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Strategic Ambiguity In The Princes of Machu Picchu

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
I generally like the Mac Gerdts games I’ve played. While he is not my most played game designer, I do like what he has generally done with his rondel mechanic, and used a single, signature, mechanism to make a wide variety of different games. Imperial (in its 2030 variation) is my favorite of his games, but I’ve also quite enjoyed the Princes of Machu Picchu.

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Mac Gerdts Games

The Princes of Machu Picchu is Mac Gerdts’ lowest rated game, and while its 7.05 average rating is not bad, it is a good indication that this game is much less well-received than his other titles. This is too bad, because it is a fairly unique gaming experience and one that deserves quite a bit of exploration.

Thematically the game is about the struggle between two different sets of “Princes of Machu Picchu”, one which is out to defend their last city from conquest by the conquistadors and another group that is seeking to sell out and let the conquistadors into the city. The mechanics of the game follow this particular theme very effectively, and the game feels like a tense struggle to determine a) if you should sell out b) if you do sell out when you should make it clear you are selling out and thus try to push the game towards the conquistadors sacking the city.

Mechanically the game is superficially focused on resource management. The five major resources in the game (corn, llamas, cocoa leaves, pottery, and clothes) can be used to purchase Incas, who allow you to generate more resources, or one of the three types of priest tiles (virgins of the sun, condor priests, and puma priests). There are also a few places that provide some twists on this, with a market allowing you to use corn to buy and sell the other types of goods, and a sun clock that allows you to remove Incas. However, this provides only the engine behind the game, and is not what defines it, instead the game is fundamentally about a large number of subtle timing decisions and educated guesses about which victory condition your opponents are seeking to achieve.

Board Game: The Princes of Machu Picchu

There are a number of timing decisions in the game, but the most important one is when to fully commit to either the conquistador or Inca ending conditions. The difference between the two ending conditions is that on an Inca victory each player gains victory points based on how the icons they’ve collected from scoring cards match their Incas in the various resource areas and the priests that they have purchased. On a conquistador victory, whoever has the most gold has their basic score tripled, and whoever has the second most has their score doubled. This means that whoever has the most gold has a strong incentive to push for a conquistador ending. This is complicated by the fact that the amount of gold any individual player has is secret, so you never quite know what other player’s incentives are and how much gold you really have. You just need to rely on what they are doing, deck knowledge, and what cards you draw to determine what you should do.

The difference between the conquistador and Inca ending is based on the status of the priest tiles in the game. If all of the priest tiles are purchased then the game ends on Incas. If they are not purchased by the end of the ninth round then the game ends with a conquistador victory. So how do you determine which ending to go for?

At the beginning of the game you start with a scoring card that has three bits of information on it: a gold quantity, and two symbols that indicate either one of the resources or one of the types of priests. The second bit of information is used for scoring. At the end of the game you get one point for each of these symbols that match the Incas you have on the board or the priests that you have purchased.

Board Game: The Princes of Machu Picchu

The gold quantity in your hand provides the first bit of information that allows you to make an educated guess about what ending condition you should be shooting for as well as the particular ending condition other individuals might be shooting for. So whenever you draw scoring cards you get a better idea of both what sort of cards are still out there, and with a little bit of knowledge of the deck you can get a hint of an idea of what sort of victory you should be going for. If you draw multiple high cards then it is likely that the others are going to be in a poor position to push for a conquistador ending, which gives you an opportunity to do so. Low cards indicate the reverse, and there are, of course, situations where you draw an ambiguous set of middle of the road gold values.

The second bit of information you have regarding which ending condition others are shooting for, and thus a likely distribution of gold, is simply the actions people take in the game. Establishing a lot of board infrastructure (Incas), and using those resources to buy a lot of priests is usually indicative of someone who is pushing for an Incan ending. Individuals who purchase an early condor priest (or two) and push for early round conclusions are frequently pushing towards a conquistador ending.

How the scoring cards are gained and the distribution of symbols adds a further level of tension to this entire enterprise. At the start of the game each player starts with one scoring card. This card provides an initial hint of how you might want to approach the early game, but is not a straightjacket that determines the only route you can go. In order to get more scoring cards you need to move up something called the Inca trail. It has 20 spots on it, and there are a number of minor ways to move up, but the most important one is to sacrifice llamas at a temple in order to move up the trail a number of spaces equal to the amount indicated by the purchased priest tiles. Moving up the trail gives you some bonus resources, but also provides, when you reach the top, the ability to draw three more scoring cards into your hand, and discard two. This is doubly useful in that it provides you with more information about what is out there and prevents you from being forced into a pre-defined starting position based on your initial card draw.

Board Game: The Princes of Machu Picchu

Which strategy to pursue is made even more difficult by how the scoring symbols are distributed. The cards that have the largest number of gold on them, and thus are best for the conquistador ending, also have at least one priest symbol on them, which means that in order to score anything, and get the tripling that comes from a conquistador ending be meaningful, you probably need to buy multiple priests, which just happens to push the game closer to an Inca ending. Additionally, if you fail to buy enough priests it is quite possible to fall behind in the race for scoring cards and make it so the actions you sacrificed to push the game to an early ending might end up helping someone else. However, if your fellow players are skilled at the game they will likely be able to efficiently push for a non-Inca ending, making it so that if you buy even one too many priest can result in an Inca ending and probably your utter defeat.

So I find this game to be endlessly fascinating and extremely interactive. The tension and ambiguity in determining which of the two ending conditions to push for, when to push for them, and how to most effectively score points in your chosen ending condition are all difficult choices that become only more difficult with skilled players. Because this relies to some extent on players having an idea of what they are doing or are trying to accomplish it is pretty easy for this game to go off the rails and thus have an unenjoyable early experience. Don’t let an early negative experience deter you, as The Princes of Machu Picchu is an excellent, unique game that only blossoms as you continue to investigate the subtleties of its design.
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