Game Review: Can You Escape the “Mayan Curse”?

mayan curse game - boxYou’re part of a team of archeologists who have discovered a secret temple deep in the El Salvadorian jungle. Getting there’s tough enough, but once you arrive, you realize that you’re going to have to carefully traverse long passages of stone slabs, lining up the secret hieroglyphs so you can proceed safely. And there are these enormous blocks. Of course there are! They’ll be crashing towards the entrance and will eventually block it completely. There are also rumors of a secret city, so one of your goals is to reach the top of the temple where you can hopefully sneak a photo before you dash pell-mell towards the entrance. You don’t dare take that much time, though, lest you be trapped forever.

Mayan Curse is a fun, family friendly 1-6 player game from Sylvain Plante and Joe Slack, published by Crazy Like a Box Games. It has a wonderful table presence and is sure to draw in observers once set up. I reviewed a prototype so be aware that graphics, design, and even rules are subject to change. It consists of three main boards, three smaller “transition zone” boards, 16 slab tiles, and a series of concentric circular boards that stack up to create the temple itself:

mayan curse game - initial setup

The rows that have hieroglyphs are the slab tiles and can slide left and right, while the blank squares are transition zones where you can move in any direction desired. There are also 60 stelae (a stela is a standing stone slab in archeology) with “knowledge” point values, brown, grey, and beige. They are randomized and then deployed, entrance-to-temple, alternating on the left and rightmost brown spots on the slabs, 5 brown, then 6 grey, then 3 beige. The beige stelae have the highest point value (which is why they’re furthest from the entrance). Brown can range from 1-4 points, grey 2-5, and beige 3-6.

One thing that puzzled me with the initial setup is that the boards actually have a stream running down the middle that’s completely occluded when it’s all set up. It’s confusing on first game setup, but they exist to remind you that you cannot slide a slab so far that any part of the river is visible:

mayan curse game - hidden river on board

The more players you have, the more stelae you’ll deploy during setup; for a six-player game, every dark spot will have a monument for someone to collect. I played solo mode and the stelae are positioned rather minimally. Each of the three rolling blocks (you can see them in the above image) is added to the board, with a random face upward. Each receives boulder trigger tokens to delay it rolling, 1, 1, and 2 tokens. After each turn (in solo mode) a token is removed. In the multiplayer game tokens are removed after a stela is collected, which slows things down quite a bit, but in the solo mode, those boulders are rolling towards the entrance really soon, adding a lot of tension to the game!

Each player also gets a backpack card that offers one of four special actions, or a point value of 2 if you can resist using it:

mayan curse game - backpack card closeup

Each of these can be useful in different situations, but be careful that when you do utilize one of the capabilities from the backpack that it yields something worth more than the 2 points you’d otherwise see at the end of the game!


With the setup done, the game itself is relatively straightforward. Each turn you pull three Sacred Stones out of the Sacred Purse (the drawstring bag), then can slide the slabs (or temple disks) up to 3 spots, either all three moves on one or spread out as desired. You then move on to hieroglyphics that match those shown on the sacred stones you’ve drawn. If you encounter a stela, you take it.

The boulders begin to roll toward the entrance once you’ve removed the boulder trigger tokens, one being removed at the end of each round (multiplayer rules treat those tokens different, however). Here’s my initial setup for the first big room:

mayan curse game - close up first move

Boulder tokens are removed from left to right, so you only have two moves before the chaos begins as they start crashing toward the entrance! For my first move, I drew three Sacred Stones, yellow/pink (a few are two-sided and you can choose either side for your move), red, and blue. You can see them at the bottom right:

mayan curse game - first move

Before I move, I get those three slides and can move freely on the blank squares too, so there are a couple of ways I can travel. Without any slides at all I could go along the second column (one from the top in the above image), but the goal is to try and adjust the symbol layout so that you have multiple of a symbol; each sacred stone lets you move as many of the matching symbol as you have aligned. You can also move side to side with the matching symbols, which occasionally proves beneficial.

For my second move, I’m already on the third row and have slid things around so that I can keep moving forward and grab the brown pyramid stela along my route too:

mayan curse game - second move

This is far enough into the solo game that the boulder is begins to start rolling too: Once there are no boulder trigger tokens, the boulders roll toward the closest symbol that matches the current face and is closer to the entrance.

For example, in the below, the boulder is going to roll towards the closest light blue knapsack symbol. If I’m in the way, it will just bump me one, but if any stelae are in the way, they are crushed and destroyed:

mayan curse game - second move boulder

It’s my move before the boulder rolls, luckily, and I’ve drawn three great sacred stones. A single slide moves the yellow icon in front of me, which gets me onto the transitional (no hieroglyphs) zone where I can move freely, then the purple matches a three symbol column that includes a grey stela. Then the red matches another tile beyond it! A total move of 10 tiles during which another of those all-important stela is acquired. The first of the three boulders, meanwhile, is now bouncing along toward the entrance.


A bit further along I’ve gotten pretty close to the end of the second room, but, as you can see, all three boulders are also now heading toward the entrance. If all three get to the entrance before I can escape, it’s sealed and I lose. Recall that each rolls towards its closest matching tile and that the gold coin icon is a wildcard. In the below photo, none moves more than 2 tiles from its current positions:

mayan curse game - further in game

The boulders are a fun, tension-building mechanism that forces you to be thoughtful about how far you push your luck! Try to reach the top of the temple and you’ll probably be trapped before you can reach the exit. But turn around and leave too quickly and you won’t be able to earn enough knowledge points (as denoted on the bottom of the stelae tokens) to win either.


In the solo game, your goal really has to be harvesting stelae not racing to the top of the temple. In fact, from the point shown above, I opt to turn around and hightail it to the entrance. After all, having lots of points while being trapped in the temple forever just doesn’t sound very fun.

Below you can see my last move. Because of how things are laid out, if I don’t get to the entrance this turn I’ll lose because the last boulder is showing a purple hieroglyph, and the actual entrance is closer than the closest purple spot. Fortunately, I’m only two slabs away!

mayan curse game - last move: Will I survive?

The purple Sacred Stone tile lets me move one closer, and then yellow lets me jump onto the transitional tiles, from which point I can sprint to the entrance and slip out just in time! The result of this particular adventure is a bit sub-par, however:

mayan curse game - solo score < 20

I used the backpack so it’s not worth two points, meaning my total score is a summary of the stela values = 17 points. The solo mode achievement chart lists 20 as a minimum winning score for “easy” difficulty, however, so I didn’t quite make it. Pshaw!

This is a very compelling game, however, so I immediately reset the game, mixing up all the stelae and redeploying them, then went through a second time. I really focused on collecting stelae, even to the point of never attaining a single beige unit, saved my backpack, and did significantly better:

mayan curse game - final score win

This is definitely an improvement, a final score of 27, which puts me one point shy of the “adventurer” level achievement (the top solo achievement is 30 points, but must include the camera token (worth 15 points!) that’s stashed at the top of the temple. I have no idea how you could possibly achieve that in solo mode without having the entrance blocked by the time you returned, however.


I really, really like Mayan Curse and its simple, straightforward mechanisms. It’s a very kinesthetic game with rolling boulders and sliding temple slabs. It also reminds me of the wonderful Ravensburger game Labyrinth but with twists and design elements all its own. The graphics are bright, fun, simple, and easy to understand.

The solo play, however, feels like it isn’t quite dialed in. It’s a prototype so there might well be tweaks and changes before the final design goes to the printer, so it’s not a big deal, per se. Still, I would like to see the “easy” level be more easily attained, to build player confidence so that solo players will then aim to tackle some of the more difficult scenarios. And maybe even grab that photo from the top of the Temple itself!

There are all sorts of ways you could “house rule” the solo game to make it more variable in difficulty, like having a rule that if you jump on a boulder it’s then frozen in place for a few turns, or starting with more of a buffer before each boulder begins to roll. You can trade any two Sacred Stones for another of your choice, but I nonetheless found that too many of my turns were characterized by having only two of the three stones be useful. How could that third tile offer some value to the solo player instead of just being discarded, unused?

Those thoughts aside, there’s no question that Mayan Curse would be a great addition to any game collection, whether you’re a hardcore collector with walls of Kallax shelving or a half-dozen boxes stacked in the closet. It’s really fun and the fact that the game itself involves no reading means that it’s not language dependent and should be playable by even pre-tweens. A definite winner, Mayan Curse should be on every gamer’s “family friendly” shelf.

Mayan Curse, 1-6 players, by Sylvian Plante and Joe Slack. Published by Crazy Like a Box Games. $59. Check it out: Mayan Curse on Kickstarter.

Disclosure: Crazy Like a Box Games sent me a prototype of Mayan Curse for the purposes of this review. Which was most excellent!


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dave taylor vertigo film swirl backgroundPlanet Dave is run by Dave Taylor, who has been writing about film, cars, games, and his lifestyle for many years. He's based in Boulder, Colorado and assures readers he's only occasionally falling into a gravity well or temporal distortion field.

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