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This board game for the whole family is set in Central America long before the conquest by Cortz: The Mayan culture is blooming and the enormous pyramids of Tikal and Copan are under construction. The players are building masters who direct the pyramids' construction. Unfortunately, competitors interfere, which leads to violent wrangling in the quarries and at the building sites. Everyone is trying to add the most components to the pyramids in order to receive the largest portion of the gold of the Mayan rulers.
My Essen haul this year didn't quite follow what had become the usual pattern. Instead of being dominated by five-player games the games that attracted me sufficiently to encourage me to part with euros were six 6-player, only three 5-player, and six 4-player. In fact the number of 4-player could have been greater were it not for the fact that we are very seldom down to this number so I had to reject any in that category if I had even a smidgen of doubt about them.
As it happened, for our first game on our return we were five. And because it came with English rules (but see below) the first new game to hit the table was Bernd Eisenstein's Maya. Not only had this game come top in a recent Hippodice Game Inventors Competition, it had also reach the top of the Fairplay Magazine Essen voters' list when I left the fair on Friday evening. So ``the auguries were good'' one might say.
Not that I was overwhelmed with too much enthusiasm when I had a chance to read the rules thoroughly. There seemed to be no novel ideas in the game; simply a reassembling of existing mechanisms. Nothing wrong in that in itself but nor was it anything to get excited about. As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong!
The game components are adjusted according to the number of players (something that always appeals to me) and I will describe the game as played by its maximum number.
There is no board as such. Instead in the centre of the table (and here I must diverge to ask whether gamers are now becoming so stupid that publishers have to tell buyers to ``put the board in the centre of the table''. Do they really think they'd leave it in the box, shove it under the sideboard, or whatever!). But I digress. In the centre of the table are laid out four postcard size plaques each depicting a pyramid and on these pyramids are ascending rows of boxes, each row reducing in length.
Below these is a separate long strip, which in the case of five players depicts seven boxes. These are the `quarries' for the blocks to build the pyramids. Each box brings rewards (in building blocks) of, say 3 blocks to the most successful quarriers (if there is such a word - my spell-checker doesn't think there is) and 1 to the second most. Also each segment carries a bonus for the best quarriers in the form of a plaque that permits the player to carry out a supplementary action later in the round.
Each player starts the game with a handful of cards plus a couple of blocks that he initially places on the bottom row of boxes in two of the pyramids - just to get him started, as it were. The cards range in value from 3 to 8, also with a -3.
OK. Let's play. Players in turn place face down one of their cards below one of the Quarry sections. The backs of the cards indicate whether the card played is a low one or a high one. What is more, the first card played to each section has to be a low one. This continues round the table as each player determines how many of his workers (this being what the cards represent) he will send to each quarry. There is one very good limitation in this. At each quarry only a limited number of worker cards may be played, ranging from four to seven.
This having been done the cards are revealed. The most successful player at each quarry takes the larger number of blocks depicted (ranging from 3 to 4) plus the special actions plaque. Whilst the number of blocks achieved by the most successful player doesn't vary too much between the quarries, some of the larger ones hand out not only second, but also third and fourth prizes. So, with these it is not such a disaster if you get pipped for first place. But then there is the reward of the different plaques and these can be very important later in the round. (I don't suppose you are consumed with anxiety as to what the -3 card means but if you are you can reduce an opponent's `bid' by 3.). And I'm sure you will be feeling there's nothing terribly novel about the game so far. We've all been there before although, I have to add, we all found this aspect challenging and enjoyable, even though it was a mechanism we were used to.
So you've now, hopefully, got a number of blocks in your colour in front of you. We found that this seemed to be around 7 blocks, give or take. These have to be transported to the pyramid site and here is a nice little rule twist. Having played out your cards in the first part of the game you need to have held back enough workers to transport any blocks you managed to acquire to the pyramid - one block per worker. Of course, you can't in any way be sure how many blocks you will `win' and if you are really successful and end up with, say, ten and you've only held back a `7' card (thinking that was all you were likely to get) you have to return three of your precious ten blocks to the pool (unless, that is, you happened to win the plaque that allowed you to transport two additional blocks). Nice rule that.
Players now in turn place one block at a time on a pyramid starting at the lowest row. What is more, they cannot place blocks on a higher row until the lowest row in all pyramids is full. This becomes very much a case of jockeying for position and in this process three of the plaques referred to come in useful. One plaque allows you to determine who plays first, another allows you to place two blocks instead of one, and another allows you to make a strategic `pass'. It is also possible to place two blocks if you are prepared to surrender an additional block back to the pool. This is a most interesting stage of the game in the light of what you are trying to achieve, which are basically three things:
1. Once a row is filled, if a single player has a majority of blocks in that row the player is allowed - with certain restrictions - to place a bonus block (from the bank) on the row above.
2. Each row of building blocks has a score value at the end of the round, which can range up to 5 gold pieces for the player who has the majority (or players who share the majority) and up to 3 for second place.
3. A clever rule also states that you can never put blocks in a higher row if you do not have at least one block in each of the lower rows of that pyramid.
As soon as all players have placed blocks the pyramids are scored. As I said, gold pieces are awarded to players having the majority or coming second. What is more - and most important this - is that incomplete rows are scored. So if you were able to get that bonus block when a row had been filled the chances are that you are also going to pick up all the points for the higher row because this is the one placement that defies the rule that all of the building must rise at an equal rate. So if, say, you took the bonus on row two and had your bonus block placed on row three nobody could challenge you there if there were still empty spaces on row two in other pyramids. (I hope you followed all this)
Finally, after the most successful builders so far have been paid out there comes the best rule of the game, and one that pushes it right up the `good games' ladder. All players who have received payment in each row must remove one of their blocks from that row back to the pool. At the end of all of this the rule is once again observed that for blocks to be on a higher level that player must be represented on all lower levels of the pyramid. And this was my undoing. It isn't easy to concentrate on all pyramids so I had chosen to be present on three only and to really push things on two. Knowing the rule I took precautions and made sure I had two blocks on the bottom row so that I could afford to lose one of them. But I didn't keep watch. Because blocks get removed and the gaps then have to be filled in during the following turn it transpired that with my single block I was in equal second place with four other players. So at the end of turn two I received one measly gold piece and had to remove my remaining block. This meant that to the infinite glee of the rest of the players (may they all be stricken with sore boils) my five other blocks higher up the pyramid - I being the player who was dominating that pyramid - all came crashing to the ground because I was no longer present on the first level. Had I got the necessary plaque from the quarrying stage I could have moved one down there, but I hadn't. What I should really have done was to ensure that in the building phase I had put a second block in that row - assuming that other players, spotting my predicament, hadn't filled it before I got the chance.
And that's it. This all goes on for three rounds and the player with the most gold at the end is the winner.
Our group has received the game with wholehearted enthusiasm and I echo those sentiments.
Allow about 90 minutes with five players.
Maya comes with rules in German, English, and French. Unfortunately there are two inaccurate translations in the English version, which it is important to get right. Luckily there are the two other translations to refer to. Without going into excessive detail the paragraph top right on page 4 should read to the effect: ``Once a row has been completed (a) any player who has sole simple majority in that row, and (b) should the row above be completely empty of blocks, that player is given a bonus block from the pool, which he/she places on the row above. No bonus is derived on the completion of the very top row.'' It is the first part of that section that got a bit garbled in translation. Apart from the `any player' (as opposed to the implied `moving player') note the word `sole' - a situation that wasn't clarified at all in either the English or the German version, even though it needed to be, but was in the French.
The second glitch concerns the special plaque that depicts two pyramids with a block above them. Instead of ``The player may remove one of his blocks in any pyramid at once and place it in the first level of the same or another pyramid'' it should read ``...... a lower level of the same or another pyramid''.
It is this plaque that would have saved me from my disastrous experience. Best not to think about it.