Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan Preview
Disclaimer: This preview was written after playing with a preview copy of the game. Rules, components, and artwork are all subject to change.
Ancient civilisations make popular settings for board games. As I look at my shelves now, I can build an Incan empire, towns in ancient Sumeria, and Aztec pyramids – to name just a few. Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan takes the Maya civilisation as its inspiration, delivering a Euro game mixture of area influence and engine-building. During the game you’ll be expanding your city state, building pyramids, and if push comes to shove, asking the gods for a helping hand.
The lay of the land
It’s worth saying that in Ahau you’ll be placing workers, but it doesn’t feel like your usual kind of worker-placement game. The map of the empire is split into regions, with cities that sit at points around the borders. When your workers get placed on the cities, they’re able to generate the resources on the roads adjacent, and the more workers you have in the adjacent cities, the more of each thing you produce. Pretty easy so far, right?
Determining which cities you can place someone into is where the real fun of the game starts to emerge, and introduces a level of interaction between players that’s been missing from some recent Euro games. Everyone has an identical hand of cards, numbered one to six. At the start of each turn you choose two from your hand: one shows the region number you’re moving your leader into, and the other is your military strength for that round.
Military? Yeah, those Mayans weren’t afraid of a little conflict. The winner advances up the war track and gets bonuses, while the loser gets booted-out into an adjacent region to lick their wounds and reassess their plans. Now we’re talking. Now we’re playing something that feels like an old-school German-style game.
A night on the tiles
The board of Ahau is littered with tiles, like a half-finished bathroom renovation. Over the course of the game you’ll collect a lot of them, and they have a really clever dual-use system. As well as acting as a currency you can use to boost certain actions, they can also be added to your own pyramid, by spending the resources your workers collect. The pyramids are a mini tile-laying game in themselves, and it adds the feeling of building something that’s uniquely yours. Your pyramid layout powers your actions, and this is where the engine-building comes into the game properly.
I love how the game changes when you play it with the same people, multiple times. In those first games, people experiment and see what works for them, but the later games turn into full-on meta gaming. Playing the players. Trying to guess your opponents plans and make their life awkward is great fun, but what I really like is how adaptive you can be. If your initial plans aren’t working out as you’d hoped, changing tack is a really viable option. It’s not always like that in competitive Euro games, so it feels like Ahau is really spoiling me.
Table for two?
The biggest drawback I found in my time with Ahau, is something I find with most interactive Euros. The game is much more interesting with more players involved. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good fun with two, but it’s a different game. Ahau is at its best when you’re playing in a group of three or more. When there’s just the two of you playing, it’s possible to go almost the full length of the game without ever competing for a region on the map, and without that, the whole dynamic of the military, and the excitement that comes with the card reveals, kinda evaporates.
Sit four people around a table and play this though, and it’s a very different story. Although it’s not directly similar to any of them, it reminds me of the feeling I get when I play Hansa Teutonica or Caylus (although not as punishing), but with a bit of a Stefan Feld feel. I realise just how bad a description that is, but it’s a feeling I find hard to put into words. The combination of trying to build your pyramids and gain control of regions, combined with the tactical play that the leaders and military add to the game, is fantastic. It’s a game which thrives on competition between players, a game which demands you look at what everyone else is doing, not just yourself. It’s not your typical multiplayer-solitaire Euro.
My biggest worry is that Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan doesn’t get the exposure and attention it deserves. If this was coming from a big name European designer, or a known publisher, this game would be everywhere. Apeiron Games might not be a name you know right now, but the level of professionalism shown by them during this preview period, and the great interactions with them and designer, Tamás Oláh, has been better than some of the bigger folks I’ve worked with. It’s not even a case of just finding a cool theme and running with it. Apeiron brought in a Mayanist, professor of anthropology & archaeology to make sure it’s not just the lazy cultural appropriation which can happen in this industry. I’ve got a lot of respect for a debut publisher showing that level of due diligence.
Ahau is a great game. Even now, while things are still being balanced and tweaked ahead of the Kickstarter launch, it’s really enjoyable, and doesn’t feel like a prototype at all. There’s a solo mode in the box too, created by none other than favourite of solo gamers everywhere, David Digby (Chocolate Factory, Tinners’ Trail). As I mentioned above, I find the game to be a little weaker at two players than with more, but it’s still a great game.
If you’re like me, always looking for that undiscovered gem, or if you just straight-up love solid, historical Euro games, you really ought to be looking at Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan. It’s fresh, it’s great fun, and from talking to the folks developing it, I know just how much time, effort, playtesting, and above all – love – has been poured into the game. And it shows. A fantastic medium-weight debut from both designer and publisher, and two names I’ll be paying close attention to in the future. The Kickstarter campaign launches on 22nd February 2022, and you can find it by clicking here.
Preview copy kindly provided by Apeiron Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Ahau: Rulers of Yucatan (2022)
Designer: Tamás Oláh
Publisher: Apeiron Games
Art: Dávid Szabó
Playing time: 90-120 mins