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Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar: Is Unbalanced Ungood?

[Throughout the years, Gamers Alliance has been fortunate in attracting to our pages some of the finest talent in the World of Games. One of those talents is Joe Huber. Not only is Joe knowledgeable about games from a design standpoint (after all, he is the author of several successful published games – with his Starship Merchants – co-designed with Tom Lehmann – recently featured in the Fall 2012 GA Report), he is also adept at expressing his opinions. And express them he does as he turns his analytic eye to one of the most popular games of recent months: TZOLK’IN: THE MAYAN CALENDAR – and asks the question….]

TZOLK’IN: IS UNBALANCED UNGOOD?

Reviewed by: Joe Huber

tzolkinboxjhAs I played Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (reviewed by Herb Levy in the Winter 2013 Gamers Alliance Report) more, I came to the conclusion that – at least for me – the game is not balanced. This left me in a quandary, as I really enjoy the other aspects of the game. So does one unbalanced mechanism make a game uninteresting?

First, it will help to have a reminder of the game. Each turn players will either place workers on one or more of five gears or remove them and take the actions they are now adjacent to. At the end of each turn, the gears rotate, moving the workers to better and better actions.

Each of the five gears has a different focus. Palenque is focused on food and lumber while Yaxchilan is focused on the other resources, including crystal skulls. Tikal is focused on advancements – technology advancements, building, monuments, and temple advancement. The Uxmal gear is something of a catch-all, allowing for temple advancement, conversion of resources, additional workers, purchase of buildings with corn or even the use of actions from other gears. Finally, Chichen Itza is where crystal skulls can be turned in for victory points.

tzolkintemplesBut the mechanisms for earning victory points are separate from the gears. There are six ways of earning victory points. One is the buildings. In general, the victory point potential is limited as the primary appeal of the buildings is their other capabilities. Second is the monuments. There are a limited number of monuments (between four and six) available in each game and, in general, they tend to have fairly limited return unless they align with a player’s natural strategy. The technology track (the third way to get VPs) tends to be very limited as a direct source of victory points but, again, offers some opportunity when tied to other actions. Resources can be collected for victory points at the end of the game but nearly always at a disadvantage as compared to other methods. Crystal skulls are a more efficient way to earn victory points, being worth 3 victory points just for collecting them and an additional 1-10 victory points plus other benefits to deliver to Chichen Itza. Finally, the temple tracks offer between 8 and 13 victory points and, unlike the crystal skulls, score twice during the game.

Just in this, the temple tracks look to have a particularly strong return: two temple advancements cost one resource plus 5 turns (rotations of the Tikal gear). But the temple tracks are even more powerful than this – in addition to scoring twice, they produce resources twice during the game. It’s difficult to gain eleven temple advancements to produce seven resources by the time of the first resource distribution but certainly possible to be well along the path. And it’s relatively straightforward to reach the necessary advancements by the time of the second resource distribution. This, in my opinion, is the source of the problem. Compared to other elements of the game, the temples offer far more value even without considering the scoring bonuses for being the further advanced on each track.

But while the temple tracks have clear advantages, are they truly economical? There are eighteen steps total across the temple tracks. Two steps are awarded on the Tikal track for one resource and 5 turns, so the total via that route is 45 turns (or payment for going further up the Tikal track) and 9 resources. Of course, it’s certainly possible to collect those resources via the temple tracks. The reward for these actions is around 44 victory points. It is possible to use the Uxmal gear instead, for just 18 turns but 54 corn, generally a less efficient option.

How does this compare to other options?

tzolkintechMonuments tend to provide about 20 victory points (for the first one; each additional monument tends to earn fewer and fewer victory points, as they’re less well suited to a player’s position) for 6-7 resources but they’re more valuable resources and, absent advancement on the temple tracks, they’re likely to take around 15 turns to collect. This isn’t a bad return in comparison to the temple tracks. However, because the templetracks provide resources, a matching monument is actually easiest to build by advancing on the temple tracks. And, in fact, there are two monuments which explicitly reward temple track advancement.

The technology tracks offer two ways to earn victory points: via the fourth and subsequent advancements on the building track or the skull track. But the skull track is clearly superior; after three advancements, each additional advancement on the building track offers a flat three victory points for one resource, while each additional advancement on the skull track offers a skull – with a base value of three victory points. Neither is an efficient way to earn victory points, but the skull track at least offers a valuable resource to deliver to Chichen Itza.

tzolkinchickChichen Itza does offer a nice set of additional victory points for skulls, basically one point plus one temple advancement per turn you wait and, in some cases, a bonus resource. That’s better than collecting resources for victory points (a corn being one quarter of a victory point isn’t a great return and is often less than its value for buying a building). Buildings roughly double their cost in resources as victory points though not always in a useful fashion as some abilities are very weak in the late game.

Overall, then, the other paths are viable means of gaining victory points – but you can ignore any of them without difficulty. The temple track, however, is necessary.

After discovering that it was critical to winning the game, I started focusing on winning the game without concentrating on the temples – and consistently lost to players who focused on the track, even when I was able to be much more effective in other elements of the game. That, to me, adds up to a mechanism that is not well balanced with the remainder of the game. It’s not a formal proof and it’s possible that I just wasn’t able to play other aspects of the game well enough. But that doesn’t change the fact that for me the game is broken.

But does it matter?
My initial inclination was to become disenchanted with the game. Not to dislike it or to rate it poorly but to switch from very enchanted with the game to mildly enchanted and even willing to let the game leave my collection. But as I reflected upon it, I realized that so long as everyone is aware of the fragility, the game works, works just fine, in fact. Increased competition for the temple advancement action helps to balance the game, at least partially.

Now, not every unbalanced game works, and even an unbalanced game that works isn’t inherently worth playing. And, at least for me, a game being unbalanced is usually enough to keep it from being an all-time favorite, usually because it cuts down on the ability to explore the game space – as there’s less useful game space. There are other games, while not balanced, I still find worth playing.

Outpost has a fall away trailer issue. While it’s rare, in my experience, that one player runs away with the game, it’s not uncommon for one player to fall irretrievably behind. But, as with Tzolk’in, the rest of the game is very interesting and enjoyable such that I’m happy to play it – even when I’m the player who falls behind due to bad fortune. 1829 Mainline suffers from the random deal of stocks at the beginning of the game which can put one or more players in a weak position. But again, in breaking most of the standard 18xx conventions, the game makes for a unique and enjoyable experience even when I’m the one luck fails to shine upon.

And thus, while I do believe Tzolk’in is an unbalanced game, it is an unbalanced game I’m happy to have in my collection. So for me, at least, the interest of the game can outweigh issues with the balance. It certainly doesn’t always happen that way; there are plenty of games where balance issues make a game unplayable for me. But Tzolk’in is still more proof that games need not be perfect for me to be well worth playing.


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


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