Games: Tzolk’in

This review is a cross-post from Playtest. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is available through Amazon and Funagain Games.

♪ For every season, turn, turn, turn … ♫

As with any form of art, boardgame design is subject to trends. “Worker placement games”, for example, were all the rage in the years following the release of Agricola. Most games of the genre had similar hallmarks:  players used their turns to assign “workers” to spaces on the board; each space conferred to the player some benefit or reward, such as free resources, the ability to build improvements, or even the opportunity to recruit yet more workers to his cause; and each space could only hold a single worker, so occupying them (thereby denying them from your opponents) was the main form of player interaction.

The market eventually became saturated with worker placement games, and fell by the wayside when Dominion ushered in the era of Deck Building games. These days a worker placement game must be exceptionally well designed or feature a compelling twist to merit consideration. Lords of Waterdeep is a good example of the former, a game that adds little to the genre, but is so well designed that I frequently recommend it. Trajan, on the other hand, exemplifies the latter, a worker placement game (sort of) with a very clever mechanic, but one that dominates rather than supplements play.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, meanwhile, meets both criteria, boasting an remarkable design and one hell of a hook. And the gimmick in this case is not only mechanical, but physical: six interlocking gears which sit in the middle of the game board. Each of the smaller gears represents a site of importance in Mayan culture  Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tikal, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza  while the large, central gear plays the role of the Mayan calendar. When the calendar gear is advanced between rounds, the site gears move in tandem. It’s a system that’s not only practical (it saves the players a great deal of bookkeeping), but cleverly reinforces the premise of the game: the inexorable march of time over the course of a year in the Mayan empire.

Finally, a game with some teeth.

Each site has Action Spaces positions around the perimeter of its gear, and these spaces grant unique benefits to the workers who resides there. But unlike most worker placement games  where a player plunks his pawn into a space, uses the effect, and then retrieves all of his pieces at the end of a round  Tzolk’in employs a novel system of distribution. First, a player must either place workers or retrieve workers on his turn, but cannot do both. Second, the effect of an Action Space takes place when the worker is removed from the board. Third, and most ingeniously, the workers are not placed onto the Action Spaces directly, but rather into depressions within the gears. As time passes, and the central calendar cog turns, the site gears rotate as well, moving the placed workers up toward the more powerful spaces. Thus, the longer a worker sits on a gear, the better the reward it earns when he is finally returned to the owning player’s pool.

The Action Spaces for a site are loosely bound to the overall theme of the location: Palenque focuses on forestry and farming, Yaxchilan provides resources, Tikal permits construction, Uxmal allows you to purchase various goods and effects, and Chichen Itza is where players can make offerings to the gods in return for points and favor. This specialization is one of several thematic touches in what could have been a largely abstract game.

The gods work in clearly explained ways.

There’s considerably more to Tzolk’in — resource management, buildings and temples, technology tracks, and three different gods to appease — but the gears and the worker placement are the heart of the game, and what really make it shine.

I was profoundly skeptical that the game could rise above its “gimmick”, but after four plays I firmly believe that Tzolk’in would remain as highly regarded if the gears were removed entirely. The game would no doubt be accused of “fiddlyness”, as players would be required to manually advance all the workers between every round, but that just proves my point: the cogs facilitate the excellent gameplay, rather than replace it.

And another good sign in regards to the game’s depth is that it is becoming more interesting with repeated play. The first two times I played I had no idea what to focus on (corn? resources? buildings? temples?) and came in last place. The third time I won, without consciously knowing how I did so. I won the fourth time as well, and this time even had an inkling as to why. Like the best strategy games, Tzolk’in requires study and persistence to play well, and rewards those who makes the investment.

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar has become a staple at my Wednesday gamenight, and is my favorite 3-4 player game at the moment. It’s not a something I would recommend to novices, as it has a fairly steep learning curve. But if you are a fan of worker placement games who thought the genre was played out, or are just looking for something to challenge your group, Tzolk’in is an excellent choice, one you’ll want to play often. One good turn deserves another.