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Flashback: Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

[This issue features an analytic look at Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar by Joe Huber. To better understand Joe’s “balancing act”, it might be a good idea to refresh your memory of how the game works. Towards that end, we’ve “flashbacked” to the review of the game as it appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Gamers Alliance Report.]

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Czech Games Edition/Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, ages 13 and up, 90 minutes; $59.95)

tzolkinbox2If you’re reading this, then the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world back in December has failed to pass. Fortunately. For now you can sit back and delve into the workings of Mayan civilization at your leisure as the ruler of a Mayan tribe andattempt to chart a course to feed your people and please the gods in Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, the new game designed by Daniele Tascini and Simone Luciani.

Players begin with some starting resources (and already you’re faced with decisions to make as players are dealt a random hand of four “wealth tiles” and may only choose two of them as their starting “supplies”) and three (out of a possible six) workers. It is these workers that players must use to garner additional supplies (to feed their work force and build monuments and buildings), pay appropriate homage to the gods at the temples and develop technological advances to make their civilization more effective.

The board, in some respects, is your typical mounted gam/board. It depicts three temples, display areas for monuments and buildings, tracks for the four technologies of the game, a scoring track and the five major locations of the Mayan Empire: Palenque (the main source for corn and wood), Uxmal (the main source for other resources including crystal skulls!), Tikal (where construction and some temple actions can be taken), Yaxchilan (the resource exchange center) and Chichen Itza (the center of temple activities). But the board takes on a different look because these locations are ruled by gears linked to a larger gear in the center of the board that, when rotated, directly impacts on the workers placed and what these workers can do.

Each turn generally consists of two phases. (Four times during the game, a third, scoring, phase will occur.) Basically, you either place workers OR retrieve them. (You can NOT do both and you cannot skip a turn).

tzolkinboard2Workers are placed on the lowest available space on the gear of the location you wish to utilize. Available spaces will cost you corn (the commodity that is used to feed your workers also serves as the game’s currency), the amount ranging from 0 to a good deal more. In addition to the costs of spaces you wish to occupy, you may also have to pay an additional “fee” in corn based on the number of workers placed. (One worker costs nothing extra, placing three will add three corn to your total, placing all six of your workers results in a 15 corn “tax”.) A “starting player” space, not on a gear, allows a player who claims it to go first on the following turn. The space costs no corn. (In fact, each turn, 1 corn is placed on this space until it IS claimed so this is another way to get more of that valuable commodity.) Retrieving workers costs nothing (as you’ve already paid placement costs) but it is by retrieving workers that you can do the actions necessary to win.

At the end of each round, the large gear of the game is advanced one space. This, in turn, moves ALL the gears on the board one space ahead. (After claiming the start space, it is possible for the new starting player to advance the gear two spaces.) It is at the point where your worker is NOW that determines the action a worker can do.

As your worker advances up the gears, actions available become more and more powerful. When retrieving a worker, you may do the action on your newly occupied space for free OR use one of the actions depicted on spaces below your position for a cost 1 corn per each step back. Top spaces on each gear allow you a greater choice of action, some allowing you to do ANY action on the gear for free, one (at Uxnal) allowing you to perform ANY action possible on ANY location (except for Chichin Itza) for the price of just 1 corn. So just what can you do?

Since corn is a valuable commodity, you can harvest corn (mostly at Palenque). Corn fields are placed on the board and may be harvested there with the proper action. But many are covered by forest tiles. These must be harvested first (for wood, a valuable resource itself but not as flexible in its use as corn) OR a player may BURN the forest to get at the corn and earn the displeasure of the gods resulting in your position at any one of the temples reduced by one step. (As temples generate Victory Points, this is not a good thing.)

You can gather the other resources of the game (in addition to wood, that would be stone and gold) as well as crystal skulls. Wood, stone and gold are used to construct buildings (a starting array of buildings is available with claimed buildings replenished, available for future construction) or monuments (a limited supply is available for the entire game). Buildings require the expenditure of resources in varying amounts and offer great benefits (from advancing your technology to helping feed your workforce) while monuments (more expensive to build) are the source of potentially huge amounts of Victory Points in the final scoring.

tzolkinskulls2Resources combined with workers in the right place allow you to develop technology. The four technologies in the game are agriculture (which aids in increasing your supply of corn), resource extraction (which adds to the resources you get), architecture (which adds incentives for constructing buildings) and theology (which aids in your climb up the temple steps towards higher Victory Point totals and in gathering crystal skulls). Crystal skulls (nicely molded pieces in the game) are used in taking actions at Chichen Itza (a skull is placed on a claimed space and that space may NOT be used again for the entire game!) and increasing your influence at the three temples which are a boon in collecting resources and scoring. And speaking of scoring…

Each of the 26 gears of the large gear of Tzolk’in represents time. As mentioned, at the end of each round of play, the gear is turned one space (sometimes two). At four points during the game, there are “Food Days” when your workers must be fed and scoring occurs.

When a Food Day happens, every worker in your current work force must be fed 2 corn. For each worker you can’t supply, you lose 3 Victory Points. “Middle of Age” Food Days are denoted by a brown arrow while “End of Age” Food Days are marked by an aqua arrow. If this is the first aqua arrow, then available buildings from Age 1 are discarded and replaced by buildings for Age 2. Then we reap our rewards.

With a Middle of Age Food day, players get resources based on their positions on the three temples. If this is an End of Age scoring, players receive Victory Points based on their temple positions including bonus points for being ahead of all other players on each temple. (Tied for top position? Then EVERYONE receives HALF of the bonus points.) After the second End of Age scoring which marks one complete revolution of the central gear, players convert any remaining resources into corn with corn then converted to Victory Points at the rate of 4 corn = 1 VP. Each crystal skull still held is worth 3 VP. Built monuments held by players add to the Victory Points earned. The player with the highest combined total of Victory Points wins! (Tie? Then the player with the most workers still on the gears gets the edge.)

Tzolk’in is, in essence, a worker placement game. As such, it shares some of the same characteristics as Trajan, the Stefan Feld game that garnered a bunch of accolades including last year’s International Gamers Award (and featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Gamers Alliance Report). Both games deal with ancient civilizations. Trajan has six different areas that players need to address by placing their pieces while, similarly, Tzolk’in has five interwoven gear systems where player pieces are placed. While Trajan uses a circular Mancala variant to propel the action, Tzolk’in uses its circular “wheels within wheels” mechanism for the same purpose. The difference that sets Tzolk’in apart, however, is the addition of another factor to worker placement: time.

The use of gears within gears is, in itself, nothing new (High Gear from Mattel in 1962, for example, used gears to similar effect). What IS new – and what separates Tzolk’in from Trajan and gives it its own unique identity – is the application of gears to theme and their use to simulate the passage of time. In Tzolk’in, you either place a worker to sow the seeds for a future benefit OR remove a worker to utilize a benefit. You can’t do both. Slots on the wheel generally become more advantageous the higher up you go but you have to place new workers on the lowest available position. So you are faced with a decision: place workers and WAIT to use a more powerful benefit OR remove workers and gain a lesser (but still desirable) benefit NOW. What makes things even more interesting is that that there are multiple, viable, paths to victory so if you’re blocked on one path, you can, if you’ll pardon the expression, “switch gears” in your quest for success. But you can’t waste time. The game lasts for up to 26 turns (with four scoring interludes) which may seem like a lot but really isn’t. The giant gear of the game is reminiscent of a giant clock ticking away those precious moments all too soon creating a sense of urgency to your play which makes the choices you need to make more and more critical.

Lots of icons are used in the game which makes digesting the cards and board spaces a bit daunting at first. Repeated use of them helps as does (of course) repeated play. (Although all icons are explained in the rulebook, individual player aids would have been most welcome.) Physical quality of the game (cards, plastic gears, wooden components) is fine. The board comes in parts and must be put together (like a simple puzzle) and several of these parts are folded to fit in the box. While attractive and quite functional, the boards tend to separate along those folds. Keep some glue handy for repair.

Tzolk’in: the Mayan Calendar is a game full of challenges. Not only do you have to construct an engine to generate food and resources but you need to generate that engine under the inexorable march of time. Time is not your friend here and you have to make every turn, every move, every decision count knowing all the while that the sands of time are running out. Each time I’ve played it, I have found myself liking it more and more, making it one of my favorites of the recent releases. And that is why, when it comes to getting a group together for playing Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, you can count me in every time!


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.


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