Saturday, August 24, 2013

Apocalyptically Good: "Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar"

Our humble l'il gaming group sure has come a long way.  It started pretty modestly, back around 2005, when Andrew, Dean and I started to play through our budding collection of board games on an ongoing but irregular basis.  Five years later, on January 6, 2010, we finally made it official and locked down Wednesday evenings as our weekly gamin' night.

The format was simple: the three of us would take turns picking a game, prepping it and then hosting.  It was a decent little arrangement but with only three players, our options were pretty limited.  Two-player games were rare unless someone cancelled in advance and games optimized for a larger group of people, such as like Shadows Over Camelotwere useless to us.      

As such, we quickly added Chad to our hallowed fraternity just a week later.  Whip-smart, good-natured and casual, the rest of us knew right away that he was a perfect addition to the group.  Having a fourth player also meant that we could finally split into pairs for two-player games.  We still didn't have enough bodies to pull off truly epic games like Twilight Imperium, but we certainly had more options then before.

Wary of "outsiders", years ticked by before we added a fifth player.  In fact, in order to deter any undesirables, we'd freak out potential pledges with fraudulent initiation rites:

"Yeah, um...sure you can join our gaming group.  But first you gotta run naked down the full length of a football field with the Envoy Marker from Kingsburg between your butt cheeks.  Oh, and if you drop the Marker before you make it to the end zone you gotta swallow it."

Undeterred by the Holy Rite of the Tiny Wooden Dildo, Mike was informally added to the mix on September 1'st 2010.  At first we didn't offer him permanent membership, perhaps because we were laboring under the fallacy that we already had enough people but more likely because he worked so many weird, irregular late shifts that he often had to bail.  But by June 15'th 2011 his schedule had normalized and we were delighted to welcome him into the fold.  

As soon as we added Mike we knew we were finally cookin' with gas.  He truly represents the kind of person everyone should have around the game table: someone who's easy-going, ludicrously genial and a level of enthusiasm that's downright infectious.  As an added bonus, when Mike came along, we finally had the manpower to do justice to titles such as Battlestar Galactica or A Game of Thrones.

We've since added two more reserve members to the group in as many weeks.  Chad and Andrew's former co-worker Jeremy joined the week we played Love Letter and King of Tokyo.  And now we're hoping to add Kris to the mix, at least until he opens up Halifax's first ever board game cafe, appropriately dubbed The Board Room.  I say this because he's gonna be busier then a one-legged man at an ass-kicking competition when the place opens up in a few months.

It's great having so many players to pool from; we can now run several games simultaneously in one night.  The downside is that my tiny apartment can barely accommodate seven people much less multiple games.  My game room can comfortably seat four people at the most, which means that everyone else would be exiled to the dining room.  Ergo, it just makes sense to default to Dean's voluminous basement, even when its my pick.

Such was the case back on the 14'th of August.  I really wanted to table Star Wars Miniatures, since it's been forever and a day since we've played it.  But when all seven of us were confirmed, I abandoned that plan and picked one of Andrew's more intriguing recent acquisitions: Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar.  

With its rondel-style board, cryptic iconography and Mayan theme, this one's been on my radar since it was released last year.  In fact, in some circles, it's being hailed as a modern Euro-style classic.

So what's the lowdown on this one?  Welp, here's the official proclamation from the stern-but-fair gods at Czech Games:

"Tzolkin: The Mayan Calendar presents a new game mechanism: dynamic worker placement.  Players representing different Mayan tribes place their workers on giant connected gears, and as the gears rotate they take the workers to different action spots.

"During a turn, players can either (a) place one or more workers on the lowest visible spot of the gears or (b) pick up one or more workers.  When placing workers, they must pay corn, which is used as a currency in the game.  When they pick up a worker, they perform certain actions depending on the position of the worker. 

"Actions located 'later' on the gears are more valuable, so it’s wise to let the time work for you – but players cannot skip their turn; if they have all their workers on the gears, they have to pick some up.

"The game ends after one full revolution of the central Tzolkin gear. There are many paths to victory. Pleasing the gods by placing crystal skulls in deep caves or building many temples are just two of those many paths…"

Looking to auger additional signs from Plzdntmkmeevokethasterix, lord of all rules lawyers?  Then sacrifice a few moments, click on the following link and all shall be revealed.

Since the game is optimal with four players, Andrew, Jeremy, Kris and I tackled this one while Mike and Dean played an exhibition game of Blood Bowl.  Here were our color choices:  


Noting the importance of an early stockpile of Corn and building materials, Jeremy split his Workers between the food-and-Wood-giving Green Palenque rondel and the Gold-and-Stone rich Gray Yaxchilan track.  By the time his industrious little ants were finished, he'd harvested three Gold, three Wood, twelve Corn and a Wood and Corn Harvest Token.  

Still haunted by nightmares of Agricola-style meeple starvation, I set about improving my food production.  After Kris made an off-handed remark about the value of Farms, I set about collecting the resources required to built one, sending my Workers up the Palanque and Yaxchilan tracks.  After collecting seven Corn, four Wood and a matching Harvest Token, I plunked a Worker down on the Red Tikal rondel.  Eventually I became the proud owner of brand, spankin' new Farm which would feed all my Workers for half the normal rate.  

Having played the game before, Kris was quick to diversify.  After pulling his Workers off the Palanque and Yaxchilan track he had all the raw materials needed to make some key builds.  After a few spins on the Tikal track, Kris erected a Shrine which improved his Resource Extraction Technology.  After that he constructed a low-grade Farm which allowed one Worker to go without Corn and a Tomb which gave him a +1 bump on the Chaac Temple Track.  Even after all of that he still had two Wood and a matching Harvest token left over.  Nice!   

Andrew tackled the game with his characteristic aplomb.  After swiping the Starting Player Marker from Jeremy, Andrew dispatched one of his Workers up into the mountains of Yaxchilan where he recovered a mysterious Crystal Skull cleverly concealed behind a waterfall.  On a subsequent turn the Skull found a permanent home on the sacred fourth sconce of Chichen Itza, which earned Andrew seven Victory Points and some major brownie points with Kukulcan.  Pleased with this result, he promptly dispatched two more workers on the exact same path.  

After wrestling the Starting Player Marker back from Andrew, Jeremy dropped one of his Workers on the Yellow Uxmal path and eventually added a new hire to his staff.  He then hedged his bets, scattering drones across the board in order to cover as many options as possible.  He put one dude on the Green Palenque fields for some Corn, sent another guy questing into the Yaxchilan mountains, and then dropped another gent on the Tikal track to speculate on some real estate.  After experiencing a serious food shortage he quickly invested in a Farm that halved his Corn requirements and then got a one point nudge in Theology Tech by placing a Shrine.  At the conclusion of this segment he was left with two Gold a painfully obvious Corn shortage.  

Noting Andrew's instant-gratification Victory Point windfall, I sent a coupla dudes up into the nosebleed seats to try and ferret out another Crystal Skull as well as some much-needed Gold.  I also put a jobber on the Red Tikal Track, hoping to leap him off at an opportune moment.  Jeremy's partial starvation also made me extra-paranoid, so I sent another minion into the field looking for a bushel of maíz.  Prior to this I'd already set aside two Stone and six Corn.  Sorry, but when it comes to my l'il meeples beggin' for table scraps I turn into Sally freakin' Struthers.  

Kris continued to out-Donald Trump the rest of us, snatching a dude off the second rung of the Tikal wheel in order to construct a duplicate Farm for one Wood.  On a subsequent turn he parleyed two Wood and one Stone into the first Civic Building of the game.  This structure gave him a one-up in the Resource Extraction Technology and a bonus Wood every time he earned that resource.  Despite his expenses, he still had three Gold and Two Wood left over at the end of this segment, along with a pair of Gold and Corn Harvest Tokens.  

If anything, you certainly can't accuse Andrew of failing to recognize a successful strategy.  In the race to get up Yaxchilan Mountain and steal more Skulls, two of his neckless goons trampled my poor lone Worker.  S'funny, I always thought those things were rare, but apparently they're as common as Pez if you know where to look for them.  Anyway, by the end of his turn Andrew had acquired two new Skulls, a Wood and one permanently-stuffed Worker thanks to his new Farm.  With the Skulls burning a hole in his loincloth, Andrew plopped a Worker down on the Blue Chichen Itza rondel and kept him in place until his previous Victory Point reward was eclipsed.

The voracious appetite of Jeremy's platoon of Workers continued to be a liability, seriously hampering his development.  In an effort to produce more nachos, one of Jeremy's peeps hopped on the Tikal rondel for a much-needed one-point advancement in Agri-Tech.  He also managed to score a Victory Point by disembarking a flunky on the Uxmal roundel and edging one step up towards Kukulcan's temple.  In an attempt to stockpile some badly-needed supplies, he also sent some henchmen for a spin on the Palenque and Yaxchilan Tracks, netting three Wood, a Stone, a Gold and another Wood Harvest Token.

My plucky little explorer dropped his skeletal payload on the eight Victory Point space in Chichen Itza.  Woot!  Unfortunately, that was pretty much the highlight of my next few turns.  I took a couple of rides on the ol' Yaxchilan merry-go-roundel, getting a second Wood Harvest Token and a few bushels of Corn.  I also kept a guy on the Tikal wheel long enough to earn a one-pip advancement in Agriculture.  Yay for bonus ears of Corn!

Kris kept plugging away, trying to optimize every turn and every action.  Already well-stocked for sustenance, he set his eye on some advanced developments, placing a Worker on the Tikal path and carefully reviewing the available Monuments.  To ensure that he had all the required building materials, he gave one of his peons a pick axe and a tin pan and then pointed towards the summit of Yaxchilan.  He also sent a worker to the Uxmal markets, hoping to translate a few timely, god-pleasing offerings into some permanent production perks.      

Andrew discovered Gold up in them thar Yaxchilan hills.  He also got some corny grist from the Palenque mill, earning his first Corn Harvest Token in the process.  He also kept crawling on his hands and knees up the steps of Kukulcan's Temple via some Uxmal Track ass-kissery.  In addition to a chunk of Victory Points, Andrew also earned a free Crystal Skull for all of his dedication and devotion.  Even though he was sniping a ton of in-game points, would he have enough to withstand Kris's long-term development plans?

After Jeremy was forced to beg for Corn, he immediately lost favor in the eyes of the Great Plumed Serpent and his Victory Point score dipped into the negatives.  He quickly roared back with several trips up the Palenque Track, which finally gave him a surplus of chow and yet another Corn Harvest Token.  With his economy finally getting off the ground, he dispatched several developers to Tikal, setting himself up for some potential construction during the end game.

I worked my ass off on the next few turns, locating and then dropping a new Skull on the Chichen Itza promenade in order to curry favor with Chaac, the Mayan rain deity.  After some additional sacrifice and prostration via the Uxmal track, Captain Lightning Axe finally rewarded me with a modest windfall of Victory Points and the gift of Stone.  I then parleyed a successful Gold-prospecting expedition in Yaxchilan into a dual-purpose Shrine to Chaac and Kukulcan.  Hey, why put all of your prayer eggs in one divine basket?  Digging the bonus Corn provided by my Technology upgrade, I turned the Tikal rondel into a Tilt-A-Whirl, scoring similar advances in Resource Management, Architecture and Theology.  At the last minute I noticed that the cupboard was bare so I chucked a few Workers on the Palenque wheel to generate a theater-sized tub of popcorn and a matching Harvest Token.  Whew!

After spending the previous turns patiently laying the foundations, Kris made a few key acquisitions.  Armed with a slew of resources, his minions went to work, investing two Gold and one Stone in a Shrine that gave him a Tech upgrade in both Resource Extraction and Architecture.  Thanks in part to these bonuses, he built another Shrine for three Gold which gave him a two-step boost towards the apex of Quetzalcoatl's Temple.  All the while he maintained a symbiotic level of resource replenishment, finishing his turn with a stockpile of four Gold, two Wood and four Stone.

Continuing with his "Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy, Andrew stockpiled Crystal Skulls like they were Happy Meal Toys.  He littered two more of them around in Chichen Itza, earning a slew of Victory Points and nigh-penultimate approval from Kukulcan.  When he wasn't aggressively brown-nosing the serpent god, Andrew was intent on resource management and long-term planning.  He ended the next Food Day phase with two Wood, one Gold, and a smattering of leftover Corn.  Even better, he still had three Workers optimally placed on the Palenque, Tikal and Chichen Itza roundels.       

The last few rounds were pretty intense.  Jeremy crawled out of his Victory Point deficit by purchasing a Shrine for two Stone and making nicey-nicey with Chaac.  He also picked up a very handy Monument which promised an end-game wad of Victory Points for each one of his Workers.  All of those hungry mouths might pay off for him after all!  To ensure that history would never repeat itself (and earn some eleventh hour Victory Points) he sent his entire contingent of Workers out on the Palenque path, acquiring twenty-five bushels (!) of Corn, two Wood, another Wood Harvest Token and and three more Corn Harvest Tokens.  Unfortunately he ran out of time before he could place his first and only Crystal Skull acquisition.    

Thanks to my Tech advances I finally stopped worrying about food production and snapped up two Green Civic Buildings.  The first cost me two Wood and one Stone and gave me a +1 bump in Resource Extraction, earning me a bonus for those same two resources.  This let me gather up the three Wood and one Stone required for my next build in record time.  Not only did this second Green Civic Building give me yet another Tech boost in the same category ("Yay!  Bonus Gold!") I also got six free Corn out of the deal, finally silencing my irrational fear of mss Worker starvation.  Just as the game was about to wrap up I acquired a Monument for two Wood, three Stone and one Gold which promised four game-end Victory Points for every one of my Green structures.  That left me with two Gold and two Wood as well as one Corn and three Wood Harvest Tokens.

Kris retained a laser-like focus on his end-game strategy.  For two Gold and one Wood he snared a Tomb which immediately earned him eight Victory Points.  Suddenly Andrew's lead was shrinking!  He then broke the bank, spending three Stone and three Gold for a highly-prized Monument which offered a slew of Victory Points for his best Temple step advancement.  Naturally he picked Quetzalcoatl's crib, where he'd managed to make it to the second-last space.

Ever-steady Andrew altered his course slightly when he suffered a contagious bout of Food Day paranoia.  After sending a few workers into Palenque field to look for spare Wood and Corn he finally broke down and bought his second Building of the game for two Wood, which made one of his Workers immune from hunger.  Even after all of this he still had a modest surplus of five Corn, one Stone, one Gold, and a late-arriving Corn Harvest Token.  From there on in, he was free to drop two more Crystal Skulls in the now-cluttered environs of Chichen Itza for a borderline obscene end-game Victory Point total of 44.  






(2 Wood and 25 Corn + 3 VP's for a Crystal Skull)
(5 Corn, 1 Gold and 1 Stone)
(2 Gold, 2 Wood and 1 Corn)










Based on most worker-placement games, Jeremy's plan to recruit new Workers ASAP was sound in theory.  Unfortunately he quickly got undone by their diva-like Corn demands.  Fortunately he rallied nicely at the end, nabbing some key resources as well as the best possible Monument to dovetail with his inadvertent game plan.

My strategy could best be described as "Hey, let's throw this at the wall and see if it sticks".  Although I was motivated by a Corn feeding frenzy at first, I soon flirted with Andrew's Skull tactic and then  pulled the Green Building Victory Point Monument thing out of my ass at the last second.  The most complimentary thing I can say about my effort is that it was scattered and experimental, designed to test the boundaries of the rule set.

Kris played a very solid game, highlighting improved efficiencies and quick access to construction materials in order to build post-match Victory Point buildings.  Marry this with a pious devotion to Quetzalcoatl and we're left with a pretty balanced effort.  Indeed, if he'd just managed to get one more matching Monument out it probably would have swung the game in his favor.

Like a villain from an Indiana Jones flick, Andrew did nothing but steal Skulls from their proper resting place and then use them to kiss ass with the Gods.  Annoying as fuck, but, hey, it worked.



  • The game is a triumph of production design.  The board art is gorgeous, the iconography is evocative, the color selections are intuitive and the Building and Player Boards are high-quality.  The tableau is pleasant to look at and the components are great to handle.  Plus: Crystal Freakin' Skulls - ZOMG!!!
  • The roundels actually feel like an organic and logical part of the game.  In other words, they aren't just a gimmicky tack-on.  Timing Worker removal from the wheel is a fascinating and original dilemma that I've never experienced in a game before.   
  • For the sake of full disclosure, Kris had played the game before and Andrew had prepped the rules but Jeremy and I went into this one completely stone cold.  I think I can safety speak for him when I say that the sheer wealth of options presented to players on any given turn can be somewhat baffling.  As a result, analysis paralysis can sometimes creep in.  Having said that, it feels downright churlish to criticize a game for presenting too many choices.  
  • Once again, we get another game with a myriad of strategies and a debate as to which ones are  most valid.  Even though Andrew's "plunder n' plop" Skull tactic was formidable, all Kris really needed was another relevant Monument and the final score might have been a lot different.  
  • For a Euro, the Aztec theme of Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar comes through like a clarion call.
  • The turns fly by very quickly.  At no point did I ever feel preoccupied or disengaged.
  • I haven't stopped thinking about this game since I played it and that's always a good sign.  
  • The game has some fiddly rules that are easy to miss and the myriad of sometimes-abstract iconography can result in the commonly heard table-refrain "What does this one do again?"  Of all the games I've played recently, this one really cries out for some one-sheet Player Aids.  

Whenever I encounter a game as good as Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar my immediate impulse is to dump my entire collection so that I can dedicate all of my time to practicing this new obsession.  This one virtually demands that you test its parameters in an effort to determine whether or not it's as dense and brilliant as that first play might suggest.  It's the board game equivalent of a drill sergeant yelling in your face, demanding that your soft, flabby brain get better at it, PRONTO.  

At face value, Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar is game enough for anybody.  


Looking to ass-kiss a bigger snake then your real-life boss?  Click on the image below to order Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar and help support this blog!  

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