By Doug Mann, February 2016
Winner of the last Spiel des Jahres of the 20th century, Tikal is a classic worker placement Eurogame from the dynamic design duo of Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer. Part of their “mask” trilogy, so named because of the large colourful masks that adorns each of the game’s boxes, Tikal is nominally designed for 2-4 players, with an official play time of 90 minutes. Originally published by Ravensburger, it appeared on North American shores thanks to Rio Grande Games.
Players each play the role of an archaeologist who places and moves their own piece and a team of 18 assistants through an unexplored section of the Central American jungle searching for hidden Mayan pyramids and treasures. Each turn you play a huge hex on the map, and then spend 10 action points adding or moving workers, excavating pyramids, seizing treasures, or building a new camp. The costs for each action vary from 1 point to adding an assistant to 5 for a new camp. Tikal was one of the first games to implement the action point mechanic, doing so in an elegant way.
The hexes you add are pre-sorted into a series of random piles based on the letter on their back. In the basic game you simply choose the top tile; in the much more interesting auction variant, a number of hexes equal to the number of players are flipped over, and everyone gets to bid on which one they want (and thus on turn order). As in all auction games, some players will get caught up in the heat of an auction battle and pay too much. Hexes are added to the empty jungle by joining one or more small stones on their edges, indicating the movement cost of traversing this boundary.
Scattered throughout the stacks of mega-hexes are three volcanoes. When these are chosen, the regular game pauses, and everyone gets one turn in a scoring round. You each get 10 action points to try to dominate pyramid hexes or uncover treasures. In a departure from other worker placement games, you don’t score at the end of the overall turn, but at the end of you own turn. Pyramids you control score you points based on the highest level excavated, while treasures score based on matching pairs or trios (one is worth 1, a pair worth 3, a trio worth 6). The game ends when the last hex is played, which is followed by another scoring round.
There are a few other nice touches that amp up player interaction a bit. You can spend 5 action points to permanently install one of your assistants to guard a pyramid: it’s yours for the rest of the game. You can also spend 3 points to force another player to trade one treasure, thereby helping you to build up pairs and trios (a strategy I used in my most recent play of the game).
For an early Euro, Tikal is richly thematic, in my view the second most effective implementation of an archaeological theme (after Thebes). You really feel like you’re hacking your way through the Yucatan jungle looking for lost artefacts. The board, hexes and treasure wafers are beautiful, with the box cover art challenged only by Kemet for its bold aesthetic. The pieces are standard Euro wood, though look nice on the board by mid-game. A note here: the game can easily be expanded to 5 or 6 players by buying wooden blocks of two sizes from a dollar store – I suggest green and gold to match the red, orange, beige and black provided by the basic game – using the large ones for your two camps and as a score marker, the small ones for you (glue two together) and your workers.
Yet Tikal is also a deeply strategic game: every turn is a brain-burn, as you try to squeeze as many useful actions out of those 10 points as you can, looking over your shoulder at your opponent’s archaeological team lurking just a hex away. The one obvious critique of the game is that it is open to analysis paralysis, especially for people used to games with one or two actions per turn: often new players will just stare at the board and freeze up, wondering what to do with their 10 points. To keep the game moving, I suggest two things: first, plan out your move in advance: there are usually only one or two obvious strategies. If you have 1 or 2 points left over, just place more workers. Second, buy a set of glass pebbles while you’re at the dollar store pimping out the game to six players to track points used: give each active player ten of these, which they must place in a cup as they take each action. When finished, pass the cup to the next active player.
The problem of the game’s length, which might intimidate people who can’t handle anything that lasts longer than an hour, can be solved by not using the “F” and “G” hexes, thereby removing 9 of the 36 hexes along with one volcano and one of four scoring rounds. For an ultra quick game of around 45 minutes with experienced players, eliminate all the “E”, “F” and “G” hexes, using only 22.
In summary, Tikal is a largely forgotten classic that’s still in print and still worth playing. It would be nice to see a company reboot it as a second edition à la Tigris & Euphrates or its sister game Mexica, this time with plastic miniatures for the archaeological teams, interlocking plastic pyramid levels, and 2-6 players. But even as it is, it’s still a treasure worth a ludic excavation or two.
Here are my ratings out of 6:
- Complexity: 4 Warm
- Strategy: 5 Hot
- Luck: 2 Cool (1 Frigid in the auction variant)
- Aesthetics: 6 Excellent for its day, 5 Very Good by recent standards
- Player Interaction: 3 Moderate (4 Warm in the auction variant)
- Level of Conflict: 3 Moderate (4 Warm in auction variant)
- Strength of Theme: 5 Hot
- Overall: 5 Very Good with the basic rules, 6 Excellent in auction variant
My Ratings System
I’m using two different types of ratings in my games reviews. First, there are quality ratings, using a six-point scale that echoes the four- and five-point scales used in movie reviews. This applies to “overall ratings” and “aesthetics”: in each case, I’m asking “how good is this?”
This is how my numbers loosely translate into ordinary English adjectives:
- 6 = Excellent
- 5 = Very Good
- 4 = Good
- 3 = Fair
- 2 = Mediocre
- 1 = Poor
All my other ratings are level ratings. They measure “how much?” instead of “how good?”, just as a thermometer measures heat and cold, not goodness and badness. This applies to luck, strategy, complexity, player interaction, conflict, and theme. Here’s how my six-point scale translates into ordinary English using a heat analogy:
- 6 = Blazing (no escape: fans and mint juleps required)
- 5 = Hot (break out the t-shirts and shorts)
- 4 = Warm (the three bears say “just right!”)
- 3 = Moderate (better bring a sweater)
- 2 = Cool (a coat and scarf needed)
- 1 = Frigid (like the surface of Mars)
So a game with “blazing” player interaction demands that its players interact in most or all phases of each turn.