Tzolk'in: a competitive resource-gathering-and-conversion puzzle

The genius of this game's design is in the simplicity of what you are allowed to do on a turn, the intricate and divergent results those actions can achieve; and the way the physical design of the game board makes it all work automatically. Jon Seagull reviews.

By Jon Seagull


Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar is a heavy European-style game for 2-4 players (the box says age 13+, and although my 7-year old plays it with me I'm inclined to agree), with perfect information and almost no randomness beyond the initial setup. It takes about half an hour per player once you learn it, but your first games will be much longer. It is my favorite game that I am absolutely terrible at.

Like many other Euro games, Tzolk'in is a competitive resource-gathering-and-conversion puzzle with multiple paths to victory, where conflict between the players is limited to passive-aggressive denial of resources and the winner is the player who was most efficient.

There are a great many games like this, and people who are not board game hobbyists often find them dry and unfulfilling. Why review the game for Boing Boing's audience, then? Because Tzolk'in takes the “Euro cube-pusher” trope and adds the dimension of time; which not only makes it a really satisfying game to sink your teeth into, but also gives it something to say.

The genius of the design is in the simplicity of what you are allowed to do on a turn, the intricate and divergent results those actions can achieve; and the way the physical design of the game board makes it all work automatically.

The board is dominated by a set of six meshed plastic gears which make up the playing area. The large central gear represents the titular calendar (the game was first published in 2012 when the “Mayan end of the world” meme was a thing), and each round of player turns the gear advances one tooth. The game ends when the gear has completed one full revolution.

Each of the five outer gears has a circle of indentations for players to place their pawns in, and is surrounded by spaces printed with symbols for various resources and actions. Each advancement of the central gear rotates the outer gears so that the pawns advance one space along their track.

On each turn, players can either add one or more of their three pawns to the gears on the lowest available space, or remove one or more pawns from the gears and get whatever resource or action is printed on the space. You can't add and remove on the same turn, and you can't pass.

The rewards on the gears increase steadily as you go further along the track, but it takes time to get there during which that pawn isn't getting you other resources. There are a mix of short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals you need to balance in order to achieve a winning score; and not only do you need to amass enough resources to do what you want, but you need to amass them at the right time.

For example, you can get lots of points placing crystal skulls on the high-numbered spaces of the Chichen Itza gear (meticulous ethnography is not the game designers' strong suit), but obtaining a crystal skull in the first place usually requires traveling along the Yaxchilan gear for four turns. If you do these two actions back to back it will take you at least 6 turns (nearly a quarter of the game), so you need to overlap those two pawns' rides on the gears. This occupies two of your three starting pawns for at least four turns, during which time you have to put the third one down and take it up repeatedly (since you can't pass) to net only a trickle of corn or wood. A little bit of passive-aggressive pawn placement by your opponent and you find yourself without enough corn to feed your workers (“food day” comes four times per game), so now your plans are in disarray.

Like a modern supply chain, getting things done in Tzolkin requires a ballet of tightly-coupled scheduling interspersed with scrambles to cover the gaps. It makes the passage of time tangible within the game while compressing real-world time to a brain-burning blur. And it looks really great on the table.

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar

Published 4:00 am Thu, Sep 4, 2014

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About the Author

Jon Seagull is an illustrator based in Philadelphia who plays rather a lot of games.

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