Mayan temples and South American pyramids have become popular board games themes, usually accompanied by a title that feels unpronounceable to Western ears. Uxmal follows in that tradition but with a title that you can at least have a go at without the absolutely certainty that you've got it wrong (NSKN's Teotihuacan, we're looking at you).
Uxmal is a well-produced light filler-length game from Blue Orange and distributed by Coiledspring. It's played on a board that lays on top of the box inlay, so is raised like the platform level of a South American pyramid, which is exactly what the board represents. The board is divided into a 4 x 4 grid of tile spaces, each of which displays three of the game's five idols in three of its four segments (the fourth segment is blank). Players also have a boxlid full of facedown plastic tiles designed to slot into the pegboard holes in the board. Meanwhile a scoring track is accompanied by a track that ranks the pecking order of the idols 1–5. There are also cards representing each idol.
On your turn you can do one of four things: take and place out a tile, place a priest on one of the pyramid tiles, move a priest, or honour/curse an idol. Tiles can be placed anywhere they will fit, but you can't start the pyramid's next level until this one is complete. You'll want to place a tile in such a way that one of the idols it shows is immediately adjacent to the same idol on another tile or covers up a matching idol. You get to draw a card representing that idol if you place your tile in an adjacent position and you get to draw two cards if you cover the idol. Because we are OCD, the 360º photo here on Board's Eye View has the tiles all facing the same way but tiles can be oriented any way you like. That means it is almost always going to be possible to place a tile so that you collect two cards; we played several games where no-one ever made a single-card drawer adjacent-tile placement.
When you place out a priest, you pick the idol on which it will stand. At the end of the round (ie: when the last tile is placed for that level of the pyramid), you'll get victory points for the priests who have been placed on those idols that are in the first, second and third positions on the ranking track. Moving a priest once you've positioned it costs you a card for each orthogonal move. Again, we found this to be a relatively rarely used option.
Honouring and cursing an idol is the opportunity players have to manipulate the idols' respective rankings (and therefore which ones will score at the end of the round). Here, designer Eloi Pujadas has deployed a clever mechanic. To move an idol either up or down in the pecking order, you have to discard a card representing that idol. If you have four cards representing the idol in fifth (last) place, you could, on your turn, spend those four cards to move that idol from fifth to first place (all the others would be knocked down the rank order as a result). That may be a beneficial action if your priests have been placed out on that idol but it will be painfully expensive because the cards for the idol in first position are each worth 2 points. It's a delicate balancing act therefore in deciding when to spend cards to honour and elevate an idol. There's a tension too in deciding on what action to take at the point where the level is approaching completion. You won't want to place out your priests too early in the game but if you leave it too long, there's a risk that the level could be completed with one of your priests still unplaced. As you'd expect, each pyramid level is smaller than the one below (the second tier is 3 x 3 and the third and final tier just 2 x 2) so on the final tier you need to get your priest out early on or there's a very real risk that they won't get on at all.
It's good to see a game with a healthy push-your-luck tension and where there's scope for some mathematical calculation of the best way to rack up points ahead of the opposition. The 'take that' element is focused on the idols rather than directly at the other players - tho' that offers scant consolation when you see your top ranked idol knocked down the pecking order just as you were expecting to score big. The consolation is that at the end of each round, the top two idols get knocked down to the bottom. This offers further scope for strategy as the canny players make the most of the cards they have for the idols in pole position in what can be a lightning final round.
With art by Medhi Merrouche, Uxmal is an attractive package that can be played as a family game but which can be equally enjoyed as a filler-length gamers' game. It take 2–4 players and you can expect to complete a game in around 20 minutes.