Remember three weeks ago when I introduced you to the concept of Worker-Placement games with the delightful two-player version of Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small? No? Go read it. (Please. — Pete)
Welcome back. This week I’m going to dive into something a bit deeper. Something a bit heavier. Something… with teeth. Literally.
Okay, so they’re the teeth on plastic gears but still, nonetheless, there are teeth.
The word for the 260-day calendar created and used by the Maya civilization in the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican period is Tzolk’in. The literal translation of the word “tzolk’in” is “a division of days,” which makes it a pretty good name for a calendar I think. It’s also a fabulous name for two to four player worker-placement game that features time as a core element of gameplay. No, you’re not playing a game that’s counting down to the end of the world (though I do love the fact this game was released at the end of 2012). Instead, you’re trying to make your tribe of Mayans the most prosperous and earn the most victory points, by planting crops, constructing buildings, developing technologies, and worshipping the gods.
The first thing that people notice when they see this game isn’t the slew of pieces — that’s second — but instead the six plastic gears on the board. Six beautifully cast gears begging to be played with. The one in the center is especially tempting, with its detailed engravings and the knowledge that its movement will affect all of the others, for it is this master gear that controls… pause, cue dramatic music… all of time. Okay, well maybe not all of time. Just the 26 days-slash-rounds that make up the game.
It is during these 26 rounds that you, as the leader of your tribe, must work to develop your people into the most advanced and wealthy tribe in the known world. You start with three eager workers who you can assign to toil in any of the five areas of work, denoted by the smaller gears on the board. Around each of these gears are the available actions that you may decide to have your workers perform. Some of these actions give you resources (corn, wood, gold, stone), some give you knowledge, some allow you to worship the gods, and some give you the ability to construct buildings from the market.
See those little indents on the smaller gears that seem to fit those little colorful pegs so perfectly? Those indents, and the fact that they rotate once at the end of every round, is what makes this game so distinctive. Every turn you have the option to either place any of your available workers on the lowest empty indent of a gear, or remove any of your already placed workers from a gear. Which notch you remove your worker from determines what action or resources you gain, and in general, the more rounds your worker stays on a gear, the more lucrative the reward. (Pro tip: Sometimes the more lucrative reward isn’t the one you should take. Focus on getting “just enough” rather than “over achieving.” This advice also applies to life in general, in most cases.) (Aim high, kids. — Pete)
The delay between when you place a worker and when you remove it is what makes this game so nail-bitingly intense. It’s like playing the stock market with corn instead of money. Do you invest in being able to eventually construct a building, even though you don’t have the resources required? Are you going to be able to amass the required resources in time? Better yet, is there even a building available that you want to construct? If there is, will it be there when you try to build it? (Pro tip: Putting a worker on a gear that might not pay off in the long run isn’t always a bad idea. For gears that take longer to fully rotate, like the Chichen Itza, having a worker idling in case resources become available can more than make up for losing that worker for 9 rounds.)
Some of your plans will work out because they are simply a matter of counting and strategic timing. Other plans won’t, because of opponents that take limited resources before you can get to them, or because someone decides to play Time Lord and moves the central gear two teeth ahead, instead of the usual one. The ability to speed up time is the only action a player can take that’s not on a gear. The Starting Player action spot gives the player who takes it control over whether the calendar moves ahead one tooth or two at the end of that round. They also get any corn that’s gathered on the teeth of the large gear, placed there at the end of every round a player hasn’t put a worker on the Starting Player action spot.
Corn is a serious business in this game. It’s the main currency, and it can make or break your tribe. When you place a worker, you have to pay the amount of corn denoted on the action space you’re placing them at. The cost of the 1st spot on each gear is zero, the 2nd: one, the 3rd: two, so on and so forth. Each turn you can place one worker for free, but then you need to pay an increasing amount of corn for every additional worker. Two workers will cost you one cob, while three will cost you three, and four will see you dishing out six of the golden ears.
Be careful, though, and don’t spend all your corn in worker placement, or your people might starve. There are four food-days equally distributed on the large gear, and at the end of each of those days, you need to pay two corn for each worker you have. If you are unable to feed any workers on a food-day, you anger the gods and lose three victory points per unfed worker. Another way to anger the gods is to burn the forests surrounding the Palenque gear in order to get to the corn tiles underneath the wood ones there. The penalty for this offense, and for begging for corn so that you can place workers, is to step down a rung on one of three gods’ temples.
There’s a lot more depth to this game than I can put in one article, like explaining the significance of the technology chart; the importance of building monuments; how to move up on the steps of the gods; what you use crystal skulls for (aside from acting out scenes from Hamlet and the last Indiana Jones movie). The rulebook is 15 pages long, and while the first two explain how to build the game, the other 13 do more than a good enough job of teaching you how to play. I will say this, though, be mindful of the technology table. It’s an easily overlooked area of the game that if leveraged early, can make later rounds and resource gathering much more effective. Being in good favor with the gods is also always wise, but not something that can win you the game if you ignore the other parts of the board.
Worker-placement games often have several different strategies that can be used to win them, and no one is ever a sure-fire path to victory. Opponents are fabulous at clogging up the gears of even the best plans, and learning to accommodate the inconveniences they create is what makes playing these games challenging. There is no randomization, there is no luck. There’s just direct and purposeful decisions that are made on every turn, by every player, that shape the available actions on the board. Tzolk’in takes this idea, throws the fourth dimension at it and makes you plan your future turns with an open hand, for all the world to see. As an opponent, you can evaluate and shape this future to change what is available for the taking, or you can focus on your own goals.
This game is not for the light-hearted gamer. While its colorful components and plastic pieces are as tempting as Mouse Trap! is to the child gamer, the weight and depth of the complexity created here is something you need to be willing to dive head-first into. For those gamers that are experienced with worker-placement games, Tzolk’in is a delightful twist on a favored mechanic that I cannot recommend enough for your next game night. I hesitate to recommend this game for anyone not already intrigued by this point, as I fear the onslaught of the rules will cause you and your friends’ eyes to glaze over in glossy boredom. Once gameplay actually begins, you may snap out of it, but it might also just scar you for life against the wonder that is a hardcore worker-placement game.
If you don’t think you’re quite ready for a fourth dimension on your worker-placement games, the original Agricola is a fantastic addition to any gamers shelf. It features the ever-delightful theme of farming, and lets you experience the lifestyle of a simpler time.
If farming doesn’t interest you, Le Havre is a game published by Z-Man games in 2008 that lets you manage a harbor. You build ships to gather resources, and construct buildings to use them. This game also has an element of time, as the longer you wait to use a building, the more resources gather there. It also has a new two-player mini version that is rather fun and removes some of the complexity.
Board Stiff is GrE’s regular foray into the deep, dark, cardboard-smelling realms of analog gaming. Boards, cards or dice, it doesn’t matter, our writer Tiffany will play them all. Follow her on Twitter here.