Publisher: NSKN Games
Tzolkin is definitely one of my favorite games that I rank highly. The game is complex and relatively heavy but is structured in a way that each action is straightforward and unburdened by many moving pieces. For that reason alone, Tzolkin sits atop a rarefied pedestal of games that I consider timeless. I am certainly not alone since many players clearly share the same sentiment. The game also catapulted Tascini and Luciani into overnight successes. Since the publication of Tzolkin, players have been clamoring for more. While each designer has come out with their own games, Teotihuacan is a solo effort by Tascini. However, Tascini has shown he is more than capable of designing great games either alone or in partnership with other designers. But can Teotihuacan unseat Tzolkin and capture lightning in the bottle?
Teotihuacan, I’d argue, is on par or perhaps slightly more complex than Tzolkin. Not by much though. Both games feature unique mechanisms: the interlocking gears in Tzolkin and the rank-based worker action-selection in Teotihuacan. This sounds a lot more complicated at first blush, but essentially, workers are represented as dice and the worker rank increases as they move around and activate tiles on a modular rondel. As players move from a single pip worker to a worker with six pips on the dice, their actions also become increasingly more powerful. This generally affect harvesting of resources: gold, wood and stone. With a higher-ranked worker, one will harvest more resources. Similarly, more workers on the same location also leads to a more efficient output. Overall, more workers with a higher rank is advantageous for triggering most actions. However, you only get 3 workers to begin the game with an option for the 4th sometime during the game. Critically, every time an action is triggered by a worker, there is a chance the worker is promoted to a higher rank. This is how low level workers become more experienced with time.
So what happens when a player reaches the 6th pip and then still get promoted? Well they die of course, but is then quickly reborn! Apparently the ancient Aztec gods are into karma and rebirth. This “ascension” or rebirth allows players to recycle their dead worker to get a new worker with a rank of 1 and in the process, obtain several bonuses including moving up on the “Avenue of the Dead” track and also other standard Euro game bonuses (VP, resource, temple track upgrades, etc. ). Importantly, death also accelerates the end game by advancing the game marker by one spot. In short, rapidly aging workers by overworking them so they can be reborn is certainly one strategy for advancement.
So what exactly are workers doing going around in circle apart from harvesting resources? Well, they build and decorate temples of course! Players generally convert resources into points. Stone and wood are used to construct temple tiles while gold is used for decorating said temples. By landing on these tiles on the rondel, players can pick stones with different symbols and stack them in the center to build a 4 level pyramid. As to be expected, The higher the pyramids, the more expensive to build and the more points you get. By further matching symbols on the tiles, you score additional points with some colored symbols also allowing advancement on temple tracks. Besides temple building another action tile allows you to decorate the temple by paying gold. Temple decoration on the stacked up tiles are also worth points and temple advancement. To round things up for scoring, one can also construct houses which scores points and helps with movement on the avenue of the dead track for intermediate and end game scoring.
The game wouldn’t be much if it ended right there. To make things interesting, each tile on the board has a main action and a temple prayer action. The main action is what I described in the previous section. The temple prayer action for each tile allows a worker to enter a separate chamber to pray for advancement on specific temple tracks (red, blue or green tracks) and with an added cost, to pick up a worship tile that give multiple instant rule-breaking benefits or masks for set collection. The catch here is the temple worker is now locked in the chambers and cannot advance on the board until it gets unlocked and it requires a full action to unlock all workers on the board or by paying 3 cocoa to unlock a single worker. This can be costly if done wantonly. Part of the game is to figure out when it is worthwhile to enter the temples to pray so that one can release all the workers simultaneously. To round things off, the board also has a palace tile with modular benefits and a tech tile where one can obtain permanent benefits by purchasing specific technological advancements.
Cocoa is the main currency for the game as is corn for Tzolkin. This is an extremely limiting resource made more so by modular tiles where in some games, one has to eke out a living if a cocoa-harvesting engine is absent due to random tile setups. Cocoa is used for many things: One must pay cocoa when visiting each tile depending on the number of worker colors on the tile, including your own color. This means it is best to visit empty tiles for carrying out the main action since no payment is required. One way to pick up cocoa is to forgo the main action when visiting a tile and instead pick up just cocoa based on the number of worker colors on the tile. I do like that cocoa is a scarce commodity and one really has to carefully plan route movement based on its availability. Beside that, cocoa is also used as payment to pick up bonus tiles in various board locations. The game ends after three eclipse phases with each phase have 9-11 actions per player. At the end of each phase players must pay workers a cocoa salary based on their experience. The more pips a worker, the higher the salary. Intermediate scoring is quite involved with players scoring for mask set collection and tracks for temple building and avenue of the dead.
The board for Teotihuacan looks busy and involved but it is not terrible. The game flows reasonably well and the icons aren’t as complicated after a couple turns. The temple building is impressive and looks quite neat once it hits the third level. It is overall quite a pretty game to behold. That said, the game is fiddly in that each action can potentially trigger multiple moving pieces especially if your worker is reborn. It is not uncommon to see players forget to collect benefits, move up final temple tracks or upgrade workers. Too many small fiddly actions per turn.
I do think overall, Teotihuacan is a good if not great game. It has all the elements I like about a heavy Euro: to play well, one must try to focus on a specific path but can’t ignore opportunities. As always, the less competition you have for your path, the more successful you get. I find my choices to focus on a path based solely on the technology tiles available. Typically, one must help contribute building temples and if a tech tile for building temple tile is present, then focusing heavily on temple building may be a valid strategy. Similarly, if a tech tile awarding bonus points for decorations is available, then it is worth shifting your energy collecting gold. Of course, if everyone is doing that, then perhaps an alternate strategy will yield better results. Regardless of the specialization you choose for scoring, I think it is not enough to win. One must also take other scoring opportunities when it presents itself. If a space is open for performing an action cheaply for points, do it: If you have extra wood and a high value house is available, build it; If masks are abundant early, then collect it; If a cheap tile is available by locking a worker in the temple prayer room, then it’s worth it. All these small ancillary actions will add to the final tally. Apart from the final end game scoring on temple tracks, there is no massive chunks of points available. One must be opportunistic to score 5 to 10 point chunks in various board locations. Also, I think to stay competitive, one has to advance to the maximum step on at least one end game track where you earn additional end game points. This could be one of the three temple tracks or Avenue of the Dead. In short, specialization is necessary but not sufficient to win the game.
Push come to shove, I’d still select Tzolkin over Teotihuacan because it just feels more streamlined. They are both very different games though and Teotihuacan is probably worth a spot in your collection if you really enjoy Tascini designs. I also laud the publishers to keep the prices at a sane level for a game of this size and complexity. There are plenty of game companies out there willing to jack up prices to a level that is outside of many comfort zones. I think following Tzolkin and Marco Polo, Council of 4 and the upcoming Tekhenu, Tascini can safely claim that all his heavy Euros thus far re legitimate hits. I recommend this one.
Initial impressions: Great