Reviewed by Larry Levy

(Hangman Games, 3-4 players, 3 hours; $29)


You would think, with the Internet and the current massive coverage of games, that the days of the sleeper hit would be over. But games are coming from more and more varied places these days, so it’s still possible to be caught unawares. Sure enough, at this year’s Gathering of Friends, there was a game that was on no one’s radar at the start, but through word of mouth became one of the hits of the convention. Unlike earlier surprises like Bohnanza (Fall 1997 GA REPORT), this was not the case of an unknown designer bursting on the scene, but rather an established designer coming into his own with a more complex game that really struck a chord among those who played it.

The game is called Tahuantinsuyu (pronounced tah-HWAN-tin-SOO-yoo–think of the lawyer’s mantra, “I want to sue you”) and it was the name that the Incas called their mighty South American empire. The designer is Alan Ernstein and it is produced by his company, Hangman Games. Hangman has released several games over the past five years, including Ernstein’s best known design, Dry Gulch, a set collecting game which has players building an Old West town. (Another Hangman design, Junkyard, a unique trick-taker played with tiles, is a fine game that should be better known than it is). But Tahuantinsuyu is a step up for the company both in terms of depth of design and production values.

If asked for a pithy description, I guess I’d call it a crayon game with economic and empire-building elements, but I’m not sure that really does this unique design justice. Each player represents an Inca leader trying to raise his status by expanding the kingdom. It’s played on a board that shows 50 or so regions along the west coast of South America (so the area depicted is long and thin). Crisscrossing these regions is the road network, or rather, the network of road sites, since the players will be building the roads. At some of the road intersections are sites for building cities and garrisons. The players each begin with one road drawn, emanating out of the capital city near the center of the map.tahuantinsuyu

At the beginning of the game, the players randomly place a Culture marker face down on each of the regions. The markers in the regions adjacent to the players’ starting positions are revealed. As players’ empires expand, the markers in adjacent regions will always be revealed. The value of the regions is determined by its Culture marker, so this procedure ensures that every game will be different.

The game turns are of different lengths, but they are all composed of the same four phases. Here’s a description of each one.

1. Every turn begins with an Inca Phase. In this phase, each player receives their labor for that turn. Labor tokens (which are attractive glass markers) are the game’s currency and are used to perform most of the game’s actions. The turn order is also determined, with the player with the least Victory Points going first in each phase of the turn, and then continuing in reverse VP order.

2. In the Sun Phase, the players play Sun cards. Each player begins the game with three Sun cards, which affect various aspects of the game. Some are helpful and some are harmful. In turn order, each player places one card between two players in adjacent seats. Only one card can be placed between the same two players per Sun Phase, so the last player to place has no choice of where his card will go. Once all the cards are placed, they are revealed and both players next to the card are affected by it. This is one of the game’s signature innovations and has been rightfully hailed for its cleverness. In addition to mixing things up and giving a boost to trailing players, the Sun cards go a long way toward guiding the players’ strategies. Players draw a new card after playing one, a fact which is omitted in the rules, but is included in the official FAQ.

3. Players perform actions during the People Phase. During the first portion of the phase, players can build up to two roads at no labor cost. Roads are constructed by drawing over a road site with the player’s crayon. This expansion is necessary because buildings cannot be constructed unless their site is connected to the road network. In addition, a player must have a road adjacent to an uncontrolled region in order to conquer it.

In the second portion of the phase, each player can either conquer a region, build a structure, or build an extra road. The amount of labor necessary to conquer a region is listed on its Culture marker. When the player expends those labor tokens, he earns the VPs listed on the marker. Starting the next turn, he will also earn the labor tokens listed on the marker. The more valuable the Culture marker is, the more labor is required to conquer it. The principal way to earn labor tokens is through the conquest of regions, so players will be doing quite a bit of this early on. Moreover, at least part of every road must lie within a conquered region, so periodic conquest is necessary to keep expanding.

Players can build structures in lieu of conquest. Cities and garrisons can be built on their appropriate sites; temples can be built at a site where a city has already been constructed. In each case, the site must be connected to the constructing player’s road network. Structures cost labor to build and yield victory points both immediately and every turn thereafter. One of the game’s key mechanics is that any player who connects their road network to a structure earns its recurring VPs, whether or not the structure was built by them. So a big part of the game is to connect up to as many of your opponent’s structures as possible, while trying to insulate your own structures by building roads to limit your opponent’s access to your regions.

Players can also construct terraces, whose principal function is to add one to the player’s labor pool in each subsequent turn.

4. The Sapa Inca Phase rounds out each turn with some bookkeeping. This is when each player gets VPs for all the structures they are connected to. Players are also limited in the number of unused labor tokens they can carry over to the next turn. This number diminishes as the game goes on, forcing the players to be as precise as possible with their expenditures during the turn. The planning necessary to accomplish this is both challenging and quite enjoyable.

Turns have different numbers of Sun and People phases, but they are always paired up. So one turn late in the game might go Inca – Sun – People – Sun – People – Sun – People – Sapa Inca. This has a couple of effects on game play. First, every Sun card played affects its two targets for the entire turn. So, in the turn cited above, the card played in the first Sun Phase affects three People Phases and during the last People Phase, each player is being affected by three Sun cards. This makes these cards even more significant. The other big effect is that the labor tokens earned in the Inca Phase must last the entire turn. So to again use the same turn example, on this turn each player would have to plan their actions to make sure that they have enough labor to last for three People Phases, which isn’t easy if you have to take opponent’s actions and the effects of unplayed Sun cards into account.

The last turn of the game actually has four Sun/People phases, but the game may end before they’re all played. After each People phase on this turn, a chit is drawn to see if Pizarro has arrived to spell the end of the Inca civilization. If so, the turn immediately moves to the Sapa Inca Phase and the game ends, with the player with the highest VP total winning. In Evo (Summer 2001 GA REPORT) terms, the unfortunate Incas are the dinosaurs and Pizarro is the meteor! Most players like uncertain endings of this kind, as they feel it keeps players honest up to the end. I tend to differ, since to me, they often feel more like Musical Chairs and the winner is the player who happens to be leading when the music stops. The effect is more severe in games like I’m the Boss! (Fall 2003 GA REPORT), where the lead shifts frequently; I’ve yet to see it have much of an effect in Tahuantinsuyu, so I don’t really have too big a problem with the sudden death ending.

Tahuantinsuyu succeeds at many levels as a deep, thought-provoking, and innovative design. Despite appearances, it really doesn’t have much in common with Crayon Rail games–it’s much more interactive than those designs, with considerably less downtime. The game really has a unique feel, which makes it very appealing in my eyes. Like so many fine designs, you never seem to have enough actions to do everything you want.

Success in the game requires striking a delicate balance between gaining income (labor) and Victory Points. The former is particularly important in the early game, but players need to know when to shift away from conquering regions and start building structures. Eventually, it becomes more important to take over regions to maneuver yourself into position to access other structures or keep your opponents from accessing yours. Planning your road network properly is essential, as is timing your strikes into enemy territory. Managing your Sun cards properly is also an important skill. It takes some time to learn the nuances of this game, but it is time well spent.

Do I have any concerns about the design? I actually have a couple, but I think only one of them is serious. The first deals with the Sun cards, an issue others have raised. They have a wide range of effects, from modifying the costs of constructing buildings to changing the number of actions that can be performed. Some definitely seem to be more powerful than others, however. There are two in particular that can significantly affect gameplay. The Wilderness Road card allows a player to build a road between any two points as long as no more than one region boundary is crossed. (That caveat isn’t mentioned in the rules, but has been clarified by the designer.) These cards can be critical in gaining access to building sites (and entire sections of the map) that would otherwise be closed off. If a player only sees one of these cards throughout the game, this can be a considerable hardship. The other type of card are the Pilgrimage cards, which award points to a player who is connected to a Temple in a specified remote area. The points involved are relatively large, particularly if the card is played during the first Sun Phase of a turn (so a player might be able to score these points as many as three or four times). Many have speculated that these cards unbalance the game and I had similar thoughts after one of my games. The reason I now feel these issues are manageable is that once the players are aware of what Sun cards will come up during a game, they will alter their play to take their effects into account. For example, it seems that late in the game, it’s a good idea for players to not allow the leader to place a Sun card next to himself during the first or second Sun Phase if he’s connected to at least one Temple, to ensure that he won’t be able to play a Pilgrimage card on himself. Similarly, once players become aware how important Wilderness Road cards can be, they will reserve their use for critical moments in the game. I still think the way the Sun cards come out can affect a game’s outcome, but I feel the player who best uses the cards he gets still has a greater advantage over one who just gets a better assortment of cards.

My other concern isn’t so easily mollified and that is the game’s length. All my games have taken a minimum of three hours and I think that will prove to be the norm, even once the players are more familiar with the mechanics. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, but Tahuantinsuyu seems to last just a little too long for what it is. If games consistently came in at two and a half hours, I’d definitely like it better and if the game could be completed in two hours, it would approach greatness. I think the main reason the game needs to be as long as it is is to ensure that the remote areas of the board can be reached. I suspect that Ernstein made the map as large as it is to conform to the historical boundaries of the Incan empire. While this desire for historical accuracy is laudable, it’s possible that the game would appeal to more types of players if it had a smaller map and a shorter duration. This is by no means a fatal flaw, but it might limit the times the game will come to the table. I’ll still gladly play, but those who prefer shorter games should be aware of this issue.

Tahuantinsuyu’s components are quite good for a small company. The map does a good job of displaying all its information, although you should probably make sure you play with good lighting, since the region boundaries are rather muted (so as not to interfere with the crayon routes). We’ve always taken the precaution of covering the board with plexiglas, but most players report that the crayon marks come off the board easily enough. The glass components are a very nice touch and give the game a distinctive look. Naturally, the bits don’t stack up to most of the games coming out of Germany, but they are pleasant to play with and in no way detract from the design.

While it’s reassuring when hyped games like Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GA REPORT) and Lord of the Rings (Winter 2001 GA REPORT) live up to their promise, it’s always a special kick to find an unheralded design that exceeds all expectations. Tahuantinsuyu features deep play, solid theming, and innovative mechanics. I can highly recommend it to any gamers who don’t have a pathological fear of longer designs. The best news is that this may just be the tip of the iceberg from this designer. Hangman’s concurrent release is Austin Poker, a wild 5-card stud variant that features four simultaneous hands and cards with special powers. It’s a must for poker fans. I’ve also had the good fortune to play a number of Ernstein’s more recent prototypes and can report that his next releases should continue his progression as a designer. And you might even be able to pronounce their names! If these future designs succeed as well as his current one, there will no longer be any need for gamers to fear the hangman.————–Larry Levy


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