Tzolk’in (Game Review)

Tzolk'in box

Tzolk’in

Some board games are complicated because of the ways you can block your opponents. Others are complicated because simply figuring out your own moves takes careful planning. Daniele Tascini’s Tzolk’in is in the latter category.

It is a worker placement game with an eye-grabbing set of interlocking gears. On each turn, a player either places workers on cogs of the gear or removes them. The gears advance after each time around the table, moving workers up to new, and generally stronger, actions. The action is triggered when the workers are removed, not placed. That gear mechanism is very cool and distinctive, and is a rare case of a production gimmick that is also vital to the gameplay.

It’s also easy to make mistakes, and hard to play as efficiently as possible. You can place or remove multiple workers in one turn, so you’ll need to set up big turns to get the most out of your actions. But corn is needed to place workers, and the cost rises quickly as more are used. Placing workers directly on higher spots on the wheel also costs corn. It can be easy to get stuck because you ran out of resources, or because your workers didn’t all reach the proper actions at the right time.

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

A close-up of a few gears. The large center one is used to turn everything in unison. (And it looks cool.)

The first time or two you play this game, it will take all your efforts just to take care of basic needs. Reserve extra corn for the feeding phases, figure out how to get other resources, and suddenly realize at the halfway point of the game that you hadn’t even done anything to earn points yet! After a few games, you’ll be able to make plans, and maybe follow through on them. My second game was against someone who had played over a dozen times, and he had an incredible engine going before I’d even figured out how to provide basic food for my workers.

Just because the personal choices are complex doesn’t mean there’s no player interaction. There are plenty of opportunities to predict others’ moves and get in their ways. Workers must always be played on the lowest available spot on a wheel, so placing one may either help or hurt your opponents, depending on how quickly they need to get to the top actions and whether they can afford the cost of the higher space. Players can also race to be the one who builds a point-scoring monument, or fight to move to the top of temple influence tracks. There are even actions that let you advance the wheel two spaces instead of one, which can really mess up someone else’s plans!

It’s a good thing that Tzolk’in has all that going on, because the ways to score points aren’t very interesting. There are a few distinct paths, such as those temple or monument points, or getting the expensive Crystal Skull resources and dropping them off on spaces of the religious track. (Yes this game comes with Crystal Skull tokens!) But there are only a few, they don’t have a lot of synergy with each other, and the only one that really changes from game to game is which monuments are available. Those are important, since they give you points for doing different actions, therefore putting the focus on different paths to victory in each game, but it’s very easy to choose a strategy that doesn’t use monuments at all.

Don’t let that dissuade you from trying Tzolk’in, though. It’s a great experience, both mind-blowing solitaire and intense competition at the same time. It’s definitely an advanced game. I’ve played slightly more complicated ones in the past year, but never one so punishing if you mistime your moves. But if you’re used to board games, this one takes worker placement to the next level. Like Targi, your workers’ actions aren’t decided directly by where you place them, but indirectly due to the timing of multiple decisions.

Grade: B+

 
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