Board Game Review

From Atop My Golden Hill (Cuzco Review)

This review is also magnificently available on Zatu Games, here!

I’m no history buff, but there’s always an undeniable fascination with looking at an ancient civilisation’s practices and views of the world. These now dead practices were wild, and it’s amazing to think that, had they become the prominent powers, we too may be sacrificing people because the leaves fell from the trees. It’s mad, but none so much as that of the ancient Incas. From building wildly big temples everywhere to throwing festivals for the Sun regularly, it must have been absolutely exhausting! Cuzco by Super Meeple and Keep Exploring Games is based on some of those Incan norms. It’s an area control, tile laying game for 2-4 players that runs in around 75 minutes.

How To Play

Cuzco is a game of area control, and being able to cash in on points where possible. It centres on the mechanic of tile placement and having your Incas at higher elevations to determine the level of control had. The higher the Inca, the more powerful they are. Players take turns to use six actions points (AP) to perform actions ranging from adding Incas to the board to throwing festivals. Once all three-hexed tiles are placed all players take one last turn and score immediately after their turn. Whomever has the most victory points at the end of all scoring wins.

Getting Started

To kick off, all players take a set of Incas in a chosen colour and place the associated scoring cube on the track. They then take:

  • Five two hex tiles
  • Three single hex farm tiles
  • Two single hex city tiles
  • Three bonus AP tokens
  • Three festival cards.

Finally, all temple components, three-hex tiles, festival cards and irrigation hexes are placed within reach of all players. Three irrigation tiles are placed on the specific locations on the board and one festival card is flipped. The game is now ready to play.

A Player’s Turn

In Cuzco, players take turns clockwise using their six AP to complete actions. Players must always start by placing a new terrain tile onto the board, whether that is one they own or one of the triple-hex shared tiles. This may expand existing farms or villages/cities. They may then take any actions they wish up to their AP costs. This may include adding more terrain, bringing an Inca onto the board, moving an Inca through a terrain or onto a new one, building or expanding a temple, building an irrigation pond or drawing festival cards.

The game’s hexes are comprised of two types of terrain, village/city and farms. Farms connected to other farms count as a single terrain and can be traversed by Incas without cost. Incas can never pass each other or temples, however. The other type is either a village or a city dependent on whether it has a temple on it. Both of these can be any size, but once a village becomes a city, it can not have another temple built on it. Moving Incas from village/city to farm costs AP.

The most unique element of the game is its area control. The Inca at the highest elevation controls the city. Having more Incas does not constitute as more power, and therefore players can be very powerful without having tonnes of Incas on the board. Players can play terrain tiles onto other tiles to increase the board’s height. Tiles must not be above air and cannot be played directly on top of the same size tile – they must either cross multiple tiles or be on a tile larger than them.

How To Win

Players score points by building or expanding temples primarily. Dependent on the temple’s height, players earn points as dictated by the player aid. Temples can only be built by the player whose Inca is highest in that village. What’s more is a temple’s overall value must be equal to or less than the size of the terrain. The temple pieces have numbers on to indicate the hexes needed to be built. In example, a village consisting of two hexes could host a value two temple (one floor), whereas a village spanning 7 hexes could host a value six temple (three floors).

Any player can expand a temple to score points so long as they are at the highest elevation in that city when they choose to do so. A single temple can only be built or expanded once per turn, but a player controlling multiple cities/villages could build several should they so wish. Another way to score is by surrounding irrigation ponds. Again, whomever is at the highest elevation when the pond is expanded scores three VP per hex it consists of. The final way to score is to throw a festival at the end of your turn. This doesn’t rely on area control and you only need an Inca in the associated city to throw a festival.

Any other players with Incas in that city may also compete for this. The player instigating the festival chooses a city they have an Inca in which hasn’t recently had a festival (indicated by it having a Sun Disk on its temple). Players who can compete for this then play festival cards in turn order matching the symbols on the one turned festival card. Matching both these symbols counts as two matches. If one player has the most matches, or no one else competes, they organise the festival and score accordingly, placing a Sun Disk onto the temple. However if players tie, they score the shared points. Whenever a temple is expanded, the Sun Disk is removed and another festival can be hosted there.

Final Scoring

Once all three-hex tiles are used, Cuzco begins to end. All players have one final turn to take actions and aim to have their Incas at the highest points in cities. This is essential, as end game scoring gives players points for each city they control at the end of their turn – not the end of the game. This means all players could theoretically score for controlling the same city, should they each be at the highest elevation at the end of their turn. Once all scoring is done, whomever has the most points is the winner.

How It Feels to Play

Cuzco is a wildly unique area control game that emphasises the need to be on top in the most literal sense. The map consists of 150 hexes and you won’t use them all in any game, as the aim isn’t to expand and conquer, it’s to rise and conquer!

I’m On stop Of The World!

This game has a wonderful way of making you feel powerful with a single play. One tile slap to the right spot and all of a sudden you’re top dog. No one can do anything without your say so. It’s a full blown power trip and an excellent one to see how you’d react as a dictator. “Don’t sneeze, don’t blink, don’t even breathe because I’m now in charge! And there’s nothing you can do about it.” I shout as I place a triple hex over several tiles and move one of my Inca into position. From there, I rule with an iron fist and rack up some sweet points from a temple expansion. But all good things must come to an end eventually…

Despite my tight grip on the small city I then ruled, there’s a lot players can do in response. The most obvious one is to play a hex higher and move to it. Simple, effective and a great way to upset me. It works. But there’s something far more devious that can be done. Because a temple can only be as tall as the hexes it resides on, it is possible for a city’s size to decrease. This would mean the temple could not be expanded without regaining the city’s size as necessary. It also means that the devious devil who splits the size of the city could then whack a new temple in the side without one. In one fell swoop they’d have ended my reign and started their own.

Turns Out They Queue Everywhere…

Area control is usually down to having the most meeples in a single spot. It’s a tried and tested system that is known to work, and work well. You want to rule a place, you send one more bloke than the competition. Simple. By having that mixed up and changed to the basis of elevation, you’re changing what’s known. But that doesn’t mean that having one or two more fellows on the board is a bad thing. Controlling the city is important, don’t get me wrong… but Incas are polite meeples who refuse to cross one another’s paths. Like something out a Dr Seuss book, they can’t enter one another’s location and must go around. This small detail can stop someone from getting to the highest point, and even more importantly, can stop them building higher.

Cuzco is one of those games where the number of meeple you have out doesn’t matter. Your positioning of them does. Having masses of Incas out and about is handy as you can slow the opposition, but controlling that many fellows can become problematic when you inevitably create a conga line of impassability. Whereas having Incas in key strategic positions means you can land grab, climb hills as they’re placed, contribute to festivals and nab points.

The trickiest element of the area control in this game is recognising you don’t actually own anything. It’s a weird concept in an area control game. Normally you’d own something when you control it, and therefore gain the bonuses associated. In this, you own nothing and anyone can take it in a turn. You’re all Incas after all, and I guess that means, despite the competition, you’re thematically enhancing your civilisation. Weird.

Beautiful Rolling Hills

One thing that I feel everyone will agree on is Cuzco’s table presence. By the end of the game, the players produce a stunning landscape of literal hills. By layering tiles, you produce something that could easily fit into the aesthetic of the Incan lands. Tiered farms and cities, couples in with a smattering of temples and irrigation ponds. It’s divine, and undoubtedly one of my most favourite games to look at. I genuinely believe it is gorgeous.

The One And Only Gripe

Cuzco presents itself really strongly in terms of theme, table presence and gameplay. So where’s the area of weakness? The one bit that makes me bite my tongue and grit my teeth? The point snatching capability it grants all players. Area control should be about owning a zone, ruling it, benefitting from it and cashing in. It should be all about values and a sense of ownership and the boons it grants. All that is thrown out of the window and into the trash. Cuzco is simply about being on top and owning at the right time.

In some respects I’d want to argue that this game isn’t an area control game because it doesn’t follow the norms of one. There are no values associated to who controls in terms of numbers, it’s literally the highest point as the deciding factor. Because there aren’t any benefits until the very end of the game, it makes it so one player could play one Inca the whole game; snatching land, expanding temples and simply being in the right place at the right time. More so in a two player game, but it’s no guaranteed win. Maybe it’s just the new idea that’s thrown me. I don’t hate the mechanic by any measure, I think it’s fantastic! But in my head, associating it to traditional area control feels odd. It’s all about the height management!

In a Nutshell

Cuzco is a superb game of managing areas, laying tiles and being in the right place at the right time. Whether that’s through forward planning or land snatching, it work and works well. It’s impossible to deny the gorgeous table presents that this game has. At its core, this game is about managing areas to forward plan and score points. However, when playing, you’ll no doubt find there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye. We love Cuzco for its height management elements, the area control it uses and for its gorgeous aesthetics. Just don’t get carried away and execute a sacrifice. The sun gods love you either way!