Feb 20, 2012

Pro's and Con's Review: Tikal

Format: Board Game
Designers: Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer
Publisher: Rio Grande Games

Let me tell you a little story. Three years ago, I haven't even heard of Tikal, a game about jungle exploration and treasure hunting. I had probably seen the box in stores and maybe read something in passing about The Mask Trilogy, but had never looked into it further. Then, in December of 2010 I got my very own copy for my thirtieth birthday from the guys in my game group at work. I wasn't expecting any gifts, so I was pleased and surprised and wondered what this game was all about. One of the guys showed me how to play a few weeks later and I then understood what the gift truly meant, they had given me what would become one of my favourite board games, one that I remain eager to bring to the table to this day. So, I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Thanks guys!

As is the custom around here, I'll be giving Tikal the usual Pro's and Con's treatment peering into the guts of the game from a professional's and a consumer's point of view. Let's see what Tikal has to offer.

Professional's Take:
Tikal is a game of many faces. Mechanically it combines a handful of concepts to great effect to create a truly memorable game experience. One such aspect is tile laying. Players start each turn by drawing a tile and placing it onto the ever expanding board. But unlike, say Carcassonne, this tile laying serves to build a board you will actually be playing across durring the game, not simply for placing static figures. The fact the board is built through strategic decisions taken by the players over the course of the game makes each play significantly different and gives the game great re-playability. Another aspect of the tile laying that contributes to the unique feel of Tikal is the fact that although tiles are drawn from face down piles these piles are sorted at the start of the game and bare a different letter on their back face. So players will draw from the A pile until it is depleted, then draw from the B pile and so on, until all tiles have been drawn and the game ends. As play progresses from pile to pile the tiles found within them will yield higher scoring temples, harder routes to traverse and more numerous treasures to collect creating a palpable sense of progression. Lastly, every second pile hides a volcano tile that, in addition to acting as a blocking feature, triggers a scoring round. This unpredictability, given the volcano could be anywhere in the pile, contributes to the tension and re-playability of the game.

Once a player has placed a tile, they move on to the meat of their turn which involves performing a variety of actions by allocating action points. Simply put, the player has ten action points to spend during a turn, and different actions, like hiring a new explorer, moving an explorer, uncovering a temple, etc. each cost a different amount of action points to perform. This aspect of the game can be rather overwhelming for new players as it can sometimes be hard for an inexperienced player to distinguish between the options that are actually valid given the state of the game and those better left ignored at any given time. That being said, once players become better acquainted with the different actions, their action point cost, and the strategic and tactical options each can open up, this action point system creates a huge palette of choices for the player to experiment with.

In fact, two great examples of some of the actions a player can perform on a turn that can have large strategic ramifications are those of placing guards and setting up camps. These are the two most expensive actions, each costing 5 action points to perform, but cary lasting consequences that can earn a player the game if used properly. Placing a guard allows a player to guarantee scoring a temple at its current value for each subsequent scoring rounds. This can be huge as scoring is usually determined by the majority of explorers in a space thus, potentially, denying your opponents many points for the rest of the game. This action ca cost you many explorers as well as half your actions for the turn so is also quite risky. It's this balance of risk and reward that gives a player pause and creates interesting decisions during the course of the game. Likewise, setting up a camp will cost a player half their allotted action points during a turn but can open up great possibilities by allowing new explorers to be placed onto the board at the new camp location rather than the usual starting camp. As the board grows and large scoring temples and treasure spaces are revealed deeper into the jungle, placing a camp in just the right spot can mean a player has the upper hand in overpowering the opposition. These sorts of well tuned actions are what give Tikal its strategic depth.

As I mentioned above, one of the ways to score points in Tikal is by having a majority of explorers on a temple space at the end of your turn during a scoring round. This simple mechanism creates a great deal of tension as it can be hard to predict whether opponents will try to move in at opportune moments to steal points away or swoop in to reap the benefits of a well excavated temple. Because of this, intelligent planning and tile placement is important to help secure points by limiting access to opposing explorers.

There is a second way of scoring in Tikal which is to collect treasure. Incorporating multiple routes to victory is an effective way to mitigate player domination in a game by always allowing the opposition to simply gun for a different target if one player is monopolizing a particular scoring strategy. To this end the treasure hunting is quite effective as a player who is successfully collecting treasure can net a significant score every scoring round with no fear of having the points snatched away as is possible with the temples. The treasure hunting is made all the more interesting by incorporating an element of set collection that greatly affects scoring as players try to collect sets of matching treasures to multiply their points making the treasures a viable option to edge out players who are dominating the most valuable temples.

Although the scoring in Tikal is quite interesting there is one aspect of how the scoring rounds are played out that seems to give an advantage to the last scoring player of the round. When a player draws a tile showing a volcano, a scoring round is triggered. This means all players will get to play a full turn, without placing a tile, during which they will have 10 action points to spend as usual. At the end of a scoring turn, a player will count his or her score by calculating treasure scores then adding up the value of any temple space in which he or she has a majority of explorers. It's the temple scoring that seems to give an advantage to subsequent players as they can see exactly where the previous players have spent their action points and can , themselves, distribute their explorers such as to edge out the other players in every temple and also get to score them. Mind you, this perceived advantage is just that, my perception and may not actually be the case. As each player scores individually at the end of their scoring turn all four players could potentially score the same temple as each one simply adds one more explorer into the space than the last player meaning none of the players would be completely bullied out of points. This may be enough to balance out the fact that the last player to score can react to the actions of the previous players.

Consumer's Take:
For the most part Tikal looks really great. The board and tiles are lusciously illustrated and help immerse you in the theme of delving deeper and deeper into the jungle to uncover long lost temples and treasure. The pieces used by the players are rather generic octagonal wooden bits that don't do much to engross you in the theme but are otherwise functional and easy to handle. Each player is also handed a player aid that, at first, may be more confusing than helpful as it is totally language agnostic and relies on iconography to relay its information. Once you're familiar with the illustrations, the player aids make complete sense and are quite helpful in reminding you how many points each action costs to perform.

Playing a game always boils down to the experience it creates and Tikal does a phenomenal job of giving you the feeling of delving deeper into an unexplored jungle. The combination of revealing new tiles, discovering hidden treasure and clearing away the brush from ancient temples captures the excitement of exploration. As mentioned above, the tiles you draw are sorted in such a way as to ensure that you continue to unearth greater rewards as the game progresses only strengthening this exciting feeling of discovery while ensuring the scoring ramps ever higher with each scoring round. This ramp in the scoring makes the race for the win very exciting as a healthy looking lead can turn into a last second upset at the hands of a masterfully played final scoring round. This, and the well balanced scoring create a tight sense of competition. Even if you fall behind early on, there's always a chance to overtake the competition through careful play in later rounds.

Finally I want to point out an aspect of the game I both like and, kind of, don't like. You see, in Tikal the end of the game is triggered by the placement of the last tile and the playing of the final scoring round. On the plus side this means that, in my experience, games usually end up taking about an hour and a half to two hours to play regardless of the number of players. I like a game with a definite end toward which you are always building. The down side is that the game ends up lacking an "I win!" moment as do many games in which the end game trigger is not linked to score. Now, obviously, a player wins in the end and is well within their right to yell "I win!", but this is only after the game has ended and everyone has tallied their final scores. This feels more like a longer period of "Ok, now let's see who wins..." which doesn't have quite the same ring to it. On the other hand, a game like The Settlers of Catan has a definite "I win!" moment when one player reaches 10 points and can announce to the other players how awesome they are. If I had to pick between the two, though, I would keep Tikal the way it is as Catan inevitably hits that end game lull as everyone inches their way toward building their last city when they've run out of other building options, thus stalling the game end until the fun runs out.

So, if you like strategic games that incorporate their theme well and give you a sense of progression, you should really check out Tikal. As you look at the completed board at the end of the game you can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment at having uncovered the ancient Mayan ruins hidden deep within the jungles of Guatemala.

PS: I have to give props to the plastic insert in the box. There's a perfect spot for every component. Before you scoff, this actually has a very real impact on the play experience as it dramatically cuts down on set up time.

Images from boardgamegeek.com

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