Bored? Game! – Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

So we made it to 2013 without the world ending. But don’t be disappointed, we have just the game to cheer you up. Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar was one of the most popular games at this year’s Essen Spiel (the biggest board game convention in Germany, and thus the world) and provides a fantastically original mechanic that is anything but gimmicky. The plastic cogs you see on the board may remind you of Downfall, but resist that thought (in fact, take it behind the woodshed and shoot it).

Board games with moving parts = Awesome!

Tzolk’in is a worker placement game. A rather dry title for a genre that has come to define the Euro game since the late nineties. One of the more famous examples being Agricola, a game about farming in medieval France. Admittedly this may sound a little dull (it isn’t really), but Tzolk’in’s approach to this genre is akin to early Channel Five’s approach to the weather forecast. You see while Agricola, and by extension most worker placement games, see players claiming a limited number of actions by placing workers on them, Tzolk’in requires players to place their precious workers on a series of interlocking plastic cogs. At the end of each turn the central cog is turned, which in turn rotates each worker one spoke further on each of five smaller cogs. The longer you stay on a cog the better the action and thinking ahead to combo together a series of actions is essential to victory – no mean feat if you manage to get the maximum of six workers in play. Little wonder this has been referred to by some as ‘Agricola on crack’.

The stall at Essen Spiel included a giant version of the game complete with velcro counters

This may sound complicated, and it’s true this is by no means for gamers new to the hobby, but Tzolk’in has enough flexibility built in to allow you to adapt your strategy on the fly, meaning it’s also quite a pleasant experience. The game is about thinking ahead, sure, but it never punishes you too hard for your mistakes and each of the many elements has been perfectly balanced. To use a suitable analogy Tzolk’in is as finely tuned as a Swiss clock – each gear perfectly placed. I’ve played this game many times now and I’ve seen it won with dozens of different strategies, but it’s always a close, dramatic game. Whether you attempt to score solidly by climbing up the three point-giving temples or buy one of the expensive monuments to sneak a high scoring end game bonus, it’s a completely different game each time.

The component quality is excellent, with the large colourful board being assembled like a jigsaw and the plastic cogs moulded with Mayan symbols (many gamers have pimped their editions by painting the ornate central cog, revealing the rich detail). The nicest touch has to be the thirteen crystal skulls which can be collected and used on one of the cogs, which are formed from clear blue plastic. Thematically each of the cogs is named after an ancient Mayan city (Tikal, Palenque, Uxmal) and each focuses on a different strategy. One wheel is all about food and wood (a forest must be removed to get the fields of corn beneath, or a player can anger the gods by burning the forest down instead), another is about taking building actions and moving up on four different tech trees. It’s a shame there isn’t a cog concerned with human sacrifices, although perhaps this will be an expansion? Of course it’s impossible to do everything and the key is to focus on a few complimentary actions.

There’s a decent amount of player interaction too, which is often something that the worker placement genre lacks, including the option to turn the wheel twice, which at the opportune moment can royally scupper your rival’s plans or prematurely start a feeding phase when only you can afford to feed your workers. Turn order is also a complex affair with advantages to going first and last. Because you have to place your workers on the lowest available rung of a cog, and each higher rung costs more corn, going early in a turn means cheap placement, but going later allows you to leapfrog your opponents and reach the tastiest actions more quickly if you can afford it. There’s lots to think about and although its sure to make your head hurt the first time, you’re sure to be back for more.

Designer: Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini
Mechanic: Worker Placement
Number of Players: 2-4 (Best with 4)
Length of Game: 90mins
Complexity: Medium/Heavy
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