Tikal won the 1999 Spiel des Jahres, which is a rather amazing thing. While it’s been positioned by Ravensburger as a family game, its main mechanism, the Action Point system, isn’t as simple as the SdJ norm. Tikal isn’t a complicated game though, and it IS very, very pretty (perhaps Franz Vohwinkel’s best work on a boardgame to date), and I’m not going to complain about a game of its nature winning the SdJ. Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling began a series of games (nicknamed “The Mask Trilogy” for their covers) with Tikal, and the quality of the games improved with each iteration (Mexica followed in 2001, and the amazing Java debuted in 2002). Tikal’s SdJ win did set the stage for its superior cousin, Torres, to win the SdJ the year following.
As mentioned, Tikal is a beautiful game. The blank board appears to be an impenetrable jungle canopy. As thick hexagonal tiles are laid onto it, it gives the appearance that the canopy is being hacked away, revealing the contents of each hex. Temple levels are added by tiles that become smaller in size as the temple grows taller, a nice representation of the actual shape of the Mayan temples discovered in the real Tikal. The discs representing treasures sport a variety of interesting drawings. The players’ expedition teams are represented with colored wooden pawns.
Players in Tikal are leaders of archaeological expeditions that plunge into the Guatemalan jungles in search of Mayan ruins and artifacts scattered about the ancient city. Movement is not easy, however, and it takes more effort to get to some places and less to others. The expedition teams begin in a common camp at the edge of the forest, and each turn they explore further into the jungle to uncover temples and treasure troves. The taller the temple uncovered, the more prestige it can potentially confer on an archaeological team. The more identical treasures a team has, the greater the potential value. When a volcano is discovered in the area, scoring occurs. Each player scores for the treasures they hold, and for each temple where they have the most men nearby. Players are also able to erect private camps deep in the jungle, and deploy more men to work the discovery sites.
As mentioned, Tikal is a simple game that’s not beyond the grasp of an average family that plays Monopoly or Scrabble. The base game of Tikal has the players randomly drawing explored hexes from stacks. Placement of these hexes should be for best access for the placing player if it bears something useful (usually artifacts or a temple), and for more difficult access to other players. This is helped along by establishing a private base camp in a strategic location in the jungle. It usually helps to deploy most, if not all of your team over the course of the game in order to better compete for the most valuable temples. Finally, strategic use of the temple guards, who guarantee ownership of particular temples, help deploy resources in a more useful configuration.
The Advanced Game
Tikal has an advanced variant that allows players to bid victory points for the right to select tiles and place first. This removes the largest source of luck in the game, and makes the game less of a family game and more of a gamers’ game. However, it does have the side effect of lengthening a game that’s already a bit long for what it is (1.5 to 2 hours with 4 players), and it makes a game with an uneven pace (due to the volcano scoring) even less appealing. While this might be the only way gamers would like to play Tikal, there are many other games that would finish in 2+ hours or less that provide the same experience and satisfaction as Tikal. Included in these games would be Tikal’s relatives – Java, Mexica and Torres. The auction variant of the game is useful, and it’s nice that Ravensburger included the bidding tokens with the game, but there is a tradeoff.
Tikal isn’t a bad game, especially for a game that won the SdJ. It has interesting decisions, stunning presentation, and innovative gameplay. However, it suffers from uneven pacing, luck and randomness, and possibly a lot of downtime especially when playing with people who haven’t played a lot of German games. The downtime stems from a large decision tree that doesn’t get any smaller as the game wears on. In some situation, a player can have a huge number of options, many with outcomes with little or no variation. This situation could cause some players to lock up.
I would recommend checking out the other games in the Kramer/Kiesling action point series before committing to Tikal. Mexica has a similar level of complexity with faster gameplay and no luck. Java is a heavier game with more interesting strategy that plays in a comparable amount of time. Torres may be the best alternative; it is the most elegant of the series, plays quickly, has rules that are no more complex than Tikal, and it looks no less pretty and impressive when on the game table. Of these four games, I consider Tikal to be the fourth best. It’s still better than many, many games, but it is not the best in its own class.