theme of fantasy races terraforming the land around them and trying to expand their territory.

It’s a heavy euro, but one of the things that stops it being dry (always a danger with euros) is the artwork and graphic design, both of which are gorgeous.  The colours really pop when it’s on the table.

It has lots of different mechanics that all interact with each other very smoothly, but at its heart it’s an action-selection game.  That means that each turn you select an action to perform from a set of possible actions: terraforming a hex, building a building, upgrading a building, acquiring money or workers, advancing on a cult track… there’s lots to do.

But today I want to focus on a relatively small aspect of the game that adds a little bit of magic each round: the bonus actions.

At the end of each round when you run out of things to do, you have to pass and at that point you get to pick from a selection of bonus actions.  You can’t pick one that someone else has already taken, so the choice varies from round to round, but whatever you pick will give you a small bonus for the next round.

It’s like getting a present at Christmas.

Maybe you need money, or extra workers, or you want to score a few extra points.  You can pick the bonus that will help you out the most at that point in the game.  And it feels great!  It’s like getting a present at Christmas.  You know it’s coming, but you don’t know which one you’re going to get until you actually pass and make the choice.

For this reason, it can be easy to forget that you’re going to have the bonus.  You look at your resources, you try to plan for the next round and you conclude that you don’t quite have enough to do what you’d really like to do.  Then you remember that you’ll get the bonus action and suddenly you might be able to do what you really wanted after all!

Even if you haven’t planned everything out, it’s just one those choices that is so satisfying to make.  Whatever you choose, they’re all good.  You just have to pick the one that you’d like the most.

After Terra Mystica, we played Bruges.  It’s another euro (my friend Steve loves euros).  Not as heavy as Terra Mystica, but it’s designed by Stefan Feld so it has even less theme than you’d hope for with a typical euro.

Don’t get me wrong, Stefan Feld is an excellent designer, but integrating theme with mechanics never seems to be high on his priority list.  Mechanics first, theme later.  As someone who values theme a lot, this is one of the few things that prevents his games ranking more highly for me.

This is another action-selection game, but this time you have a hand of cards each round and your choice of actions depends on the cards you have in your hand.  It’s a clever system.  What I want to talk about though, is a small feature added by the expansion.  You guessed it: bonus actions.

These are a little different to the ones in Terra Mystica, but it provides a similar feeling.  Each round a card is turned over that makes one of the standard actions a little bit better.  It’s not something you can plan for – you never know which action will receive the bonus – but every round when the card is turned over, it feels good.  “Ooh, I could get an extra worker if I take that action!”

Everyone loves a bargain.

The expansion adds another mechanic that provides a similar feeling.  There are these boats that provide bonus action spaces.  You get a random set of them each round.  Effectively they allow you take two actions instead of one for a small extra cost.  It’s like a buy-one-get-one-half-price offer.  If you were planning to buy one anyway, you’d be crazy not to get the extra action – it’s such good value!  Everyone loves a bargain.

However they’re implemented, I love bonus actions.  How can anyone not love getting a bonus?  It amazes me that they’re not used more in games.  Terra Mystica doesn’t need the bonus actions – there’s more than enough packed into that game without them.  But they’re one of the things that turn a good game into a great game.

Steve was commenting after we played Bruges that bonus actions are particularly well-suited to expansions.  They don’t add complexity (or least, very little usually), but they add enjoyment.  I couldn’t agree more.

Can you think of any games that utilise bonus actions well?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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