Review of Tzolk’in: Gearing Up for Fun!

Tzolk’in:  The Mayan Calendar
Designers:  Simone Luciani, Daniele Tascini
Publisher:  Czech Games Edition, Rio Grande
Players:  2-4
Ages:  12+
Time:  90 minutes

Theme:  Ancient Mayan Civilization Building
Main Mechanics:  Worker Placement, Resource Conversion

Times played:  4, twice with prototype, twice with published version

For those of you reading this:  rejoice!  Despite the predictions of wild-eyed pseudo-scientists with weenie beards on the Discover channel, the world did not come to an end today.  Either the Mayan calendar makers were mistaken or something interrupted them just when they got to December 21, 2012 (like, I don’t know, maybe a horde of European invaders).  Your reward is you get to live to read this review of the game based on the Mayan calendar (your high school English teacher would have referred to this twist as irony).

Human nature being what it is, most gamers who see the Tzolk’in gameboard are immediately attracted to the game, but then quickly say, “Hmm, it’s got to be a gimmick.”  The reason for both reactions is the same–it’s those wonderful interlocking gears.  Thankfully, Tzolk’in is not a toy and the gears are not a gimmick, but rather an extremely clever way of handling an innovative game mechanic:  a worker placement game where your payoff depends not only on where your workers are, but how long they’ve been there.

As Time Goes By

In Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, the players represent leaders of different Mayan tribes.  They attempt to do the best job of representing their people by building structures and long-standing monuments, displaying piety to the three Mayan gods, educating their tribes in various technologies, and making sacred sacrifices to the gods.  The player who earns the most VPs by doing this wins the game and can pose for the centerfold in the next Mayan calendar.

So let’s take a look at the board that’s been grabbing so much attention.  Once constructed, the board includes room for six gears.  There is a large central gear and five smaller ones, each of which interlocks with the central gear.  There are indentations between each of the teeth of the gears where a single worker can be securely placed.  The board shows what the benefit is from each space associated with the gears.  When the central gear is rotated, all the other gears rotate as well, automatically advancing the workers which rest on them.  The effect is a simple way for the workers on a gear to have their benefits increase every turn they stay there.

Before we get to the specifics for doing this, let’s talk about how the game begins, because this is also quite innovative.  After determining the player order and revealing the starting buildings and monuments, each player is dealt four starting wealth tiles.  These include things the players can start the game with, including various amounts of corn (the game’s currency), different resources (there are three of them in the game–wood, stone, and gold), crystal skulls (used for making sacrifices), advancements on the tracks that show technology knowledge or the temples that show loyalty to a god, even extra beginning workers.  Each player secretly chooses two of these to begin the game with and reveals them simultaneously.  This is an excellent concept and one I expect to see in other designs in the future.  It not only effectively differentiates the players at the start of the game, it also gives them a good deal of latitude in determining their strategic path at the outset, without them having complete control over it.

Each player begins the game with three workers, plus whatever goodies they get from their two starting wealth tiles.  Play then begins with the first player.

Gear Hopping for Fun & Profit

The first thing you have to do on your turn is decide if you want to piss off a god.  If you have less than 3 corn, you can go begging, which raises your corn total up to 3.  But doing this “angers the gods”, which means you have to lower your level on a temple by one step.

Then comes the worker-related part of your turn, which means you do one of the following:

  • Add one or more workers to the board, possibly at the cost of some corn;
  • Remove one or more workers from the board and gain the benefits of where the workers were standing.

You cannot do both and you cannot do neither.  This simple rule means you’ll have to carefully plan in order to accomplish the things you need to do.

Let’s look at adding workers first.  The workers you place can go on different gears or the same gear–any gears you want to occupy.  When you add a worker to a gear, you have to place it at the lowest unoccupied space.  If this is the first space on the gear, there’s no cost for the placement, but if it’s a higher space, you have to pay one corn for each level higher than the first.  In addition, it costs you 1 additional corn to place a second worker, 2 additional corn to place your third worker, and so on.  All these costs are additive.  So if you want to place three workers and one of them goes on the second lowest space on its gear, the total cost will be 4 corn.

Removing workers is just as simple.  Just look at the benefit next to the space the worker was on and receive it.  Some of the benefits allow you to take an action.  You have the option of receiving the benefit from an earlier space on the same gear, but you have to pay 1 corn for each space you travel back to.  A worker on one of the last two spaces of each gear can take any benefit on that gear, with no corn payment.

Here’s a brief summary of the benefits on each of the gears.  I’ll discuss some the rules behind these benefits a little later.

  • Agriculture:  You can gather corn and wood here.
  • Resources:  You can get all three of the resources here, along with some corn and crystal skulls.
  • Construction:  The actions you can take here allow you to construct buildings and monuments, along with advancing on the technology tracks and temples.
  • Commerce:  Kind of a catch-all gear, where you can get extra workers, buy and sell resources, and use corn to construct buildings or advance on temples.
  • Worship:  You can sacrifice crystal skulls to the gods for significant VP awards.

Let’s look at some of these concepts in detail.

Agriculture – Many of these spaces represent jungle and the only way of getting the corn benefit is if someone took wood from that space in an earlier action.  But a player can get the corn directly by burning down the trees.  However, this “angers the gods”.  Who knew that the Mayans worshiped such a bunch of irritable deities?

Buildings and Monuments – Every player has 6 buildings available to them at the beginning of their turn.  Each costs a specific combination of resources to build.  Most of the buildings emulate actions on the board, but either provide VPs or give you less costly ways of doing them.  At the midpoint of the game, a new set of buildings are introduced, which are more expensive but yield more powerful effects.

As opposed to the buildings, there are only 6 monuments available for the entire game.  They are very expensive, but can be worth a lot of VPs at the end of the game, depending upon the things the purchaser has accomplished.

Temples – Each of the three gods in the game has their own temple, which are shown as step pyramids on the board.  Players climb in level on these pyramids in a variety of ways.  Certain levels show resources on them and at two points during the game, each player receives the resources for all the levels they’ve achieved.  At the midpoint and end of the game, every player receives the VPs associated with their temple levels.  In addition, the two players with the highest levels at each of the temples receives bonus VPs.

Worshipping – The fifth gear is the largest in the game and every space has room for a single crystal skull.  When a player removes her worker from one of these spaces, she places one of her crystal skulls on the space (so each space can only be used once), gets the VPs associated with that space, and goes up one level on one of the temples.

Technologies – There are four technology tracks and each gives benefits for one type of action.  There are three levels in each track and they cost one, two, and three resources to advance to, respectively.  All of the levels give the player a greater benefit when certain actions are accomplished.  For example, one technology gives you more corn when you gather corn on the Agriculture gear, while a second technology gives you bonus resources when they are earned.  The third technology yields bonuses when building and the fourth gives you benefits when worshipping.  The bonuses are cumulative for each of the tracks.  After you achieve the third level in a technology, you can still benefit by advancing on the track; each track gives you a special bonus in this instance if you spend one resource.

After every player takes their turn, it’s time to end the current round, but the way that’s resolved depends on a location I haven’t discussed yet.  There’s a starting player space on the board, separate from all the gears.  If no one places a worker there during the round, the start player for the next round remains the same and one corn is added to the space, which accumulates round by round.  The start player then ends the current round by rotating the central gear one space, advancing all the workers at the same time, and then begins the next round.  If, however, a player does put a worker on the starting player space, they take all the accumulated corn and become the new start player for the next round (if the current start player goes there, the start player marker rotates clockwise to the next player).  They then have the option, for that turn only, to rotate the central gear by two spaces, advancing all the workers twice as far.  Needless to say, this can really throw a Mayan monkey wrench into the most carefully laid plans, so players need to take that possibility into account.  Usually, each player can only do this double advancement once a game, so there’s a limit to how many liberties can be taken with the calendar.

Four times over the course of the game, you have to feed your workers.  Hey, jumping on and off of those gears gives a meeple an appetite!  You have to pay the bank 2 corn for each of your workers, or suffer a reasonably stiff VP penalty for each unfed dude (so this is not the game for a starvation strategy).  The ability of some of the buildings is to help with these requirements when dinnertime rolls around.

It’s the End of the Game, As We Know It

When the central gear has made one complete revolution, the game comes to an end.  This coincides with the fourth Meeple Feeding.  The players score for their temple advancements (for the second time), get VPs for any monuments they’ve built (based on their achievements), and get some additional VPs for any corn, resources, and skulls they have left over.  Even with Doomsday on the horizon, one thing remains the same:  most VPs wins.

Designing a successful game is a delicate balancing act.  It needs to have enough innovative aspects to attract the Cult-of-the-New crowd, while also providing enough familiar elements so that less adventurous gamers aren’t scared off.  It should have enough of a “Wow” factor to lure gamers in, but also have solid enough gameplay to keep them coming back.  And the game should have enough complexity to give it depth, while still being simple enough that most players won’t be overwhelmed.  One of the reasons Tzolk’in has been so popular is that it does a great job of walking the tightrope.  Its worker placement mechanics are comfortingly familiar, while introducing the element of time makes those same mechanics feel innovative.  The gears can attract you from across the room, but there’s much more to the game than those rotating pieces of plastic.  And the game is simple at its heart–most turns involve the movement of three or fewer pieces–but the planning necessary to optimize those moves gives the game considerable depth.  It’s a very accessible game, that appeals to a wide variety of gamers.

The gears are not a gimmick because without them, the game would not be feasible.  (This is not just hyperbole; after trying the prototype back in April, several of us were worried that the final version of the game wouldn’t include the gears, because they would be too expensive to manufacture.  Petr Murmak of CGE said he wasn’t sure what the published version would look like, but that it would include gears.  Period!)  Just as the production wheel greatly facilitates the play in Ora et Labora, so the gears in Tzolk’in make what would be a laborious, error-prone process simple.  Playability is much more than a gimmick.

You’ll need the time the gears save you to help plan your moves.  The fact that you can’t add and remove workers on the same turn means you’ll have to carefully look ahead to accomplish exactly what you want.  In addition, keep in mind you have to do one of the two options–those Mayans didn’t believe in do-nothing concepts like passing!  So, for example, you may have to keep workers back, just so that you can have another turn of adding, to allow your workers to advance one more space.  All of this gives the players some very different kinds of planning decisions than are typically found in games of this kind.  They’re not mind-bending–after all, you’ll never have more than 6 workers to worry about–but they’re still quite challenging and very enjoyable.

The rest of the game is nicely designed as well.  The starting wealth process is a really good idea and gets the game off to an excellent, and accelerated start.  Much of the rest of it is a cube salad, with the typical conversion of resources to special abilities and VP items, but at least the abilities are varied and interesting and they all seem well balanced.  There are quite a few strategies to explore and since many of them depend on the monuments available for that game, the game has a high replayability factor.  Best of all, with such limited actions, turns usually are quite short and the game moves along at a nice pace, just the thing when you’re trying to sneak in one more game before the coming apocalypse.  It all adds up to a very enjoyable package and is one of my favorite games of the year.

The player interaction is all indirect, but there’s still quite a bit of it for a Euro.  Grabbing spaces on a gear that an opponent was eyeing can be affective, particularly if they are short on corn.  Changing the first player can alter things as well, since each position in the turn order plays very differently (the first player has cheap, but weak positions open on all of the gears, for example, but the last player is much more likely to be forced to spend corn for advanced, but costly positions).  Nastiest of all, of course, is the dreaded double spin, which always seems to catch some players by surprise.  I think the level of interaction is good, so that you need to be able to take advantage of tactical positions left you by opponents, but there’s still plenty of ways of executing your chosen strategy.

The physical production is remarkable.  The gears work smoothly, without jostling the workers (although some early versions of the game required that the connecting holes be enlarged).  The gears are attached to various portions of the board, which are assembled in jigsaw fashion, so that you never have to remove the gears, an ingenious solution to a thorny production problem.  The board is colorfully and clearly illustrated.  The workers, corn, and resources are just cardboard tokens and wooden pieces, but happily, the crystal skulls are small plastic skulls, which are very cool looking.  The buildings, monuments, and starting wealth tiles are all unambiguously designed.  The publisher did a first-class job producing the game, which definitely adds to its appeal.

Tzolk’in is another excellent game from CGE and is, in fact, the first one of their titles not to come from Czech designers.  Gameplay is smooth and challenging.  My games have all been with 4 players and that may be the optimal number, but with 2 or 3, dummy workers are added to the gears to simulate the greater competition for space.  I’m usually not a fan of artificial ways of adding fictional players to a game, but this seems like an unusually elegant solution and many gamers report that the game works well with lower numbers.  Plus, the game looks great and is a guaranteed conversation piece when it’s set up in its full glory.  At this point, I’d usually end the review with some punny phrase associated with the theme, but my fellow OGers have already used up the best ones.  So all I’ll say is that if you were afraid of picking this title up because the world was coming to an end, that excuse is gone.  So go out and buy a copy, since it probably won’t be the last thing you do!

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Rick Thornquist:  See folks, this is the reason I don’t write reviews anymore – they’d never be as good as Larry’s.  As far as Tzolk’in is concerned, it deserves the accolades it’s getting.  It’s just a great game.

Brian Leet:  The criticisms of Tzolk’in I’ve heard have either been that it is too gimmicky, or too much just the familiar reassembled. I think that exactly between the two is the truth for me. The aspect of how many turns you leave a worker in place affecting what that worker does is very compelling. As you gain familiarity with the game you start planning what you will do in overlapping chunks of five turns or so. This makes for really rewarding mental puzzles that need to be tweaked, upgraded and expanded upon with every turn.

It is true that on the first play or two there is so much going on that the game can feel largely solo. But, as you begin to get more comfortable and familiar with all the interlocking game elements it is possible to anticipate and even potentially interfere in light ways with others’ planning. Direct player interaction will always be relatively small, but it is there and important. Simply the decision of when to seize control of turn order can be an important step as it means you must be placing workers on that turn, and will have one unplaced worker the next turn as well. In some situations this is a great gambit to let “time pass”, but in others it just leads to added inefficiency.

Also, having now played the game with three players I have to say that I believe that three will be my preferred number. The four player game does tend to run just a bit long and if turn order changes you can potentially need to wait for seven turns between taking your actions with that number. Meanwhile, the simple “broken gears” game adjustment for three players actually works very well to provide even more early game interest to how you place your workers and the play balance and pace was excellent.

Finally, while I have only had a chance for a few plays thus far, I have already begun to see different play strategies lead to success. This is critically important because it means that the game isn’t just about how to most efficiently use all the interlocking pieces (see what I did there?), but also allows for selection and shifting of overall game strategy. Highly recommended and an easy game for which to say, I love it!

Joe Huber (2 plays, including one of the prototype):  I think the first item of notes is that the gears are, as others have mentioned, not just a gimmick.  They are, in fact, a unique and interesting way to delay receipt of capabilities.  Time isn’t often used well as a game element, but I do believe it does work here.  And the game does rise above the usual worker-placement issue by allowing players to play on any gear – provided they have sufficient corn on hand.  Having different gods provide scoring potential at different points in the game also helps the game.  All of which is plenty to allow me to enjoy the game.  But – it’s not yet close to being a favorite of mine.  It definitely has the potential, but even shy of my limited opportunities to play the game so far, I’m really not yet convinced it will ascend to that level.

W. Eric Martin:  I find myself less interested in efficiency games these days, so I wasn’t geared up to play Tzolk’in like so many others, but a gaming friend put it on the table and I gave it a spin. The game is well-designed and challenging, with 100+ teeny-weeny decision points throughout the game, any number of which you can botch in terms of their timing, thereby destroying your hopes of building or selling something or of having enough corn to feed your ravenous Mayans come mealtime. What I miss in games like Tzolk’in, strong as they are in all other terms, are the opportunities for cheering and big plays, for moves that call for a fist pump or elicit a gasp of surprise from opponents who can’t believe you just pulled off some crazy play. Instead I picture Tzolk’in players drumming their peaked fingers in front of them, hissing “Yes, o yesssss” as their plans slowly come together under the watchful eyes of the Mayan deities Maximón and (yes, really) Martín.

Lorna:  I found the gear movement interesting and the aspect of time, reminds me a bit of Sea, Sand and Sun. I wasn’t terribly inspired by the rest of the game so it is on the low end of I Like It.

Patrick Korner:  Tzolkin is a good game, but I don’t think it’ll ever rise into the pantheon of the truly great. Were it a straightforward worker placement game, it wouldn’t even register as a ripple in the sea of new releases, but thankfully the gear mechanism serves to elevate things at least a little. There is an interesting efficiency exercise in getting your workers to where you want them to be at the right time, and probably a good dozen plays worth of enjoyment figuring out how to work the levers to turn the gears the way you want them to. At that point, I’m not sure how much deeper the rabbit hole goes, leaving the game ultimately as a decent but not world class effort.

Things I like about the game:  Tension between adding your workers and trying to keep having useful turns until you’re ready to pull some of them off again. Inherent tug of war in going first, and the balance between having lots of useful workers while also having to feed them.

Things I didn’t like about the game:  Buildings / tiles that feed your guys seem extremely strong. Lots of luck of the draw in terms of what buildings are available on your turn.

Overall impression:  I like it.

Ted C:  Only played once and enjoyed the run.  I thought for sure with the main gear going around once as the timer for the game that it would be impossible to build all of the things possible on the board.  But, we came pretty close.  It felt like a bunch of rondels moving in unison as you wait eagerly for your workers to get where they need to be.  The fact that you have to place or take something off every turn makes for some interesting dilemmas.  It proved to be a nice change with new ideas.

Dale Yu (2 plays):  OK, not much left to be said here when you’re the 8th guy to the review!  I do not find the gears to be a gimmick – the rotation of the gears adds in the important time element to the game, which for me, is what makes the game.  In fact, the automation of the gears is super appealing for me because I don’t have to go manually adjust the workers on all of the tracks – they move around on their own!   I think there is some truth to the statement that there is really nothing new in any of the individual components found in the game – but to me, this is no different than CopyCat or Il Vecchio, both of which are games that I have also enjoyed from this year’s Essen.

OK, now i’m headed back under my desk to tuck my head between my legs and await the end of the earth.  I hope you enjoyed the blog!  We had a great time doing it… (And if we’re still here, we’ll keep on reviewing the Essen games in the new year!)

Nathan Beeler:  Eric stole all my pun-der above, so I’ll just say that after one play of Tzolk’in the game’s mechanisms appear to be right in my wheelhouse.   I generally enjoy games with only a few deceptively simple options like those found here: place workers or pick them up.  Often I found myself in a self imposed zugzwang, where I didn’t want to do anything except let my workers bake a little longer on the wheel.  I found this could be avoided with a bit of planning ahead.  It’s a satisfying reward for the effort to pop your workers off at just the right time and get the goodies you need.  By the end, though, it did feel like a whole lot of sound and fury just to reach a fairly limp conclusion.  There was no bang to remember, and no one in our game seemed to love it overly after it was done.  I need to play again to see where it truly fits in the pantheon.

Jeff Allers:  Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to give the game a spin since it debuted, but Larry’s in-depth review of this twist on the worker-placement mechanic certainly has my gears turning.  I’m still unsure if it will mesh with my own tastes.  Nevertheless, I can’t wait to get this game into our group’s rotation to see if it has any teeth (see, Nathan, there is still plenty left for everyone).

Ben McJunkin:  Given Tzolk’in’s mainstream appeal, I am quite surprised to discover that, at a mere six plays, I am one of the more experienced commenters on this review.  For substantially the same reason, I am equally surprised by how much I have enjoyed it. (Having played at every player count, I will note that I love the game with four experienced players and merely like it (or worse) with fewer/new players.)  The interlocking gears are really just a gradual evolution of the delayed-gratification worker-placement mechanics we have seen in the past.  But they provide refreshing new in-game dynamics that make the game feel like nothing I have played.  While the underlying resource-conversion elements are rather generic and uninspiring — the sacred trinity of resources (wood, stone, and gold) being exchanged for “buildings” that provide arbitrary instant bonuses or advancements on simplistic tech and scoring tracks — the timing challenge alone is enough to make the game enjoyable.  I am also a sucker for any game that divides action selection so as to permit meaningful decisions at both the pre-commitment and action execution stages.   Additionally, I love the implementation of a few of the game’s more minor elements, such as the asymmetrical starting positions, the starting player space, and the infamous double-turn.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it!:  Larry, Rick Thornquist, Brian Leet, Doug Garrett, Ben McJunkin

I like it:  Joe Huber, Ted Alspach, Lorna, Patrick Korner, Ted C., Dale Yu, Jennifer Geske, John Palagyi, Nathan Beeler, Luke Hedgren

Neutral:  W. Eric Martin

Not for me…:

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