Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun

Daniele Tascini and David Turczi

Artist: Jakub Fajtanowski, Michał Długaj, Zbigniew Umgelter, Aleksander Zawada

Publisher: Board and Dice

Not quite sure if the obelisk can cast such a large shadow over the peeps (Photo credits: Rainer Ahlfors@BGG)

Tekhenu is another big box design from established designer Tascini and Turczi. Their games are niche and cater to only the heaviest of the Euro crowd. So, if you have a bunch of newcomers to the hobby, Tekhenu is definitely not the best place to start. That said, I have had a chance to play several of the heavy designs that have come out from the various collaborations between Turczi, Tascini, Luciani, Mangone, Gigli, Batistta, etc. For the most part, I have enjoyed the games. Tzolkin was the very first masterpiece I tried and that was quickly followed by a series of excellent publications (Voyages of Marco Polo, Grand Austria Hotel, Newton, etc.). However, more and more so, I felt that these games have increased in length and complexity without really ramping up the fun factor. In most cases, the game has too many things going on and could really benefit from a modicum of streamlining. Unfortunately for me, Tekhenu fell into this category.

Dice drafting as a mechanism is by nature already quite a chaotic affair. The variables in dice drafting are usually the color of the dice and the pip values. Dice color are often used to curtail action selection by making available only a subset of actions depending on the color of the dice rolled and selected. The pip values can further narrow the selection criteria, or more often, it is used to denote the strength of the reward or action associated with the dice. For example, the numerical value could indicate how much money you collect, how many resources you harvest or how powerful and action is. Because some dice are inherently more valuable or highly desired, player turn order is critical for most dice drafting games. The earlier you go each round, the more options you have for selecting dice. One cannot always predict if a certain type of dice are available prior to your turn. Because the inherent nature of dice drafting is already fraught with so many variables, layering more complexity around the dice drafting mechanism is just not something I enjoy. The classic example for me is Taverns of Thiefenthal where dice drafting is combined with deck building. Individually, these two mechanism already provide a lot of variables that make planning challenging; combined, these two mechanisms wreck havoc in any long-term planning. To get to your desired results, you would need your dice and cards to be aligned. Ugh.

Tekhenu tries to put a new spin in dice drafting by placing dice in 6 regions around a rotating obelisk. At the base of the obelisk is a display of shaded sections (light, shaded and dark) that are meant to indicate how the obelisk casts a shadow on the 6 regions. So, with each segment of rotation, the obelisk will render some regions light, dark or partially shaded, thus altering the properties of the dice associated in each region. To ramp up complexity, there are 5 differently colored dice that are randomly drawn from a bag and placed in the regions in the beginning of each game and refilled at specific points mid game. As each region becomes light/dark/shaded, the colored dice are rearranged and become pure/tainted/forbidden, thus changing their attributes and restricting their availability. However since the obelisk keeps rotating, the dice are continuously rearranged with each rotation and dice that was once pure, can become tainted or forbidden.

Of course, the complexity doesn’t end right here. Forbidden dice are, well…… forbidden. Pure and tainted dice that are drafted need to be balanced. Performing too many tainted or pure actions will have negative consequences. That’s because at the end of each quarter, after the selection of 4 dice, players must check the balance of their selection. The goal is to balance the pure v. tainted values and any excess on the tainted spectrum can potentially be penalized with loss of VP. More importantly, the more balanced your selections are, the higher your turn order in the following round.

Beyond dice drafting, the rest of Tekhenu is actually quite….. bland, in that the actions are pretty commonplace for a Euro. Each region where dice are located is linked to an associated action. When you select a die in a region, you perform the corresponding action usually based on the pip values. You have an area to purchase power cards, tech upgrades; a region to build quarries to obtain more resources (limestone, granite, bread and papyrus); an area where you build statues in different action space to trigger ongoing bonuses; an area where you increase population and happiness that expands your ability to purchase more advanced or valuable cards and finally, two scoring regions that allow you to build pillars in a temple or houses around the temple to collect resources and VPs.

Obviously, I am summarizing all these actions spaces in a single paragraph, but there is much interconnectedness between these actions. For example building houses around the temple scores points for pillars built with a different action. Moreover, it also increases the population that is important for advancing the happiness of your populace in a separate track that is critical for picking up more powerful cards in yet another action. The network effect of action selection is not unique, but almost a feature we come to expect in a majority of heavy Euros. So, nothing particularly astounding. Like all other dice drafting games, choice denial is the major interaction between players. Otherwise, this is a pretty typical player optimization Euro.

It’s pretty clear after the first few games that Tekhenu is highly tactical in nature. Perhaps games that feature dice drafting all fall into this broad category. I found it tough to plan ahead at high player counts. The variability in the dice color, placement, attributes and pip values together with player turn order means that the high value dice you are salivating will likely be snapped up before your turn. This also means, a plan B is necessary: the next best course of action. This will be frustrating for some, especially those that enjoy long-term engine building games where you can count on executing your engine for point scoring. I don’t think Tekhenu is that. Quite the opposite, there is no engine building per se, but rather players will focus on working to fulfill their end of game scoring decree cards. These cards pretty much drive your entire approach for the game. At the beginning of each game, one decree is made available to each player and the 16 actions you have in totality must be geared toward earning those extra decree points. Some of the decree cards will earn 1/3 to 1/2 of the total VPs in the entire game and will be the difference between victory and defeat. If you are fortunate enough to pick up additional decree cards during the game, it will most certainly bolster your chances of winning. If you are the sort that dislike secret objectives, well, too bad because a large part of Tekhenu is just that.

Now this doesn’t automatically mean it is a negative. Because the decree cards are so specific and narrow in scope, this means the game has multiple paths to victory. This is generally a positive attribute in game design. In Tekhenu, because the focus is on the end game scoring, there are lots of other VP paths that must be ignored. Herein lies the conundrum: because it can be hard to get the actions you desire, pursuing the decree cards can be a frustrating experience for some, but rewarding for others especially in the face of uneven competition in secret objective cards. I can see if 2-3 players are aiming to build statues, the remaining player that is building pillars will have a much easier time doing so. Moreover, from my initial plays, not all benefits and rewards seem evenly spread out. For example, building statues appear lucrative because if you finish building all your statues, you are rewarded with 21 VPs’ on top of bonus VPs for your decrees if they happen to align. Similarly the bonus points for happiness track seem to also be quite substantial especially when coupled to being able to get more decree cards. This is in contrast to building houses where one must not only pay bread for upkeep, but also the VP rewards are substantially less. I must assume that extensive playtesting has shown that the VPs’ earned during temple building more than make up for the large chunk of end-game points. Still, at first blush, building statues feels lopsidedly strong.

Tekhenu is not a bad game nor is it poorly designed. It is just that dice drafting with this amount of complexity surrounding the core mechanism is not for me. I do not mind dice, as I find Teotihuacan, another game in this lineage to be an excellent design. In Teotihuacan, the effect of the dice roll is negligible/non-existent. But when dice drafting is layered with other mechanisms that contributes even more uncertainty, the game slides toward the more chaotic and tactical spectrum and Tekhenu has crossed that line for me. Sure, the dice in Tekhenu are there for all to see and based on how the obelisk rotates, one can anticipate how the dice attributes will change, but that is a lot of work without any clear pay out because the dice you plan to use may not even be there when your turn rolls around. Coupled with how important the hidden objectives are and how narrow your focus needs to be to win, there is a certain frustration when you cannot properly execute your well-laid plans. This pretty much sums up my disappointment with the game.

Not to pour salt on wound, there are ancillary issues that has soured our game play. Tekhenu is fiddly. Yes, rotation of the obelisk is needlessly complicated (2 dice/rotation; 2 rotations/maat; 2 maat/scoring….etc). We have more than once forgot to rotate the obelisk after picking dice. The temple building/pillar/statue scoring is also unnecessarily complicated. Placing either a pillar, building or statue scores differently not only during the game but also during mid/end game scoring. It is not intuitive and even after a few plays, I had to consult the rule book over and over just to get it right. To me, this is needless complexity. The obelisk is nicely done, but in practicality, it blocks line of sight of the dice behind the pillar. Yes, it does indeed cast a shadow on gameplay. We eventually discarded the obelisk and just rotated the disc. It was such an obvious annoyance for us to constantly peer around the obelisk.

I think it is not true that if you like Teotihuacan, you will enjoy Tekhenu. I have enjoyed the former and owned many of Tascini’s designs. Unfortunately, Tekhenu will not be one of them.

Initial impressions: Not for me

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