Review – Höyük

Höyük (from MAGE Company) is a tile-laying and city building game set 10,000 years ago in Anatolia, or thereabouts. Each player is a tribe working to establish its families in villages across the valley that makes up the game board. Each turn, players will place huts, animal pens, villagers, cattle, shrine, and ovens into these various settlements. At the end of each turn, each village scores based on who has the most of each category in that particular village. Winning a category in a village lets the player draw a card from a specific stack (which is face-up). Each of these cards has an image corresponding to one of the building categories. A card can be used to place one of those items, or sets of cards can be saved up and cashed in for victory points.

Going into our first game of Höyük, I thought it was going to be a pretty dry affair, with a classic Euro sort of theme, multi-layered scoring, and lots of opportunities to min-max exactly what object to put where. But it turned out not to play like that at all, at least for us (note: the game comes with beginner, intermediate, and advanced modes, with each adding in more kinds of objects – we jumped straight to playing with the full ruleset). Instead, at a max player count, Höyük was a much more chaotic, random, and lighter affair than I expected, and a good bit of fun.

One significant aspect limiting the potential for analysis paralysis is the limitation on what a player can build each turn. Each player gets two construction tiles (over two rounds, not two at once), which depicts two huts and something else. With these limitations on what can be built, there are still significant decisions (where to put the two huts, and how the extra shrine, oven, or whatever can be used to generate a win), but those decisions are constrained.

hoyuk_tile

At least at higher player counts, there is enough chaos that excessive analysis isn’t heavily rewarded. Again, a general strategy is important, but stressing over exactly which of two decent options will end up working out best was a problem we never had (even in our relatively AP-prone group; this is one of those rare games where the 60-minute playtime on the box isn’t a lie) – there’s just going to be too much going on before scoring to justify it.

Then, before scoring, there’s an opportunity to play cards to gain or protect an advantage. As with the construction tiles, this is also constrained because of the cards – there’s a tactical decision to make about how (or if) to place that extra shrine, but there isn’t the option to agonize over which items are available or how many. And this is in a larger framework where the choices are one tile, one tile, and then cards, rather than everything all at once.

There is, in addition to the chaos, definitely some random in Höyük. There is the question of which construction tile each player gets, but more importantly a disaster strikes the valley every round. These disaster tiles will destroy huts in a selected village, but which village is affected can be based on so many criteria (starting with the village with the most or least of each of the different sorts of construction) that there isn’t a lot of mitigation beyond trying to have a ‘disposable’ hut in any village with a more valuable one (which means you aren’t using those huts to spread out and increase the number of cards you can play).

hoyuk_contents

There are some games where a lot of chaos, or a dose of random, would be negatives – it’s a problem when a four-hour game of heavy strategy comes down to a lot of random tile flips. But here, I think the chaos and a decent dose of random are a positive, because they solidify Höyük as a lighter, shorter game.

I did have one problem with the game, which was the tribe abilities (which only exist in the advanced version of the rules). They aren’t a big presence, as they only trigger when a player cashes in a set of five cards for victory points (which can only happen after a player is present in five villages). But they can be significant boosts when they trigger, in a situation where I’m not sure a player needs a boost. But more importantly, they seem definitionally imbalanced. One tribe might have an ability to destroy a hut, while another has an ability to steal a hut – the latter ability is pretty much strictly superior. They also add an aggressive “take that” element to a game where there is always competition, but otherwise no destructive PvP (which may be a positive or a negative). Personally, I would recommend just not using the tribe abilities.

All told, I think that Höyük is burdened with a mismatch between theme/presentation and gameplay, and I could see there being an issue between expectations going into the game and what happens during the game. But at our high player count I think it did pretty well as a fun, lighter, chaotic game that can actually get done in an hour.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.


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