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Game review: Tikal II
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Game review: Tikal II

Wallace E. Friedel II review of Tikal II

For those gamers looking at Tikal II: The Lost Temple with thoughts of a "mega Tikal" or even just a "Tikal-on-roids" action point sequel fueling your desires for bigger, better, faster and more with all the aplomb of a new installment in a summer action movie franchise you may not find what you seek. Gone is the action point allowance system and the auction bidding mechanic. Remaining is the Guatemalan Jungle theme of adventure and exploration using a modular board and tile placement. Meanwhile, the mechanics of area control, area influence and set collection have morphed into concepts that are quite different, if not unrecognizable, to players who might self-label themselves as casual temple delvers in Tikal's world of ancient Mayan archeology.

So, if Tikal II: The Lost Temple is not for the original Tikal players looking for bigger, better, faster and more then for whom does the cash register toll at .99 MSRP? I have a friend that introduced me to a return on investment approach to game evaluation that I think answers this question. The idea is to look at everything you put into the game. Money is not left out, but it is not weighted as heavily as time; that is, the time one puts into the game as compared to the payback one gets from playing it. Tikal II: The Lost Temple is for the gamer who wants the best of the classic Eurogame experience from a shorter time investment including, but not just limited to, the actual length of play.

Tikal II: The Lost Temple is designed from the start to cut-to-the-chase. When you open the box you will find a thoughtfully designed insert with wells and thumb scoops for all the components. Each well is numbered and the numbers corresponds to a diagram in the rule book that shows you exactly how to lay everything out on the board to start playing right away.

The components are well-produced and will be enjoyable to use. The board is attractively illustrated and a quad-fold that appears to lie reasonably flat. The tiles and counters are thick cardstock with nice illustrations and good color separation. The cards are linen finished. The explorers, the victory point counters, pirogues and the flags are made of plastic and come in four colors: black, beige, orange and red. I’m sure wood bits would have worked too, but that debate differs little from the tuh-mey-toh / tuh-mah-toh pronunciation debate. I think the beige color gets a little lost on the board, but should satisfy those stealth players who usually prefer to choose green because it allegedly attracts less attention. I must confess I will also be a little disappointed if the little flags snap off their stems save for the nostalgic memories it will bring back of snapping off all those spear points from my Avalon Hill edition of Conquest of the Empire, but that remains to be seen. The explorers have four unique sculpts that match the comic book illustrations which are, of course, illustrations of the authors, illustrators and producers. That puts the gaming industry just one step from game designer action figures you can pose or possibly game designer bobble heads—collect the whole set! Any future masters of ceremony have my permission to use that joke prior to bestowing any awards on said designers.

At first sight the rulebook appears lengthy. You will find at least half of it is a comic book introduction to the theme behind the game and an entertaining tribute to the authors, Kramer and Kiesling. The game rules are thorough and well-illustrated such that you shouldn’t have much trouble learning them. There is a section on secret passages I thought was a little muddy. For example, one of the movement rules says, “…putting a flag on the board stops your explorer’s movement and you can only continue moving on your next turn.” The secret passage rules allow an exception to this rule (and so does bonus explorations) by creating a new condition for ending an explorer’s movement, “…if an explorer makes a round-trip to a room thanks to a secret passage, he must immediately stop after crossing the same wall or the same door for the second time.” It turns out to not be complicated, but along with this are 5 illustrated examples of how to resolve the use of secret passages and multiple secret passages it will require you to burn a few new neural pathways in your brain to keep it all straight. Beyond this are a couple of scoring diagrams to absorb and about 10 language independent special cards to learn—no problem.

One of the “cut-to-the-chase” mechanics is a set of 24 action tiles. These should look somewhat familiar to players of Swarm. Each tile has multiple language independent icons on it affording different combinations of actions players may choose. They are all placed face up on the board before players in sort of a “carrot-on-a-stick” method; i.e., players can get almost any of the tiles they wish to chase on a given turn, but the further the tile is from their carrot-chasing pirogue, the greater the cost. The pirogue is a hollowed log made into a canoe or boat represented by little plastic pieces in each player’s color. Part of the story supporting the theme is the explorers paddling down this river gathering information on the lost temple represented by the action tiles. Each time the explorer’s pirogue reaches the waterfall it must land and be carried through the domain of Camazozt, the demon bat infested woods back to the head of the river at the cost of one of the explorer’s precious amulets or keys. Apparently, the amulets power is to repel flavor text from becoming gaming reality as the bats never factor into actual play.

Now then, why are the 24 action tiles a “cut-to-the-chase” mechanic? Well if you think about the first Tikal game, or a game like it, can you think of any other mechanic more prone to analysis paralysis (AP) then an action point system with a lot of decision making? I’m sure you can’t think of many if any at all. Now think back to the first time you were there when someone new was being taught an action point game, the explanation of the rules has been completed and the newbie is facing his or her first turn and says, “Okay, I got the rules parts, but what am I supposed to do?” I think what the authors have done is subsumed the trial and error portion of learning the action point options and optimized the choices on behalf of the players. I don’t think there are any bad choices to be made outside the realm of someone lacking any common sense; e.g., taking a scoring action before having claimed any tiles to score. I think this even has a leveling effect on the difference between players with wider differences in skill levels as the risk of suboptimal choices common to the newbie-type players are reduced.

I think this philosophy is further evidenced by the fact that “time of choice” or just plain timing is probably the greatest influence an individual player can have on the game as virtually all other factors have symmetry. All players start at the same place on the board, start with identical resources, there are no special abilities for the explorers, all of the tiles have the same patterns and door distributions, which tie into the scoring system, and there is even a switchback start mechanic between the first and second round of this two-round game where the last player in the first round becomes the first player in the second and the direction of play even reverses to assuage the alleged advantage caused by a weak player making suboptimal choices and theoretically setting up the next player for a windfall.

In looking at the game as a whole I see the antithesis of the bigger, better, faster, and more philosophy. Tikal II: The Lost Temple stands on its own. Prior experience playing Tikal is neither required nor necessary. None of the mechanics are new, but are well-executed. Furthermore, the development through play is well-paced. Nothing is really done to excess. Players will likely have an opportunity to do everything that one can do during the game, but are equally unlikely to do any one thing every round save the two prime directives: 1. Execute the Pirogue Phase; 2. Execute the Explorer Phase. This essentially eliminates an open choice action point system where the angle seeking player seeks to break the system by exploiting a single action choice or a tiny group of action choices and plying them into a decisive victory. While that may be simultaneously enticing, exciting and entertaining for some, it is repulsing, boring and a let down for others whose entertainment is like a sight-seeing adventure where your fellow travelers are competing to see who can get the best picture for their scrapbook. Even if you lose you get a copy of your friend's picture for your scrapbook too, as opposed to a quest for the holy grail of victory and bragging rights as you take the last seat on the ferry boat to the tourist trap, laugh at your seatless friends left behind and tell them to wait for you so you can show them all the cool pictures you are going to take without them.

I have seen some comments alleging Tikal II: The Lost Temple to be too well balanced. What does that mean exactly? That one can't tell who is really winning until the end of the game? That the system has been proofed against exploitation? Do these same people avoid buying cars with engines that are too well tuned? Computers that run too smoothly? I would like to recommend the Great Dalmuti for those making these claims as a clear choice for gamers seeking a game that self-designates itself as not only not balanced, but not fair too. May you always be the Dalmuti while your friends remain eternal peons and not any other game will you ever need.

I think many players will find that Tikal II: The Lost Temple is a contest for subtle advantage where players are looking to predict their own futures with the information at hand. I will argue that a point-counting player, theoretically given unlimited time to examine the board for all the options available on a turn, made only the choice that garnered him or her the most victory points possible each turn would ultimately lose to a player who was making good decisions based on the long-term possible outcomes of his or her choices.

This game is not for those players, dare I say, who need to put their tactical and strategic vanity on display for the stage will not be found. This is not for those players who like self-policing games where the high-nail or lead player can and must be pounded down by actions of others. This game is for the self-reliant player who will win or lose by the results of there own decisions where passive aggression is an obstacle and active aggression requires too much effort to bother. I think Tikal's II: The Lost Temple is a game a team of 1st class designers made because it was the game they wanted to play, and game they like playing and and they graciously invited their fellow gamers to join them and take the opportunity to appreciate some of the best aspects Eurogames currently have to offer.

I think Tikal II: The Lost Temple would be a pleasant game you might choose to open or close a longer gaming night with players who game frequently. I think it would also be a good choice as a gateway-type game where you might want to start the level of play up a notch or two from more basic gateway games. I think for these reasons anyone that is likely to host gaming nights for both serious and casual gamers, separately or at the same time, will be pleased to have a copy of Tikal II: The Lost Temple within easy reach on his or her game shelf.

Complete review and comments of Tikal II by Wallace E. Friedel II  available here: Boardgamegeek