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App Review: Tikal offers jungle brilliance for 10 action points a turn

tikal ipad game

Every six months or so, Codito/Sage Board Games releases another excellent Euro-style board game for iOS. The first example was the excellent Medici, which was followed by Ra. Coming up next is Puerto Rico. Last week they brought us Tikal, a truly wonderful game that won the 1999 Spiel des Jahres award and still stands up to any of the releases coming out today (last year, it even got a sequel, which is just fascinating). While the game is amazing, the Tikal app feels like a 0.9 version, but the crashes and quirks should be worked out quickly if Sage's history tells us anything.

Tikal the board game is about exploring the jungle around Tikal, the archaeological site, for ancient Mayan temples and treasures. It may be troubling if you think about it in terms of colonizer and indigenous peoples, but sometimes you need to just enjoy brilliant gameplay when you find it. Read on to see how it all works.

tikal ipad

The Game

The heart of Tikal is the Action Point (AP) system. Each turn, after you place the required hex to expand the game, each player has 10 APs to use as he pleases, and different actions cost different amounts of points. Moving costs one point per stone you want to cross, uncovering a level of a temple or a treasure costs 2 APs, setting up a new camp costs 5 APs, and so on. Everyone starts the game at the same small base on one corner of the map. Your first few moves will most likely be to add workers (you're limited to 18 workers and one leader through the whole game) and move them to the surrounding hexes. Pretty soon you need to make some difficult decisions: go after treasure, expand your reach into the jungle or try to take control of high-value temples.

At four points during the game (three of them random, when a volcano hex is drawn, and again at the end of the game), there is a scoring round. This means each player gets 10 more APs to set themselves up for the best possible score. Each player scores on his or her own turn, so you can guarantee your own points, all while trying to keep your opponents from scoring a lot. For the complete rules, you can click through our gallery starting here.

tikal ipad

The App

There is so much that works in Tikal. After a few turns, you mostly know where to tap to make things happen, and you can focus on the challenging gameplay. The player information windows are also easy to understand once you've figured out the iconography (hint: the location of the numbers in the brown box shows you how many of which treasures a player has collected). Still, if you're not already a fan of the game or the Euro game genre, you might want to wait until the first update to buy so that you won't get frustrated.

Even though this is version 1.0 of this US$4.99 universal app, it doesn't feel fully baked yet. For example, I had a problem (the app crashed) the first time I collected a treasure in my very first game, a move that gained me the "Recovery" achievement in OpenFeint. The iPad was not online at the time, and when I restarted, the game brought me back to the start of my turn (a good thing). OpenFeint told me I had reached the achievement, even though, in the restarted game, said treasure was not yet collected. Like any good tester, I then tried to repeat what I had done to cause the glitch. I was able to collect the treasure again –- without a crash this time –- but I have learned that this game will often quit on you. Thankfully, every time it does, I've been able to restart at the beginning of my turn, so not that much is lost.

Speaking of restarting a turn, Tikal uses an interesting sort of undo button here. Instead of being able to take back your last expenditure of APs, you can, from the menu, hit "restart." This may seem like you're going to restart the whole game, but instead it means you're going to restart the current turn. Not as easy or clear as an "undo" button, but it does provide a way to take back a mistaken touch, which I always appreciate.

In fact, "appreciate" is probably the key word of this review. Tikal is a great game, and it's wonderful to have it on the iPad. The AI opponents are not the strongest; the lower-level characters (there are six total) ignore collecting treasures to their own detriment, and even the King is beatable without too much hassle. But Tikal is a game of perfect information. Thus, playing against another person (or people, as Tikal can handle between 2-4 players) using pass-n-play is easy, and you can also mix human and AI players. You can also play against others online, with a max of two human players, from what I've read.

A few other issues: There is no auction version of the game in the app; admittedly, I have the board game and have never played the advanced/auction version, but it would still be nice to see implemented here. The menus appearing and disappearing seemed to be the slightest bit sluggish on my first-gen iPad. The app doesn't immediately recognize the iPad's orientation, needing to rotate the screen upon startup if you have the "right hand" side of the tablet pointed down. It's a minor thing, but I'd still rather see the app figure rotation out, then show the correctly-rotated image. That I'm even complaining about little things like this shows that Tikal is well-crafted for iOS.

When played on a table, Tikal is a beautiful board game, from the color scheme to the way the jungle reveals itself as the game progresses. While not the same as the original board game, the in-game graphics look good and everything is clear. I'm sure there are legal artwork issues that Codito would have to work out with Ravensburger, Rio Grande Games or someone else, but it would be great to have different "skins" available for the game. A wild request, I know, but we're getting spoiled for choice with board games in the App Store, so why not ask for the stars?

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