Tzolkin: The Mayan Calendar

Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini

Publisher: CGE / Rio Grande Games

Why is Luciani’s name not on this version of the game? (Photo credits: Murmak@BGG)

Tzolk’in is a tour de force in board gaming and is the flagship masterpiece from the amazing duo of Luciani and Tascini. The publication of Tzolk’in marks the start of an amazing ascent for these designers as they have collectively put out quality game after quality game either together, solo or in collaboration with other designers. What came next, in these few short years, is most impressive: Voyage of Marco Polo I and II, Council of 4, Sheepland, Newton, Barrage, Lorenzo il Magnifico, Grand Austria Hotel, Trismegistus, Teotihuacan, etc. and the list goes on. Regardless of how they compartmentalize their creative energy across all these projects, these designers have come up with more hits than misses. While some of these games are collaborative endeavors and the group credits do not reveal the extent of individual contributions, the body of work for these two designers remain hard to ignore. Nonetheless, the roots of their success really do trace back to Tzolk’in, the first critically acclaimed worker placement game they published together and have won more awards than I can count with all my digits.

For some, Tzolk’in is just another worker placement game with a “gimmick”. Whether you think the cogs are a gimmick or a critical feature of the mechanism is up for debate. Personally, I don’t much care for the debate because at the end of the day, you either enjoy the game or you don’t. In Tzolk’in, players have meeples which they assign to slots on 5 interlocking cogs. Each cog has several slots positioned between spokes and cogs comes in two sizes. The larger cog (Chichen Itza) has 12 slots with more spokes and the smaller cogs (Tikal, Uxmal, Palenque, Yaxchilan) each have 10 slots. Each cog roughly corresponds to different domains of the Mayan civilization: Palanque is agricultural and allows players to harvest wood and corn; Yaxchilan is resource-gathering and allows players to collect stone, gold, wood and crystal skulls; Tikal is architectural and technological allowing players to advance in technology tracks or erecting buildings or monuments; Uxmal is more economics with a mish-mash of benefits including getting more workers, trading or trading corn for other benefits; finally there is Chichen Itza which is religious and allows players to grab victory points by placing crystal skulls in the temple.

Each of these cogs are important in the game and represent ways to either obtain and convert resources into points. Importantly, all these cogs are connected to the central wheel because the spokes interdigitate. Rotation of the central wheel means all the cogs also move in unison. In this way, meeples placed in a slot will progressively move in a circular fashion from their starting placement on the cogs. Depending on where the slot is now positioned, different benefits are available for players. In general, the longer you wait, the further your meeple will move on a cog and the more valuable your actions will become when you remove the meeple to take the action.

Part of Tzolk’in’s charm has always been the simple action sequence. Each turn you have to grapple with a simple choice: do you place meeples or remove meeples on the cogs since you can’t do both in the same turn. Grapple is the right term here since Placing meeples on cogs allows you to earmark specific actions to be taken in the future. However, because meeples can only be placed in the next lowest empty slot, one can strategically place them further down the cogs to be closer to the target action. For example, to reach the action slot 3, one can place their meeple on slot 2 if the first two slots are taken (slot 1 and 0). Obviously, placing meeples in slot 2 costs more but will arrive in slot 3 the very next turn when the central wheel is rotated one click. It would take at least 3 clicks of the central wheel before the meeple placed at slot 0 arrives at the targeted action. The upside is that it cost nothing to place the meeple at slot 0. When the meeples arrive at the desired slot, players need to remove the meeples and perform the action. Since you can either place or remove meeples each turn, the planning of when or where to place or remove meeples is the core mechanism of the game.

Since there is no money in Tzolk’in, the main currency in Tzolk’in is not coin but corn. Corn is important not only for feeding the masses (sigh….must I feed the people again?), but also for payment to place meeples. Each slot you place, except for the first requires corn. In addition, there is a penalty for placing more meeples. The more you place each turn, the higher the penalty… so more corn is needed. In the end, corn drives the game and it is indeed a tight market for corn.

You can score victory points from several places on the board. In Chichen Itza, one can score victory points by placing a crystal skull on any one location when a meeple is removed. The longer you wait, the higher the number of VPs’ you can score. However, most of the points in the game come from building monuments and other structures as well as advancing on the temples. Players gain quite a substantial amount of points by picking up specific monuments and if paired up with the correct strategies, these monuments can be quite powerful and game changing. Likewise, players can also move up on the temple ranks. The higher you climb, the more resources and points you will get. In addition, if you lead in the temple tracks, you will also score bonus points during the mid- and end-game stages. In all, I think pairing your strategies with a monument is critical for getting large chunk of points during end game scoring. However, there is no guarantee you can grab the monument as it is an open battle to claim these tiles.

Clearly, Tzolk’in is a unique take on worker placement and the novelty is more than just a gimmick. Yes, there are other games where worker placement values fluctuate throughout the game depending on other player actions or in this case, the turn of the wheel. I suppose you don’t really need the wheel but moving these meeples manually is also too laborious. The wheel provides an elegant mechanism to advance all the cogs simultaneously and to allow players to easily look and plan ahead. In Tzolk’in, the benefits of each action does not change. You know what you will get when your meeple reaches a specific slot on the cog, it is the “when” aspect of the game that is crucial and I just do not recall any other game where the sequencing of actions is this critical. The game is clearly all about timing your actions so that they are in sync so that you can be as efficient as possible without wasting turns. In short, the novelty here for me is not the wheel or the cogs, it’s the temporal sequencing of actions that is intriguing.

People who dislike the game claim the game is gimmicky or that it is a solo optimization process. There is a little bit of truth to the second critique. Some people love solo optimization games and this is certainly the trend these days with Uwe Rosenberg’s leading the way. There is nothing wrong with these games but the main interaction between players is choice denial and first to cross the line. This is true for competition for slots or also purchasing tiles. Otherwise, this is all an individual effort of placing meeples, picking up resources and hoping to beat other players to the punch for acquiring tiles or points. If you like these types of games, then Tzolk’in is for you, otherwise, I’d say try before purchasing. If you like worker placement, then Tzolk’in is also a great and novel addition to your collection. In fact, I’d say everyone should give the game a try as it worth the effort.

Initial impressions: Great!

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