The sounds of tribal drums and squawks of tropical birds fill the air, punctuated only by a loud, periodic CLICK. The gears of the giant calendar are turning, counting down the days to the next feast day. You look to the jungle. Will your fellow tribesmen return with enough food in time? To the west, a few people are working on erecting a new building to honor the gods, using the materials your tribe had previously gathered. Just another day in the life of the Mayan civilization…
In Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, you take on the role of the leader of a Mayan tribe. Your goal is to gain the most points by constructing buildings and monuments, advancing in several different technologies, and honoring the gods. The centerpiece of the game is the large Tzolk’in gear, which moves forward one day at the end of each game round, in turn moving all of the attached gears on which workers are placed. This unique twist on a worker placement game means that the longer your workers stay out, the better potential rewards they can receive.
While Tzolk’in may look complex and feel like a lot to wrap one’s head around, at its core it follows a fairly simple worker placement mechanic. Each game round, starting with the Starting Player (fancy that!) and proceeding clockwise, players must either place out or withdraw one or more of their workers, represented by tall cylinders. The workers are placed in unoccupied spaces on the small gears, and at the end of each round, the large gear turns one step, moving the workers on the small gears to the next available action. The game continues until the large gear has made one full revolution and returned to its starting space. It is best to describe the mechanisms for placing and retrieving workers, and then briefly going over each of the small gears, the temples, technology tracks, buildings, and monuments.
Each player begins the game with three workers in their color, as well as four starting wealth tiles, of which they keep two, granting food (corn), resources, or other initial benefits. On a player’s turn, as long as they have available workers, they may place out one or more workers on the gears. The first worker can be placed for free, but each additional worker placed in a single turn costs incrementally more corn. So, the second worker would cost 1 corn, the third would cost 2 corn (3 total), and so on. Needless to say, if you have six workers and are trying to place them all out at once, it can get pretty pricey. In addition to the cost of placing multiple workers, you must pay the corn cost associated with the space they’re placed on. Each of the gears is numbered starting at 0 and increasing for each space around the gear. When placing a worker on a gear, they must be placed in the lowest-numbered available space, which means there will be a cost to play them is the zero space is occupied. Once you’ve placed out as many workers as you’d like, play passes to the next player — you can’t place out workers and retrieve others or do any other actions during the same turn.
If you choose not to (or can’t) place out workers during your turn, you must withdraw one or more workers from the board. When you do this, you can take the action corresponding with the worker’s current space, or you may pay one (or more) corn to take the action one (or more) spaces prior in the gear. Since it’s often a good strategy to wait to withdraw workers until you can do several actions with them, it’s perfectly valid to want to pay corn to take an earlier action. In addition, workers can be withdrawn in any order, so it’s a good idea to plan ahead for how to most efficiently use your work force.
So now that you know how to place and retrieve workers, what kinds of actions can you take with them? Well, there are 5 different gears, all with a unique set of actions for your workers to perform. The Palenque gear allows you to harvest food or wood from the jungle. In most of the spaces, the food is not accessible until the wood is first harvested, or you can burn down the forest to get to the food, angering the gods (you must move down a step in one of the three temples, explained in more detail later. The Yaxchilan gear allows you to gain resources from the mountainous region. These include wood, stone, gold, and the mysterious crystal skulls.
The Tikal gear represents the center of architecture and technology. On this gear are spaces which allow you to build buildings or monuments, advance on one or more of the technology tracks, and honor the gods. All of these actions will be described further later. The Uxmal gear is the center of commerce, and most of its actions have to do with trading. You can trade corn to move up in one of the three temples, exchange resources and corn, hire new workers, and so forth. Uxmal has probably the most unique and interesting actions in the game, and they can be very powerful if used effectively.
The final gear is the Chichen Itza gear, which is slightly larger than the other four. Here, players may place a crystal skull on the action they’re taking in exchange for moving up a step in one of the temples, getting some points, and possibly getting a resource of their choice. Because you have to pay a crystal skull to activate them, all of the spaces on this gear can only be used once.
So what are these temples, technologies, and buildings we keep mentioning? There are three temples on the board honoring three different gods – Chaac, Quetzalcoatl, and Kukulcan. Everyone starts at level 0 in all three temples, but by various game actions players can move up in the temples, earning points and resources at certain points in the game year. The technology tracks are four tracks on the board that players can advance in throughout the game. These tracks are Agriculture, which lets you get more food when harvesting; Resource Extraction, which lets you get more wood, stone, and/or gold; Architecture, which helps when building buildings, and Theology, which helps when taking the actions on the Chichen Itza gear. Finally, there are buildings and monuments. The buildings are divided into two stacks, one for the first half of the game and the other for the second. All buildings cost a difuo frin ferent mix of non-food resources and give a benefit, usually when constructing them. These benefits could be increasing a technology level or going up a step in a temple, gaining points or resources, or other effects. The monuments, on the other hand, don’t do anything during the game but rather affect end-game scoring, and also can cost quite a few resources, so it’s generally a good idea to wait before constructing one, but don’t hesitate too long or one of your opponents may snatch it up from under you.
As aforementioned, the game continues over a series of rounds with players either placing or retrieving workers. This is occasionally interrupted (about every quarter of the way through the game with Food Days. During Food Days, as the name implies, you must feed your workers. Each worker requires two food (though some buildings can help feed your workers), and unfed workers give a penalty of -3 points. Then on Food Days, players will either get resources (1st and 3rd quarter) or points (midway and end-of-game) based on their positions in the three temples. Then, at the end of the game, the player with the most points is victorious!
There is one expansion for Tzolk’in, which is called Tribes and Prophecies. In addition to adding support for a fifth player, the expansion adds tribes and prophecies (shocker!). Tribes give players an extra unique ability or benefit throughout the game, such as paying less to advance on the technology tracks or starting with 5 workers (but having workers require 3 food instead of 2). Prophecies are revealed for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters of the game and consist of calamities, which typically make certain actions cost extra corn or resources during that prophecy, and bonus points, which award points at the end of the prophecy period for having a lot of the thing that was affected by the calamity. For example, if the calamity required you to pay a corn whenever you advanced in a temple, at the end of the prophecy, you’d gain points for being a number of steps above the starting position in the three temples. Altogether, the expansion doesn’t add too much complexity, but does introduce more variety into the game.
While this isn’t the “heaviest” game that I’ve played, (I checked, I’ve played 11 games that are heavier than this) there definitely is a lot of thinking involved in this game. Sure, there really are only two moves, but there are so many combinations of those two moves that even my impulsive self has some bouts of Analysis Paralysis playing this game. The game plays very smoothly, as long as you remember to feed your darn people! The theme is really interesting and makes it come to life with the gears. Those gears! This is originally the reason I even wanted to play this game is because of those beautiful gears. This is really the component that makes this game, the cardboard corn tokens leave something to be desired and the resources are just colored cubes, but that board is just awesome! Many people have even taken to painting their gears, which adds a little pop to a pretty colorful game. (We did not do this, however, not realizing that once the gear is in the board, it’s stuck there.) I’ve played this game with both two and four; both games went fairly well, with the length in accordance with the player count. This isn’t a game I always want to play, I definitely have to be in the mood for it, but I’ve never had a bad time playing it.
- A nice introduction to heavier games
- The board is awesome
- Beware of players with analysis paralysis issues
- This is not a game for all players, choose opponents wisely
I really like Tzolk’in as a heavy, brain-burning game. As I alluded to in the Gameplay section, the actual mechanics of the game are pretty easy to grasp — either place some guys or pick some up — but figuring out how to pick up a bunch of guys at once and have them all do something useful is the tricky part. You’ve always gotta be planning a few turns ahead with Tzolk’in! But it definitely is a unique twist on a worker placement game. There are other games that let you either place or withdraw workers (e.g. Euphoria or the Manhattan Project), but I’ve never seen another game where the longer workers are placed out, the better benefits you get. The threat of feeding your workers is imminent, as is common for the genre, but is never too overwhelming. The theme is pretty good, and the gear mechanism works well with the Mayan/tribal feel of the game. As can pretty much be expected from Czech Games Editions (CGE), the components and art are excellent, from the intricately carved plastic gears to the little crystal skulls. The other resources are wood cubes, but that’s to be expected for a Euro game. The game plays well at 2 and 4 (never tried 3), and scales the worker placement element by adding dummy players with a lower player count. The expansion adds the capacity for a fifth player, which I think I’d never be too keen to try with this game, as it plays well but can be a bit lengthy with four. Overall, this is a game I greatly enjoy, though you have to be in the right mindset to be able to think ahead while playing. A big enough miscalculation can cost you the game, but if that doesn’t faze you, I’d recommend checking out Tzolk’in!
- Thinky strategy game where you have to plan several turns ahead
- Really cool and unique gear mechanism for worker placement
- Great looking components and art
- Thinky strategy game where you have to plan several turns ahead (if you aren’t into that kind of game or that mindset at the moment).
- Can lead to Analysis Paralysis and longer games
Bonus Fun Fact!
The word “Tzolk’in” is a Maya word meaning “division of days”, and actually does refer to the calendar used by the Mayan civilization. While the Tzolk’in gear in this game has 26 teeth, the actual Tzolk’in encompassed 10 times more — 260 days. Similar to how the calendar in the game uses large and small gears, the Tzolk’in was made up of a larger cycle of 20 different named days and a smaller one of 13 numbers, which were combined to form the 260 different days of the calendar. As cool as that is, I’m glad games of Tzolk’in don’t last for 260 rounds!