Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Princes of Machu Picchu

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

The Princes of Machu Picchu is an older game by Mac Gerdts. In this age of glut in boardgames, a 2008 game is already considered old. Mac Gerdts is famous for the rondel mechanism in his designs. I've always felt the rondel is just a tool he uses, and it's misleading and unfair to simply describe his games as rondel games. His games have different characters, and they are not defined by the rondel, clever though it is as a tool.

The gameboard of The Princes of Machu Picchu is based on a famous photo of Machu Picchu, and it behaves like a huge irregular rondel. Players move their pawns (the princes) from district to district, triggering the power of the district being entered. Normally you only take one step to move to an adjacent district, but you can spend a llama to jump to any district.

The discs are your workers. You need to spend goods to recruit them. Once assigned to work in a particular district, they stay there for the rest of the game, unless you fire them. When a production district is activated, anyone with workers there can pay corn (the basic currency in the game) to produce goods. Some districts let you spend goods to recruit priests. Some districts let you spend goods to pray. These are the main ways you collect and spend goods.

This is a scoring card. Everyone starts with one, and can collect more as the game progresses. Each card has two main icons telling you how you will score. This particular card tells me each of my corn farmer and cloth maker scores 1VP. The three gold statues at the top means something too. The story in the game has two possible ends, either Machu Picchu is discovered and conquered by the Spaniards, or it remains safely hidden. If it stays safe, everyone does normal scoring and the highest scorer wins. However if it is conquered, players need to compare their total gold value. Whoever has the most gold triples his score, and whoever has the second most doubles his score. This is truly a game changer.

Some districts are adjacent to many others, some just a few. When you move your pawn, you need to think a few steps ahead. What options will be available to you next turn, and the turn after that? There is always the option of paying a llama to go anywhere you want, but that's expensive.

Everyone has a runner on this mountain track. There are a few ways to get him to advance, the main one being praying and making sacrifices. When your runner reaches certain milestones, you gain some goods. What's most important though is getting to the top. That's when you get to draw a new scoring card. Once your runner hits the top, he goes back to the foot of the mountain and starts again. You want to keep him going and going so that you can collect more scoring cards.

This is the marketplace. One of the districts on the board lets you buy and sell goods here. When you buy, take the good off the market. The price will go up. When you sell, place the good here. The price goes down.

This is the player reference card. The table on the left shows what you need to pay for each type of worker you want to train.

These are the priests. Once someone starts recruiting priests, numbers will be revealed. The most recently revealed number at each row tells you how many steps each priest can make your runner take. If you examine the numbers you will find that it keeps decreasing as more priests are recruited. This creates tension as players race to recruit the early, more powerful priests. There is also a dilemma between popular and less popular priest types. If many others recruit the same priest type as you, the priest strength weakens. However you can possibly rely on them to trigger prayer time, saving you a valuable action.

This scoring card on the left tells me that each of my puma priests and sun priests are worth 1VP.

The large round tokens near the top trigger the end of a round. On your turn you can decline to take a normal action and instead claim a token. Every token gives a bonus. Once the third token is claimed, the round enters a final phase. Players have some control over the tempo of the game. If you want to speed up the game, grab these tokens quickly.

The key to the game is the scoring cards. To get more cards you need your runner to run often and run far. To get your runner to run, you need priests and you need to pray. To do these you need goods. This summarises the whole flow of the game. Scoring cards are secret, so you are never exactly sure how your opponents are going to score. However you can make educated guesses based on their play. If someone is recruiting many cocoa farmers, he probably has a few such scoring cards. The two possible end game situations are the biggest uncertainty in the game. You can't be 100% sure whether you will have more gold than the other players. You need to carefully evaluate which outcome is better for you. Once you decide how you prefer the game to end, you need to do all you can to manipulate the game tempo and to score points. I think this end game twist is a master stroke.

The Play

We did a 5-player game. At the start of the game, progress felt slow. Priests were not cheap at all, and there were so many of them. The production districts could only produce once per round. How were we going to buy all those priests? However as we built up our teams of workers, I found that we could plan and optimise our turns much better and we could play much more efficiently. Setting up a good sequence of actions can help your runner leap far ahead.

There is a cooperative element. Or maybe I should call it a leeching element. You can rely on other players to activate production districts where you already have workers or temple districts when you already employ the corresponding priests. As long as your have the corn to pay your workers, or the llama and goods to sacrifice, you can piggyback on your opponent's actions, saving you valuable turns. However you also need to be careful not to be caught unprepared. E.g. since each production district only produces once per round, if it gets activated by someone else when you don't have the corn to pay your workers, you are missing out on production for this round. When you activate a district you may be helping your opponents, but sometimes there is sufficient incentive to do so, because as the one doing the activation, you get a bonus, e.g. an extra good.

The production chain in The Princes of Machu Picchu is not complex. Your end goal is always the runner and drawing scoring cards. You always need to choose your actions to make the most of your scoring cards. You need to constantly think of the two possible end situations. If everyone is determined to save what remains of the Incan empire, recruiting all priests before the last round ends is actually not difficult. However there is always some rich fellow thinking about the x3 bonus, which is very tempting. Also if you think you are falling behind in normal scoring, turning traitor may be your only chance at winning. In addition to these, there will also be players hesitating between which outcome to push for. While they hesitate, time is being wasted and they may not be recruiting priests quickly enough. This intricate balance between saving Machu Picchu and selling it out is amazing.

These were the scores at game end. Among the five of us, eventually only Jeff and I tried to save the empire. Although recruiting all priests appeared daunting at first, as we neared game end, it turned out to be within grasp. Unfortunately we fell short. Not by much though. Ivan, Salah and Heng all felt they had a chance at being richest. I (green) came in dead last. I can only console myself that I died a patriot.

The Thoughts

I have played a few other Mac Gerdts designs - Antike, Navegador, Concordia. They are all good games and I like them. In The Princes of Machu Picchu I found something more. The end game twist really makes the game shine. This game is not just about scoring points efficiently. A big part of it is assessing how the game will likely end, determining how you want it to end, and adjusting your play accordingly. You need to watch your opponents as they do the same. You need to guess their intentions. This constant struggle and manoeuvring between preserving and betraying the empire is what makes this a great game.


Ivan Ho said...

Yeah its a great one, its my 2nd favorite Marc Gerdts game right after Imperial/Imperial 2030

Ivan Ho said...

quite surprise it was this good considering its BGG ranking & ratings

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I haven't tried Imperial. I should find a chance to do it.

Aik Yong said...

What? Infidel! Repent upon the shrine of Gerdts!

Imperial is my favorite. We definitely should play it sometime. The rondel has two characteristics 1. The choice, each option means necessary forgoing others and it is quite clear from the rondel layout what you're forgoing. 2. The timing, there is always an ebb and flow to the rondel games due to the different position of players on the rondel. You can see where other people are in position to you, and there's the tipping point when one goes from income generation to the mob rush to point scoring. Brilliant!

Btw, I think we were caught off guard by the Spanish Inquisition, usually no one pushes for it. This hidden aspect of end game condition is actually a unique design found only in Macau pichu but not other rondel games.