Before I cover anything else, let me just say that Tikal is one of my Top 10 Games of All Time. The essence of its play is pure joy to me. This fact isn’t the thing which brings it in to the Gaming Canon series. What really brings it in is a combination of mechanisms that cement its place in gaming history and keep it enjoyable, even until today.
Tikal is an area control game driven by an action point system. Using a theme of exploring the ancient Maya city of Tikal, players draw and place tiles, use action points to move workers, and score points based on areas they control and artifact sets they’ve collected. It’s not the first game to use action points or area control as a mechanism, but it’s one of the best. The flow of play can be slow, especially if players are prone to analysis paralysis, but the decisions directly allow for the control of all game elements with the only luck being the tile drawn (there’s an optional set of rules to auction off tiles).
The central conflict in Tikal comes with how far to extend your workers in areas or develop existing areas given that at some point the placement of tiles will be so far away from where workers start that it becomes less efficient to move workers to far off tiles. To counter this, you can establish a new camp where newer workers may emerge to achieve goals with more efficiency. The analysis of decisions here is not deep, but the play makes it such that you’re constantly worried about making a move at the wrong time or losing control of work you’ve already put in to a certain area. You must really know your opponents and their play styles to be secure in a victory.
This tension, aggressive competition, and risk of betrayal is what keeps this game at the top of my list. It has all the elements of things I love in grand competitive empire games, but without too much complexity and implementation of rules. To experience a superb implementation of area control, action points, and tile placement mechanisms in one package, look no further than Tikal.
On another note, the box for this game is gorgeous and the insert for all the components is second to none.