Dale Yu: Review of Zapotec

Zapotec

  • Designer: Fabio Lopiano
  • Publisher: Board&Dice
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 60-75 minutes
  • Played 3 times with review copy provided by Board&Dice

zapotec

Well, I’m still catching up from the 2022 releases from Board&Dice, a game company I once thought was known only for their super long, super crunchy games.  However, I think I need to change my stance after some of the releases I have played this year – Zapotec, Founders of Teotihuacan and The Book of Rituals.  There are clearly more things on offer than 120-180 minute super heavy strategic games!   But, while we’re on the topic of familiar things, the designer of this game, Fabio Lopiano, does keep to form, offering us a neat action selection mechanic that uses a geometric grid, similar to that in some of his earlier games: Calimala and Merv

In a game of Zapotec, you build temples, cornfields and villages in the three valleys surrounding the capital to generate resources needed for building pyramids, making sacrifices to the gods, and performing rituals. “The Zapotec were a pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence reveals their culture going back at least 2,500 years. Remnants of the ancient city of Monte Albán in the form of buildings, ball courts, magnificent tombs, and finely worked gold jewelry testify of this once great civilization. Monte Albán was one of the first major cities in Mesoamerica and the center of the Zapotec state that dominated much of the territory that today belongs to the Mexican state of Oaxaca.”

zapotec in play

The board shows three different regions, each with three sections of different terrain types, each of thoses with 5 building spaces.  Building tiles are randomly placed on the board so that they match their terrain (the resources on each tile will differ).  There are three basic goods in the game (wood, stone, brick).  There are also three advanced goods (each made by a particular building type) – Corn (cornfield), Priests (temples), and Gold (Villages).  The 3 levels of trade tiles are also set up, with three decks and a face up display of three tiles of each type.

The Action card deck is then prepared.  First a deck of 4 cards is placed face down near the table and one card is dealt face up onto the Scoring space.  Then with 4 players, each player is dealt a hand of 4 cards. Any undealt cards are removed from the game.  Three Ritual cards are drawn at random and set next to the board; they are the only Ritual cards used in this game – the rest are returned to the box.

zapotec boards

Each player gets a player board, which has a large 3×3 resource grid on most of it.  You will place building tiles into these spaces over the course of the game.  You get all the pieces in your color as well as 1 wood, brick and stone. There is a chart at the top of the board which summarizes the building costs for the different types of buildings.  Place a marker on the zero space of the score track and the lowest space of the Sacrifice track on the main board.

The game is played over five rounds.  In each round, players simultaneously select a card for the round, then in player order, they take their actions.

PXL_20220505_223449846

When choosing a card, there are 3 things which need to be carefully noted. First, the resource shown at the top of the card; this determines the row or column activated on your player board grid.  The icon in the middle shows a building space property (either a building type, a terrain type, or one of the 3 regions of the board).  You will only be able to build on spaces that match this icon.  Finally, the number at the bottom of the card  is used to determine turn order in this round.  Once all players have chosen their card, they are simultaneously revealed.  Turn order is set with the lowest numbered card going first and then in ascending order.

PXL_20220505_223355297

The first action is to take income.  Choose either the row or column which matches the icon on the top of your played card.  Take all of the resources seen in that row/column.  Then you move onto the Capital actions phase.  You may take as many Capital actions as you like. 

  • Trade – buy a trade card for 1/2/3 Gold. Depending on the tile, this may give your immediate resources, an ongoing ability or a once per round special action
  • Pyramid – build one level of a pyramid; if you start a pyramid choose a scoring tile to place next to it.  You may only build one level of any particular pyramid each round, but can build multiple pieces
  • Ritual – spend a Priest and place a disc on a Ritual card you are not already on; each Ritual card you are on will give endgame points
  • Sacrifice – play a priest and 1-5 corn, then move 1-5 steps on the track; gaining anything on the steps you pass/end on. Place your disc on top of any discs already at your landing space

Then, you move into the Building actions (note that you can no longer perform Capital actions once you are in this phase)

  • Construct a Building – Build as many buildings as you wish that you can pay for AND which are allowed by your card for the round (which specifies either a type of building, a region of the board or a terrain type). Place a house on the board space and take the tile from the board and put it on an empty space in your resource grid
  • Build your Palace – this can only be done once per game; pay the resources to build your Palace on your player board. When you score anything with your houses, the constructed Palace counts as 2 Houses of your color

Once the actions are done, you then score for the turn. You score 2 VPs for each House on the board that matches the property found in the middle of the card on the scoring space in the center of the table.  Remember if you have built your Palace that it is worth 2 Houses (thus 4 VP).  Finally, draw one of the face up Action cards from the table and add it to your hand.

At the end of the round, when all players have taken their actions, the unchosen Action card is moved to the scoring space – and it will be the scoring card for the next round.  All of the played action cards from this round and one from the top of the deck are then laid out as the offer for the following round.

PXL_20220505_223506239.MP

At the end of the fifth round, the game ends and moves into final scoring.  Position on the sacrifice track is rewarded with 9/6/3 points for being 1st/2nd/3rd (ties broken in favor of the player to reach a space first; i.e. on the bottom of the stack).  Next, each Ritual card is scored for the players who occupy each (based on the criteria on the Ritual). Finally, the pyramids are scored – each pyramid piece scores 1 point per house in that color which matches the scoring criteria beneath the pyramid.  Then, each pyramid piece in a completed pyramid (that is, one with the smallest possible piece on top) scores 5 points.

The player with the most points wins. Ties are broken by position on the Sacrifice track. 

If you don’t have friends around, like all the Board&Dice games of recent release, the game also comes with what looks to be a well-developed solo game, complete with its own cards to help the game do its best to beat you.  As I have only played it with people, I can’t comment on the solo game, but I do think it deserves mention as many people now look for games that work in the solo setting.

My thoughts on the game

Zapotec is a tight game, and one that hits a lot of my buttons.  From my first few plays, I’m excited to try to figure out how the game works.  I tend to like games that give you a limited number of turns/actions to do things, and with just five rounds here (and the first two turns often with limited things you are able to do!) – you really have to make the most of your chances.

The key thus far for me is figuring out the puzzle of the resource grid (and the cards in your hand).  There are multiple levels to this puzzle.  First, you have to get your resources in a line – in order to be efficient.  And, of course, you have to be able to build buildings to put tiles in the grid.  And ideally, you’d like the tiles you put down to provide you the right resources…  But, you also need to have the right cards in your hand, because you can only activate lines that match the resource on the top of your card.  And, depending on what is on offer in the market, you might have to make a decision on turn order in order to give you the best chance to draw the card you need most at the end of the turn…

There is a lot to consider, and with only 5 turns to do things, you don’t want to waste an action – you’ll want to get the most out of each card play as well as making sure that your future plan can be executed (by having the right cards in your hand).

Each turn, you have to figure out how to best use your resources.  Keep in mind that there are two distinct phases.  In the first half, you can spend resources on pyramids or sacrifices.  You also can get trade cards which may help you accumulate or convert resources instead.  You may need to do this because of your limitations on building in the second phase (based on your card).  You can build multiple buildings in the second phase, but it may take some modification of your inventory to get you to the place you want to go.  The decision of when and if to build your palace is also tricky.  You won’t get a tile to place in your action array for it, but it will be worth double any time it scores.  You’ll probably want to wait for the second half of the game for this – so that you’re sure of where you want to try to get double scoring!   Of course, depending on your strategy (and/or which ritual cards you occupy), you may not need or want to build too many buildings at all on a particular turn.

As far as scoring goes, there is plenty to think about.  You can try to maximize in-game scoring by meeting the criteria of the scoring card or by moving up on the sacrifice track.  The end game bonuses from the Rituals can pay off handsomely as well, and you have the whole game to try to work towards those goals.  And, I have seen a game completely turn on pyramid scoring as the 5 pts per section in a completed pyramid can be a huge payoff if you’re able to get those pyramids completed!

The board at first can be a bit busy and overwhelming, but once you get a few turns in, everything is available in front of you.  Well, in a way.  It takes a little time to get used to how the info is spread out. Some reference info is found on the player boards (costs of buildings) while others are on the main board (pyramid costs); and much of it is repeated on the player aid card – though the aid is not comprehensive.  Luckily, the game is pretty easy to learn, and you won’t likely need much reminder midway through your first game.  

The components are an interesting mix.  The pyramids are molded, and they fit/nest together really well.  They are nice to look at and give the game a good table presence.  The player boards are made of thin chipboard but this is fine as you don’t really manipulate them much.  The chits are serviceable, but this is not the first B+D game this year which has asked us to make huge stacks of chits on the board (trade tiles), which end up obscuring part of the board for anyone unlucky enough to sit behind the stacks.  As usual, we have moved these tall on-table stacks to a position off the board.  The only other component thing to note is that it is sometimes hard to easily see where your palace tile is – it would have been nice for it to stand out a bit more.  I have added one extra bit in the player color so that the palace can have 2 things on top of it to make the double scoring easier to remember.

So far, Zapotec has provided a challenging game that comes in under an hour of playtime.  For me, it’s a good balance between game length and complexity.  A few of my opponents have mentioned that they would prefer the game to maybe have another round or two – but for me, this brevity suits me fine.  (Also, similar things were said about another Lopiano game, Calimala…)  I look forward to playing this one more, and of the two shorter games from B&D in 2022 – the other being Founders of Teotihuacan – this one is likely the one I’ll end up keeping longer.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan B. (2 plays): I agree with Dale to a large extent: the game has a lot of interesting decisions but manages to finish in a fairly short amount of time for a development game, largely because it ramps up quickly. However, my recent in-person play did not impress the other players, who felt that the limited choice of cards constrained their actions too much as well as rewarding people with extra points fairly arbitrarily. In a game of this length this doesn’t bother me so much but I think they are fair complaints. We also had an issue with the trade tiles, in that very few of the ones that came out were useful to us in our particular circumstances, and there is no mechanism to get new ones aside from buying the old ones.

Obviously it would be easy to add a house rule that the trade tiles get discarded at the end of each round, but this is the sort of thing that should be in the game to begin with. In general I think Lopiano creates interesting designs which have not been well-served by developers, and while this is my favorite game of his it still feels somewhat underdeveloped.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, Dan B. Steph H.
  • Neutral. 
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2021, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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