SdJ Re-Reviews #21: Tikal

  • Designer:  Michael Kiesling, Wolfgang Kramer
  • Publisher:  Ravensburger
  • Players:  2 – 4
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  60 – 120 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 5

Tikal Cover

Tikal:  Kramer and Kiesling win the Triple Crown of board games…

After his success with Richard Ulrich on El Grande, Wolfgang Kramer was open to collaborating with other designers.  Michael Kiesling had founded a game company and released a couple of games, but without much success.  He phoned Kramer for advice, and after more than two hours, the two had the basics of the game “Haste Worte?” down.  That game was published in 1997, and a legendary design team was born.  

After their relationship took off, Kiesling approached Kramer about creating a game based on a city at the bottom of a lake which would occasionally rise to the surface.  Kramer liked the idea, and the two started experimenting with mechanics to simulate the city emerging and then submerging again.  One day, Kiesling faxed Kramer a picture of hexagonal tiles connected by ladders.   The image reminded Kramer of the Mayan Temples, and he immediately contacted Kiesling to suggest that they change the theme to archaeologists excavating Mayan ruins.  That game would become Tikal.

The German edition of Tikal was published by Ravensburger around the time of the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1999.  It immediately received critical acclaim.  Ravensburger also released a multilingual edition that year, and Rio Grande published an English version for the U.S. market.  Tikal wasn’t the first game to use an action point allowance system, but it revolutionized the mechanic, which Kramer and Kiesling subsequently used in Java and Mexica, the other games in the Mask Trilogy (so named because of the masks on the cover of the boxes).  (Torres, the 2000 SdJ winner, is considered an honorary member of the Mask Trilogy.)

In awarding Tikal the 1999 SdJ, the jury cited the game’s excellent use of theme and stellar production value.  Tikal was Kramer’s fourth win, tying him with Klaus Teuber for most SdJ wins.  He would get his fifth a year later for Torres, and today he still holds the record for most SdJ titles.  

Tikal won first place in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year, and it was the inaugural multiplayer winner of The Gamers’ Choice Award, which would later become the International Gamers Award.  To date, Tikal is the only game that has won all three of the hobby’s major awards (although one could make an argument that 7 Wonders did so by winning the Kennerspiel des Jahres).  

Kramer and Kiesling went on to become one of the most well-known duos in all of boardgaming.  As mentioned above, they published the card game “Haste Worte?” together in 1997.  They then did a couple more light card and board games before tackling Tikal.  Post-Tikal they went on to design a number of popular and critically-acclaimed games, most notably Torres (winner of the 2000 Spiel des Jahres).  Interestingly, the duo had only met once before their SdJ win, at Essen ‘97 for a cup of coffee.  They instead collaborated by phone and fax, bouncing ideas off each other but doing playtesting independently.  They had not actually played any game together until Essen ‘99.  

There has never been a clear trend in the complexity of the games winning the Spiel des Jahres, but an argument can be made that the high-water mark came in the 1995-2000 years.  The chart below shows the average BGG weight of the SdJ winners over time.  1995’s El Grande was the heaviest game of all, but Tikal and Torres’s back-to-back win in 1999 and 2000 were also on the heavy side for the award.  Even 1998’s Elfenland (with a weight of 2.2) bordered on being heavy for the SdJ.  

SdJ Weight Chart

Tikal was illustrated by Franz Vohwinkel, who had also done Drunter und Drüber and Mississippi Queen.  Vohwinkel would later do the artwork for the other games in the Mask Trilogy, as well as the artwork for 2000 SdJ winner Torres.

Tikal went on to sell about 600,000 copies, making it Kramer’s fifth best selling game of all time.  The game is still in print today.  It received a sequel in 2010 called Tikal II: The Lost Temple.  In an interview with Opinionated Gamer Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Kramer described Tikal as one of the games that defined his career.  

The Gameplay: Uncovering Mayan temples with action point allowance and area control…

All rules (and pictures) are for the most recent Rio Grande games edition.  

In Tikal, each player is the director of an expedition exploring an ancient Mayan city.  Each player receives victory points during scoring rounds, and the player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

Tikal Board

At the start of the game, each player takes the tokens of their chosen color and a player aid.  There are three types of tokens: 2 camps (which mark where a player can enter the board), 1 expedition leader (which counts as 3 expedition workers), and 18 expedition workers.  The temple tiles are sorted and set aside, as are the hexagonal terrain tiles.  (The terrains are arranged alphabetically from A to G, ensuring that scoring occurs near certain points in the game, and making higher-value temples available later in the game.)

On a player’s turn, he draws the top hexagonal terrain tile from the stack and places it on the board.  The terrain tiles have “stones” set on one or more of the six sides.  Players can only cross where there are stones, and moving from one tile to the next costs as many action points as there are stones.  Hexes can only be placed so that they can be entered from an already-placed tile, but the movement stones to do this can be on the new tile, the already-placed one, or both.

There are four types of hexes in the game.  Jungle tiles have nothing printed on them, but camps (which allow a player to move expedition workers onto the board from that location) can be placed on them.  Temples have a number of points for the player that controls the temple during a scoring round.  The value of a temple can be increased via excavation.  Treasure tiles receive a pre-determined amount of treasure, and when that treasure is exhausted, the tile functions just like a jungle and can have a camp placed on it.  Lastly, volcano tiles trigger scoring.  Volcano tiles are impassable.

After the player places a tile, he plays through ten action points.  The following are the game’s action points:

  • 1 Point: Place one expedition worker or leader in either in the base camp or one of that player’s camp.  Expedition workers and leaders cannot be placed in other players’ camps.
  • 1 Point: Move a worker or leader one stone to another tile.  Keep in mind that moving over multiple stones costs multiple action points.  A player must end his turn on a tile, so it is not possible to use action points to partially cross to another tile.  
  • 2 Points: Uncover one temple, which increases the value of the temple for scoring.  Only two levels may be uncovered per temple per turn.
  • 3 Points: Recover one treasure from a treasure hex.  A maximum of two can be taken per turn, and a player must have as many workers in the hex as treasures he takes.  
  • 3 Points: Exchange a treasure with another player.  The exchange cannot be declined, but pairs and triplets cannot be broken.
  • 5 Points: Establish a camp on either a jungle hex or an exhausted treasure hex.  
  • 5 Points: Place a guard on a temple, which means that player permanently controls it.  This can only be used if the player has control of the hex.

The action points are represented graphically on the game’s player aid:

Tikal Player Aid

During scoring rounds, the player receiving the volcano tile puts it aside, uses his ten action points, and then scores.  Each player clockwise then takes ten action points and scores.  The value of a temple is the topmost number on a temple.  To win, a player must have a plurality of workers on that temple, with expedition leaders counting as three.  (A player automatically wins if he has a temple guard.)  Additionally, points are awarded for treasure: a single treasure scores 1 point, a set of two scores 3 points, and a set of three scores 6 points.  

There are three scoring rounds in the game.  After the third, the player with the most points wins.    

There are a few variants to Tikal, including a set of rules that add auctions to the game.  

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

I like Tikal, and I’ve always enjoyed my plays.  I a big fan of the game’s theme, and I love how the actions I take make me feel like I’m actually exploring jungle and uncovering lost Mayan temples.  Watching the temples emerge from the jungle is eye-catching, and the overall presentation value of the game is high.  Franz Vohwinkel truly showed off his artistic talent on both the game’s box and the game’s board.  

I’m a big fan of action point allowance and area control, and Tikal implements both in a clever manner.  As I said above, it wasn’t the first game to use action point allowance, but it was one of the most influential games in the earlier days of the hobby.  I think Tikal compares favorably with games using the same mechanics today.   

That said, though I like it, this isn’t one of my favorite Kramer and Kiesling games.  From my vantage point, the game has two interrelated problems: there is significant downtime between turns, and the game seems to go on a bit long for what it is.  This keeps me from playing the game in physical form, although I still love the iPad version (which has a decent AI) and the web version (at SpielbyWeb).

BGG says Tikal is best with four players.  I disagree: I much prefer the two-player version.  Calculating how to efficiently use ten action points can take a while, and in a four player game, there might be five or even ten minutes between turns.  And this game can cause even fast players to slow down.  I’m generally a quick player, but for me, the AP referenced so often in Tikal’s rules (as an acronym for “action points”) might as well stand for “analysis paralysis.”   

The game is easy enough to learn, although like most action point allowance and area control games, it is difficult to master.  Despite having a higher weight than most SdJ games, I’ve always found Tikal to be quite approachable, and I’ve taught it successfully to a few non-gamers.  It can be difficult to remember all of the actions at your disposal, but the player aid is helpful and well-designed.    

Would Tikal win the SdJ today?  I highly doubt it.  The game is original, easy-to-learn, and well presented, so it does hit some of the right notes, but I think the complexity of the game would make it a better candidate for the Kennerspiel des Jahres than the Spiel des Jahres.    

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: It’s not just about min/maxing your action points to probable victory points, but deciding where to set up so as to take points from the correct person. Or at least make it costly for them to score. If you spread yourself too thin, everyone’s going to pile into your temples. Therefore consolidate workers on a few big temples to discourage theft. Then try and steal some lower ranked temples which aren’t as guarded. There are good decisions every turn. It doesn’t rate higher due to downtime (we only ever play it 3-player as a result) and the ease with which a player can be taken out of the game through accidental collusion … though usually induced by poor setup / defense admittedly. Still, there’s plenty of meat to keep the grey cells turning.

Jeff Allers: archeology is one of my favorite gaming themes, and Tikal was one of the first to utilize it.  As others have said, the action point system and art do a great job of immersing players in the theme, even though it is still, at its heart, a streamlined, abstracted Euro. And as was also mentioned, the AP system–and particularly, Tikal–has become the poster child for “Analysis Paralysis” (long downtime between turns).  The trend in the last 10 years has been to reduce actions per turn and I’ve even heard a publisher tell me one of my prototypes reminded them of Tikal and the other AP games because of a downtime problem. SdJ winners after Tikal and Torres not only signalled the jury’s changing preference towards lighter games, they also signalled a desire for less downtime and quicker turns. If Tikal were designed today, the number of Action Points you receive per turn would undoubtedly be reduced, and there might even be some turns spend saving them up in order to perform a better (more expensive) action next turn. Of course, this would diminish options for players and remove the opportunities for many of the “big moves” that make Tikal fun to play, but that’s the only way it could compete for SdJ today.

Greg Schloesser:  The “triple crown +1” of Tikal, Java, Mexica and Java cemented Wolfgang Kramer as my favorite game designer.  Subsequent releases continued to affirm this status.  I absolutely adore the action point system and he has used it to perfection.  Yes, this system can cause some downtime — particularly in Java — but I found with some cautionary warnings before — and sometimes during — game play, most games tend to move along at an acceptable pace.  

Tikal’s theme, action point mechanisms and challenges elevated the game to top-tier status, and recent plays have continued to enchant.

Larry:  By 1999, I had already discovered German games and found quite a few that I enjoyed.  But Tikal was still a revelation and truly showed me just how great a game could be.  I loved the theme and how well it was integrated into the game’s mechanics.  The Action Point system seemed like a perfect way of giving players enough room to plan out clever moves, without making the choices overwhelming.  And it was absolutely gorgeous.  I fell in love with it at first play and it continues to be one of my favorite games of all time.

Downtime can indeed be an issue with beginners.  But with folks who know the game, I’ve never had a session go for more than two hours, which is very acceptable.  I prefer the auction variant, as it reduces the luck of the draw, but I’m more than happy to play the basic version as well.  The game scales wonderfully well from 2 to 4 players, although, like the Geek, I like it best with the full complement of players.  I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this design, as it was the final step in making me a Eurogamer for life, but it doesn’t need such sentimental assistance–it’s still a fabulous game, 16 years after its debut.

Dan Blum: I want to like this more than I do. It has much to recommend it, but the AP is really just too much. Granted, this is largely player-dependent, but Tikal really encourages AP by giving ten action points per turn and many possible actions. The number of possible sequences of actions a player can take is often very large, and unless you’ve played the game a lot it can be hard to winnow your options even if you’re normally a fast player. (Java is even worse in this regard, which is why I have never played it a second time.) It doesn’t help at all that you really should play with the auction rules which of course make the game longer.

Joe Huber (1 play): I remember, when this came out and was being played obsessively, an enormous range of playing times being listed – anywhere from under one hour to more than three.  And, worried by that data (and not sold on the archaeology theme – one I’m quite fond of, but which Tikal didn’t seem to pull off well), I didn’t play the game until 2007; it was the third to last of the Spiel des Jahres winners I played.  And – I didn’t regret my delay in the least; I found the game boring, to the point where it’s my second least favorite SdJ winner, ahead of only Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective.

Matt Carlson: While I played Settlers, Torres, and El Grande early in my gaming career it took a few more years for me to give Tikal a try (mostly because I didn’t buy it myself.)  I instantly loved the gorgeous art and the action point system was still a “cool” idea to me.  However, the slow pace of turns (I rarely play 2 player games and the game length ramps up quick with more players.  I can be one of those stuck in AP near the end of a game (a friend says I always “go quiet” just before I win) and thus need to be careful about playing action point games.  Despite its lovely art, the game just didn’t connect with me.  (This has led to one of the shameful bits of my gamer cred.  I never have managed to get in a play of Java or Mexica.)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Greg Schloesser, Larry
  • I like it.   Chris W., Patrick B., Jeff A., John P
  • Neutral.  Dan Blum, Matt C.
  • Not for me… Joe H.
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4 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #21: Tikal

  1. jtj608 says:

    Princes of Florence is Ulrich/Kramer, not Kramer/Kiesling:

  2. Apparently Ravensburgers Customer Service had a lot of requests about “missing action points” in the box.
    Apparently people thought they were as physical thing :-)

  3. enigmisto says:

    The auction variant slows the game down too much, but playing based on random draw of a single tile isn’t very interesting. The solution: turn up as many tiles as there are players (as per auction variant) but then just take and execute tiles in turn order. The key, of course, is to rotate start player (either by rotating clockwise or do turns in order from least score to highest score).

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