Winner of the 1999 Spiel des Jahres (Boardgame of the Year) award, Tikal has two to four players exploring a Mayan jungle, uncovering temples and discovering treasures for points, but with the added twist that you can steal control of temples or forcibly trade treasures with your opponents to maximize your point scores.
On a turn, a player draws the top hex tile from the stack and places it wherever s/he wants on the board as long as it is accessible from a hex that’s already placed. The tiles include temple tiles, treasure tiles, and empty tiles. A temple tile is worth points to the player who has the most worker tokens on it at each scoring round, and temple tiles can increase in value as players “uncover” higher levels, ultimately worth one point per temple level each time it’s scored. The treasures on temple tiles are “discovered” by workers and come in six types, with points per treasure increasing as you add more examples of each type – one point if you only have one treasure of that type, three points if you have a pair, and six if you collect all three. The empty tiles are useful primarily for a player’s ability to place one of two new base camps on one (or on a treasure tile from which all treasures have been collected), allowing the player to place new workers closer to unclaimed temples and treasures.
Once a player has placed a tile, he has ten action points to use on his turn. Actions include placing a new worker or his one leader token for one point; moving a worker to another tile for one point per “step” between tiles; uncovering a temple level for two points; collecting a treasure for three points; trading treasures with an opponent (in which s/he has no choice) for three points; placing a base camp for five points; or guarding a temple, thus protecting it for the player for the remainder of the game, for five points. Uncovering temple levels, gathering treasures, guarding temples, and scoring points for temples all require the use of workers, so placing and deploying them constitutes the critical decision in the game.
In those scoring rounds, players score for treasures as described above and for controlling temples. When multiple players have workers on a temple tile, the points go to the player who has the most workers on that tile, counting any leader tokens as three workers. But each player takes a turn in the scoring round before counting up his points, so before you score, you get to move workers around to control as many temples (or dig up as many treasures) as possible. And since the three scoring rounds before the final one are somewhat randomly timed, each player has to keep one eye on his positioning for the next scoring round – both how well he’s defended temples he’s controlled and how quickly he can move workers and/or his leader around to grab control of another temple. Guarding temples does help, but a player can only guard two temples per game, and when guarding a temple the player loses control of all workers on that tile for the rest of the game.
One other constraint covers new temple levels: Uncovering a level requires placing a small square game piece with the next level number on top of the highest current level. If all game pieces with the next level number have been used, that temple can’t get any higher.
Because there are multiple scoring rounds and the types of tiles revealed vary as the game goes on, Tikal almost plays like a game with two halves, similar but far from identical. In the first half, players are primarily uncovering temple levels and guarding their highest ones, but as the game moves on to the second half, the inability to uncover new levels means players use more action points on stealing control of temples and/or swapping treasures. Of course, the first half can set up the second half, such as controlling temples that are remote from the rest of the action, thus guaranteeing the player a few points without having to spend action points or workers to shore up his defense.
The main flaw in the boardgame is the length of time between a player’s turns. With each player given 10 action points and an ever-widening number of options on the board, a single turn can take several minutes as the player maps out a plan to use up all 10 points in the most efficient and effective way possible while also setting himself up for the next turn. The compensation for this is that the tension created by the knowledge that the other players are likely to screw you out of some points, so while nothing good is going to happen while it’s not your turn, you will want to watch to see just how badly you get screwed. I’ve also seen the suggestion on boardgamegeek that players use a timer to limit just how long each turn takes, which isn’t the worst idea for a four-player game.
Tikal players two to four players, but the board size doesn’t change, so with two players there’s somewhat less interaction or need to steal from other players. With four players, you’re fighting for smaller pieces of the same pie, and there’s more movement and intrigue involved.
One final positive on the game is the box, which is well-designed for easy cleanup given how many different tokens and tiles there are in the game.
Several other commenters at BGG compare Tikal to El Grande, saying the latter game uses a similar mechanic with a better implementation. I’ve never played El Grande, but I’m sure many of you have and am curious whether that should be an upcoming purchase and whether it plays reasonably well with just 2-3 players.
The Tikal app for iOS received some pretty tough reviews when it was first released because it was a buggy mess, very crash prone, hard to decipher on screen, with really weak AI players; I bought it early and had all of those problems, but heard about a forthcoming update and decided to sit on a review until that update arrived. The update has made the app much more stable, cleaned up the UI significantly so it’s easier to follow what’s going on, and I think the AI players are a little better – but not a lot, making it more of a training app if you’re not going multiplayer through GameCenter (which I haven’t tried). At $4.99, it’s definitely worth the trial run if you have an iPad and want to try Tikal before you purchase the physical game. One comment I’d offer is that the game graphics are different from the boardgame, including trucks instead of workers, and the screen is a little dense on an iPod or iPhone. On the plus side, however, the AI moves pretty quickly, so you can run through a solo game without dragging, and the animations make it clear what the AI players are doing.