Every once in a while, you find a game that wants to do more than just have fun. A title that wants to teach you some real history. Games can entertain and educate; some developers take that seriously.
Mayan Death Robots is not one of those games.
In Mayan Death Robots, you and an opponent take control of giant alien robots who land on Earth for a televised deathmatch. Unfortunately, the Mayans are the local indigenous population and assume you're gods in need of worship. It's 1v1 combat with a bunch of tiny people trying to help each side out.
Each match starts with each player on their own side of the screen. In addition to your chosen Death Robot, there's floating terrain, tiny Mayans milling about, and your Power Core. Your objective is to blow up your opponent's Power Core; everything else is focused on this aspect.
"My colleague [lead designer Karel Cromberq] was very much inspired by games like Scorched Earth and Rampart," lead artist Erwin Heylen tells me. "The essence was to make a game with destructible terrain. We started with a small clockwork machine with robots that was, gameplay-wise, very similar to this, but a bit non-descript. It didn't really resonate with people. We took it around trade shows and got very good comments on the gameplay, but it didn't feel like a world people were invested in."
The trick with Mayan Death Robots is both players make their turns at the same time. Each turn, you have a limited time to decide whether to attack, move, or build. The attack differs depending on which of the 10 Death Robots you choose: Xbalanque has attacks that push and pull objects, Akna can drop spiders that crawl along the landscape before exploding, while Chac shoots repeated lightning bolts. (Xbalanque is my business.) Moving causes your robot to launch into the sky with a jet pack. Building uses a store of Tetris-like landmasses to protect yourself, your followers, and your core. You start with zero Build pieces and you gain one per round; you can hold up to 5 and drop them all in one turn. If you die, you lose a turn and all your stored Build pieces. don't worry, you're back with full health the next turn.
Since both players move simultaneously, you have to take offense and defense into account at the same time. I tried to attack my opponent's Power Core, but they decided to build walls around it, so I immediately shifted to blowing up the ground beneath them. It's high-speed strategy.
"Because you're acting at the same time, you can interact with each other," says Heylen. "If you're thinking, 'I'm gonna jump over here because that looks like a good spot to rain death from above', the other guy may catch you mid-air with a missile. Or you could end up using your body as a shield to throw yourself into an oncoming grenade and bounce it back at the opponent."
The team at Sileni Studios has augmented the basic blow-up-or-build gameplay with support structures that enhance the gameplay. The tiny Mayans fortify your side of the battlefield; they build statues to support you and they'll attack your opponent if they move too close to your Power Core. Destroying your opponent's Mayans also makes your attacks stronger.
"They worship you. They build statues in your honor and they defend your power source. They're a defense mechanic," says Heylen. "We can use these Mayans as catalysts for gameplay scenarios. This is a basic scenario, where they're building statues that give you a bonus when you shoot them. After that, we can go really crazy. We have them building catapults, beehives. We have a Spanish armada sailing by, blowing up everything they see. We also have the actual Mayan gods making an appearance."
"Shooting Mayans is good because it increases your Blast Radius. Your explosions become bigger. It's a decision you need to make: do you want to go for damage now or do you want to start farming for a bonus to your attacks?"
The forced timer and simultaneous moves means Mayan Death Robot games are relatively quick: 10 to 15 minutes. Things keep moving at a brisk pace. The match I played was around 11 minutes in total; it was close, but my opponent got lucky (That's my story and I'm sticking to it). There's also a tournament mode with best of 3, 5, or 7 matches; in-between each match, you can choose upgrades to your Death Robot. That allows you to adapt to your opponent's strategies and hopefully win future matches.
Mayan Death Robots has been greenlit on Steam Greenlight and the game is currently in beta. It was a blast to play at PAX East and I'm waiting for the chance to light up my friends and family in the comfort of my own home. Unfortunately, I have no clue when the game is coming out. If you're interested in Mayan Death Robots, you can sign up for the public beta right now.