Review: Tzolk’in

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www.uplay_.it_Tzolkin__Il_Calendario_Maya400x400[1]By Strange Prawn

Right. let’s get back to heavier some heavier fare to see us through these cold winter nights…

I expect you were aware last year of some brouhaha involving the end of the world. The Mayans, those ancient Mesoamerican darlings of the new age crystals-and-chakras crowd, were somewhat fans of a calendar. Their reckoning of time ran on several scales, the longest of which came to an end/ticked over last December. Obviously a portent of Armageddon. Or not. You have to wonder if a future civilisation will get antsy every December 31st. Probably not. They’ll have banned chakras by then. Anyway, coincidentally or not, thundering along on the coat tails of the fin-de-long-count zeitgeist comes Tzolk’in: the Mayan Calendar, highly regarded new boy on the worker placement block and bane of spell-checkers everywhere.

You can’t sit down at a table to play Tzolk’in without immediately noticing the big draw- and the thing that sets it apart from its numerous mechanic-sharing brethren- the huge functioning cog-wheels embedded in the board, baring their teeth at you in a brazen attempt at intimidation. Let’s put those aside for one moment however, and pretend giant wheels are run-of-the-mill.

Tzolk’in is, in many ways nearly identical to the granddaddy of worker placement games, Caylus. There is the same sense of trying to optimise your very limited actions with a dollop of attempting to anticipate and, if possible, stymie your opponent’s strategies on the side. There are even analogous tracks for advancement on the board, with the technology track standing in for the King’s favour and the temples where one must earn the favour of the gods, sorta-kinda an equivalent of building the castle. Of course, if you aren’t familiar with Caylus, dear reader, this tells you nothing. Likewise if you are a stranger to Agricola it would be pointless mentioning the similar necessity to feed you workers with some of the valuable corn you have gathered at critical points in the game. So I won’t.

Instead I’ll go back to the start…

You begin the game with four so-called wealth tiles from which you must choose two which will bestow upon you your starting resources and possible freebie advancements on the technology or temple tracks. This is the first agonising decision of the game, and yet acquiring the stuff you want, nay need, will never be so easy again. Once everyone’s tooled up it’s simply a matter of going round the board deploying your columnar minions as you see fit. Or rather, as the game sees fit to allow you. You may place one or more of your pieces onto the bevelled spaces on the various gears (assuming you can meet the corn cost of doing so), or you can take one or more of them off to accomplish an action, but not both. No sir.

Then, once everyone has either put down or pulled off, time marches on and those gimmicky gears are rotated, causing any pieces to march onwards with them.

tzolkin4[1]And we come round and back again to the gears.  There are five action-granting gears powered by the central Tzolk’in calendar wheel. Each gear is themed around an ancient Mayan city. Bountiful Palenque grants the treasures of the forest, harvesting wood clears fields to provide corn. Yaxchilan’s rich mines provide stone, gold, and of course crystal skulls, whereas the cultural centre of Tikal allows technological advancement and building. The bustling markets of Uxmal allow for corn to be exchanged for resources (and back again) or religious favour, and new workers to be recruited. Lastly sacred Chichen Itza is where you must seek the favour of the gods with offerings of crystal skulls, for which you will be rewarded in the next life. With points. In common though, each wheel’s actions become more powerful and allow access to rarer bounty, the longer you can afford to let you workers sit there, otherwise achieving nothing, with the final spaces being wild cards of a sort, allowing you to access any ability of the chosen wheel.

Tzolk’in is a harsh mistress. Not a game for generalists, this. Unlike other games with a feed-your-workers element I don’t feel the knot of frustration at having to throw away hard earned resources to not lose points. Instead I feel it at the sheer lack of time and ability to accomplish all that I want as time goes marching oh-so-thematically on. I’m fairly sure the best course of action is to pick a strategy and stick with it, be it climbing the temples, placing skulls or tailoring a strategy to a monument, one of the special buildings that cough out points depending on certain things achieved during the game. Even then however, without careful forethought turns will be used sub-optimally, valuable time will be wasted, and the gears only turn a finite number of times.

Tzolk’in is a temptress, sitting there with all her buildings laid out that I can’t use no matter how hard I try. Piles of resource cubes sit on the board, more than could possibly be acquired in the time the game allows. Oh,  and a score track that goes up to a hundred. Ha!

Tzolkin2[1]I called the gears gimmicky earlier, but that’s not fair. The passage of time is portrayed so well in the game, right down to the countdown to feeding days on the central wheel. In a strange way it lends a very thematic feel to play. Not relating to Central American civilisations, but almost a meta-theme relating to change and inevitability that can be quite beguilingly immersive.  For all this talk of immersion however, don’t go near this thing if you’re looking for adventure, or if you derive pleasure from, you know, achieving things. What you’ll get from this is the very cardboard embodiment of the old adage about the running shoes and the lion. You won’t outrun the inevitable progress of time, but as long as you’re slightly further ahead than everybody else, well, that’s all that matters.

Still, what keeps me coming back, and I will becoming back, is the nagging suspicion that this is all my fault. I’m missing something, I’m sure of it. I dream of insouciantly casting my pieces on to those wheels of fortune like a child casts grains of sand into the sea, knowing exactly when and where they should be deployed, smiling gnomically as crystal skulls pile up beside me and edifices spring into being like wildflowers after a rainstorm. I know Tzolk’in hates me, but I am stuck in a mutual spiral with this abusive partner, I’ll keep crawling back because it’s convinced me that I’m in the wrong, because it’s alluring and interesting and I think I can change it.

Because I love it Trisha.

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