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Joshua Miller
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Preview of Maya after one play

In Maya, players together construct Mayan step pyramids at the famous locations such as Chichen Itza, Tikal, Uxmal, and Palenque. The game is played over the course of several epochs (three, if I recall correctly). Each epoch is divided into two parts.

During the first part of each epoch, players acqure the building blocks that they will later use to erect the pyramids. Each player has an identical hand of cards with numbers ranging from 3 to 8 (and one special -3 card). Players taking turns laying the cards face down at various locations. Each location lists a number of blocks that will be given out to the players who place first, second, third, and possibly even fourth at this location. For instance, one location might give four blocks to the first place player, three to second place, and one block to third place. Another might give just two to first and one to second. Additionally, there is a one-shot special ability at each location that can be used that turn by whomever placed first. Placing is determined by the total value of all the cards each person plays to that location. But you won't want to play all your cards, because you also need workers to haul the blocks that you have just won. The number of workers available to you is equal to the total value of all your *unplayed* cards. If the number of blocks you are owed exceeds your number of workers, the excess blocks are lost.

In the second part of the epoch, players will use the blocks they have just acquired to construct the pyramids. With five players, there were four pyramids being constructed. Each pyramid has either three or four steps or levels, and each level has room for several blocks (generally from about 4 to maybe 9 or 10 spaces). Players take turns placing one block apiece until they start to run out of blocks. Blocks must be placed onto the lowest level available on any pyramid. So, even if the first level is filled at Chichen Itza, you can't start playing on the second level until *every* pyramid's first level is full. Also, you can only play on the second or higher level of a pyramid if you have at least one block on the level immediately beneath it. A player can choose to pass or to play two blocks at once, but each time he does so, he must throw one of his blocks back into the supply. Some of the one-shot special abilities acquired in the first part of the epoch can also be used to break the normal rules for placing blocks.

When a level fills on any pyramid, scoring occurs. There is a pair of numbers printed next to each pyramid level, such as "3/1." This means that the player with the most blocks in that level will score three points and the player with the second most blocks will score one point. However, Maya uses what I dubbed the "friendliest possible" tiebreaking rules. In our example every player tied for first place scores the full three points. And even if there was a tie for first, all players with the next-highest total will score for second place. It was not uncommon in our game for all five players to score for a given pyramid level. Finally, if there is a clear first place, that player may place a free block (taken from the general supply) on the next (higher) level of that pyramid - but only if that level is currently empty. The free block can be very powerful because everyone may run out of blocks before it is legal to build on that level, in which case you can pick up an easy three or four points with no competition.

Finally, before starting the next epoch, erosion occurs. On each pyramid level, every player who scored one or more points for that level must lose one block to erosion. If this leaves anyone with "unsupported" blocks on higher level of the pyramids, each and every one of them come tumbling down. So due to erosion, there will be empty spaces on every level of every pyramid. In the next epoch, players will again have to start at the bottom, filling the eroded spaces on the first level of the pyramids before moving up to the higher levels.

What did I think of Maya after one play? I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it's too early to foresee whether it will have staying power. The greatest criticism that could be leveled against Maya is that there's simply not much that's new here. Just about every mechanism and idea in Maya has been done before. As I was playing, I was reminded of several other games such as Aladdin's Dragons, Tal der Koenige, and any number of El Grande-like "majorities of cubes in regions" games. However, that kind of familiarity is not entirely a bad thing. In some ways, Maya plays like a "greatest hits" album - it will never be considered groundbreaking, but that's okay if you like the songs. And there are some interesting innovations here that keep Maya from feeling stale.

For example, the block-gaining portion of the game is so familiar that I call it the "Aladdin's Dragons phase." It plays almost exactly like the battles for the gems in the caves at the bottom of the Aladdin's Dragons board. But that's okay, because I think the gem caves are the best part of Aladdin's Dragons. And there are a couple small tweaks that improve upon Aladdin's Dragons. First of all, the backs of the cards numbered 3 to 5 are different than the backs of the cards numbered 6 to 8, which helps players make smarter guesses about how many points someone has allocated to a location. Secondly, the tiebreaker is determined by the earliest card play to a location, which I find more satisfying than the player-order tiebreaker in Aladdin's Dragons.

The most important innovation is the erosion rule, something I haven't seen elsewhere. The "friendliest possible" tiebreaking rules are also an excellent design decision, since they cause more blocks to be eroded, giving the game a dynamic feel. The way that blocks must be supported by same-colored blocks in the lower levels of the pyramids also meshes nicely with the erosion rule; erosion can be crippling if it removes your support for blocks higher in the pyramid. The battles for lower levels of the pyramids can be especially important for someone with blocks higher up, so that he doesn't lose his last supporting block to erosion. The supporting rules also mean that as the pyramids rise higher and higher, fewer and fewer players will have the support necessary to place blocks. This winnowing of the competition at the higher levels reminds me a bit of another game I haven't mentioned yet, Pizarro & Co.

Our first game was a five-player affair that ended in a two-way tie. One player's chances were stuffed when he was the victim of a nasty erosion that eliminated several of his blocks from one of the pyramids because of lack of support. Everyone seemed to have a good time with the game.

If you're trying to decide whether to purchase Maya, I don't have a clear recommendation in either direction. On one hand, it's cheap and it has gone over well so far. On the other hand, I don't know if it's different enough to stand out from the crowd in the long run.
 
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