TAWANTINSUYU: THE INCA EMPIRE

Reviewed by Chris Wray

TAWANTINSUYU: THE INCA EMPIRE (Board and Dice, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 60-120 minutes; $50)

 

Tawantinsuyu: The Incan Empire, designed by Dávid Turczi and published by Board & Dice, was one of the most anticipated titles of 2020’s heavy gaming scene. The latest in a so-called series of archeology-themed games that start with the letter “T” (including T’zolkin, Teotihuacan, and Tekhenu).

Tawantinsuyu takes place in Cusco, the old Incan capital.  A large hill (that kind of resembles a pyramid) sits in the center of the board.

On their turns, players must either place a worker, recruit a worker, or gather cards. Placing workers is the bulk of the game, and it is core of Tawantinsuyu. The workers come in various colors (representing architects, couriers, craftsmen, priests, and warriors), and they earn points when placed based on their color, their location, and the surrounding meeples.  But they also have to pay a cost for the location, depending on how far down the pyramid it is and the location of their High Priest at the top of the hill.  So the game has a cost-benefit consideration at every point: you’re trying to maximize what you take on your turn (and setting yourself up for future turns), while minimizing the costs.

Along the way, players score points for building stairs and structures up the hill, for moving up on certain in-game tracks, and even for collecting sets of tapestries.  The result is a fun — but exceptionally think-y — sandbox-style game with a variety of strategies.  Opportunities to earn points are numerous, and it would likely take dozens of games to encounter all of the nuances that Tawantinsuyu has to offer.

Unfortunately, I did not get to those dozens of games.  Tawantinsuyu is a bear to learn and will likely turn off even those of us that occasionally dabble in heavy games.  I often say games have two costs: the price paid to acquire them, then the time spent learning them. In the case of Tawantinsuyu, the steep learning curve has forced the game from my collection. 

The unexceptional rulebook was a major part of the problem.  Like with many heavy games, the rules desperately needed to instill a sense of flow, but failed to do so.  Instead, the guide became mired in a mangled web of defined terms and overwritten text.  On the upside, the player aid is excellent — so much so that it mostly makes up for the lackluster rulebook — and for people that have played a few times it might be enough to get them off the ground.

But even with the player aid, the game is an absolute bear to teach.  When I played, I vowed not to play with several of the people I routinely play with, because they wouldn’t have the patience to learn the game, and even if they did, I have several people in my groups that are averse to player aids.  And using the player aid, even for somebody that knows the game, is mandatory: there is simply too much to memorize otherwise, at least in those first few plays.

The other problem is that the game is long.  It plays 1-4 players, but I would be skeptical of playing it with 3, and I would probably avoid playing it with 4.  I played it primarily with 2 players, and even then, there was considerable time between turns.  Each move is significant and generally non-obvious — a fact that has its appeal to some, of course — but because the game layers complexity on complexity with administrative record keeping, this is the sort of exercise that could quickly last hours.

Tawantinsuyu is a mashup of different Euro mechanics, most notably worker placement and resource management.  It is likely to delight fans of heavy games, but be disappointing to those looking for something approachable that is likely to hit the table often.  It is fun because there is so much to explore.  I’m certainly glad I played it.  And based on my limited experience, there appears to be more to explore here than in the other “T” games.  But I’ve never been about complexity for complexity’s sake, and this unfortunately veers into that territory.  Add in the fact that it really only works at a low player count, and this becomes a game of limited appeal.  Solo gamers and gamers comfortable with the high-end of the complexity scale may enjoy it, though, so this is likely to be around for at least the next few years. – – – – Chris Wray


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