Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar Game Review

Tzolk'in is a worker placement game that was (quaintly enough) released in December 2012.
The end of the world.

Tzolk'in plays out over 26ish turns (27 is the maximum number of turns but players can manipulate it so the game is shorter) and I assume each turn is supposed to indicate a two-week period so it sort of, kind of plays over a "year." The goal by the end of those 26 turns is to (can you guess?) score the most victory points. You score points by constructing buildings, being technologically advanced, erecting monuments, praising the gods, and leaving crystal skull gifts for the aforementioned deities.

Dat headdress.

The decision making in Tzolk'in begins before the game even starts as you get 4 starting resource tiles and select your two favorite. I kind of like this unique take on starting resources - skimming through the tiles they seem to be pretty balanced, however, I think certain tile combinations can put a person slightly ahead before the game even starts. Like in many worker placement games, there is a "feeding phase" that occurs 4 times throughout the game - once every 6 or 7 turns. There are buildings (farms) you can create that assist in this process, and to me it seems pretty rough to get by without building some kind of farm.
During your turn, you can either place workers or pull workers off the board (but not both). The longer workers have been on the board, the more advanced they have become in their tracks (thanks to a nifty wheel majigger) and will yield cooler things. When you place workers, you must place in the lowest parts of the tracks available. Placing higher in the tracks (because lower levels are blocked) or placing multiple workers will cost you precious corn.
More stuff is better, so you can see that Yellow is primed to reap Palenque.
I mentioned there were 26ish turns in the game, but that is actually pretty false - since you are spending around half your turns placing workers, you really only have 13ish complete action sequences. One thing I haven't quite figured out about this game (and highly intrigues me) is the efficiency of placing all your guys versus slowly placing them, in addition to the efficiency of pulling off all your workers simultaneously instead of pulling them off one by one. In most worker placement games you want to get as much stuff as fast as possible, but like a good chili, sometimes just letting the fruits of your labor marinate for some time can really pay off in the end.
The various tracks allow for different actions. The 'food' track yields corn or wood. The 'resource' track gives building materials and crystal skulls. The 'building' track allows you to advance on the technology tracks (which increase action efficiency), construct buildings, and appease the gods. The 'special' track allows you to get more workers, swap resources, or break the rules in little ways. The 'VP' track allows you to place crystal skulls and get a bunch of points for doing so. You could play an entire game and ignore the last two tracks, but it is probably impossible to ignore the first 3 and still win.

FUN: 4 - Tzolk'in is a fun brain game. It's no secret that I love worker placement games and Tzolk'in is no exception. I have only played the game twice, but I really enjoy the planning aspect of the worker placement- by construction you have to plan several turns ahead. You are always weighing the costs of playing more guys versus how long it would take to play them all out. Upon reading the rules I thought the goal would be to play out and scoop up your workers as fast as possible but the game is in fact much more deep than that. The gameplay isn't necessarily complex, but it does require you to always be paying attention to what you are doing. Plan, plan, plan!

STRATEGY: 4 The game has a high level of strategy because it is incredibly dynamic, but those dynamic elements aren't random. In fact, the only thing that is random in this game is the starting tiles and the order in which buildings are revealed. I debated on giving this game a '5' strategy because I was always thinking about what I was doing while playing it, but after some more thought, I don't think it deserves to be a '5'. One thing that keeps this game from being a '5' is that I worry that some aspects of the game are eminently solvable. What I mean by that is that after a dozen plays, I wonder if I will look at the board and say "ah, this time I will place two guys on corn so I can perform the good ole' double clear forest/reap action at levels 5 and 6." When games turn into recurring systems, they aren't quite as strategic. That being said, in the two games I played, I saw four separate game plans perform quite successfully. There is quite a bit going on with this game, and you will never interact with all of it in one play through. I just hope the different strategies are all as viable as they seem at initial glance. I always felt like thinking forward was well rewarded in this game, and I felt accomplished when a strong plan came together.

SOCIAL: 2 This might be more of a personal perception. In games with lots of planning, I think between every players turn in order to cut down on the time it takes me to act on my turn. Since rotating dials are surprisingly difficult to keep track of, I find myself blocking out the other players for the most part. Now, it does pay to have some idea what your opponents are doing. The game has a monuments mechanic, unique buildings that score tons of points at game end, and you want to make sure no one is going to build the monument you are shooting for. Additionally, you are all competing to be the most in favor with the three separate gods so knowing where people are advancing is important. All of that information, however, can be gleaned from looking at the board itself. There is no direct interaction in this game and it is very easy to block out the other players except for the cylindrical workers they place on the board. There are some actions that are exclusionary (for instance, placing a skull on a certain location prevents others from doing so), but almost none of these actions should ever come as a surprise to people.

FLAVOR: 2 I feel mean giving this rating. The idea of a Mayan game is cool. The influence of the gods is interesting. The gigantic gear that rotates all of the city tracks is amazing looking and quite unique. That being said, the gear is just an aesthetic pleasure. Simply put, the flavor of this game does not affect the mechanics of game play. The temple tracks could just as easily be currying favor with politicians, or investing in mines, or providing troops for a distant war. In the end, you are just moving cylinders along a couple tracks to get more stuff and then you use that stuff to convert into victory points...just like every other worker placement game. I like Tzolk'in, but the theme of the game has very little to do with it. My enjoyment from the game is derived from the mechanics, and as I said, I don't feel the game play nor mechanics are informed by the theme.

MISCELLANEOUS: 4 The game is beautiful. The rotating gears are super cool, and while at their core they really just advance a few tracks 1 space each, the game does it in a really unique and satisfying way. I really enjoy that the starting set up is different for each player so right off the bat you can pursue different strategies instead of having people constantly vie for the same base strategies. The random selection of monuments also gives different end game goals for players to pursue. The board is incredibly vibrant and it makes it stand out against a lot of the other plainer looking worker placement variants. Also, the crystal skull pieces are awesome. Some people even go balls out and paint their boards and make special pieces.
Too much time on your hands?

Parting thoughts on strategy: I haven't really played enough to give you a very solid idea, but here is what I've learned so far. First of all, never go to 0 corn unless you are pulling off workers next turn - this means pay special attention to when the feeding days are! Like in most games, you should decide a strategy you want and you should go for it in a focused fashion. In both games I played (and won), I went for some variation of a building strategy: either by the architecture tech track or the resources tech track. Buildings are just incredibly versatile and allow you to do a lot of other things. Gear a game plan towards a monument, as they can be worth over 30 points in a game where a winning score is 75 points. I watched my brother grab a close second by focusing entirely on crystal skulls. I think in general it is most efficient to place over time and pull as many guys off at the same time as possible, but I honestly don't know for sure.

May your sacrifices be well met!

No comments:

Post a Comment