08 July 2017

Board Game Review: Hoyuk

As I continue to write reviews for those games that were kindly sent to me by Mage Company, I come to the largest of the games that I received: Hoyuk. In this game, you control one of five clans of primitive people settling in a valley. You compete to build houses, fill it with people, attach livestock pens to those houses, fill those pens with cattle, and build add-ons like ovens and shrines.

The game box next to the board set up as if in the middle of a game. The box art shows large stone letters spelling out the title, Hoyuk, standing in a desert landscape against a sun preparing to set. The board shows a valley with stone outcroppings, trees, a river, and a pond. Tiles representing houses and pens are placed about the board, with meeples representing ovens, shrines, villagers, and cattle on some of them. Supplies of meeples are grouped on the right edge of the board, with various cards and building tiles on the left edge.

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Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 1 hour
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: Low
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: High

An overview of Hoyuk

Each player controls one of five clans. Each clan has a special ability, so there's some level of asymmetry to this game, but the abilities are fairly minor, so it's not very unbalancing, even for novice players.

The rulebook describes how to play the 'basic' version of the game, which does not include villagers, cattle, or the shaman, and has only three methods of scoring points. The 'medium' version increases the number of ways to score points to five. The 'advanced' version includes everything. Thus far, I have only played the advanced version. It's not really harder to play, in terms of rules. Each level of play only increases strategic options and possibilities.

The game is played in rounds, until one player has built all of his houses, at which point the player with the most points is declared the winner. Each round occurs in four phases.

Phase One: Construction

Construction tiles are dealt, one to each player. These tiles each permit you to build two houses and one other thing. Depending on the tile, that other thing may be a third house, a shrine, an oven, cattle, villagers, or a shaman. 

Here are a few sample construction tiles:
Six construction tiles. Each is long and narrow with room for three icons in a row. All of them have two icons representing a primitive stone house in the middle of construction. The third icon is different on all of them. Four tiles have a single icon in the third position: one shows a stone pillar with two feathers dangling from the capstone. This represents a shrine. Another has a stylized cartoon creature representing cattle. Another has a cartoon man with a beard and moustache in black clothes and headdress holding a staff, representing the shaman. The fourth three cartoon people in orange clothing, representing villagers. The last two tiles have multiple icons in the third space. One has two icons: a clay oven and a ring-shaped fence creating an enclosure. The final tile has four icons in the last space: the fence, the shrine, the oven, and the half-built house.

Whichever tile you are dealt determines what you can build. In the photo above, the top four tiles allow you build (starting in the upper left and moving clockwise): a shrine, a cattle, a villager, and the shaman. The bottom two tiles give you options for the third space. The one on the left lets you choose to build either an oven or a livestock pen. The one on the right gives you four options: a pen, a shrine, an oven, or a third house.

Houses are played onto the board in any square. However, you must follow the rules of 'families' and 'blocks.' A 'block' is any group of adjacent tiles. All houses, pens, and ruins that are connected to one another are called a block. If a single house is not adjacent to any other tile, it is its own block. A family is a group of adjacent houses of the same colour. So the photo below shows a single block of seven houses and four pens, and within that block are four families: one each of a single colour (the purple house and the blue house, which has the grey oven meeple on it), a family of two yellow houses, and a family of three red houses.
Eleven tiles on the board. The leftmost column has two livestock pen tiles in the bottom two spaces. The bottom tile has a cattle meeple on it. The next column has another pen at top, followed by a purple house tile, a blue house tile with a grey oven meeple on it, and a yellow house tile. The third column has the topmost space empty, with a pen containing a cattle meeple, then a red house tile, and a yellow house tile (the yellow house being adjacent to the yellow house in the previous column). The final column has two red house tiles in the bottom two spaces, so that the top one is adjacent to the red house tile in the previous column. There is also a white shrine meeple on the top tile in this column.

This is important, because when you build new houses, you cannot connect existing blocks. You may play a house to an empty space away from other tiles, starting a new block, or you may play into an existing block. If you already have houses in an existing block, any new houses built into the block must be placed adjacent to them, so that you are adding to an existing family. You cannot create a new family in a block where you already have a family. You also may not play a house in such a way that a livestock pen becomes completely surrounded; pens must have at least one side open. You are, however, allowed to build over a ruined house. Simply replace the ruins tile with your house (more on ruins in a moment).

Additionally, you may play a house tile on top of one of your existing house tiles. This represents adding a second floor to the house. This can only be done if that house is not currently surrounded on all four sides by other houses or pens (ruins do not count for this purpose). If you already have a shrine, oven, or villager on a house, adding a second floor destroys those items, and the meeples are returned to the supply. You cannot have more than two floors in a house. Two-storey houses can be useful in breaking ties, and in the medium and advanced versions of the game, are worth points in their own right.

Theses construction rules seem complicated, but once you've played the game a time or two, it will be much easier to understand. They are also, by far, the most complicated part of the game.

The third icon lets you place another item on the board:
  • Another house - this is built the same way as any other house.
  • Livestock Pens - These are placed adjacent to one of your houses. There's an arrow on the tile, which should be placed pointing to the house to which it is attached, so you know who owns that tile. If the attached house is destroyed, the pen is discarded.
  • Shrines and Ovens - These are placed on top of any one of your own houses. You may only have one on any single house; you cannot have two or more shrines, two or more ovens, nor an oven and a shrine on any house.
  • Villagers - These are also placed on top of any house. They may share a house with a shrine or an oven, but not both. There may be only one villager on any given house. Villagers are only used in the Advanced version.
  • Cattle - These are placed in the livestock pens. There may only be one cattle in any given pen. Cattle are only used in the Advanced version.
  • Shaman - There is a single Shaman meeple in the game. If you get to build a Shaman, you take him from where he is (either in his space on the edge of the board or from a player's house) and place him on one of your houses. The Shaman protects that block from catastrophes (more on catastrophes in a moment). The Shaman is only used in the Advanced version.
After all players have built everything they can on their tiles, a second construction tile is dealt, and players build on those just as they did the first. Then we move on to:

Phase Two: Catastrophes

This phase is skipped during the first round of the game. This is where the randomness comes in: a Catastrophe card is drawn and the effects are applied to each block where the conditions can be met. Here are a few examples:
Eight catastrophe cards. Each contains art with a one or two icons in the top section. Art includes: a house collapsing as a crevasse opens in the ground, a stone altar spattered with blood, a village on fire during the night, a flood washing through a village, a mother sheep and her lamb in the snow, a tornado, a locust on a plant stalk, and a repeat of the mother sheep and lamb.

The icons determine what happens. Some of the debacles that may occur include:
  • Fire #1: Half the houses of each colour in the block with the most ovens are flipped over to their ruined side.
  • Fire #2: Half the houses of each colour in the block with the fewest ovens are flipped over to their ruined side.
  • Bad Season #1: One house of each colour in the block with the fewest shrines is flipped over to its ruined side.
  • Epidemic #2: Each player with houses in the smallest block (not counting pens and ruins) discards half of their villagers.
  • Locust Swarm #2: The largest block cannot win any aspect cards this round.
  • Sacrifice #1: One house of each colour in the block with the most pens is flipped over to its ruined side.
  • Flood: The Shaman meeple is returned to his space on the edge of the board.
And so on.

Phase Three: Aspect Cards

On the left edge of the game board are spaces for Aspect Cards. These are the primary way of gaining victory points, and it is in Phase Three that the cards are awarded. It works like this:

The player with the First Player token chooses a block. That block is scored on all areas. The player with the most of the appropriate item wins the top card of that stack. Once all areas have been scored for that block, the next player chooses another block, which is scored in the same way. This continues until all blocks have been scored.

The areas to be scored are:
  1. Most Ovens: The player with the most ovens in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  2. Most Shrines: The player with the most shrines in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card in this stack.
  3. Most Pens: The player with the most pens in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card in this stack.
  4. Most Houses: (Medium and Advanced version only) The player with the most houses in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  5. Most Two-Storey Houses: (Medium and Advanced version only) The player with the most two-storey houses gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  6. Most Villagers: (Advanced Version Only) The player with the most villagers in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  7. Most Cattle: (Advanced Version Only) The player with the most cattle in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
If a block contains only houses of a single colour, that block is not scored. Although it may seem advantageous to avoid building into a block that has just been started and so contains only one colour of house, this goes against the spirit of the game; you should always make it possible for other players to score, so that they will in turn be willing to play houses in your blocks so that you can score.

Note that the stacks of Aspect Cards are always face up, so that you can see which card you will get from each stack.

Aspect cards can be used in one of two ways. First, they may be used to build additional items. Each card has an icon in the corner (shrines, cattle, pens, villagers, etc). Players are given a chance to play aspect cards between each phase of a round; they may play a maximum equal to the number of families they control. Each card so played allows you to build one of that item anywhere it is legal permitted to do so.

Secondly, cards may be played for victory points. You are still limited by the number of families you control, but each group of cards that you play with the same icon scores you points. The more cards in a group, the more points you get. For example, if you only play one card, it's worth one point. If you play two cards with (for example) the shrine icon, they are collectively worth three points. Three cards with the same icon are worth five points, whilst four cards with the same icon are worth eight points, and five cards are worth twelve. In addition, if you are playing the Advanced version, playing a group of five cards activates your clan's special ability.

Phase Four: End of Round

Now we perform a couple of housekeeping tasks. Each player, in turn, gathers up all of the Aspect Cards that he played during the round. The entire stack is placed on the bottom of a stack already on the board. In this way, the stacks are replenished for later rounds. However, keep in mind that since you cannot divide your cards into several stacks during this phase, it is possible that some stacks will eventually be exhausted. If this is the case, no more cards can be placed on that stack; once a stack of Aspect Cards is empty, it must remain so for the rest of the game, meaning that no one can earn a card in that area any more!

Finally, the player with the First Player token gives it to another player of his choice. Then a new round begins with Phase 1!

End of the Game

Once a player has played his last house (normally 25, but you may choose to play with only 20 or 15 for a shorter game; it is also recommended that in 5-player games, you only use 20 houses to avoid running out of room on the board), you will finish the round and then perform final scoring. Any Aspect Cards remaining in your hand are worth 1 victory point each. Additionally, you must examine each block on the board; the player with the largest single family in each block gets one additional victory point per house in that family.

The player with the most points is the winner!

Final Thoughts on Hoyuk

I like this game. It's a very strategic game, but it's a different sort of strategy than I've found in any other game. It's not enough to try to build the most of any specific thing: you have to pay attention to where you are building so that even though you may have fewer of something, you may still score more than other players through shrewd placement decisions. Also, I found that the order in which you score blocks during Phase Three is essential. Because you know which cards are coming next, you can carefully select blocks to give yourself an advantage and royally screw over the other players. 

This game is very thinky-thinky. But, unlike economic development games, it can easily be won by someone who was doing poorly in the early stages of the game. By shrewd decision-making, a player can experience a surge in points at any moment and steal victory away from someone who was sure he had it won. That, in my opinion, is the mark of a very good game.

So that's my thoughts on Hoyuk. As I said above, the house and pen construction rules can seem intimidating at first, but once you've got that handled, the rules are actually pretty simple. The strategy on the other hand will have you tied up in knots no matter how many times you've played. So if thinky-thinky games are your thing, I recommend you give it a try. But, as always, look at my ratings and decide for yourself. That is the point of my rating system, after all!

So that's it for this week. Be sure to check us out on Facebook, and I will see you back here next week. Until then, remember as always to

Game on!

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