There’s little doubt that Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar was one of the hottest games to come out of Essen this year, and with good reason. It takes a much loved mechanic (worker placement) and does something entirely new with it, adding in the element of movement thanks to a series of cogs that dominate the board. However, now that the fuss has died down a bit – seriously, you couldn’t get a copy for love or money by the time the weekend rolled around at Spiel – we can take a more reasoned look at this one.
And, all told, it’s pretty positive – however, the game is not without its faults. Nothing major, granted, but Tzolk’in is far from perfect. Did the shiny newness of those massive plastic gears hypnotize us a little? Perhaps, but it’s still a very entertaining experience…
Put simply, between two and four players are attempting to score as many points as possible over the course of four rounds. By placing their workers on the ever rotating cogs, they’ll move further round as the turns progress, hopefully getting progressively more useful and lucrative. As each turn is completed, the huge central gear is twisted around one step, moving the five outer wheels around too. Once one of your workers is in a place that you like the look of, you may remove it in order to take the reward for that space. Leave them on the wheel for too long, however, and you’ll have wasted that particular worker. Knowing how hard it can be to get your hands on more workers, you really don’t want to be chucking these chances away.
The different gears will offer you a wide variety of different things to collect as well as plenty of opportunities to spend your resources. Working your way around the board from the top left, you can either grab wood or corn. This one’s important as corn is the game’s currency – it’s very important to have plenty coming in, but you will find during play that you will NEVER have enough. Wheel two offers a wider selection of resources including gold, stone and crystal skulls. The third wheel lets you start spending what you’ve collected on buildings and monuments, necessary if you want to have any chance of winning. It’s here where you can also start moving up the three temples that will get you a decent haul of points if you play skilfully, as well as progress along technology tracks that will reap plenty of rewards.
Wheel four is a bit of a mishmash of everything and is very useful for trading your resources for corn (and vice versa). It’s also the only place where you can start getting new workers, so it shouldn’t be ignored. Finally, the larger fifth wheel is where you get rid of those incredibly valuable crystal skulls; on this one, it’s all about big points and further progression up the temples. Play it right and you could wrap the whole thing up on this wheel alone.
As you can probably tell, there is an awful lot going on in your average game of Tzolk’in. Between working out the best placements for your workers and trying to discern when and where they’re going to end up, forward thinking is the order of the day – any loss of concentration will see you slip behind pretty swiftly. You must also consider the fact that at the end of each of the four rounds you need to feed your workers using the same corn that you need to buy better positions on the wheels with. Playing this game is like juggling cats and a lapse will see you cut to ribbons.
Like any good Euro, this is a game of balance where you will never be able to do everything you want to achieve. In fact, most of the time you may well end up taking actions that you didn’t really want to do in order to protect a single worker that could help trigger a long term plan. Constant reconsideration of your objectives is necessary; there’s no way of winning if you don’t adapt as the game evolves.
And it’s here where I find an issue with Tzolk’in – I like planning out how I’m going to tackle a game but managing to pull off anything major in this game feels often more like luck than judgement. In order to do well you’re looking at setting yourself a series of smaller, hopefully manageable goals, the re-evaluate your targets. This gives the game a bitty feel, as if it were a set of linked short stories rather than a glorious and sprawling novel. Not that this is a bad thing, of course, but I love games where you progress to a final achievement and with so many different ways to collect points, the endgame doesn’t feel like a worthy climax. It’s more like you’re hoovering up as many little bits and pieces as possible.
Not that I’m saying it’s a bad game! Not by any measure! However, unlike something like Agricola where you have this story developing before your eyes, the scattered nature of Tzolk’in means that I don’t get that same feeling of an arc under my control. It may be a small complaint but to me that’s an important aspect of any game where I’m investing a major amount of time, and with this you’re looking at least at a couple of hours of pretty solid thinking and strategising. Sure, you could allow yourself to be distracted by the very lovely board and high quality components (those gears are frankly awesome), but you mustn’t allow yourself to be sucked in by beauty…
While I’m not sure that Tzolk’in will be hitting my table on a regular basis, I can happily say that I’ve enjoyed my times playing it and I’ll be returning plenty of times in the future. Yes, it’s true that it can feel like a lot of hard work at times and it does feel like a near-constant struggle to complete any of your plans, but there’s definitely a large part of the gaming market that will praise it higher than I. To me, though? It’s solid. It’s a great way to spend your games evening but it’s not going to take the place of Agricola.
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is a 2012 release from Czech Games Edition, with other publishers handling other versions around the world. Designed by Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, between two and four can play and games will take you around two hours or so. Copies are still a bit hard to come by, but should you be able to find one expect to pay around £40-45 (though Gameslore sell it for £34.99).