Review: Tikal: Super Meeple Edition

Players:  2-4
Ages:  10+
Time to play:  90 minutes

It is my great pleasure to review the amazing Super Meeple version of Tikal, a game that was released 20 years ago, but is still as fun as ever, and can easily hold its own against more modern games in this genre.

Tikal was released way back in 1999 by Ravensburger games.  It was designed by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer, and in that year it won the coveted Spiel des Jahres.  It's actually part of a trilogy of games from Kiesling and Kramer known as the Mask Trilogy, because the original artwork on each of the boxes had a different style mask depicted on it.

And although the gameplay has certainly has stood the test of time, the same might not be said for the original components.  Functional as they are, coloured dowels and cardboard squares don't quite stack up against the plethora of components available nowadays.  Thankfully, in this new edition, the artwork and components have been refreshed to the kind of excellent standards that the lovely people at Super Meeple seem able to reproduce again and again.

I happen to be an advocate of beautiful components.  The right mix can make the game more immersive, thematic and exiting to play.  Good components help fire the imagination and draw a player in.  They also make the game more eye catching to look at, generating interest from gamers and non-gamers alike, which helps bring new players to the hobby.

Super Meeple epitomises this ideology, and all of their games are finished to a very high standard.  But sadly, (at the time of writing this) they do not currently have the English language rights to distribute this game.  So the version I am reviewing is the French language version.  However, don't despair!  The game itself is language independent, with only one small change to the original rules.  Also, online resources such as boardgamegeek have some great fan made rules and other content that can be downloaded to get the most out of this edition.

Its worth noting that the other two games in this trilogy (Mexica and Java) have also been revamped to the same high standard by Super Meeple.  Their boxes no longer have the iconic mask artwork, but now are grouped together by a new, South American style theme.  In fact Java has been re-released by Super Meeple under the name "Cuzco" to keep within it.

As with all games in the Mask Trilogy, Tikal is primarily an area control game, but it does have a large emphasis on exploration.  During the course of the game, players take it in turns to explore the jungle, gradually uncover temples, and also find hidden treasures.  Players score points during the scoring rounds of the game by having matching sets of treasure tokens and also by having a majority of explorers surrounding the various temples uncovered during play.

Inside the box you'll find instructions for play, a beautiful board representing the dense Mayan jungle, 24 treasure tiles and 36 terrain hexagon tiles.  The game includes four player cards and totem tiles. and where the original game had simple dowels to represent explorers, and cardboard tiles to represent temple levels, this version now has explorer meeples and beautiful resin representations of Mayan temple levels.

The setup is very quick - first of all, the terrain tiles which are grouped by letter (A to G) are shuffled in their individual groups and then stacked in order with the A tiles on the top and the G tiles in the bottom. The treasure tokens are shuffled and stacked into two tiles face down at the side of the board and finally, all of the temple layers are stacked by size at the side of the board.  Each of the players take a player card and all of their coloured components, and once you have decided who starts - the game begins.

Now in Tikal there are actually two ways to play, the normal way and the advanced way.  I'll be explaining how to play in the normal way, but I'll briefly explain the differences for the advanced rules a little later on.

So... each of the players starts the game with 18 explorer meeples and one expedition leader (wearing a nifty fedora) which which they can explore the jungle.  They also get two advance camps, a player reference card (which has rules on one side for the standard game variant and advanced variant on the other) and an auction totem (which is only used for the advanced game variant).

During each players turn, a player takes a terrain tile from the stack of tiles at the side of the board and places it on the map, which uncovers new terrain which can be explored.  Then they have 10 action points to spend which will enable them to perform various actions which I'll explain a little later.

When players place terrain tiles, they must be mindful of the small slab icons around one or more edges of it.  Each edge can have zero, one, two or three slabs on it, and when placed next to an adjacent tile, the touching edges could have as much a 6 slabs in a row.  This is important because the slabs represent the paths between the tiles over which explorers can move.  Each slab depicted on the edges of each of the adjacent tiles thematically represents the difficulty of taking that path.  So, the higher the number of slabs, the higher the difficulty of that path and ultimately the higher the movement cost, as each slab traversed costs 1 of your 10 precious Action Points..

Terrain tiles can be one of four types.  The first of these is called a clearing which has no immediate special properties (aside from slabs) but can be used as a site to place advanced camps now or later in the game.

The second type of tiles is called a treasure tile.  When this is placed, a number of treasure tokens, taken from the side of the board (equal to the number depicted) are placed on it.  These treasures can be excavated, collected and even exchanged by players.  When the tile is exhausted of treasure it simply becomes a clearing.

The third type of tile is called a temple tile, these tiles have temple layers depicted them.  From which players can uncover further levels.  Temples are used for scoring, and the higher the level, the higher the score.

The Final tile is called a volcano tile which unsurprisingly has a volcano on it.  Volcano tiles are impassible and can help block off areas, but more crucially they trigger a scoring round.  There only are three of these tiles in the game distributed in the stack of tiles in such a way that spaces out the scoring.

It's worth noting that when tiles are placed, they must be placed next to an existing tile and also must have at least one path to them.

Once the player has placed a tile, they have 10 action points to spend as they wish on any of the actions depicted on their player cards.

The simplest of these actions, at the bargain price of 1 action point is to bring one or more of your explorers into play.  When this action is used, an explorer is placed on the game board on any base camp and then can be used to explore the board.

The second of these actions is to move your explorers between tiles. As we mentioned before there must be a slab on one or the other tiles to allow movement between the tiles.  These slabs represent paths between the tiles and the more slab icons which make up the path, the more difficult it is.  Remember, when moving between tiles, it costs one action point per slab crossed.

The third of these actions (at the cost of 2 action points) is to uncover a temple layer.  When you take this action a temple section is added to the existing temple, increasing its height and it's value (which is depicted on the top).  You can uncover a maximum of two temple layers per tile and must have one explorer per temple layer uncovered on the tile to do this.  This is probably my favourite action as it has the most dramatic effect on the playing area.  As each temple layer is uncovered you really get a sense of the ancient city rising from the jungle canopy.

The fourth of these actions is to excavate a treasure from a treasure tile, which will cost you 3 action points.  As with uncovering temples, you can excavate up to two tokens per tile and must have one explorer per treasure excavated on the tile to do this.  Treasures remember, are important because you can earn points for these during the scoring rounds of the game.

The fifth action is to exchange a treasure you have excavated with another player (who cannot refuse the exchange).  Each treasure excavated makes up part of a set and the more you have of a particular set, the more points they are worth.  Though it's worth noting that once a player has a set (of two or three of the same treasure), that set cannot be broken up in an exchange.  Exchanging treasures costs 3 action points.

The sixth action is to establish an advanced camp, which can be done on any clearing (or empty treasure tile) and requires at least one of your explorers on the tile to do this (the only rule change for this new version).  In the original, no explorer was needed but I think this works a little better with the theme.  Once you have established a camp, you can bring explorers into play from that new location and also move explorers between camps for a very low movement cost.  However, establishing an advanced camp is quite pricey, costing 5 action points.

The Seventh and final action, also costing 5 action points, is to place a temple guard on a temple.  To do this you must have the majority of explorers on a temple tile.  If you have, you may place an explorer on the top of the temple and keep control of that temple (at it's current value) for the scoring rounds for the entire game.  However, this comes at a cost, as all of your other explorers on that tile are removed from the game never to be used again.

In addition to these rules I also mentioned that there are advanced rules, and these deal specifically with eliminating the randomness of the terrain tiles that are drawn by each player and also each players turn order by introducing an auction mechanic.  In these rules, each player starts the game with 20 victory points and then terrain tiles equal to the number of players are dealt out face up.  Players then take it in turns to bid victory points for the right to take first pick of the tiles and play first, second and third etc...  They turn over their totem tiles once they've taken their turn so players know who have played.  Aside from this, the game plays exactly the same.

Now, as we mentioned briefly before, the goal of Tikal is to score points by a combination of collecting sets of treasure and having the majority of explorers surrounding a temple during a scoring round.  So, during the course of each players turns, they will be drawing and placing tiles, bringing new explorers into play, establishing camps, collecting treasures and excavating temples (increasing their value) until someone draws... a volcano tile.  When this happens a scoring round begins.

When this happens, play stops for that player (lets call him player A) and the volcano tile is placed to the side for now.  Player A then has 10 action points to spend to maximise his score for this scoring round.  So maybe he'll bring more explorers into play or, move explorers around temples to get majorities, maybe he'll excavate or swap extra treasures.  Once he's used his 10 action points, those temples and treasures are scored and noted on the scoring track.  When scoring treasures, he'll get one point for any single treasures, 3 points for a pair and 6 points for a set of 3 matching treasures.  For every temple that he has the most explorers around, he'll get the points value of that temple.  Which is probably a good time to for me to mention that when working out majorities, the expedition leader is worth 3 normal explorers.  Once Player A has scored everything, his turn in the scoring round is over.

Immediately after Player A's turn. Player B begins his turn in the scoring round and gets 10 action points to spend, in which they will do the same things as Player A in an attempt to maximise their points.  Their score is then tallied and noted on the scoring track.  Player C and player D do the same and when all players have scored, the scoring round is over.  Player A then continues his turn (which was suspended by the scoring round) by placing the volcano tile on the board and using his 10 action points as normal.  Play then continues as normal.

There are four scoring rounds in the game, three of which are triggered by volcano tiles.  The final scoring round happens after the final player has taken his last turn at the end of the game when there are no more tiles to place.  The player with the highest score is the winner.

Tikal is a totally immersive game, which has a fantastic sense of exploration.  As each turn unfolds, the jungle and its hidden treasures are gradually revealed, presenting plenty of opportunities to score points.  And as more and more explorers come into play, the once empty jungle soon becomes a sprawling mass of temples, treasures and explorers clamouring to capitalise on every opportunity.

And that is where you have to be mindful, because it's all too easy to get caught up in the exploration and temple uncovering, and forget that Tikal is at its heart an area control game.  So every move that you make has to take that thought into consideration.  There are also only only 4 scoring opportunities in the entire game so you will spend a lot of time expanding and uncovering temples.  But during these times, you've always got to keep an eye on what others are doing - not allowing them to dominate a single area or stray too far away.

Each turn you take carries significant weight, not only do you need to work out where to amass your workers to protect assets but also give yourself opportunities to steal points from other players when you can, and more crucially - make sure that you steal points from the right players.

Collecting treasures too adds an extra element of risk.  Often in the game, you're faced with the opportunity to play safe and increase a temple, or hop over to a nearby tile and take a gamble on a treasure token to make a set.  Plus, once you have a treasure or two, it can become a race to "lock in" those treasures by making sets before the other players first and stop others from banking some easy points.

Overall, Tikal is a great game that has evidently stood the test of time, it's easy to learn which makes it great for new players.  The action selection is completely logical, easy to remember and totally thematic, which makes it totally engrossing.  Seasoned and more strategic players will find it just as interesting too, especially when playing the advanced rules.

The only drawback with Tikal is that it can take quite a long time to play, 10 action points per player does mean there can be a lot of downtime between turns.  Also, as the game progresses, the playing area increases, more explorers are in play and more options are available increasing the opportunities for analysis paralysis.  Though it's worth pointing out that the game never feels (for me at least) slow or boring, its always interesting to watch other players turns and figure out strategies whilst they make their moves.  Its usually the case with Tikal that at some point you look at your watch and wonder where the time went.

The auction variant adds something a little extra for those that feel that the tile allocation is a little random.  When players can bid on the tiles this adds extra player interaction and competition for valuable resources and does make the game much more strategic.  Though of course this will add some extra length to the game time as players vie for the most useful tiles.

I guess the fundamental question is, does the Super Meeple version add much over and above the original? and to my mind the answer is yes.  The game is still the same, but to me the components add that extra something which makes the experience more immersive and enjoyable.  I'd certainly recommend this version over and above the original.  In fact I wish there were more companies like Super Meeple who clearly value high production values as part of the gaming experience.

You can pick up a copy of Tikal here.


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