Designed by Kramer & Kiesling
Published by Ravensburger
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£25 ($38)
3-4 players
120 minutes plus

I am a huge fan of the Dilbert cartoon strip. While most regard it as just funny, I know it to be a largely accurate documentary on corporate life. What it tells us, in passing, is that corporates establish great sweeping strategies and then follow them up with inexplicable decisions. Which is a long way of saying that I don't really know why this game is in the Ravensburger range. Given that Tikal is, in every sense, a gamer's game and that Alea was specifically set up by Ravensburger to publish that genre, what on earth is this doing in the family catalogue? It matters not, because the post-Nuremberg buzz was huge, Kramer was reputed to have designed another game to rival El Grande in stature, and Ravensburger were back and serious. Tikal is, in tandem with the Alea titles, their flagship game for 1999 and gamers have been sitting up and taking notice.

Tikal concerns that criminally under-exploited theme - archaeological exploration. Your team sets off into the jungle in search of Mayan treasures and temples, hoping to find the biggest and best and then to protect them from the attentions of rival expeditions. Everyone starts at base camp and strike off into the unknown. Players control individuals who can do just about anything - they move about, dig, protect sites, build new camps, secure victory points and even fight. Every turn provides you with ten action points to spend, which have to cover everything - and predictably there are never enough to go round. Each turn you take a hexagon tile from the shuffled, but pre-layered, pile. This can then be placed on the board extending the explored area. It may be clear terrain, it may hold a burial site which can be plundered for treasures, it may be a temple site which can be excavated to make it more valuable, or it could be a volcano which triggers a scoring round. Even with these limited possibilities, the sense of exploration is well handled. With a little luck in the tile draw, or judicious movement, you can concentrate on collecting sets of treasures or, alternatively, going for the big value temples - these are the two ways of securing victory points. The accepted tactics so far are probably for an opportunistic mix of both.

There are a couple of drawbacks to this system that take it a step away from an ideal exploration mechanic. Firstly, although the tile explored is taken randomly, the player chooses where it is played. Okay, but a bit gamey for me. If it is a potentially good temple or treasure site then it spookily appears near your men, if it is a clearing then you rapidly place your camp piece as a new and vital forward base, and if it is an impassable volcano you impede someone else! Secondly, because some gamers are that way inclined, they want to know what the mix of tiles is before they head off. I understand that fully, even if it doesn't much bother me, since the volcanoes are key and the temples are largest towards the bottom of the pile. The drawback is we then know there is another temple out there, and that someone is going to find it soon. You can guess what I'd like - a slightly more chaotic mix of tiles so you don't know beforehand what is out there. More luck for sure, but more interesting. And as a final rhetorical thought, would the game have been better, or at least different, without the board's grid restricting tile placement?

As the game develops, players will be concentrating on a strategy - perhaps pushing as far as they can in one direction, or setting up a forward camp and working out from that, or even 'muscling in' on others' efforts by the simple expedient of moving a majority of men to someone else's hard won site and claiming the points. The counter to this is to 'cap' a temple with a guard which secures it for you permanently, but after which it cannot be further developed. This is where the game reminds me a lot of Tal der Koenige and it can be equally frustrating. Because of the way the scoring rounds work (each player effectively gets a full move before scoring) you can find yourself doing a lot of work on a valuable temple, only to find that come the next volcano eruption, you are rushed by anyone nearby, relieving you of the points! I am also not yet sure whether the player going last in the scoring round is at a disadvantage.

The movement system is clever, but also gives rise to perhaps the biggest balance worry, as we shall see. As each tile is laid, it can be freely rotated to establish the paths that can reach it. Two sides butted together with no marker stones means that hexside is impassable. One stone and two stones next to each other means it will cost three action points for each man to cross that hexside, and so on. In this way you can make certain sites more difficult to get to, or open up a rapid movement 'highway' from your second camp, or push a hapless opponent in the opposite direction to that which he would prefer. The 'problem', and this may simply be one of those 'good play deserves it' arguments, is that you can get to the position where you have secured one or two valuable temples, 'pulled up the drawbridge behind you' by placing costly paths, and then garrison them with lots of men. This makes it extremely difficult for rivals to get to you in sufficient numbers and that in turn means it is hard to pick on leaders or indeed anyone with much success. This is because it is expensive and hard to make strategic redeployments of men in useful numbers and also because by making such a sacrifice, your own efforts to score points will be severely compromised.

All this good stuff is held together by some amazing graphics work from Franz Vohwinkel. This is an artist whose work has been improving visibly in recent games but he has, by far, produced his best work for Tikal. That is not to say he won't get better still. The box is powerfully green (so much so that Tom Shaw of Avalon Hill would probably faint if he saw it - Tom's fervent belief was that green didn't sell, so look for those rare green AH boxes). The board and card components are superbly rendered in high impact colours, the treasure pieces are gorgeous, and the dobbers are the lovely wooden hexagons that we last saw in Lang Lebe der Koenig. The temples build up as they are excavated (no, I don't understand that either) with carefully sized and layered cards. Someone somewhere in Ravensburger HQ put a lot of effort into this one and it shows. The net result is a game everyone loves as soon as they see it which, of course, helps sales and sets the mind to 'positive' before you even start playing.

The advanced game is not your usual collection of afterthoughts. It changes the game fundamentally by inserting an auction round each turn - you bid victory points in return for tile choice from a known selection (El Caballero fashion) and also for turn order. This has the effect of making the system far more gamey and artificial - if there is a thematic weakness it is placing those tiles where you want them. Bidding, choosing and placing devalues this feature even further. The auction seems to be time poorly spent to me, since rarely does anyone bid very much, or if they do they are probably overpaying. Obviously, it also adds considerably to the time taken and this is, more generally, where I have to express concern. Tikal is a game that is prone to analysis of the 'I can earn x points by going there and spending y action points, or there spending z, gaining x+2' variety. You can seldom make decisions until it is your turn and the longer the game goes on, the more men there are around to move, and (usually) the longer the processing time. Played with gamers who are slow or painstaking (or just keen to win and so trying to spot the optimum move), Tikal can really drag. This is reflected in downtime, which can be considerable, and the length of the game, which reportedly can run to four hours. Now while our games have been comfortably finished in two hours, or just over, there is a very big difference between two and four hours. At the shorter end Tikal is just about right. It feels rather repetitive, mainly because it has such a procedural and non-interactive mechanism and the play of the scoring rounds just adds to that sensation. At the longer end, the recent comment I heard strikes home - one gamer suggested that Tikal should come with a solitaire mini-game in the box so you have something to do between turns.

Oddly, and I say this with much trepidation, Tikal has by far the steepest decay curve of any game I can recall. What am I on about? The tail off of appeal, or how keen are you to replay it. Game one of Tikal was great fun. Despite making mistakes, and having some minor concerns, I was in no doubt that I wanted to play again, and that the game was as good as I'd hoped based on the hype. Game two saw me both try and watch the alternative tactics, find them largely predictable, and my concerns were largely confirmed. And boy did that game drag once I decided what I wanted to do, and how long it was going to take to realise those plans (aka Tresham Syndrome). I actually groaned inwardly when the scoring rounds came up. The result is that I won't be buying it and don't actually want to play again in a hurry. I won't veto it, but it is one of those games (like Europa 1945-2030) I am now going to have to be in the mood to play. I may be mistaken, but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of hidden depth or tactical nuance. You just get to grips with it and play. Where Tikal scores is in the theme to system linkage, which generates at least passable atmosphere. And that is still my Achilles Heel. That little outburst will appear largely contradictory, but all we have is a game that I can see is impressive, but is overlong, ordered, prone to perfect planning, and which doesn't ring all the right bells.

Tikal is still a very good game. Not one of the greats, but very good. Apart from the stunning graphical appearance, it has a unusually sound marriage of theme and mechanics, there is an appreciable level of decision making and skill, and the game can be tense and close as players scramble for treasures or the most valuable ruins. There are several little sub-systems intertwined that work well, and the auction system adds to the gaming challenge albeit at the cost of time and realism. It has been so popular that I have heard very few comments against it and I would be very surprised if it isn't right up there in the unfathomable minds of the Spiel des Jahres jury. On the downside is the time issue, the slight shortfall on what otherwise would have been a novel exploration game (for the experience gamer as well as the competitive), that worry over hiding away in a corner, and of course the curious lack of sustained interest - but the latter is probably just me. What surprises is that many people are raving over a game that owes much to Tal der Koenige, both thematically and in some mechanics, yet the earlier game managed all this far more elegantly and quickly. Whatever, Tikal is clearly set to be one of the big successes of 1999 and, with Ra, puts Ravensburger right back in contention for Spiel des Jahres and the hobby's vote of confidence. Long may that be the case.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell