Mēxihco is a strategy tile game in which you play the part of Aztec rulers, competing to develop and protect districts of maize and bean crops, irrigation ponds and city precincts during the rise of the Aztec empire in the Valley of Mexico.
So reads the introduction to my newly written and wholly revised ruleset for the latest incarnation of the game that started out as Terraform (of which more can be found in the BrettSpiel archives). It’s always been a favourite of mine, and I have returned to the design often over the past few years. There are absolutely nothing wrong with Terraform in its final form, a form which Jackson Pope of the erstwhile Reiver Games seriously considered for publication, but the more I went on to design other prototypes, the more I realised that Terraform could be and do something more, and I have since tried out various ideas to elevate and enliven the player experience.
Yesterday was the first playtest of the new Mēxihco and as playtests go, it was a pretty satisfying and reassuring experience, even if probabilistically arresting — but more of that in a moment.
The idea of shifting the theme to something more Earth-bound was the beginning of this process, and the first thing to change was the name. The play involves landscape building and definitely classifies as an ’area control’ eurogame, but the game itself — the core of it — is actually rather more combative than the average eurogame and is really one of constant brinkmanship. My earlier attempts to ‘fix’ the game missed the mark, serving only to stab at its very heart, injuring the thing that made it interesting in the first place: the cycle of tension and resolution. Never forget the good stuff when attempting to exorcise the bad!
Another key aspect of change — which I discussed at length in my Game Design 101: What Are The Odds? article — was changing the timing and tempo of the game by introducing an (appropriately constrained) degree of unpredictability into its progress. The game has a stash of tiles, which the players claim and place to build the landscape. Terraform simply ended when these ran out, which led to flat and anticlimactic endgame. My solution, as discussed in the article although now implemented slightly differently, is to add a small population of special tiles to the main stash. These tiles emerge randomly, but once they’ve all been played the game is over.
With a little bit of combinatorial and permutational maths you can work out the likelihood of any particular number of tiles turning up before the game can end. I’d done the maths and thought I knew what to expect. But the Universe, it seems, likes to solve its own equations and yesterday delivered a result that was roughly a 400-to-1 long-shot. Thanks, Universe!
In a way, this result only goes to show how careful and respectful the game designer must be when dealing with our old friend Lady Luck. Since just one playtest has the capacity to deliver even the most aberrant of outcomes, any game designer without a meaningful understanding of the maths could be easily deceived into thinking either the best or worst of their creation. I am confident I have a handle on the numbers, but to experience what an edge case actually feels like was very useful.
As I said in my original article, when you hand over any aspect of your game to chance you can no longer rule out the genuinely shocking outcome — everything not forbidden is compulsory, remember? — but actually, that’s part of the fun. And last night’s playtest managed to reinforce that message while highlighting the value of an almost Orwellian ‘ignorance is strength’ credo. Let go the reins a little and learn to love the chaos!
Plus — and this was a very important aspect of the playtest — my little LEGO Aztec temples did the job very nicely, thank you very much!