Life in Reterra is the highly replayable board game that now lives rent-free in my family room

The game box for Life in Reterra on a coffee table filled with controllers, magazines, catalogs, and other detritus of modern life.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

We picked it up, we plopped it down, and now we may never put it away

A good board game has a lot of layers to it. Narrative layers surround and define a board game’s storyline, while mechanical layers govern the moment-to-moment action. More complex games have a rich strategic layer, with players trying to outfox each other over multiple turns or games. There’s always a social layer as well, which can be as simple as gathering people together to play, or as nuanced as the communication and negotiation skills required to excel at Catan. But Life in Reterra, a new board game designed by Eric M. Lang and Ken Gruhl with art by Hugo Cuellar, has a layer that many other games don’t — a creative layer. That makes it one of the year’s most interesting new titles.

Life in Reterra posits a far future where urban centers have been taken back by nature, and where notions of humanity’s past exist only as artifacts. It’s up to players to rebuild those cities as they see fit. The art style reflects that conceit well, with brightly colored tiles filled with different biomes as well as the occasional relic, like a smartphone. Players score points for organizing these biomes into contiguous sections, filling the table in front of them with green spaces, deserts, and cheerful lakes or streams.

But the land itself is only the game’s first layer. As players place those tiles, they must constantly consider their orientation in order to create the largest and most valuable biomes that they can, but also to create the foundations needed to place specially shaped buildings on top. And it’s in the placement of these buildings that the game begins to show its true potential.

The buildings in Life in Reterra are organized into three different sets, each more complex than the last. In the game’s “starter set,” gardens are worth additional points, but only if you have the largest segment of contiguous terrain on the table. Schools are worth extra points for each different type of relic that you have on the board, and so on. There are three sets in all, presenting a total of 30 different buildings inside the box.

The components for Life in Reterra laid out for play. A green plastic box holds the components of one set of tokens for storage, while the game board itself holds cards and chits to facilitate play.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon
The game board in Life in Reterra, shown in the upper right, helps merely to facilitate setup and play. All the action takes place in front of the players, with tiles that they lay out to create their own community from scratch.

Beyond the starter set, the manual for Life in Reterra includes just four more “curated building sets.” The Unfriendly Neighbors Set is confrontational, with players using buildings in ways that dramatically impact the other players at the table. The Peace & Quiet Set, has very very little interaction between players. Meanwhile, the Popularity Contest Set sits somewhere in between. In this way, the game’s mechanical layer can be swapped out at will. Once you make it deep enough into the manual, Life in Reterra becomes something of a platform, a system capable of being different games for different audiences at different times.

And then, on the 14th page of the manual, Life in Reterra does something remarkable: It asks players to curate their own sets of buildings to play with. “My Building Sets” reads the two-page spread, revealing a blank worksheet with room for four new ways to play that players can create all on their own.

With this final creative layer, Life in Reterra invites players to become designers themselves. The manual, as expertly written as it is, vanishes into the background to become merely a point of reference. The rules are there to facilitate play, not to dictate what the nature of that play should be. In the end, it’s up to individuals to make their own fun, rebuilding the game to meet their needs even as they rebuild the land itself. It’s a bold move — especially for a game targeted at mass market retailers.

At the same time that Lang, Gruhl, and publisher Hasbro have brought their multi-layered, open-ended design to the toy aisles at Target, they have also elected to bring some of high-end board gaming’s boutique fit and finish as well. Life in Reterra isn’t just a cheap box of cardboard bits and plastic movers. The cards are hefty with a nice linen finish, the wooden meeples are screen-printed, the elegant manual saddle-stitched, and all of the components are stored inside modular plastic trays with transparent lids. Cracking it open, this game looks and feels like something you’d get in the mail after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

When I interviewed Lang earlier this year, he called Life in Reterra a “lifestyle game.” At the time, I took that to mean a game that would welcome novices into the larger board gaming hobby and encourage them to make board games a part of their lives. But something more like the opposite is true. Life in Reterra is an incredibly solid and resilient design, which like a collectible card game can be mixed and remixed into multiple different experiences. It is also a game that respects the player’s time, and a physical product that’s built to last. For that reason alone it’s found a permanent place in our home — not in the closet or on a shelf, but right in the middle of the coffee table.

Now, mixed in with all the other urgent detritus of our modern lives — remote controls and smartphones, chewed-up pencils, junk mail, and half-finished homework — is our family’s new favorite board game. Life in Reterra has become something that we return to on a weekly basis, and even when we’re not playing, sometimes we just daydream about the building sets we might come up with for the next go-around.

Life in Reterra hasn’t changed our family’s lifestyle, but it has managed to worm its way into it. I think it might easily find a place in your home, too.

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