Released by: Hangman Games
3 – 4 Players; 2 – 3 hours
Designed by: Alan Ernstein
Reviewed by: Greg J. Schloesser
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #25
While chatting with Tim Trant at the recently completed Gathering of Friends, he mentioned to me that this new Alan Ernstein design from Hangman Games was one of his favorite games of the convention. That was enough to pique my interest and seek-out a game. Tim wasn’t wrong; the game is excellent.
Set in the Incan empire, players are charged with the task of expanding the kingdom, conquering neighboring tribes and establishing cities, temples and terraces. The game combines elements of crayon rail games with empire building and construction. I’m not normally fond of crayon rail games. Most of them seem to lack much player interaction, and seem to drag on and on as players study the board and draw long segments of rail lines. Fortunately, Tahuantinsuyu is different. There is significant player interaction here, and since players usually only draw two segments of road networks per turn, the downtime is extremely minimal.
The game is played on a large, tri-fold map depicting a large section of the extreme western coast of South America. Players begin in Cuzco, the heart of the Incan empire, and fan out from there, exploring and conquering the dozens of regions depicted on the map. Expansion is conducted by constructing roads along a myriad of potential paths, with cities and garrisons being constructed along the way at pre-designated locations. Several player aids are printed directly on the map, and a scoring track, which provides ample room for the markers, runs along the perimeter.
Prior to the beginning of the game, each territory receives a face-down culture token. These tokens list the strength of the native resistance in that area, the victory points earned for conquering the territory, and the ongoing supply of labor (and warriors) that the area supplies to the player.
The game is played over the course of nine turns, with these turns being divided into four historical eras or empires. Turns increase in length as each new empire is entered, but the final turn can be cut short if Pizarro arrives on the scene and begins the destruction of the Incan empire.
Turns are further subdivided into phases, some of which (the “sun” and “people” phases) usually occur multiple times during a turn:
1) Inca Phase. During this phase, each player receives labor in which to construct the cities, temples and terraces that will increase the glory and control of the empire. Each player receives a base amount of labor depending upon the current era of the game, as well as an additional amount based upon the territories they have conquered and terraces they have constructed. Some territories are more valuable than others, but this varies as the culture markers are distributed randomly into each territory prior to the beginning of each game. Further, these territories tend to be more difficult to conquer. Culture tokens are revealed when the empire expands to the borders of the territories.
Labor serves as the resource tool. The more labor a player has under his control, the more he is able to accomplish on a turn. Guaranteeing a steady supply of labor is essential, which forces players to conquer hostile territory. However, the game does force players to use their tokens optimally, as only a limited number can be carried over from turn to turn, and this number reduces as the game progresses.
Once the game enters the Early Empire era (which begins in turn 2), the empire imposes a charity system wherein the lead player must donate a labor token to the player currently is last place on the victory point chart. When the game enters the Middle Empire era, the donation increases to two labor tokens, while the player in second place has a similar obligation to the third place player. This is very nice “balancing” mechanism and does help keep one player from getting too far ahead.
2) Sun Phase. The player order is determined, with players taking turns based on their standing on the victory point chart, but in reverse order. Then, “sun” cards are played. At the beginning of the game, each player receives three event cards, known as “Sun” cards. In player order, each player plays one card BETWEEN two players. Only one card may be played between each player in each ‘sun’ phase.
When the cards are revealed, each card will only affect the two players adjacent to it. This is a very clever mechanism, particularly since the cards are played in player order, which is from “last to first” based on the status of the players on the victory point track. So, the player in last place has the first opportunity to play a card that will either help himself and a neighbor, or hurt two of his opponents. The player in first place will be forced to play a card in the one remaining slot, which gives him no option. Again, this is a very clever balancing mechanism, and forces each player to make an interesting choice of either helping himself … which will also help a neighbor … or hindering the efforts of two opponents.
So what do these “sun cards” do? Well, a variety of things, with some being helpful and others harmful. They attempt to loosely simulate actual occurrences that affected the Incan empire. For instance, El Nino Flooding forces players to construct one less road per turn, while Rapid Expansion allows players to conquer one additional territory during the turn, albeit at an additional cost in labor. Other cards grant additional victory points when constructing a city or temple, while others cause rebellions, wherein unruly natives rise-up and destroy roads in territories that have not yet been conquered. There is a decent variety of cards, and multiples of most of them, so the distribution should be fairly even over the course of a game. Most of the cards are well balanced and not too powerful or devastating.
The most powerful cards seem to be the “Pilgrimage” cards, which grant significant amounts of victory points if a player has his road networked connected to the specified city. The player does have to forego building roads or his construction action that turn in order to complete a pilgrimage, but that seems a small price to pay for a successful pilgrimage, particularly one which can be used more than once in a turn. While I personally did not feel the cards were too powerful, especially in light of the opportunity cost to effectively use them, a few of my fellow players expressed concern over the power of these cards. After much discussion, a reasonable solution seemed to be to only allow one pilgrimage for an entire turn. However, I personally don’t see the need to alter these cards.
3) People Phase. Each player has two actions to perform during a People phase: road building and construction.
a) Road Building. A player may construct up to two roads during his turn at no labor cost. These are drawn with his marker along the pre-printed routes on the map. The idea is to connect to lucrative city and/or garrison sites, and to expand adjacent to areas so you may eventually conquer them, thereby earning victory points and expanding your labor base. Deciding where to construct your road network and which area of the country to penetrate are important decisions.
The rules for road building are similar to typical crayon rail games, but with a significant consideration in regards to unconquered territory. Basically, when constructing a road through unconquered territory, both ends of a road segment cannot lie within unconquered territory. This forces players to spend time conquering territory in order to keep their road network expanding.
b) Construction. A player may take one “construction” action, which can be the building of a city, garrison, temple, terrace or an additional road segment. Alternatively, he can conquer a region. Each of these actions costs a specific number of labor tokens, but the erection of a building or terrace earns immediate victory points for the player. Cities generate the most victory points (4), but also cost the most labor (6). Cities and garrisons must be constructed on the corresponding locations on the board in conquered territory, and a player must have a road connected to that location. Temples are constructed on previously constructed cities, while terraces are not placed onto the board, but rather are kept in front of a player. However, a player may only construct one terrace per territory he has conquered.
The game also provides an incentive to follow the historical construction patters on the Incas. Several important city locations provide additional victory points when temples are constructed there, or when certain sun cards are played.
The tokens used for cities, garrisons and terraces are actually small squares of stained glass. The designer is also an artist, so has economically used some of his glass for components! Temples are wooden cubes, but they are slightly tapered to give the rough appearance of an Incan temple. Nice.
To conquer a region, a player must have a road network adjacent to an unconquered region. He then must spend a number of labor tokens (representing warriors) equal to the resistance level of that territory. The player takes the culture marker from the territory and places it in front of him. As mentioned, this territory will now generate additional labor tokens for the player each turn.
4) Sapa Inca Phase. This phase occurs only once at the end of each turn. Players receive victory points for each city, garrison and temple to which they are connected, whether they constructed those features or not. Further, each terrace a player has constructed earns the player a victory point. All victory points are recorded on the scoring track, with ties for player order being broken in favor of the player who reached a location on the track first.
Since points are earned each turn for these connections, it is imperative for players to connect to as many cities, garrisons and temples as possible. Thus, once a player constructs one of these features, the others will come … which is reminiscent of the line from the Field of Dreams film: “Build it, and they will come!” There are a limited number of paths leading to each city or garrison, so it is possible to cut an opponent off from reaching that city. However, several ‘sun’ cards allow players to construct a “wilderness road”, which can be drawn outside the normal pre-designated routes. There are only a few of these cards, however, so it is not possible for a player to reach every city.
As mentioned, the number of phases in the turns increases as each new empire era is entered. This means that all turns after the first will include multiple ‘sun’ and ‘people’ phases. However, labor is only received at the beginning of each turn, so players must carefully plan their intended actions and allocate their labor accordingly. Failure to plan properly can force a player to be unable to perform the desired actions later in a turn, or perhaps even forego actions altogether. In a game where a few points usually separate the victor from the also-rans, this would be a disaster.
Of course, plans must sometimes be altered due to the play of a ‘sun’ card or the actions of opponents. Some may find this irritating, but I find that it forces a player to adapt to unexpected or changing conditions.
On the 9th and final turn, after each ‘people’ phase is completed, a chip is revealed to see if Pizarro arrives. If he does, one final scoring is conducted and the game concludes immediately thereafter. Otherwise, the game continues. There are four ‘people’ phases during the final turn, with a chip being revealed after each of these phases. Thus, the game has a variable ending that adds an additional level of uncertainty and tension to the proceedings. Very nice.
Tahuantinsuyu would have undoubtedly escaped my attention were it not for the recommendation of a fellow gamer. I am certainly grateful for his advice, as I find the game to be outstanding. It is filled with tension, excitement and uncertainty, and forces players to carefully plan their actions and make tough decisions between numerous options. I have been completely engrossed in each of my games, which were competitive to the very end. A road here or a city there could easily have spelled the difference between finishing in first place or in last. My games have all been that tightly contested. I find myself thinking about the game long after we have finished playing, wondering what other things I could have done to improve my performance. I also find myself longing to play it again and again.
Are there any problems? A few, but they are minor. Several roads are drawn directly on the regional borders and it is difficult to discern which territory they fall within. This is troublesome when the ‘Rural Unrest’ card is played. A few rules are ambiguous, and some of the cards could have been explained a bit clearer. The Pilgrimage cards can be powerful, and a bit too powerful for some folks’ tastes. However, this is easily modified.
In any event, the few minor problems only slightly detract from an otherwise outstanding game.
Although I haven’t played all of Alan Ernstein’s designs, from the several I’ve played, Tahuantinsuyu is far-and-away the best of his efforts. This is a game that nearly every major game company would be proud to have in its line. I don’t know exactly how many copies Hangman Games has produced, but my advice to you is to secure a copy as quickly as you can. This is a terrific game that does justice to the rich culture it represents.