Top Gear

Have you ever played a game you just didn’t ‘get’ the first time,  where the complexity, nuance, and balance of design separating a great game from a merely good one doesn’t hit you until two, three, or more plays through?  For me, Tzolkin was one of those games.  Thanks to several decades’ worth of tabletop gaming between the two of us at up With Meeple, we’ve developed a pretty solid instinct about games – we can usually spot a game we like, and would like to keep playing, on the first playthrough.  But when it came to Tzolkin, while I appreciated the challenge involved and the multiple paths to victory, for whatever reason, the game didn’t ‘click’ with me on the first play, or even the second.  Even more puzzling, Tzolkin possessed multiple elements that usually grab my interest – worker placement, resource management, balancing short versus long-term investments and payoffs, an ancient civilization theme, technology to develop, and even little crystal skulls (in the correct number -13 – no less).  But while I still can’t explain why it took me several plays for me to really warm to Tzolkin, hopefully this review can explain what’s great about the game, where it still falls a little bit short, and give you an idea of whether you might end up liking Tzolkin as much as I do (although maybe in fewer games than it took me).

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The Gameplay

In Tzolkin, 2 to 4 players become Mayan leaders, attempting to guide their tribes to the greatest level of prosperity over the course of two ages of the Mayan calendar.  These ages are split into 26 turns, which are tracked by the giant Tzolkin gear dominating the center of the gameboard, which is rotated every turn to track the progress of time in the game.  As the Tzolkin gear advances, its rotation causes five smaller gears, each representing the progress of Mayan civilization in a different area, to also advance.

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Starting the game with three workers, each turn, players must take one of two actions – placing one or more of their workers onto the lowest a space on one or more of the smaller gears, or removing one or more of their workers from various gears of their choice.  Each position on the smaller gears is associated with a reward, with spaces higher up on a gear’s track yielding more lucrative payoffs.  While placement of a worker on a gear’s lowest space is free, placing workers on higher spaces (due to lower spaces being occupied by your workers or those of other players) costs corn, which serves as the game’s primary currency.  Players must pay an additional surcharge for placing more than one worker in a given turn, with the marginal cost to place additional workers increasing incrementally.

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Removing a worker from a gear claims the reward linked to that space or, if the player wishes (and are willing to pay a corn penalty), a lower space.  Unlike the placement of workers, any number of workers may be removed in an action.  In general, each of the five smaller gears offers different rewards and fuels a different strategic path to victory.  The green gear (Palenque) provides corn, required to pay various costs in Tzolkin, and wood, typically used to build buildings and monuments.  Wood is also available on the beige gear (Yaxchilan), as are the game’s other basic resources, stone, gold, and crystal skulls, which can be had in various quantities and combinations.  The red gear (Tikal) puts these resources to use.  Here, wood, stone, and gold can be used to build buildings, providing resources, victory points, favor with one of three gods on the game’s temple tracks, and other advantages, or to construct monuments, granting their owner additional ways to score victory points at the end of the game.  The red gear also allows players to spend resources and advance on one of four technology tracks, each of which makes actions taken on one or more of the smaller gears more efficient.  The yellow gear (Uxmal) allows players to exchange their corn for the benefits usually found on other gears or, most importantly, to acquire additional workers with which to take more actions.  The spaces on the blue gear (Chichen Itza) grant players victory points, favor with the gods, and resources.  However, in order to remove a worker from one of the spaces on this gear, a player must spend a crystal skull, placing it on that space and blocking other payers from receiving that location’s reward for the rest of the game.  A final option available to players is to claim the starting player space, allowing them to act first in the following turn, as well as to possibly receive a small amount of corn.

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At the end of each turn, the Tzolkin gear is advanced one day, rotating each of the smaller gears (and the workers on them) one space up their respective resource tracks.  However, the pursuit of progress in the Mayan world is not costless.  At the end of each quarter a Food Day occurs, requiring players to pay three corn per worker, or suffer a three victory point penalty for each worker they cannot feed.  Food Days are also when players reap the rewards of gaining the favor of the Mayan gods which appear in the game.  Depending on their position on each of the three temple tracks, they may gain resources during the first and third-quarter food days, or score points based on the temple level they have reached on the second and fourth-quarter Food Days.  Once the Tzolkin gear advances through both ages, players score end-of-game points for unspent corn, wood, stone, gold, and crystal skulls, plus points received from monument bonuses.  The player with the most victory points is declared the winner.

Geared for Fun…

It’s accurate to say that Tzolkin is a game which, literally and figuratively, has a lot of moving parts, and that those moving parts (in both senses) represent the game’s greatest assets.  The novelty of having six interconnecting plastic wheels that visually dominate the gameboard and also constitute the game’s distinctive central mechanic is something sure to pique the interest of gamers who might not otherwise be aware of Tzolkin’s strong reputation.  However, Tzolkin’s challenging gameplay, figuring out how all those wheels work together (and work into a winning strategy) is its primary strength.  To succeed, a player needs to juggle short-term and long-term strategy and be flexible at the same time, as plans can be easily disrupted (intentionally or unintentionally) by opponents’ placement of their workers on spaces you were eying as part of your grand plan.  While placing and immediately removing workers to obtain a gear’s basic rewards is enticing, it’s also inefficient, leaving players unable to either diversify their strategy, or pursue pathways for which the resources on higher gear spaces are necessary.  But while players may want to let their workers ride up gears as far as possible, since you must either place workers or remove workers each turn, you cannot simply station all of your workers on the gears and wait until they reach the spaces with the most rewarding payoffs.  And, since the red, yellow, and blue gears require you to spend resources to claim their various rewards, some of a player’s workers also need to be committed to short-term resource gathering to fuel the actions of workers committed to longer term plans.  Tzolkin, is all about planning and balance.

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The complex nature and interaction of the game’s pathways to victory was such that I intentionally devoted each of my first few plays to figuring out how well a different individual strategy would work.  While this didn’t immediately translate to victory, it did let me discover a lot about the game so that I could more effectively integrate those strategies in the future.  If you’re a fan of games where the balance of all the strategic options isn’t immediately obvious and takes time to learn and appreciate for yourself, then Tzolkin should shoot to the top of your ‘must play’ list.

Of course, all of that focus on strategic complexity isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the production value of the game.  The components are solidly built, the board and wood bits are colorful, and the game’s custom translucent blue crystal skulls are definitely distinctive (either cute or creepy, depending on your point of view).  The game’s theme is also a refreshing change – while many historical civilization-builders offer a Mesoamerican civilization or two, an entire Mayan-themed resource management stands out as a positive addition to a genre crowded with European, Asian, and Near Eastern choices.  The game’s references to Mayan culture – from the name ‘Tzolkin’ to the locations depicted on the smaller gears to the crystal skulls – also got me interested in the subject, spurring me to read up on it a bit more.  And while fun is the main purpose of anything that hits your gaming table, learning something new (aside from how to beat your opponents) from a game is never a bad thing, either.

…With Some Clockwork Predictability?

Unsurprisingly, the game’s potential shortcomings (such as they are) also have to do with its strategic aspects.  First, Tzolkin is fairly complex, which might turn off some gamers.  As noted above, even with the level of experience that Austin and I bring to the gaming table, it’s not a game that either of us (especially me) completely ‘got’ the first time through – after nearly a dozen plays with different player counts and opponents, there are still strategic nuances that are unfolding for us.  And, while it took me several plays to even begin to appreciate the game’s complexity, that level of investment to a single game might not be up everyone’s alley.

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Tzolkin’s other potential negative has to do with strategic balance.  Because there’s no one dominant Tzolkin strategy, the path to victory requires players to balance and pursue most, if not all, of the scoring options available to them.  Most winning players will need to score some points on the god tracks, build some buildings, develop at least a few technologies, and invest heavily in procuring the resources needed to power these achievements.  Even the more optional strategies of placing crystal skulls and building monuments can be extremely powerful if combined with other ways to score points, especially if players are allowed to pursue them unopposed.  Winning can also require strategic flexibility, with placement of pawns on wheels where your opponents are not competing for resources, and shifting of your own approach as placement options are taken away from, or open up for, you, also being key.  However, this balance can result in an endgame state that usually looks similar for the winner from game to game.  Since the challenge of Tzolkin lies primarily in the journey, the efficiency of getting to that endpoint, it may not resonate as strongly with players who like picking one strategic path at the outset of a game and sticking to it, or who are more concerned about winning outcomes that look markedly different from game to game.

Austin’s Thoughts

Don’t tell Andy, but I’ve previously read up on some Tzolk’in strategy.  It should surprise no one that it hasn’t paid any dividends, as A) I forget what it is and B) I generally take what comes my way in games vs. an overarching plan.  But there are a few main strategies that make sense, at least on paper, once you know how the different elements of the game tie together.  And that’s okay.  They should be easy enough to counter, but fortunately there isn’t a resounding “Best”, like in some games, where if you don’t do X, Y, and Z, you’re going to lose.

The base mechanic of you get to Place or Remove is so simple, but so deviously complicated.  Many times a game, someone will ask, “I can’t do both, right”, because what they want to do right then would be so optimal, but their planning got messed up by the turn of the gear, someone else placing, or their own short sightedness.  It will drive you nuts.  But for as unforgiving as this may seem at times, the game has multiple paths for you to make up some ground in other areas.

Should you ever play Andy, try to snag the Buildings that reduce your workers corn consumption.  Those are his favorite.

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The Verdict

Tzolkin is an outstanding and challenging worker placement game that will end up making your mental gears turn just as much as the six plastic cogs on the gameboard.  Admittedly, it can take time to learn, and may be frustrating as your opponents’ choices and the game calendar itself prevent you from doing everything you want.  However, if you’re a fan of worker placement games, and especially if you consider uncovering a game’s strategic complexity over multiple plays as fun as beating your opponents (or pretty close, at least), Tzolkin is a game you need to play.

 

Up With Meeple Rating:

Gold-Medal

GOLD MEDAL

Gold medal games are the best of the best, games we think everyone should play at least once, and that we don’t mind playing again and again.  They are Appointment Games, the games that game nights are organized around.  These games are so well designed, so well-produced, and so fun to play that they set the standard against which other, similar games inevitably get compared.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
by Simone Luciani, Daniele Tascini
Czech Games Edition

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