I've often heard it said that mechanics, theme, and setting don't have to be connected for a game to work well. As if a game could be about anything and the exact same ways of playing would have the same affect on a person, including their level of enjoyment. Games with Euro mechanics like Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan are most often used in these arguments. There is a well read article over at Noble Knight about this exact distinction.
It's a dull distinction which lacks imagination.
Games like Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan integrate theme, setting, and mechanics much better than the stoic and solid Euros of previous year. Does that mean it is just a heavy thematic game? Absolutely not and by no means does this just fit into that simple dichotomy. That's what is such a joy about the current golden age of board games we live in. Here is a mass market type game with inter-woven theme and mechanics.
Ahau is a competitive game for 1-5 players. The game is played in rounds which are then divided in K'atun periods. The game ends when the third K'atun Celebration happens, or someone has placed their last worker, or someone has built their entire pyramid. The game is relatively simple with a simultaneous movement phase which occasionally produces conflict followed by each player taking a turn placing a worker, choosing to summon a god, and then either building or producing.
Each round, players pick from a hand of 6 cards and use one to choose where they will try to move and the other one adds to their military strength. Anticipating where other players go allows you to try to get into conflicts at the right time. Sometimes, you may just want to get into a conflict in order to go back into a region where you have already played your card. This is because you only pick up your movement cards when you have less than 2 in hand. Less than two in hand is important because you may later gain a role card which gives you special powers but otherwise acts as a normal card for the main purposes.
I love emergent gameplay- where you see new things in a game each time you play. This game has plenty of that to explore without being overwhelming with add-ons or other material. The paths to victory are different enough each time that all of our plays were interesting. I did get to play it at every player count except 5.
The board is double sided and has differing number of regions for player count. It is all balanced very well.
I would gladly play it at 5 to see how the conflict develops at a full table. The conflict can influence how each game goes, but it doesn't dictate it. Instead your choices as to when to build or produce have much more impact on game flow. Players should always be doing their own thing, but also be aware of the current game state as it can proceed quickly. A player in the lead may choose to move the game along much faster than other players might initially anticipate.
The game also rewards going to a region and its adjacent regions several times. You may gain a building for free by having your ruler in a region with all of your workers in the cities around the region. That is, if you are first you will gain this bonus. Another thing to be aware of and maybe plan for? Or, you can ignore this bonus and focus and resources you need to build your pyramid in a way that will starve your rivals for those precious resources, all while hastening the K'atun Celebration.
My favorite way to play the game is to build up my pyramid as quickly as possible while looking for the ideal combination of colors and gods. Getting a combination of summoning a new god while also being able to build more in your pyramid near the end of the game leaves me with a sense of exhilaration- enough that I want to high five someone.
It's at this point in the review that I know my new friend Nicholas would be giggling at my description of what is essentially a "go here, get that, build that game. "
Supernumerary claims about the game aside- it's fun to get combos that make sense in this world. Why do I get rewarded for building a temple or worshiping the Jaguar god in a game about the Mayans? Oh yeah! It's a game about the Mayans. Tell me again how a game with Euro mechanics must be dry and disconnected from theme.
And, despite the conflict, the game does not force us into one side of the mold or the other. It's not simply a thematic game. It's not just window dressing either, the publisher did hire a cultural consultant and included a complete second book just about Mayan culture and the cities used in the game. Why is Chichén Itzá in the game if this is a game about the Mayan Classic Period? Well, they have a perfectly reasonable explanation for that and they are aware of the potential problems.
What else should I say about the game? The solo mode for the game is well thought out and plays smoothly. I just prefer the game where I am more likely to get into conflicts quicker. The art is quite nice and appropriate for the game.
The only negative I had were that there were a few times it was difficult to see certain icons, but I feel like that is getting picky.
At first, I thought the availability of only 7 different scoring tiles for the pyramids would be a down side. Each game, 5 are assigned to the pyramids. However, after several plays knowing that we would score the highest scoring part of wherever we were able to be meant we paid attention to what other players were doing. This Global scoring of pyramids made for an interesting game as most times it was difficult to get on 4 or 5 pyramids before the K'atun Celebration. Following is an example of Global scoring, if you were in a 3 player game and Kinich Ahau had the scoring tile on it which symbolized gain a point for each pyramid you have a token on. If one player has a token on all 5 pyramids, then as long as the other players are also on that pyramid before the K'atun Celebration, they would all get 5 points. This interplay makes it much more interesting where pyramid tiles land at the end of each round when they are refilled on the board.
This game won't be for those who prefer the purist of all Euros with little to no player interaction. It also won't be for those who want a crunchy game with several games layered on top. This one really is a middle weight game which gets right to the matter at hand. If you don't play games where you are developing a plan, this might not be for you either.
I would highly recommend this game to those who think it might be a good fit. It all fits together in a deft and satisfying manner. There is also a family mode of playing the game, but you will only need this for younger gamers. I could see this game being played by children as young as 9 who can focus on the decisions, although I would generally recommend it for those in the 10-11 range who have played games of similar style and complexity.
Variants - There are also variants for a Shadow Player to be added at 2,3, or 4 players. This can add to your potential for conflict. The game comes with a built in hard mode, just flip the pyramid board over and you are on night mode. This side breeds conflict but isn't harder to learn. You may also remove the Global scoring of pyramids in favor of personal scoring, but we felt like this hamstrung part of the uniqueness of the game.
Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan
Designed by Oláh Tamás
Artwork by Szabó Dávid
Published by Apeiron Games & Grand Gamers Guild
60 minutes solitaire or 30 minutes per player multiplayer w/out Shadow Player
*The review copy of this game was provided by Grand Gamers Guild in anticipation of GenCon 2023. My opinions are my own and no other compensation was provided for this review.