Gameplay Shot

Board Game Resource Review – Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

In All, Reviews by Zach Hillegas1 Comment

Tzolkin Review

Game Box
The Mayan calendar may not have accurately predicted the end of the world, but it sure makes for a heck of a board game. This is Tzolk’in, a wonderful worker placement game based around said calendar, putting you under pressure as the cogs of its gear tick ever slowly to the inevitable end. Designed by Deniele Tascini and Simone Luciani and published by Rio Grande/Czech Games Edition in 2012 (heh), Tzolk’in is a game that takes a traditional mechanic and throws a unique twist onto it – the giant gear that represents the calendar. The gear on the board puts an interesting spin on traditional worker placement mechanics, and it works in all the best ways.

 

Gameplay

How do you play the game? Is it a fun experience? How much interaction is there between the players? Is there very much luck involved? Will it take forever to to learn and teach?

Gameplay Shot

On one hand, explaining Tzolk’in could take a mountain of text, as I go through every specific action that can be taken, and on the other, it can be summed up with one sentence: Put workers on the board, take workers off the board. Tzolk’in is a treasure trove of depth, complexity, and strategy buried underneath a gameplay mechanic that is unbelievably simple. Players put workers on the board, the board moves, and when you take workers off, they do certain actions for you. But I imagine that’s not quite in depth enough, so let’s get into it:

Main Board

Every round, the big gear in the middle turns. All of the gears around it are lined with actions that can be played; workers can be placed on the small gears and “travel” on them. Once they’re removed, they play whatever action they’re standing on.

In Tzolk’in, there are five plastic gears on the board, all joined by a massive central gear that represents the Mayan calendar. Each of the smaller five gears have spaces aligning with each cog, which represent various actions that can be taken. Players start the game with three workers, and these workers can be placed on the gears. When they are removed, they get to perform whichever action they’re standing on. Through these actions, players can earn victory points, and the player with the most VPs at the end of the game (when the wheel finishes a rull rotation) takes the win. Sounds pretty simple, right? We could just jump right into it, right?

Not even close. First of all, the gear moves every round. Putting a player on one space means he’ll be farther on your next turn. Second, you have to put your worker on the lowest space available on the gear. You want that action five spaces up? Better plop him down now, and eat some popcorn while he slowly moves up to where he needs to be. Third, you can’t place and remove in the same turn, it’s one or the other, and you can’t skip turns. If you’ve got all your guys on the board and your turn comes, tough luck. You’ve got to take at least one off. Finally, placing your workers is going to cost you. The farther up a wheel that a worker is placed, the higher the price you have to pay, oh, and did I mention it costs more to place multiple workers at a time? Placing three or four at once costs way more than placing one at a time, but it’s far more efficient – just make sure you’ve put them in the right place, because after everyone’s taken a turn, that gear is going to turn and move everyone forward a space.

The numbers between the cogs are the cost it takes to place a worker in those respective spots. The board on the right shows costs for placing multiple workers at once; it is exponentially more expensive to place multiple workers at a time.

The numbers between the cogs are the cost it takes to place a worker in those respective spots. The board on the right shows costs for placing multiple workers at once; it is exponentially more expensive to place multiple workers at a time.

Sound so simple now? Didn’t think so; every time you place a worker, you’ll have to make sure you’re satisfying all the right conditions. The five wheels each serve some kind of general purpose, and you’ll have to decide which ones you want to roll with to maximize your efficiency.

Palenque (the green one) is your economy wheel. Every space on this one gives you corn (the main monetary unit in this game) or wood, which is a resource that can be used for building or technology. The higher up you go on this wheel, the bigger the bounty is. Corn is essential for practically everything in Tzolk’in, so most players are generally going to be making regular trips to Palenque.

Yaxchilan (the beige one) is your resource generator. Whereas corn is used to pay for action economy, resources are used to fuel knowledge and advancement. As with Palenque, the higher up you advance on this gear, the better your gain. Wood is the most plentiful, followed by stone and gold. You can also get crystal skulls on this gear, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Gameplay Shot

Tikal (the red one) is essentially your culture hub. Playing actions here will allow you to move up on your technology tracks (each of which give you passive benefits), construct buildings (most of which give you immediate one-time benefits), or move up on your temple, which pleases the gods, who will surely shower you with more victory points.

Uxmal (the yellow one) is your corn conversion machine. Everyone needs corn to pay for basic actions and placement, but particularly wealthy corn owners might want to mosey over to Uxmal, which allows you to spend your corn to do, well, almost anything. Here, corn can be spent to move up on temples, to buy buildings, to be traded for resources, or even to play any action on the board…so long as you’ve got the cash.

Tikal Uxmal

Uxmal and Tikal, the spending gears: Corn is generally harvested to perform a variety of actions in Uxmal. The first spot, for example, allows you to pay three corn to advance up a temple. In Tikal you spend your resources – resources pay for buildings (spots 2 and 4), and advancing technology (spots 1 and 3).

Chichen Itza (the blue one) is the religious wheel, and it’s slightly bigger than the rest. Here, crystal skulls come into play. If a player has a crystal skull, playing a Chichen Itza action will allow them to put their skull on the board, and immediately reap the benefits of whatever space they place it on. Chichen Itza yields large amounts of victory points, as well as advancement up the temples. But beware – crystal skulls are the entrance fee. No crystal skulls, no Chichen Itza actions. Oh, and once a skull is played, the spot it was played on is permanently decommissioned. Will you race other players to fill up the religious halls with crystal skulls, or will you let those chumps fight over that while you work on your own designs?

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza, the religious epicenter of Tzolk’in. Each Chichen Itza spot gives victory points, but can only be used once. Players must spend a skull to use the action, which will remain on the board for the rest of the game.

By placing workers on these gears, players have to carefully balance income acquisition with action economy; you’re either gaining resources or playing actions that will push you along. Of course, the gears aren’t the only determinants of what you’re able to do. The technology tracks also play an important role in how your Mayan tribe advances. Technology can only be advanced by playing actions on the red gear – the exception to this is buildings, which often allow for free bumps on your tech track (though buildings are pretty much only built through red as well). There are four tech tracks, with three tiers each. Each tier is more costly to advance through than the last, but they also help you out quite a bit.

TzolkinTechTracks

The four technology tracks – note the resource cost at the top to advance each tier. By using the “advance technology” action on Tikal, players can pay the resource cost and move up one tier, which will immediately grant them the corresponding benefits. The fourth spot on each yields an immediate reward, and can be played over and over.

The first tech track, agriculture, enhances your income production. You’ll collect extra every corn every time you stop by Palenque, each spot giving you more. The technology bonuses are cumulative, so everything you get in tech adds up. For example, the first spot of Palenque will give you one extra corn every time you take a Palenque action. The second one allows you to pull corn no matter what (normally, wood must be taken before the corn becomes available), as well as increasing your corn from the blue space (symbolizing the selling of fishing bounty for corn). The third one adds two more corn for every Palenque action. With maxed out agriculture, you’re getting three more corn every time you visit Palenque. That’s a lot, by the way.

The next track, resource extraction, is kind of the same thing, but for resources. Every time you obtain resources from Yaxchilan (as well as wood from Palenque), you’ll get an extra of whatever good your track specifies. So, tier 3 gives you an extra gold every time you get gold, and so on.

Architecture is the third one, and it rewards you for buildings that you construct. Buildings can be made from Tikal actions, and need to be paid for with resources. Each tier of architecture gives you a bonus for when you build. On the third tier, you’ll be gaining a corn, two points, and a resource knocked off the price whenever you build.

Theology is the last track, and it’s all about Chichen Itza. The first two spots help you when you place a crystal skull – you can move forward an extra space and gain a resource to move you up on a temple. The last tier grants you bonus crystal skulls whenever you get them from Yaxchilan, allowing you to double up on your worship.

Finally, each square has a “bonus” tier, which gives you an immediate prize every time you advance your tech. With the bonus space, you don’t actually advance to its tier, you just cash in on whatever prize it gives you. So, someone at the top of agriculture could move up one spot on a temple every time they “bump” the bonus space. These benefits can be incredibly powerful when used wisely.
So, this all sounds good and all, you can do all this stuff, but for what? I still haven’t addressed the most important question: How do you get points?

Tzolkin Temples

These are the three temples. Every time a feeding day occurs, players receive benefits according to what tier they’re on. On two days, players get resources, which gives them all of the resources equal to and below them. On the other two days, they get victory points equal to whatever spot they’re on.

Well, there are a myriad of ways. The most obvious one is the temples. Every quarter of the game, the gods shower the players with gifts, and in two of these instances, these gifts are victory points. The number that you get is dictated by wherever your token is on each temple, so being high up on multiple temples will give you a massive point boost when these days come.

Chichen Itza is also a consistent, predictable source of points, should you decide to play on it. The higher up on the wheel you put your skull, the more points you get. You can also get points through the architecture bonus tier (3 points per bump), and also by constructing buildings. The buildings available for choosing are at the bottom of the board, and come out randomly. Not all of them give points, but many of them do. Monuments are basically super-powered buildings that cost a lot more and act as end-game goldmines for VPs. Monuments will never, ever do anything for you during the game, but will grant you points in the end, often being the difference between a win and a loss. Monuments, unlike buildings, aren’t replenished after being bought.

One more (very important) of the game is the feeding days – indeed, apparently it’s not profitable to have starving, miserable workers, so at four points during the game, they must be fed. I mentioned before that every quarter, you get benefits from the temples; this is part of feeding day. The other part, which we haven’t mentioned yet, requires you to pay three corn per worker (players start with 3 and can unlock more on Uxmal). Every worker that you can’t afford to pay knocks you down three victory points. If you forget about feeding days and let your workers starve, this penalty can hit you hard. It’s something that constantly looms over the horizon in every game. If you don’t want to deal with that kind of stress, you can buy certain buildings that cover the feeding cost for workers.

This basically sums up the game. Place workers, see them move up the gears, pull them off, get stuff, rinse and repeat until the game ends. In practice, of course, it’s not so simple.

Okay, let’s just get one thing out of the way: Tzolk’in is an incredible game, but it won’t appeal to everybody. If you enjoy the type of game that Tzolk’in is, you’ll likely very much enjoy it – by “type of game,” I mean tight, punishing, and high pressure. Tzolk’in is not an easy game. You’ve got to play your pieces well, and if you don’t, you’ll hurt for it. I can’t bring myself to say that this is a negative point; this challenge is by design, and it will appeal to players who like challenging games.

It’s not hard, necessarily, to decide which general strategy you want to pursue. You may want to go for buildings, or to bump yourself all the way up to the temples. What makes Tzolk’in challenging, in my opinion, is the economy aspect. Everything costs you in this game – putting worker down will cost you. Putting a worker on a better spot will cost you more. Putting more than one worker will cost you even more. Feeding them will cost you even more still. Because everything in Tzolk’in has a cost, it makes every decision much more precious.

Consequently, instead of just being a matter of simple strategy, the game is a delicate balancing act that forces you to gain enough income while also playing actions that will move you forward in points. This is why I think the word punishing is an adequate term for this game. If you neglect your economy, it can really, really slow you down. With no corn, pretty much the only action you can play is putting a worker on a “0” space. This is especially painful when you have multiple workers available for placement; if you can’t afford to place them, you’re less efficient, and you know it. If you want to put all of your workers on useful spaces, it might take you a few rounds to get back up to speed after a screwup.

Gameplay 2

The other punishing aspect of this game is the strategy it demands. There’s no question about it – Tzolk’in is much more strategic than it is tactical. Planning ahead is very, very important here, and switching your strategy to react to something on the fly isn’t always effective. It’s not impossible to change direction, but sticking with your strategy is usually more effective than trying to do everything. This, of course, assumes that your strategy is good in the first place. It’s hard to just make decisions on a whim here. In every way, the game is designed for you to plan ahead, so if you’re the type of person that has trouble making up your mind and sticking to something, you might be in trouble when you play Tzolk’in.

So, the big question: Is the game fun or not? I’m supposed to be talking about this, and all I’ve talked about is how hard the game can be. The answer is yes, the game is fun, if the above appeals to you. I personally enjoy the challenge of Tzolk’in. The game very much keeps me on my toes, and there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes in this game when everything works. Creating a really good setup in, say, Castles of Burgundy is certainly satisfying, but Tzolk’in gives you that feeling that you conquered something. Not only did you make good moves, you prevailed in a game that often feels like it’s fighting against you. Sometimes I feel like playing Mario, and sometimes I feel like playing Mega Man. Tzolk’in is Mega Man here. It’s harder, sure, but it’s fun and man does it feel good when everything works out. That being said, I can’t really give a definitive statement on whether the game is “fun” or not right here. It’s fun to me, and it will be fun for the people that appreciate this genre. If you’re a newer player who’s never experienced something like Tzolk’in, I would suggest you keep reading to find out if this is in your taste.

Officially, the game lists a 90 minute playing time, and this isn’t too far off from how long our typical sessions last. On average, our games lasted between 90 minutes and two hours. Make sure you know who you’re playing with when you play Tzolk’in; this game can be wrecked by analysis paralysys. It’s a game that forces you to plan actions multiple turns in advance, as well as manage an economy that can quickly go to waste if you’re not on your toes. While it’s almost always true that games take longer with more players, Tzolk’in can be significantly longer if there are multiple players who overthink everything.

Tzolkin Setup

There are a lot of pieces, but overall, the setup time isn’t too bad.

Setup isn’t too bad, as far as time goes. The board is split into separate pieces, but they’re all pretty big and the board takes all but ten seconds to assemble. Aside from that, taking out all the components and separating them doesn’t take too long. You’ll be putting some stuff down on the board, such as corn/wood tiles, buildings, and monuments, but overall, the game is pretty generous with setup. Five to ten minutes.

Let’s just say that I’ve taught many a game quicker than I’ve taught Tzolk’in. Tzolk’in is interesting because it doesn’t seem that complicated once you know all the rules, but then when it comes down to actually teaching it to someone, you realize how much stuff there is to remember. Teaching this game to newcomers can be a long process, so be prepared.

Tzolk’in has the weird problem of being a pretty simple game mechanically, but being ridden with tons of details that can’t really be understood unless they’re explained and memorized. The weird thing is that there are games where this is the opposite; Imperial Assault comes to mind. Imperial Assault is a complicated tactical dungeon crawler co-op competitive miniatures game that’s just loaded with rules, and yet, I was able to explain the game enough to start playing in 15 minutes. It has a lot of complicated mechanics, but the rules of those mechanics are generally consistent across the board. Essentially what I’m trying to say is that a game like Imperial Assault might have 200 variations of 5 different actions. As long as you understand the 5 actions, in-game context and text descriptions fill in the rest, so the player can kind of learn on the way.

Iconography

There’s a lot of iconography in this game, so be prepared for a lot of explaining.

On the other hand, a game like Tzolk’in might have 30 different actions, but theyre all kind of different from each other so they all have to be explained before you start playing. For example, you need to get points in Tzolk’in to win. Every wheel has its own means through which you can eventually earn points. If you were to say “this gear produces resources for you and that’s all you need to know and you can ask questions along the way,“ well, it’s not really enough. Unless just about every single detail is explained, the players are missing critical components that could help them to victory.

The problem is exasperated by iconography, which is always a double edged sword. Iconography is a wonderful gift when it’s all understood, but it is ever a pain to teach, and Tzolk’in is loaded with it. Every single action on the board is represented by iconography, and there are a massive amount of actions in this game. After playing the game once, it’s easy to understand it all, but in every Tzolk’in game with new players, I typically find myself answering iconography questions over and over throughout the whole game

Once you get Tzolk’in down, you realize it’s not complicated to play. However, everything connects together and therefore must be taught, and sometimes it’s a doozy. In my experience, teaching the game takes a minimum of 30 minutes.

This is a worker placement game, so by nature the player interaction is going to be pretty low, but not non-existent. In fact, you can cause a ripple on other players’ games pretty prominently in Tzolk’in, due to the way the placement works. You can only place on the lowest available spot on any given gear, so if a spot gets taken that you wanted, it forces you to go higher up on the gear. Fortunately, the game still allows you to play actions that you’ve already advanced past on the gear, but only if you’re willing to pay more corn. As a result, putting your worker where another player wants to place theirs forces them to reevaluate their strategy.

Filled Spots

If Red was planning on placing on Palenque, and then Blue takes the first two spots before his turn, he would be forced to place all the way up on the fourth spot.

The turn order can also be changed. Turn order is, of course, very important in this game. If you’re the fourth player and a bunch of lower spots get taken, you may be forced to put your worker on a high spot, which will cost you a lot more (but also give you quicker access to the better actions). By placing a worker on the designated spot, you can take the “first player token,” and change the order of everything. This also allows you to take corn that has accumulated on the central gear over each round, but more importantly, you can also choose to advance the gear forward two spaces, which if used at the right time, can really subvert people’s expectations, or put you into a favorable spot. This is a powerful ability, and can only be used once per player, unless they reach the top of a temple, in which case the generous gods give the ability back.

These elements give Tzolk’in a modest amount of interaction for the type of game it is, but it is still comparatively low compared to other genres. That being said, this definitely isn’t a game where you’re completely powerless against your opponents.

Depth

How much strategy is involved? Is there a sense of variety and balance? Does the game play well no matter how many players there are? How long does it take to play?

Gameplay 2

Tzolk’in: So many strategies, so little time. Literally though, you have no time. The clock is ticking every round, and this is a massive component to any strategy that you decide to play. There are about a billion things you can do in Tzolk’in; I wouldn’t even know where to start if I wanted to explain them all.

First of all though, something important to note is the starting tiles. In the beginning of the game, each player is dealt four tiles, and they’re allowed to keep two of them. These tiles determine their starting resources, and may go a long way in determining what strategy will be pursued. A player may elect to start with plenty of corn to have good action economy in the first rounds, or perhaps they will choose a card that gives lots of resources, but not as much corn. Some combos might boost you on the temples, prompting you to continue doing that, or they might automatically advance you on a technology track. Reaping the benefits of technology is huge, and being one step ahead on one track saves you a round or two or three.

The thing is, there are already so many options just from these tiles. For example, say someone chooses some tiles that are strong on resources. Logic dictates that they’ll go for a resource heavy game, right? Perhaps not. Perhaps the strategy they’ve planned doesn’t give them resources at all, so they intend to cash them in at the very beginning, get some kind of nice benefit, and move on. For example, a hypothetical player (we’ll call him Pacha) draws starting tiles that give him 5 wood, 7 corn, and 1 stone. Perhaps his first action is placing two workers on Tikal, the tech/building gear, and one on Yaxchilan, the resource gear. Pacha’s goal is to do the Chichen Itza strategy, so he wants to stock up on crystal skulls. He decides he’s going to only focus on skulls for the first quarter or so of the game, and then he’ll spend the rest of his time sending his workers up the Chichen Itza wheel.

Starting tiles

Each player receives four starting tiles, and may choose two, which will determine their starting resources.

Next round when the gear turns, he’ll use both of his Tikal workers to play the “advance tech” action. With 5 wood, he’s able to advance to the highest spot on the Chichen Itza tech track by the second turn. Pacha planned this in advance; getting to the top of tech track this early would be impossible had he not chosen to start with 5 wood. Also, could have used only one worker to play the “advance tech twice” action (instead of using two workers the advance once spot), but it is farther up the wheel and would have taken three more rounds. Now from here, Pacha has several actions. He can either leave his worker on Palenque, and wait several rounds for him to reach the crystal skull spot, or he can remove it now to get a resource. His tech advancement adds a bonus crystal skull when it’s obtained from Yaxchilan, but it also allows him to get a crystal skull every time he bumps his “bonus spot” on the tech track, which only costs one resource. He can either wait and get more skulls at once, or farm the cheap starting actions over and over on Yaxchilan/Tikal, basically obtaining a resource every round and then converting it into a skull. Since Pacha wants to get his skulls now, he decides to go with the second option.

Tech Tracks

Pacha’s first worker is on the “advance tech” action. By removing that worker, he can pay two resources to move up on a tech track. He can also use his second worker to play the same action, but since the action is one spot behind him, he’d have to pay one corn. The second tech advancement costs three resources. At the end of the turn, he’d end up on the final spot of his tech tracks. Using the “advance tech” action more would now give him the benefit of the “bonus spot,” which would cost one resource and grant him a crystal skull.

Eventually, when he gets enough skulls, he could start placing workers en masse on Chichen Itza. Pacha might reach a point where he has three or four workers on the Chichen Itza wheel moving up slowly while one other worker takes actions over and over just for the sake of taking turns. It’s a long buildup, but the payoff would be substantial. Additionally, Chichen Itza’s bonuses allow Pacha to move up on the temples pretty far. Claiming the top three Chichen Itza spots with its respective tech track can move a player to the second to last spot on the most valuable temple. The weakness in Pacha’s strategy is corn – he gains none by rinsing and repeating these actions. He’ll either be at the mercy of the free corn that accumulates in the middle (which could be taken by the other player for kicks), or he’ll have to send a worker or two to Palenque occasionally, breaking up the efficiency in his process.

Chichen Gear Full

Pacha’s hypothetical strategy is to accumulate skulls for the first part of the game, and then “blitz” Chichen Itza. These workers would stay on the gear for several turns until they’re ready to be removed, in which it could be done again. One extra worker would have to be saved to take turns while they move, as players aren’t allowed to “pass.”

Meanwhile, let’s consider the other player, Kuzco. Kuzco’s going to go big corn, so he maxes out his agriculture tech track, which helps his corn production enormously. Every round, Kuzco places three workers on the corn wheel, and takes them off the next turn. Even at the lowest spaces, this yields enormous amounts of corn when done consistently. Kuzco’s strategy is a little more simple: Get corn, and spend it on Uxmal, the corn spending track. Kuzco wants to get at the top of EVERY temple, so with his corn, he buys buildings that advance him up temples (using the action that lets you purchase buildings with corn), and he also converts his corn into wood, occasionally sending a worker to Tikal to use those resources to bump his “bonus spot” in tech which also moves him up on the temples. Although Pacha might get more net gain from his Chichen Itza strategy, Kuzco is much more productive by using all of his workers almost every turn, and this productivity could ultimately work to his advantage.

Kuzco Corn Strategy

Kuzco is going for the “big corn” strategy, which involves blitzing the corn wheel to get massive economic boosts, and then harvesting them afterwards. If Kuzco was all the way up on the agriculture track, he would gain 29 corn from playing the first four spots at once. That is an enormous amount of spending power.

And then there are other factors which must be considered – how do they pay for feeding day? Pacha’s strategy doesn’t leave him much room to collect corn, so maybe he collects the free corn that accumulates in the middle before feeding day. Kuzco on the other hand has nothing to worry about on that front since he’s getting corn every round. In the end of the day it’s hard to say who would come out on top, but it suffices to say that there are a multitude of strategies to pursue here. Pacha and Kuzco’s strategies are wildly different, but both yield great results.

I wish I could go on and on about the specific choices that could be made, but there’s just too much. In the end, there are tons of decisions to be made, and they must be made carefully. Additionally, any number of things can happen that can cause you to make a decision you might not have planned on. While changing your overall strategy doesn’t often work well in Tzolk’in, sometimes windows of opportunity open up that you weren’t expecting. This often happens when the gears get populated. If the lowest spots are taken, it leaves higher spots available that you can take immediately that would normally take a few rounds to advance to. A player who wants to build a building and advance on tech might want to place two workers on Tikal. If his spots get taken, it might push him up to the next spots, which would allow him to build two buildings and advance two spots on tech. Maybe now, he’ll decide to use the double tech to get his resource tech track bonus twice, giving him four resources, which now gives him enough for two buildings.

In this case, if Blue wanted to place on this wheel, she'd be forced to place on the fourth space. However, this works to her benefit if she only wanted to play one of the earlier actions - the later ones are upgraded versions. Crowded wheels can often jumpstart you to a more beneficial space, and may sometimes open up unexpected opportunities that work in your favor.

In this case, if Blue wanted to place on this wheel, she’d be forced to place on the fourth space. However, this works to her benefit if she only wanted to play one of the earlier actions – the later ones are upgraded versions. Crowded wheels can often jumpstart you to a more beneficial space, and may sometimes open up unexpected opportunities that work in your favor.

Overall, the game won’t leave you wanting for strategy. There are many paths to be taken, all of which can be played slightly differently every time. You will always be making tight decisions that feel like a stressful balancing act, and you’ll always be planning ahead, anticipating the movement of the gears, and reacting to your opponents when they take various spots on the gears. If you want a game that gives you a multitude of strategic paths to take, put Tzolk’in on your list.

It’s tempting to put “none” here, but that wouldn’t entirely be accurate, because there is some luck in Tzolk’in, just not very much of it…at all. Every single thing you do in this game is calculated; everything comes down to your personal skill, and how well you can read both your opponent and the spinning gear in the middle.

I can think of exactly three random elements in this game. First of all, the player’s starting tiles are distributed randomly in the beginning, and you can choose two. I’ve found that there’s almost never a person that has a “better” hand than anyone else; the starting tiles have been balanced very well. So, despite the randomness, I’d be hard pressed to call starting setups “lucky.”

The buildings that are drawn are arguably the most random aspect of the game.

The buildings that are drawn are arguably the most random aspect of the game.

Second, the buildings that appear on the board are drawn randomly. The game starts off with six buildings, and when one is bought, a new one takes its place from the building deck. I suppose it’s slightly conceivable that certain buildings could come out at just the right time that help just the right person, but I’ve also found this to be exceedingly rare. The only case in which this would happen is if Kuzco draws a building, and then the next one that comes out just happens to be a perfect fit for Pacha’s strategy, who also happens to have a worker ready to construct a building. In just about every other case, the building sits out long enough for most players to decide if they want to pursue it or not. So I would also argue that the buildings, arguably the most random aspect of the game, add such a minimal amount of luck that it’s negligible.

Finally, and this isn’t really random, the “move the gear forward twice” action that each player can take once during the game. Again, given that players have this available as an action doesn’t really make it random, but it can certainly feel, well, unexpected if it happens at the wrong time and you weren’t ready for it. But that’s the key word, isn’t it? Being ready – to neglect the luck factor here, perhaps all a player needs to do is be aware of situations in which the ol’ double turn could possibly come out.

Overall, for people who don’t like luck, you’ll be satisfied with Tzolk’in, because it has practically none.

Hmm, this is an interesting one. First of all, the game is perfectly balanced in the sense that no single player has a built-in advantage over the other. Like I said – the game has practically no luck, there will be no imbalance unless one player is just much better than the other.

What about strategies, though? Is there dominant strategy? One way to play that breaks the game? The simplest way for me to answer is to say that the game is emergent, and you’ll probably find a broken strategy several times, and then suddenly, you’ll find out it’s not broken when you try something new. My group had a difficult time deciding if one certain strategies were just better than the others, and I even looked online to see what the general consensus was. What I found was a bunch of different threads online of people talking about how that one strategy they found completely breaks the game; the thing is, almost every discussion was talking about a different strategy.

If you play Tzolk’in consistently, you’ll probably find something that just works so much better than anything else. If you have players that don’t branch out often and like to stick to the same ol’ same ol’, then you’ll probably never beat that strategy. But again, Tzolk’in is emergent, and the more you play it, the more it reveals its inner depth to you. I guarantee there’s a way to topple that dominant strategy you found – just be creative. Resort to taking actions that you wouldn’t have taken before. Find unorthodox ways to win points. I once saw a player win entirely by monuments. We had all these players chasing these complex routes to victory, while this chump spent the whole game satisfying these bizarre monument conditions, only to pull a win out of nowhere.

If you’re committed to playing and “discovering” Tzolk’in, you’ll probably always find a way to counter a tried-and-true strategy…eventually. That’s the long and short of it. Tzolk’in is a deep game, so its balance will be dependent on how far you’ve pushed yourselves to discovering its multitude of strategies.

Tzolk’in supports two to four players. I know that everyone loves a two player game, so I’m going to go out and say that Tzolk’in plays well with two players. If you’re looking for a good two player game, it’s solid. One thing that makes Tzolk’in interesting at two players (and 3 to a slightly lesser extent) is that “dummy workers” are placed on the gears at the beginning of the game, at random, to simulate the typical kind of blockage that would be present on each gear in a four player game. So, if you thought you were going to get more real estate with two players, forget about it. This is quite interesting, because the dummy spots vary from game to game, which can drastically alter the potential of certain wheels. When multiple spots are blocked on a wheel, it means you can often jump straight up to a good spot if the dummy workers are on the 0/1 spaces.  These dummy workers are the most prevalent with two players, though there are some in a three player game as well.

With three to four players, I think the game is a little more interesting, but that’s not to say that two player suffers from  a lack of other players. At three and four players, its still mostly the same game. I don’t feel like there’s much about the core experience that changes, save for the obvious implications, such as the fact that the game will take longer. Having more players simply gives more opportunities for players to react to what other people are doing, which is almost always more interesting with three or four players than it is with two. In the end of the day this game scales pretty well, and does a good job of just working, no matter how many players are present.

Look and Feel

Is the game aesthetically pleasing? Are the components made out of quality material, or do they feel cheap? Is the rulebook well-designed and easy to read? How well is theme integrated into the game?

Main Gear

For a game whose mechanics are fundamentally abstract, Tzolk’in goes a long way in making the game stand out visually. Tzolk’in is a pretty game to look at; there’s high quality art all over the board in popping colors nice looking components (those crystal skulls though…), and of course, the gears, which are just kind of fun to look at and think, “man, board games sure are cool now.”

One thing that makes me a little sad is seeing the gears and thinking of how the game would look really nice if they were colored. It’s a minor thing that’s not really important, but the game makes very good use of color, and it would have been pretty cool to see the gears match their actions.

I’m not a huge fan of the cover art, but that’s just me. The art on the front is really good, so it has nothing to do with quality. With an abstract type game like Tzolk’in, there’s not a whole lot you can do with the cover art except using, well, Mayan stuff. So I guess in that regard, Tzolk’in does its job. Ultimately, there’s only so much I can say about aesthetics. You can see them – what do you think?

I love Tzolk’in’s components. Everything just feels so sturdy and nice. First of all, you’re surely wondering about the gears, so I’ll just get right to it: they’re good. They’re plastic, and they’re nice and durable. It’s not like they’re LEGO quality, but they definitely don’t feel like they’re going to break on you. The board has to make special accommodations for the gears – certain pieces fold up in weird ways, and they all combine together to form one board. Once the gears are connected, they never come off. The board itself is good quality cardboard, and I don’t see anything to complain about.

Components

The components are lovely, and don’t feel cheap. Those skulls are pretty nifty.

All the other chits are made from the same stuff, save for the corn/wood tokens on Palenque, which are a little thinner. This is the kind of high quality textured cardboard which you’ll find in most good designer games. All of the player tokens are wooden and feel nice, though I do feel like the paint is kind of thin on my green pieces, but oh well. What I really love are the crystal skulls. Man, those are cool. I don’t even know why, but it’s always refreshing to see pieces that felt like they were custom tailored for the game. You don’t do much with ‘em, but they’re fun to hold and look at.

 

Tzolkin rulebook

There’s not much to say about Tzolk’in’s rulebook. It does a nice thorough job of explaining everything well, and has nice visual design.

Tzolk’in’s rule book is very clear, very thorough, and it gets the job done well. It’s sixteen pages from front to back, it’s big, and it covers the gameplay concepts in a coherent, logical order, with tons of pictures to help you understand. For all the iconography I mentioned, it was nice to have the back cover be a glossary of sorts for all the starting tiles/buildings. The rulebook does its job and it does it well, I don’t think there’s need for much more explanation than that. Probably one of the only nitpicks I have would be to have a quick glossary for all of the gear actions that’s easy to flip to. This would be helpful for newer players, instead of having to flip to the main explanation every time, which is in the middle of the book.

Tzolk’in is in the weird, nebulous middle zone as far as theme goes: on one hand, it’s really just a Mayan theme pasted around a gear mechanic and the actions are all so abstract that you could put anything over it. On the other, it goes all out with its Mayan theme, and to that end I give it credit. There are a lot of gamers that complain about a theme being “weak” when you can’t find a bunch of different actions that only can be explained by understanding the theme. That, to me, is not the only indicator of what makes a good theme. There’s not a whole lot you can do mechanically through this theme, so the game compensates by going all out visually, and I think it works well. I feel like I’m in a Mayan world, harvesting as the clock ticks down. So yes, the theme could be replaced, but there’s so much work put into the visual design and “atmosphere” of this game, that it feels nice. The theme doesn’t translate that much into gameplay, but you could do a lot worse than Tzolk’in.

Value

Is it a game you can play over and over? Are there expansions available for the game, and if so, are they necessary? Does the amount of the content in the box justify the price?

Action

I mentioned before that this game is emergent, and that aspect, ironically, will make or break the replayability for you. If you play Tzolk’in a few times, find some strategies that work well, and then write it off because you feel like you’ve “discovered” the game, well I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably wrong. This game provides tons and tons of replayability when players are willing to get creative and try new things.

Tzolk’in, however, is kind of a double edged sword in this category. The sheer amount of variety and action potential makes the game something that can be played with a different strategy every time. Unfortunately, the near-complete lack of randomness also ensures that, no matter what, every time, you’re playing on the same board, able to make the same moves. Some games keep things fresh by changing certain elements every time. Catan, for example, gives you a new board every game. While there are general strategies that are always universal, you can never play the same game twice.

Tzolk’in is a game that has some variability (such as different buildings/monuments every time), but not that much. Its replay strength lies almost entirely in the variety of strategies it offers. I once again assert that this is a lot, and that it will last you a good long time if it’s a game that you enjoy bringing to the table. If you don’t love this game though, you might find it tempting to move onto something new after a little bit.

In this sense, I’ve found Tzolk’in to be divisive. It really is a fantastic, well-designed game, but it appeals to pretty specific tastes. Unfortunately, my fiancée and I are the only ones that have gotten consistent enjoyment out of it in our group. And while I like it, even I would usually rather play something else, given the variety of games we have access to. I wasn’t in love with the game enough to want to play it over and over to uncover those deep, lurking strategies, but I can’t stress enough that this has nothing to do with the quality of the game, it’s something that comes down to personal taste. A similar example would be my thoughts towards The Avengers. I didn’t like it that much, but it’s a fantastic superhero movie. I just don’t like superhero movies that much (I know, I know…). Coming down to personal taste is obviously true with any game, but I’ve found that this game is more divisive than others in my collection in that sense.

Tzolk’in has one expansion out right now, and it’s fantastic. Tzolk’in: Tribes and Prophecies adds a few mechanics to the game that add to the variability each time – tribes, and, well, prophecies. The tribes grant players special abilities, and each player gets one at the beginning of the game (choosing one out of two). Each tribe grants its own passive abilities that the player can take advantage of. For instance, one tribe has cheaper prices for putting multiple placements down. This encourages the player to place more workers at once, and potentially to unlock more workers than other players would. Each tribe rewards the player for pursuing some type of strategy.

The prophecies are new quarterly events, where at the end of each one, players are rewarded with victory points for meeting a certain quota of whatever the given prophecy is. If it’s wood, for example, players with a lot of wood by the time the prophecy ends will get more points. Have caution though: when the prophecy actually goes into effect (they last one quarter each), it’s harder to produce whatever the prophecy is asking for. During the wood prophecy, for example, you might have to pay a corn every time you get a wood. This encourages players to look far ahead, and satisfy prophecy conditions before the penalty occurs. Think of it like a famine; you’ll be well rewarded if you gather food before it becomes scarce.

Tribes and Prophecies is the only proper Tzolk'in expansion. I found it to be a wonderful expansion that makes the game even better, though the game stands well enough on its own to not "need" it.

Tribes and Prophecies is the only proper Tzolk’in expansion that’s currently released.

The weird thing about Tribes and Prophecies is that its two elements run contrary to the nature of the game. This is a game that’s not random, not varied, and that demands the players to forge their own strategic trails. The expansion adds asymmetry and the need to focus on specific strategies instead of being open ended. Chances are, if you already love Tzolk’in, you probably like the fact that Tzolk’in is how it is; you might not want the elements of the expansion. Fortunately, most diehard fans of the game I’ve seen love the expansion. It’s good in the sense that it makes the game more approachable for people who don’t like the base game, and it’s good enough for veterans to enjoy.

If there’s one thing I have against Tribes and Prophecies, it’s the price. It’s $40 MSRP, and usually $30 online, about 2/3rds the price of the original game. For an expansion, that’s pretty steep, at least in my opinion. Nonetheless, the value of a game is determined by how much utility you get out of it, and for fans of the game, Tribes and Prophecies is sure to add plenty of extra mileage.

Tzolk’in retails for about $60 MSRP, and $40 online. For a game of its size and depth, this is pretty typical pricing. Given that this is the standard rate for most designer games, I can vouch for the game at this price. Really though, this is a game that appeals to certain tastes. If this game is within your taste, you’re probably going to love it, and those $40 will be returned over and over in the hours you spend playing it. If you’re not sure about tough worker-placements, it’s harder to say. In any case, the price is nothing too noteworthy one way or the other; it’s exactly what it should be for a game its size.

Conclusion

Tzolk’in is a divisive game. It has a certain appeal, and if that appeal is within your taste, it does everything very, very well. Tzolk’in is tough as nails, requiring acute strategy and smart plays, and is not afraid to punish you if you make unwise choices. Tzolk’in also doesn’t add luck and randomness to soften things up – this is a game that is played by skill and will be won by skill. Under the ever ticking clock of the harvest, players will feel the stress of trying to reap what they sow, being rewarded with immense satisfaction when successful, and crushing famine when not so.

Tzolk’in’s mechanics are tight, focused, and they all work well with each other. The plastic gears that may at first appear to be gimmicks end up coming off as a design mechanic that’s sophisticated, elegant, and altogether unique. Tzolk’in is a game that invites you to explore its depth, to replay it time and time again to find out the extent of what you truly can do with its immense catalogue of actions. If you’re a player that enjoys the challenge that Tzolk’in pitches your way, it will be one of the best games you add to your collection.

If, however, this challenge isn’t in your usual taste, you might want to skip Tzolk’in. You might enjoy it a few times and appreciate some of its mechanics, but you’ll most likely move onto something new pretty quickly. For people who love this genre, Tzolk’in is the game that keeps on giving. Otherwise, well, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Verdict

YOU WILL LIKE THIS GAME IF…

  • You like hard games
  • You like as little luck as possible
  • You like games where your decisions carry weight
  • You like worker placement games
  • You like games that require many playthroughs to discover their depth
  • You like managing a tight economy
  • If you like games that reward you for planning ahead
  • If you like games with unique mechanics

YOU WON’T LIKE THIS GAME IF…

  • You don’t like games that feel punishing
  • You don’t like making stressful choices
  • You like games with strong player interaction
  • You like making decisions on a whim instead of planning ahead
  • You want a game that can be played quickly
  • You don’t like memorizing iconography
  • You don’t like having to choose between a huge amount of choices
  • You like occasional random elements
About the Author

Zach Hillegas

Zach is an avid tabletop gamer, and he created Board Game Resource out of his love for the hobby, and his desire to see more people come into it. When he's not writing for or managing BGR, Zach might be hanging out with cats, hiking a mountain, or spending time with his lovely wife. Zach is currently studying for a degree in Business Management. Zach has also enjoys creating digital character art. You can check out his gallery here!

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