This is best thing involving crystal skulls I’ve ever seen and that includes Indiana Jones 4!
Chris, actually has watched Indiana Jones 4
Matt, whilst playing Tzolk’in.
Chris: I like worker placement games. The central mechanic, placing your “workers” down on special spaces on a board in order to gain the benefit that space provides, is solid; choose from a wide array of options whilst blocking them for other people. A great bonus is that Matt tends to be terrible at them, unlike war games, leaving a more open playing field. The first time we played Tzolk’in together was also the most times I’ve heard him swear at a game, rather than at me directly. (I think most times at me directly is a tie between Game of Thrones and Chinatown).
Matt: My first experience of playing Tzolk’in gave me a unique insight into what it is like atop a Mayan pyramid, having your still beating heart ripped out through your chest. That’s why I’m leaving this review up to Chris!
Chris: Tzolk’in is a worker placement game where the actions happen when you remove workers rather than place them, and the strength of the action increases the longer you leave a worker out. Sound complicated? It isn’t. It’s all because of the awesome moving gears that take up the game’s board. Place your worker on one of the outer gears, and after each round one lucky player will rotate the big central gear, which through the interlocking mechanisms will rotate each of the other gears at the same time! This is such a great (quite literal) mechanism that makes the game visually appealing and gives a great hook to interest people. I’ve seen people of all ages get very excited about getting to turn the central gear! The effect of this is to move all your workers around the tracks that surround each gear. When you decide to remove your workers, you take the reward for the space on the track that worker currently occupies. Leave a worker on a gear longer, and they’ll rotate further, getting to ever better rewards. It’s fascinating!
5 different individual gears form the core game, a Corn wheel, a Resources wheel, a “use resources to do stuff” wheel, a “use Corn to do stuff” wheel, and finally a wheel where you place the little see-through plastic crystal skulls on altars to worship the gods! Which seems like a good point to talk about the theme of the game: it is great! The idea of the Mayan calendar is such a nice break from fantasy worlds, zombies and outer space without being dull or unengaging. The mechanics would still be interesting if you replaced the corn with coins and the temples to the gods with merchant guilds, but why would you? The theme gets a big tick from me!
Another source of appeal to me is the degree of randomness in the set up. It’s low but sufficiently high to effect the gameplay. You choose your starting bonus by selecting 2 out of 4 tiles distributed at random. The buildings you can construct are placed at random from a stack and a different selection of monuments, that you can also build –
Matt: in theory…
Chris: are available each game. As the monuments can be worth a lot of points, this can have a large effect of what strategy to pursue. However, 2 of these 3 sources of randomness are fixed from the very start of the game and can thus be planned around, and I’ve never felt that randomness has screwed me over in this game. Indeed, it adds some essential variety into your games. If your plan only works if a certain building appears in the market, get a better plan!
In my limited experience with the game (6 plays), getting a better plan is easier said then done however. In the first game, scores were low with crystal skulls forming the main source of points, and person who ignored them in favour of buildings lost badly – didn’t they, Matt?
Matt: I… shut up, Chris.
Chris: But since then I’ve seen two great victories based on mass accumulation of buildings, and one where someone got 60 + points in the last quarter of the game without skulls being a major part. It feels very balanced to me, with the key to victory not being what strategy you pick, but how well you execute it. Whilst winning my first two games and losing the later ones, my highest score was in my most recent session. It’s a game that rewards skill but can be won by a new player who gets it right. This is a good bonus in my opinion, as it makes that game fairly easy to get the table.
It is a game that feels more like a puzzle to solve than a competition against the other players. This is something that I like, and others of course may not, however there is more interaction than other games with a puzzely feel. The relative position on temples, the acquisition of monuments and buildings, the collection of corn and wood tiles, the double turn and the one use crystal skull slots all add further interactions and opportunities to nobble your opponents on top of the basic interaction that comes with worker placement. This too stands out from other worker placement games, as while it blocks players with little corn, it boosts up players who can afford to pay to go ahead of you.
Matt: Oh wait, I’m sorry Chris, we have to interrupt this review because you’ve RAN OUT OF CORN!!
Chris: Haha! Only the incompetent run out of corn!
Chris: Despite all of the interaction, the primary association with losing the game is not “Dave screwed me over” or “Pete kept getting in my way” but “I should have done things differently” and “Next time I could try this”. I think it’s a sign of a good game if, after it is over, debate continues over how to do well at it. This has happened after almost every one of my plays.
Do I have any criticisms? It would be great if it could play more than four, as that can be a restriction on getting it to the table, but not to worry. There’s an expansion that let’s you play up to five! The gears look way better painted and as someone non crafty, I’d have preferred that they had come decorated, but hopefully you can convince someone you know to paint them for you, right Matt? *waggles eyebrows in suggestive manner*
Matt: I didn’t know eyebrows could move like that…
Chris: Overall, no real criticisms from me! It does what it sets out to do very very well. It’s a medium length worker placement game with a great theme and lots of interesting strategies to pursue. Then on top of that you have the incredible rotating gears that make it a puzzle above and beyond any comparable game.
Rating: A Great T’zolkin point
Matt: A final thought: since this review was written I managed to play Tzolk’in for a second time and I had a much happier experience. The big challenge of this game is the mental shift required to think multiple turns of the gears ahead. It is immensely satisfying when your timing finally comes together… and rather punishing when it doesn’t. And above all else is the endless necessity for corn to keep your game well lubricated. I’m still terrified of trying to play this game without upgrading the corn technologies. But I can certainly say that I have definitely seen the light!