Board Game Review: Tzolk’in the Mayan Calendar—Workers + Waiting = Profit
This week, we look at Tzolk’in: the Mayan Calendar. You may have seen pictures of the magnificent gears. Despite a relatively recent release, Tzolk’in cracked the top 50 on the BGG ranking and has garnered high praise. But does its gameplay deserve it, or are people just enamored with the shiny gears that rotate the pawns? Spoiler alert: the game is more than just neat components.
The Basics. In Tzolk’in, the goal is to get the most victory points. Each player starts with three workers, and each turn must either place or remove some amount of them from the board. They may not do both. The board is made up of five different gears. Two out of the five are primarily for gathering resources, one allows you to build or develop, another provides other upgrades, and the final gear allows you to convert crystal skulls for points and favor with the gods.
Each gear has several spaces, but you are not allowed to place you worker on any given space. Instead, you have to place him on the lowest available space on that gear. At the end of each round, the main gear rotates, which causes all the other gears to rotate one tic. On a player’s turn they can remove a worker and get the ability allowed by that space (or a lower ability with additional cost). As the gears progress, the areas generally get better and better.
At each quarter of the game, there is a feeding day. Players must pay two corn (the game’s currency) for each worker they have. The gods also provide points or resources for each player depending on their favor. Once the main wheel has gone one complete turn, the game is over and the player with the most points wins.
The Feel. Tzolk’in is an exciting planning game that requires multiple steps. For most worker placement games, you plan out your turns. This turn I gather wood. Next turn I gather reed. Then on my third turn I can build an extra room in my house. Tzolk’in isn’t like that. Instead, you need to be able to place a guy this turn and leave him there for four turns, so that you can get the resource you want. But within those four turns you need to be able to take the other actions necessary to prep your strategy. It’s an interesting blend of both temporal and physical placement.
Tzolk’in also gives rise to several main potential strategies. One powerful strategy is just to accumulate crystal skulls and try to please the gods. Those skulls can be turned in for up to 13 points (which is huge in Tzolk’in). Plus, gaining favor with the gods can get you additional points and resources along the way.
Contrast that with a building or monument strategy. Buildings provide one time or ongoing bonuses and cost a specific number and type of resources. They might help you gain favor with the gods, be worth direct points, or even assist you with the feeding of your workers. Plus, monuments are huge victory point generators at game end. In fact, you might see a monument or two that coincides with your strategy, and then pick it up for a big end game score.
The improvements also tie in and assist with various strategies. There are four improvement tracks, each allowing the character to take more efficient actions. One allows you to take extra corn when taking corn. Another, extra resources (wood, stone, and gold). Another gives bonuses for buildings. And the final allows additional actions when pleasing the gods. So, whichever tactic you advance, you’ll find a way to increase your efficiency.
Possibly the best part of Tzolk’in is the randomized starting resources. In most games, the starting resources are pretty similar between players, with perhaps those later in turn order getting more. Not so in Tzolk’in. Instead, there are a smattering of tiles that each have unique resources, godly favor, workers, or improvements on them. Players select four at random and then pick two to start off with. This not only creates an asymmetric start (and avoids a mad rush for one particular resource or action), but also allows players to customize an early strategy. Got improvements? Maybe having those efficiencies early on allows you to start a strategy in full force. Got a lot of corn? Now you can brute force your way into better locations while the other players are ramping up.
In Tzolk’in, most players will utilize at least four of five gears, and some all five. That means players have to think less in a sequence and more in a gestalt. Although after a game or two you can sort of get used to it, it provides a refreshing sense of novelty for the worker placement genre. The main trick of the game is to figure out when to place workers (there are various costs depending on who else is on the wheel) and how long to leave them there. If you’re careful, you can coordinate a big turn so that you get all the resources you need to buy that large monument on the same turn you take the monument buying action. This leaves your true motives hidden and makes it difficult to stop you. Of course, if you plan poorly, you might be inadvertently announcing your intentions well in advance.
On the negative side of things, the theme isn’t well integrated to the game. There are crystal skulls, which is a nice touch, and all the artwork is evocative of pre-Columbian mesoamerica. But, really, you’re just placing and removing workers, getting resources, and planning turns. In fact, I’m not sure who the players are supposed to represent or what the victory points are for. Are they prestige for our clan? Maybe. Luckily, I’m not a big theme guy anyway, so this is a very minor negative for me.
The only other potential negative is that Tzolk’in, while unique, is worker placement at its core. That’s fine by me since worker placement is maybe my favorite genre. But there are others who find it less interesting or fun. If you are one of those people, no amount of gears is going to save you.
Components: 5 of 5. Gears! OK. I managed to avoid talking about the awesome gears through the whole review. But now we talk about components. Gears! Not only are they visually very appealing, but it is so fun to turn the big gear at the end of each turn and see all the little men move. It could have been done with tracks and moving workers up the tracks each turn. It didn’t have to be gears. But it is. And it is awesome. The rest of the components are all high quality (though the color contrast between stone and gold could have been better). And the little crystal skulls are a nice touch as well. Tzolk’in is full of shiny bits to love and fawn over.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Tzolk’in is nearly entirely player-driven. The only two possible luck aspects are in the initial draw of resources and in the draw of buildings and monuments. But, given that you are able to tailor your starting resources to a strategy of your choice, the luck is dramatically muted. The player is put firmly in control while just enough randomness occurs to ensure that players have to watch for the right time to strike – and watch to pounce on each other’s buildings.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. Tzolk’in works. It provides an amazing experience that separates it from the typical worker placement. It’s easy to tell that a lot of care and thought has been packaged into the rules. The start player marker and the accumulation of corn is one such area. The interaction between players is indirect, but often substantial. This is especially true in the corn/wood gear. Competition can be more brutal there than you would think.
Replayability: 3.5 of 5. There is a lot of game to explore and the gears are shiny and awesome. But there appear to be two main strategies: build/monument and crystal skull. Perhaps these are just the two most obvious, but they also seem to be two of the most effective. On the one hand, this helps the new player compete, but I wonder if it will hurt long term replayability if experienced players are typically only choosing between two main strategies – one of which (crystal skulls) will not differ significantly from game to game.
Spite: 1.5 of 5. Spite is largely absent. Even if someone takes the spot you want, you can always go above them on the gear and use a lesser action (with an additional cost). But there is one spitey move. When taking the start player token, once per game you can move the big gear twice. This speeds up the game and can cause a feeding day to come before your opponents are ready for it. It’s only once per game, but it can be effective.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Tzolk’in is a great euro style game that is just fun to play. It works different game muscles than the typical worker placement and fits into a compact 90 minute play time. While I do have some worries about long term replay value, it otherwise delivers in exciting and unexpected ways. Tzolk’in is a great game and if you get a chance to play it, you really should. Plus … gears!
(A special thanks to Czech Games Edition for providing a review copy of Tzolk’in.)