English language edition
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As they wandered through Mexico, the Aztec, or Mexica, as they later called themselves, searched for the sign prophesied by their God, Huitzilopochtli: an eagle, perched on a cactus, eating a snake. There, they would settle.
Many years later, in 1325, the Mexica finally found the sign they sought and settled in their home on an island in Lake Texcoco. They spent the next 200 years exporing their chosen home and building their famous capital city Tenochtitln. They built dams to channel the water around land on which they built their homes. They called the building groups that were contained within the canals Calpulli. The Calpulli formed the basis for Aztec society.
In 1521, Hernn Corts destroyed Tenochtitln: a city of 15 square kilometers that had been home to over 200,000 people. Later, Mexico City rose on these ruins. Today, there are only a few remnants of the capital city of the Mexica.
In this game, the players return to the time of the Mexica. They build districts (Calpulli) surrounded by canals, build bridges connecting the districts, and build buildings in the districts. Players score points for founding districts and, twice in the game, for the buildings they have built in the districts. The player who scores the most points will win the game.
I've played this as a two-player game several times and the balancing problem is not very noticeable. This review is written from the opinion of a "lite gamer".
This game is light, fast, easy to play, with high replay value. The buildings are made of durable plastic and the board is beautiful bi- fold (folds in half and then in half again). The canals are durable cardboard, as are the point tokens and bridges. The remaining scoring pieces and pawns are small cubes of wood and matching wooden pawns, respectively. Everything is sturdy and well made, except the paper on the fold of the board is already wearing after less than a dozen games.
This is one of the "don't bump it or everything gets scattered" games so if you have small children, keep it in mind. On the other hand, the plastic buildings lend themselves as natural "stacking blocks" and have occupied my young children "on the side" while I played with my husband.
After playing only a handful of times, our stragegies have evolved. Sometimes our games are serious and sometimes just plain backstabbing fun. Too much backstabbing can be hilarious or annoying depending on everyone's moods at the time.
This is my current favorite and I expect to get many more hours of fun out of Mexica.
I like this game well enough, and appreciate the mechanisms. The availability of action chips and fewer action points certainly improves the play compared to Tikal, which is more prone to drag. However, my wife disapproves of it as categorised under family strategy. Besides the fact it is easy to learn, this is actually a very competitive game, with the leadership in every district changing hands pretty often. So unless your family is competitive YET non-rancorous, I consider this game more a gamer's game.
First, let me say that I agree with Mike Sedeker's excellent description of play and the game equipment, so what I'm offering in here are just a few additiontal impressions.
The rules to Mexica are easily absorbed; as with Tikal, another Kramer/Kiesling game, a player aid explaining all the action costs and a brief explanation of how to use bridges and build/found districts, is basically all a new player needs to start.
As Mike mentioned, veteran players may instantly be reminded of Manhattan in the sense that buildings are 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-stories tall, players work from a set of available buildings in each scoring round, and control of districts is the key to scoring. I would add that the scoring will remind some of Kramer's Torres and other games such as Merchants of Amsterdam and Web of Power in that a player can still score points for being in second or third position in each district. This means that players must continually study the board and the buildings he/she and each opponent has remaining in order to not only seize upon scoring opportunites, but to deter/pre-empt opponents' attempts to alter the scoring heirarchy in each district.
The high-quality bits remind me of Big City, in that after the game is over, one's tempted to step back and behold the colorful city that's been created before taking it apart. Of the Kramer/Kielsing trilogy (Tikal, Java, and Mexica), the components in this game are the best.
I highly recommend this game as both a family game and a challenging strategy game.
Further convincing proof of the time-tested formula: Several Action Points per turn + an enormous menu on which to spend them = a Kramer and Kiesling wonderland. Spend Action Points on the huge island to move your Mexica (playing piece), place canals, lay bridges across canals, and construct buildings. Earn Victory Points for: (a) Enclosing land areas (inhabited by your Mexica) with canals; and (b) having the most valuable buildings in enclosures, when play ends after one contestant's buildings have been depleted. Most Victory Points wins. Buildings are placed in enclosures only where your nomadic Mexica is present. One Action Point takes your overstretched Mexica to either an adjacent space or from one bridge to another over enormous stretches of connected canal tiles. This exhilarating mobility startles unsuspecting opponents. You, too, will be pleasantly startled by Mexica's entertaining novelty and accessibility.
Number three in a neatly linked trilogy of games: Tikal, Java and now Mexica. Like its predecessors it has an exotic, ancient setting and a basic mechanic which sees each player having a ration of so many action points per turn, which they will use in a variety of ways to build and lay claim to the things that will bring them victory points. The artwork emphasises the thematic linkage -- big green mask on the Tikal box lid, brown one on Java and now blue on Mexica -- but that is where the similarity is strongest. Beyond the common use of action points and menus governing their use, the games are sharply different. There is absolutely no question here of your being sold the same idea three times over. This is a trilogy of equal parts; not one game and two follow-ups.
The setting for this one is the early 14th century and the site of what is now Mexico City. Before the Spaniards arrived in Central America and decided that everything that was already there should be destroyed, this was Tenochtitln, an Aztec city built on an island in the middle of a lake. The inhabitants divided the island up with a system of dams and canals, whose purpose was to bring water to their homes. The creation of this canal system and the erection of buildings in the resultant districts forms the basis for the game. Players gain points for founding new districts and for being a major building owner.
Each player has a collection of buildings of 1, 2, 3 and 4 storeys and also a wooden piece known as a "mannie" (from the Aztec word for "chieftain"). The common stock consists of action chips and tiles representing canals, bridges and sacred sites. The game is in two halves, with a scoring phase at the end of each.
At the beginning of the game you take roughly half of your buildings and put the remainder to one side for use later. The 15 sacred site tiles are shuffled and 15 of them are placed in a display on the board. Each of these sacred site tiles carries 3 numbers, which will be used for scoring purposes. The largest of them is also the size of the district in which the tile will be placed. Aztecs would seem to have been strong on town planning and players are only allowed to found districts if there is an available site tile to match the number of squares in the area that has been enclosed.
You have six action points in your turn, which you will use to move your playing piece round the board, to place canal and bridge tiles and to put up buildings. You can also take up to two of them as action chips, to be converted into extra action points in a later turn. A good idea this, as not only does it give you extra flexibility, it helps speed up play. Most of us know roughly what we want to do when our turn comes round and if this doesn't quite use up the full allocation of 6 AP, the rule means that you can take a rain check for the surplus instead of wasting everyone else's time while you look for some marginally useful way of spending the extra.
In order to found a district you have to surround a block of squares with water and have your playing piece present. You then take a sacred site tile of the appropriate value and place it on one of the squares in the district. You score points for doing this (equal to the second largest of the numbers on the tile). If there isn't a still available tile to match the size of the area you have created, none is placed and the district stays unfounded and will remain that way until either new sacred site tiles become available in the second half or until someone cuts it down to a size for which there is a match.
When in a district, founded or not, you may erect buildings and this will cost you action points equal to the number of storeys. Your aim here is to become one of the three biggest property owners in the district, with size being measured in terms of the total number of storeys.
Action points are also expended in moving your playing piece around and here you have three options: walking, teleportation and travel by boat. Land movement is quite slow -- one action point per square -- and you are liable to find that it can also prove circuitous. This is because you can't go through buildings, you can't go through sacred sites and if you want to cross a canal you need a bridge which isn't being blocked by another player's piece. Teleportation is easier: you just pick up your man and set him down in an available spot of your choice. However, it is also expensive, a chunky 5 AP, which means that, unless you have some action chips saved up, you won't be doing much else this turn.
It is the third movement possibility that supplies the gimmick. Going by water is fast and cheap. This is because the Aztecs were not only keen on town planning; they invented the speed boat. With water movement it isn't 1 AP per square but 1 AP per bridge passed, which means that, provided there is a suitable continuous stretch of canal, you can travel a long way without using much of your AP allocation What is more, occupied bridges that you pass don't block your move and you can also take to the lake. All that you require in order to start one of these trips is to get to a suitable unoccupied bridge and to have another lined up for the end of your journey. Such fast movement by water may not make much sense in realistic terms, but it is a key part of the success of the game. In all these jostling for position affairs the designers need to strike a balance between ease and difficulty when it comes to one player menacing another one's position. You want things to be fluid, but not too fluid; you want possibilities for both attack and defence; and you want the players to have plenty of tactical options. It is not an easy thing to get right, but in Mexica, Kramer and Kiesling have come up with a combination of movement, placement and blocking rules that is spot on.
The first half of the game comes to an end when two conditions are met: (1) all the available sacred site tiles have been placed and (2) one player has used all their initial allocation of buildings. The round is then completed, so that everyone will have had the same number of turns. All the founded districts are then scored. As I said earlier, each sacred site tile shows 3 numbers, with the largest being equal to the size of the district. The other two are got by halving and rounding up. The range is from 13-7-4 down to 3-2-1. The points go to the first, second and third biggest property owner in each district. Once everything has been counted, each player is given the rest of their buildings and the remaining sacred site tiles are put on to the display. The second half then starts, with play continuing as before. Scoring at the end is similar to that at half way, save that now there is also provision for the scoring of any unfounded districts that happen to have been created.
The start of the typical game will see all players moving away from the central starting position and laying canal tiles with the aim of founding a district. Most canal tiles are two squares by one and so it only takes a couple of turns for even the largest districts to be built from scratch. Having done that, and maybe put down a small building as a declaration of intended ownership, you place a bridge, cross it and found a second district next door. The result is that by the end of turn 4 everyone has scored some points and the board has begun to take shape. From then until the scoring phase at half time it is a matter of trying to use your building and action point resources as effectively as possible in a situation where you are trying to take points from other people and they are trying to take points from you. It is obvious that one of your aims is to be number one in the biggest, highest scoring districts, but you will also want to establish a presence in as many districts as possible. In most of these games with "Acquire-derived scoring" the rule is that only first and second get points. Consequently, being third in the pecking order is wasted effort and something you try to avoid by concentrating on areas where you are more likely to get a pay-off. In Mexica it is different: there are at most 4 players and third place scores. Cheap points will be on offer and if you are not to miss out on them you are going to have to strike a balance between concentration and spread. Another strategic aim will be to get all your buildings on to the board by the end of the half, as any still sitting on the table in front of you when scoring takes place represent points lost.
The general strategic aims, though easy enough to state, are not that easy to achieve. This is partly because of the inherent conflict between two of them and partly because the game offers enough on the tactical side for you to be able to make life difficult for your opponents and for them to make it difficult for you. Clever placement of buildings and sacred sites can make access to areas hard for the opposition. You won't be able to stop them getting in, but by making the action point cost high, you can make them think twice about whether it is worth it. Remember that the more a player spends on movement, the less they have available for building. Facilitating your own movement is another thing you need to think about. Beware of the situation where a rival could maroon you in a district by ending his move on the one bridge out, forcing you to blow a lot of AP on a teleport. All dogs know that one of the best places to sit is in a doorway, as this gives you access to both rooms, stops people shutting you in either and impedes other traffic. In Mexica bridges work like doorways.
Where best to use your 1-storey and 4-storey buildings will also exercise your judgement. Both are valuable, but in different circumstances. The former provide a cheap way of denying building sites to your opponents and the latter can make a sudden and decisive difference in an area where space is about to run out. There is a lot to think about, which is a good thing in a game, provided it doesn't translate into "down time". The reason why Java was much less popular than Tikal was that in so many player turns there would be a long wait while the player wrestled with the geometry. Fortunately, in Mexica the thinking is the sort that you can be doing while other people are taking their turns and so the game manages to be both interesting and fairly fast moving.
All positives so far then, but there is one negative and it is the point that I mentioned as a first impression in my editorial last issue. The game is fun to play, but as a contest it is unfair. The players going later in the turn order have a significant advantage over the one who goes first. To see why, visualise the last turn in each half. The player going last can look round the board, decide which is the biggest prize within reach and take it away from its current holder, with no defence or retaliation possible. Provided this player has saved up a few action chips, the "teleport and place a 4-storey building" move will probably be on and it's a killer. The player first in the turn order can easily find that a couple of first places have been taken away on this last turn and that can sour the entertainment that went before. How serious a drawback this is depends on how competitive you are, but it is something you should bear in mind before putting the game on your "buy list". Reversing the player order in the second half would help, but I'm not sure that it would solve the problem completely.