Review: Tzolk’in

Posted by James (admin) on October 25th, 2012

Tzolk’in is a worker placement game with a difference.  In this Mayan-themed game, players have around 26 turns in which to impress the gods the most, i.e. earn the most victory points (VPs).

Each turn, players either place any amount of their workers or remove any amount of their workers.  Players spend corn to place their workers on the cog(s) they desire taking the cheapest available slot (and the more workers you place in one turn, the more extra corn you must pay too). The unique part of this game is that workers are placed on small cogs which are located around a large central cog.  Each turn, the large cog is turned and this turns all the small cogs which moves all of the workers on them along one step.  When a player removes a worker, they get the benefit that the worker is next to and the longer a worker remains on a cog, the better the benefit when they are removed.

One cog is primarily for earning food (a vital currency in the game), one is primarily for building (you can’t build unless you remove a worker on a building action), another for resources, and another for sacrifices (placing crystal skulls on the wheel earns VPs and raises you up the relevant temple).  On most cogs, the increasing benefits of each ascending slot are not simply more of the same item (i.e. 1 gold, 2 gold, 3 gold) but are often quite different (i.e. improve a technology followed by build a building, or, exchange resources for corn followed by gain a worker).  As a result, timing when you remove your workers is vital to get the benefits that suit your plan and circumstances.

The cog for food is especially interesting as there are several wood or corn markers at each slot.  If a player wants to take corn, they can do so if there is a corn marker, or can take wood if there is a wood marker (which becomes a corn marker as the land is now usable for farming).  However, if you want to take corn when there are only wood markers, you can take corn instead by burning down the wood (marker) but this angers the gods which moves you down one space on a temple.

There are various technologies you can gain (which requires resources and the removal of a worker when aligned with a technology improvement action, of course).  The technologies give you extra benefits such as gaining extra resources or making buildings cheaper.

Interaction between the players is created because some items can be used by one player before another has a chance.  For example, opponents may build buildings, use gather corn tokens, fill crystal skull sacrifice slots, etc. before you have the chance to do so.  Also, players score VPs for being furthest up the temples so there are races there too.  Plus, the player who starts the round (a role that players can claim using a worker each turn) gets to choose if the main wheel moves 1 step or 2 steps.  It’s something each player usually only gets to do once per game, but it can affect other players as their workers pass the key locations they were planning to use – players can use locations they have passed but it costs them 1 corn for each step of distance backwards.  I did this to another player and made them pass the ‘gain a worker’ place, although in my defence I did it so that my workers were further ahead including one now at the ‘gain a worker’ position themself – the effect on my opponent was just a (humorous) bi-product, honest.

There are quite a few ways to earn VPs – moving your markers up the temples is one primary method (building buildings and some slots on cogs let you do this) and building monuments give you VPs based on different requirements too.  Positions on the temples earn VPs twice during the game (with an additional bonus for the player highest up each) as well as some extra resources.

If players have less than 3 corn at the start of their turn, they can beg for corn (giving them 3 corn in total) but this angers the gods.  Players need corn to feed their workers at 4 times during the game (marked on the main wheel) – not doing so costs VPs and angers the gods, but there are some buildings a player can construct that help feed workers.  Moving the wheel 2 steps (instead of the usual 1) shortens the time before players need to feed their workers.  The game ends when the main wheel has made a full revolution and the player with the most VPs wins.

Overall, Tzolk’in is a solid eurogame with lots of tough decisions and elements to balance.  Many worker placement games deliver this, but Tzolk’in’s moving wheels really do add some extra tension/anxiety as the world feels like it will move along without you, so you need to act or miss opportunities – a bit like trying to time your jump into an already moving skipping rope (or something equivalent but more masculine).  I don’t think I have felt this in other games.

As a player must only add workers or remove workers on their turn, it is important to make the most of your turn – removing or adding a single worker feels like a waste.  However, sometimes you also just need to sit and be patient and do little on your turn as you allow your workers to reach the benefits you really want, or get them to a point where they will reap something worth more than it cost to place them.  It’s a bit like making home-made wine and trying to keep your hands off the bucket for the whole week…

I found I was treading water (in terms of resources) for a lot of the game and didn’t build up many resources (or have many workers).  So, I focused on moving up the temples and gaining crystal skulls instead of building buildings and monuments.  One reason I struggled was because I wasn’t timing my workers very well and was using multiple turns to remove them because they lined up with what I needed at different times.  This, of course, was entirely my fault.  I know now that placing them on cogs at places where they will line up at the same time is very important (and means you need enough corn and workers to implement this so you can engineer your workers starting at positions that will line up in the mix you want later).  Also, I needed to let a few more turns pass without removing workers so I could generate more resources with which to work with.  Finally, I now know I needed to gain extra workers earlier (another slot on a wheel) as it’s hard to gather more than you spend with only the 3 workers you start with.

However, whilst I felt I was doing badly, because I didn’t have many resources, I was pleased that my continual scrapping for VPs by focusing on the temples was a valid strategy and meant I came last by only 1VP.  So, I think it proved there are definitely multiple routes to victory.

Are the cogs necessary?  The game is a solid eurogame and could be done without the cogs using workers moving up levels on different tables; although, this would be extremely messy and require a lot of management.  So, the cogs are not only pleasant to look at and different, but they are also necessary to make the game easy to play.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed Tzolk’in and it delivers a solid and meaty eurogame.  I am looking forwards to playing it more, especially as the first play is a playable and enjoyable experience, but you know how you’ll do things better on the second play having learnt a lot from the first.  I expect this will be a contender for the complex Spiel des Jahres prize next year.


[Played with 3 players]

5 Responses to “Review: Tzolk’in”

  1. Karl Bunyan Says:

    A few rules things didn’t sound right to me, but it could be that I’m reading it wrong.

    [q]As well as needing to have 3 corn at the start of each turn (to avoid angering the gods)…[/q]

    It sounds like you might be making the same mistake we did for the first few rounds. The rules say “if you have 2 or fewer corn, you may beg for corn” – note the “may”. There’s nothing that makes you beg just because you have less than 2 corn. Of course, if you can’t place because you have no corn and you have no workers to take off then you’re forced to beg before you can do anything, but that’s probably rare and most of the time begging will be through choice.

    And on the double cog move:

    [q]…I did this to another player and made them miss the ‘gain a worker’ place…[/q]

    A player can pay corn to take an action further back along a cog they’re on. This means you never really miss it (unless you go right around and get crunched in the gears) but it’ll cost a corn or more to use the one you want if your timing’s off or if someone does the double move.

    [q]…sometimes you also just need to sit and be patient and do nothing on your turn…[/q]

    Do you mean “do not much productive”? On your turn you must either place or remove at least one worker – you can’t ever do nothing at all.

    It’s a great game, though!

  2. Martin Says:

    One of many games we played this year, that led to the comment: “Next game will be very different!”

    Placement definitley seems key, since I think at many times we all took just a single action.

    Still, looking forward to trying it again sometime.

  3. James (admin) Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Karl. We played it correctly that begging for corn wasn’t mandatory, but I’ve amended my description to reflect that. Same goes for the ‘do nothing’ on a turn.

    Good point about spending cash to use lower position slots though. I remember reading that out when going through the rules, but none of us remembered/used it. That rule could be very handy to tune the timing of removing your workers when they don’t all line up with the things you want all at the same.



  4. Luke @ The Broken Meeple Says:

    Generally I enjoyed the game, however I’ve noticed one big issue with it which is that the scoring system is fairly broken. I’ve seen the same strategy win 3 times in a row which is simply to ignore everything but go straight for gods favour. The points you gain for the work required in the temples far exceed what you can get for others. I focused on buildings and monuments and came second but there was still a big points gap. Crystal skulls are also pretty pointless unless you focus on them as your main strategy, simply doing the odd one or two isn’t enough.

    I like the game, but it would never be a keeper and it’s a shame that there’s a clear way to win the game that is easily better than the other methods.

  5. News Bits: 10/29/2012 | iSlaytheDragon Says:

    […] reviewed Tzolk’in (the game of gears!) and […]

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