Talkin’ About Tzolk’in

(We talked about the title for an hour and that’s the best we came up with. We hate us too)

Last night was game night with Josh and Mark, quite literally; we played one game.  A game that started late and ended later, clocking in around 2&½ hours.  And every single moment of it was fun, from the explanation and the grousing over the density of information on the board, to the constant declarations of “I have no idea how this game works!”  From turn 1 in its almost sinister innocence to the final desperate turns of the wheel where every point feels like the shot that may finally silence your enemies.

Josh: The game is Tzolk’in: the Mayan calendar.  Brandon and I had both seen it all over Unity Games, and though we both found lots of other things to do, seeing it in Mark’s crate of games the last few times we’ve gotten together has made me more and more intrigued. Even midway through the explanation of the rules I had a big grin on my face because this was going to be strange and fun. I was right.

It was a brain-burner for us, and among other things it rekindled my recently waning love for games that are all about cubes, food, workers and the mass accumulation of points. We have so much we want to say about the game, the people, and the evening, so let’s dive in.

The One With the Gears

There are better reviews for the game than I could make out there, so here’s a brief synopsis. You’re a Mayan tribe, you have workers, you have to collect food to feed them and resources to build stuff. You can improve your harvesting or building ability, get more workers, etc. It’s very much a worker placement and resource management game, right down to the drab colored cubes for wood, stone, and gold.

The component that makes it stand out, literally and figuratively, is the giant gear in the center and the smaller gears around it where workers go. The giant gear is the Mayan calendar, and each turn has it scooting your workers forward on tracks. The longer you wait, the better that worker’s prize when you pull him.

Mark put it (mostly) well: “It’s a resource management game where time is a resource.” Very close, but not exactly. Time is how long it takes to play. Tim-ing, or more accurately, turns, are the resource. And the exchange rates of turns, points, food and resources is a delightful puzzle. And it’s fun to turn the gears.

This is your brain on Tzolk’in

(Quick aside, Space Dealer and its recent remake Time n’ Space have you flipping sand timers to conduct your moves in real time. Time is a resource here).

My Kung Fu Is Strong

Before the game Josh and I talked a bit about style of play, and how some games are better than others at giving you that feeling of control. Some games are procedural number crunchers, while some allow you to modify your tactics and apply your style. Tzolk’in does this, making you feel like your civilization lives and breathes your will.

The Competitors


Name: Brandon Rahhal

Age: 30

Blood Type: AB Pos

Fighting Style: Swift Snake, Rising Eagle

My habit in gaming is to make quick moves and jump to the lead early on. The purpose is to get quick infrastructure and exploit benefits early on. If resource production can be enhanced early, it’s best to get to that quickly and lean on that advantage in an attempt to ride the power curve to the end. Its weakness is that it makes you a quick target, and can be prone to burning out too early and leaving nothing for the end-game. Driving the pace of the game is essential.


Name: Josh Michel

Height: 10 ft pole

Political Affiliation: Socialist

Fighting Style: Iron and Mortar

Josh is all about building a strong foundation. Ramping up resource production in a steady, level manner, creating a civilization (or casino, or dominion, or what have you) with immense strength and unparalleled prowess. It’s primary weakness is found in the transition from infrastructure to point acquisition. Without good timing and a solid understanding of the game system, that shift can be delayed until it is too late and the opponent has come in for the kill. If the right timing is found, however, you will find yourself pounding at the stone and the sea, an inexorable force with no signs of slowing.


Name: Mark Yun

Games owned: Over 9000!

Is Asian: Yes

Fighting Style: Iku Kyuu Nyuu Kon (One Shot With All My Soul)

Mark is a strong gamer, and can digest systems quicker than most of us. But what he is most adept at is finding the one straight shot that will obliterate the competition. In Netrunner it’s the 8 damage swing. In Pixel Tactics it’s a swift 3 card combo that leaves you reeling. In resource games it’s finding his strategy, putting the pieces in place, and making a sudden, stunning rush on the points track. It’s why I never underestimate him in any game. If there is any weakness in his style it’s that, in seeking out the one big move, he will occasionally miss smaller more nuanced moves between the cracks, little things that would garner more points.

How it played out

I started out by jumping on the tech tree, looking to exploit food and wood bonuses. An oversight in the rules (+1 food or +1 wood, not both for a single space) worried me, but I stayed with it. Josh began in a similar way and was able to build his infrastructure later, but stronger. Mark started with an additional worker, and ran towards getting more and finding ways to feed them. This would give him the flexibility to lay the foundation for a big rush.

With a bit of early gain, I decided to leap on the Chichen Itza track, which is specifically for gaining points and little else. It was time consuming and had its risks, but nobody else followed me on it, and it allowed me an early lead. Josh managed to gain massive amounts of resources and start building rapidly. Mark acquired a number of end-game points and rushed forward in the end. It’s very difficult to determine who’s where points-wise, but we’re all feeling a mix of “I’m in good shape” and “I just f***ed myself over.”

Food Scarcity

Josh: An interesting part of many worker placement games is the decision of when to get more workers. Getting more workers is something that has to be timed, and comes with the cost not only of obtaining but maintaining that worker. It’s always a risk. Mark had a technology that started him with an extra worker, and Brandon went down that track fairly early on. About midway through the game I realized I had plenty of food, and that I probably should have grabbed an extra worker a few turns ago, but was instead nervous because the half year was about to come up. As the game progressed, I found myself throwing good money after bad by repeatedly passing up the new worker because I had thought the moment had passed and the immediate gains I was making would be more important. I was very wrong, and though the final score was close, a few minor changes could have made it disastrously bad for me.


Being overly conservative about my workers is in part due to the feeding mechanic in Tzolk’in being very unlike Stone Age, a worker placement game I know quite well. Tzolk’in’s corn does double duty, being used in feeding workers and allowing more flexible worker placement. This makes it fluctuate significantly and it’s far less predictable when you’ll have the corn cover all of your people. Tzolk’in’s version of the Stone Age field isn’t a place where everyone can always put a worker and reasonably expect it to feed itself. It has a wheel where you might have to wait a few turns, and that scared me into usually having plenty of corn left over, waiting for feeding time. That extra corn was a wasted resource, and in a game that requires you to manage a few different systems of resources, having one run inefficiently can bog down the whole system.

I become the two things I hate: Sub Optimal Redux

Two kinds of people annoy me when I’m playing a game; those who take forever to complete a turn, and those who whine about losing when they’re winning or have won. This game I became both.

There’s a lot to process in Tzolk’in. My turns took a bit of time. At least once I took time hammering out the details of a turn and its long-standing implications, and it paid off. At least once I took the time to pore over the turn and ended up shooting myself in the foot. One of those “this isn’t sub-optimal, this is terrible” kind of turns.

Josh: Brandon put a worker in the farm track, expecting to get wood, not realizing that since there were no longer any wood tiles, the only thing he could get was corn. This meant he had a series of essentially wasted moves, culminating in the loss of a crystal skull and thus some points from the blue “uses a crystal skull to get lots of points” track.

And I’m convinced it’s cost me the game.

Mark’s a sharp guy, and he’s played the game before, so I’m always wary when playing against him. The last three times I’ve played him in a game I’ve had an early lead and he has snatched victory from me. As for Josh, our recent games taught me this; when I think I’m in good shape I get beat. When I think I’m losing, I get beat horribly. So I don’t dare let myself think I’ve won.

And then I win. It’s not by a lot, but it’s enough.1

Josh: I found it very interesting that after the post about a Vegas Showdown mistake and the idea of Sub Optimal moves, we had both in this game. Mark made a few suboptimal plays at the very end. I have found that while overall strategies of mine aren’t always the best, I’m very good at finding every last point when I know the game is going to end in a turn or two. Mark was lining up for a big-point Monument for his final turn. Looking at the options available, he quickly grabbed the Monument and let the other workers do nothing, as he was now out of resources. I was looking at it and figured out a way for him to squeeze more resources out of the tech tree, giving him enough to not only get his monument, but also to use his last worker to buy another 8 point building. Those 8 plus the 2 extra from his Monument would’ve put him in the lead, and made Brandon’s mistake the one that cost him the game. Instead, the final numbers tallied up to have Brandon escape his mistake. Brandon outplayed us, and it was nice that the final score played out that way.

The term for people who take too long to play is Analysis Paralysis, or AP player. I propose that there should be a term for when one complains about losing and then wins. Maybe call it “Whining while Winning.”2 If it’s popular enough we can truncate it to “whuffing” or something.

Final Thoughts

Recently, and with increasing frequency, a game comes along that everyone in the world seems obsessed with. Tzolk’in was played constantly at Unity games this year. It’s 17 on Board Game Geek. Mark has brought it to every game gathering we’ve had since he purchased it months ago. At times it felt like the entire world wanted me to play this game. And now I finally realize why. Which means playing The Resistance is way overdue.

Tzolk’in is amazing, and the most fun I’ve had with a Euro-style game in a while. My apprehension at seeing drab cubes was lost in a wash of color and theme; The bright artwork and tribal feel, the interlocking systems, and those iconic and fiendishly clever gears, serve to make this a holistic marvel. My victory, carved out by the fervent worship at Chichen Itza, makes the victory feel less like a math problem I solved and more like a victory for my tribe through abject worship. It’s an expressive and challenging game that I’m seriously looking forward to playing again.

1Final scores: Brandon-60; Mark-53; Josh-52

2Not to be confused with “Tactical Bitching.”

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