As I’ve talked about extensively on this site previously, I LOVE worker placement games and am forever on the hunt to find something that’s a little different to what I’ve played before. Enter: Tzolk’in. Tzolk’in is a dynamic worker placement game that sees each player as head of a Mayan tribe tasked with sending out their workers to increase the tribe’s standing. What makes the game so dynamic you ask? Built into the board are a set of gears connected to a central calendar gear that is rotated at the end of every turn, thus moving the connected gears and any workers that may be on them. Once the calendar gear has been fully rotated once the game ends and the player with the most victory points is the winner.
Players start Tzolki’in by assembling the board and setting the central ‘calendar’ gear to one of its green food days. In the lower right corner of the board, six monuments are randomly dealt onto the board, and six of the first stage buildings are also dealt out. At the beginning of the game each player is given four starting tiles, from which they choose two. Those tiles then give you certain materials, corn, or technology to start with. If playing with less than four, players also add dummy workers to the board according to their starting tiles, these stay permanently on the board, blocking spots and making placing your own workers a little more difficult.
On your turn you must do one of two things: either you place workers on the board, or you pull workers off. When you place workers you have the option of placing as many as you have, you begin the game with three, with the ability to purchase a further three as the game goes on. The first worker you place is free, however if you play more than one you will have to pay in corn. Placing two workers costs one corn, three costs three, four costs six, five is ten and six is fifteen corn. Those aren’t the only costs involved in the game. Each spot on the board has a cost, the first spot on each cog is free, but it increases by one for each step you move around. If you would like to place a worker, but do not have the food to do so, then you can beg for corn which angers the gods, dropping a step on one of the temple tracks and taking up to three corn from the bank.
Once each player has placed their workers, the turn ends and the central cog is moved one spot, which in turn rotates all of the smaller gears, moving placed workers. Four times per game the calendar gear will reach a food day, denoted by the blue and orange stickers on it’s cogs. On a food day at the end of a round you must feed your workers two corn each, losing three victory points for each worker you cannot afford to feed. Orange food days give you resources according to your position on the temple track, and green food days give you victory points instead. On the first green food day of the game you remove all of the first stage buildings from the board, and replace them with the better second stage buildings.
Each gear is named for a different Mayan settlement, and gives different actions. Yaxchilan (the brown gear) provides a range of resources, corn and crystal skulls, Palenque (the green gear) provides large quantities of corn and wood. To collect a resource in Palenque you remove one of the resource tiles and then retrieve the related goods, in the later spots forest tiles cover the corn tiles and must be removed before you can access the corn. You may directly retrieve the corn by burning the forest, but this angers the gods.
Tikal (the red gear) lets you build monuments or buildings and advance your technology. When you build a building, paying it’s resource cost lighted on the top of it’s card, you immediately gain it’s effect, which is often resources or advancements in technology, but can also increase your place on the god track, allow you to build additional buildings or even provide recurring corn for use on a food day. Monuments don’t give an immediate bonus, instead gaining you victory points at the end of the game according to their conditions. At the end of a round in which a building was built that spot on the board will be replaced by another card from the building deck, but monuments are not replaced.
There are four different technology tracks, each of which is associated with a different gear on the board, usually gaining you additional resources or victory points when you receive something from the related gear. Each track has three available steps, the effects of which stack, and a fourth position which you can bounce up to, gaining its bonus immediately, before returning to the third step. When you increase a step on the track you must pay a number of resources of any type as listed along the top of the tracks.
Uxmal (the yellow gear) lets players exchange corn for resources, or vice-versa, gain additional workers or pay for buildings and actions on other gears with corn. Chichen Itza (the blue gear) allows you to spend a crystal skull in order to gain victory points and increase your position on the temple track.
When you pull a worker off of a spot, you perform the action as indicated by that spot. The longer you leave the workers on the cogs, generally the better the reward is. The last two spots on each cog are blanks, allowing you to choose any of the earlier actions. If you are pushed past the action you want to take, you may pay one corn for each step back around the gear that required action is. Should a worker be moved past the last spot on a gear then they are pulled off the board and back into your supply with no action taken.
There’s a spot on the board, marked by the headdress, with a zero coin cost that when you place a worker there you take the first player token. If no one takes this spot in a turn then one corn is placed on that turn’s cog, when someone eventually does take the first player token then all the corn on the cogs goes to that player. While you have the first player token you can go to the first player spot in order to pass the token to the next player and to move the central gear twice at the end of a turn, potentially skipping over food days. If you do this double progression you must turn your reference card to the darker side, and cannot do it again unless you satisfy certain requirements.
There are lots of ways that points are acquired through the game, mostly the way you’ll be gaining those points are through buildings and monuments, from increasing on the temple tracks, and from dropping off crystal skulls on the Chichen Itza gear. The game ends after the end of the second green food day and the player with the most victory points is the winner.
As it’s probably obvious from that near thousand word explanation of how to play, Tzolk’in is pretty darn complicated and can actually be a little intimidating when you first sit down to play. Actually, that’s not quite true. Once you’ve got the game in front of you, the actual mechanics of the game are relatively simple to understand, it’s on you first or second placement that things start to get daunting as your realise the shear breadth of options available to you. This sense of trepidation does start to wane once you’re a few rounds in and you start to get a better handle of how to best play but the steepness of the game’s learning curve might be enough to put many people off it. On average it probably takes just under a play-through to fully understand how all of the systems work, and to get a feel for when to be putting down multiple workers and on what spaces, but I can see it taking much longer for some players. One of the people I regularly play Tzolk’in with still hasn’t had the whole system click for her yet after at least a dozen games, and says that whilst she enjoys the game, and knows how to play, she just doesn’t understand how to win.
Even when you do have a firm handhold on Tzolk’in’s systems, it’s still a difficult game. This is largely because you need to be concentrating on a lot of different things at any one time. Getting moving on the technology tracks gets you a lot of special abilities which if you utilise correctly will help you exponentially as the game goes on. You need to keep an eye on what buildings are available to ensure you maximise your growth in all the different areas of the board, but you can’t over look the temples as they’re worth huge numbers of points at the end of the game. You want to make sure you’re putting crystal skulls down ahead of your opponents to get the most points, but that’s no good if you haven’t already picked up a skull. You need to ensure your climbing the temple tracks and in the right positions on food days to get the most resources and points. All the while you need to ensure you’ve got enough corn to put down the workers you want when and where you want, and keep enough back to feed them all on food day. All of this adds up to a game that is constantly tense and can ultimately be very unforgiving.
Most worker placement games I play, the more workers you have the better you do, so you always try to get more. That is definitely not the case in Tzolk’in, when you have more workers you can do more things, but you’re paying so much more to do all of those things in a single turn. Instead you’re often better to focus on having fewer workers, but being much more efficient with them, placing them down and pulling them back after a few turns.
The knowledge of how unforgiving the game can be, and the desire to maximise your potential every single round, optimising the placement of your workers on the different cogs, means that it is really prone to analysis paralysis. Despite the fact that the gears move the workers in a completely predictable manor, the act of juggling the locations of a handful of workers means that you will constantly find yourself having to stop and work out exactly what’s going to happen before you take your move. Even with careful planning and experience, you’ll likely still have multiple occasions where, for whatever reason, that one worker just isn’t on the spot you expected it to be when you want to take it off the board.
Now those gears are what makes this game so unique, they add a temporal and spatial planning component to what’s otherwise a pretty standard worker placement game and they really bring Tzolk’in above a lot of it’s peers with that uniqueness and extra challenge. Another great thing about the gears is the way that they’re themed, each one is attached to a different region and provides different resources and that’s a really nice way of incorporating the theme directly into the game play which is a wonderful thing to see in what is otherwise more of a traditional eurogame.
Whilst the sheer number of things you need to keep track may be off putting to some, it’s actually one of the game’s key strengths, because of the large number of resources there are multiple different paths to victory, and there’s always going to be something that you can do to benefit yourself. Even if the player before you took the exact spot you wanted in most cases you can just pay to take the next spot on that particular gear and bring your plans up one turn, or just set something else in motion. Focusing on one area, for example just the god track or advancing yourself on the technology track or just getting points via the wheel is not necessarily going to be the best course of action, you do have to balance relatively well amongst them in order to get enough points to win. You’re best balancing yourself between all the different gears and figuring out when to get your board on the board and back off in order to get the right options.
Perhaps the biggest negative I have for the game is its rule book, it’s really pretty confusing, it’s laid out poorly, and you’ll really have to look through the whole thing multiple times before you start or you’re likely to miss a few little rules here or there. This is a shame for a game which will have it’s players excited to hit the table and get going, as it means you’re likely to get bogged down in minutia before you get the chance to play. Fortunately once you’ve deciphered the rule book once everything is fairly self explanatory and actually displayed in the relevant spots of the game’s components, meaning that you probably won’t need to refer to it again.
All in all, Tzolk’in is pretty great. It’s a fantastic step up from such entry level worker placement games as Lords of Waterdeep or Stone Age, and it’s dynamic elements make it a must play even for those used to much meatier fare. Every time you get this game out to play with new people they’ll be excited to move the cogs and work out how it’s all going to work, so whilst it could be argued that ultimately the gears could just be replaced with manual tracks, this tactile element makes it so much more appealing than the usual single sheet of cardboard. It also scales much better than any other worker placement game I’ve played, which normally suffer at the lower end of player counts. The ‘dummy worker’ mechanic works much better than you might expect, and does a good job of getting in your way at all the wrong moments, much as an additional player would. The steep learning curve might be enough to put a few people off, but ultimately, once you’ve got the game in front of you it’s an incredibly easy game to learn but very difficult to master, which will just help add to it’s shelf life.
I am in no doubt that Tzolk’in is a game that deserves it’s spot on your board game shelf if you are even the slightest fan of worker placement games, it isn’t often that something comes along with such an interesting and unique idea, and that should be celebrated.