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.”

About Last Night: Unity Games XIX

Brandon:  Unity Games is a convention of sorts, though there aren’t really vendors or panels or stuff you’d normally associate a convention with.

Josh:  They seem to go with “event.”

Brandon:  That’s appropriate.  It is essentially a gathering of board-gamers, organized by the BoardGameGeek community, specifically the New England contingent.  It’s a sort of socialist gathering, in that everyone brings their games, and freely allows everyone attending to borrow and play them, with the implicit agreement that they will not damage or steal the contents.  It totally works.  I was introduced to Unity by a friend of mine when I first moved to Boston five years ago.  I have been attending it ever since.

This year’s event was held at the Doubletree Hotel in Danvers, MA.  Swanky place, it even has a giant indoor water park.  I got up around 8:00 and out the door by 9:00.  At 9:45 I’m playing the first of many games to come (which we’ll give quick reviews of later).

Josh:  This was my first year at Unity, and I honestly wasn’t sure to expect. All my details were, well, not details. Where, when, how much and Boardgames was about all I knew.  So I got up around 10 and left around 11. When I arrived, I put my coat down and immediately found Brandon playing Spinball outside of the main room.

Brandon: Which was a treat since it’s rare, expensive, and I will never own a copy.

Josh: A few other tables with different games were set up and a few people were milling around. The charity auction had a stack of 50 or so games and there was a table with two guys taking money and handing out nametags. I asked myself if this was really it and if maybe I’d end up at my girlfriend’s friend’s friend’s party that night after all.

And then I stepped into the grand ballroom, which was about the size of a football field and filled with about 500 people, all of whom seemed to be immersed in games. Oh. So this is what I’m here for.

Brandon:  Yup.  Unity was in Woburn the last few years, but moved here because there was more space.  IMO there still wasn’t enough.

While waiting for Josh I jumped into a game of Legendary with 4 other guys who have never played.  Quick review: it’s Ascension with Marvel heroes, and not very special.  But hey, new game!  That’s one of the 3 major things I have to do at Unity, play new games.

I’m anxious to get into a game with Josh, so he can start loving Unity as much as I do.  I think my wishes are granted immediately, as we find a 3rd person willing to teach us Eclipse, a pretty robust space exploration game.  So imagine my dismay when we find that the guy has only played it once, doesn’t know how to teach it, isn’t sure he has all the components, and the table we can find to play isn’t nearly large enough.

Josh:  Thankfully we got out of it with a switch to King Of Tokyo, a game I’ve heard as the “light” game that’s worth playing. I don’t remember how long the game took but it felt like 5 minutes and it wasn’t quite as fun as I wanted it to be considering that I had heard it was good, but at least now I know.  I suggested grabbing lunch, in part to find new gaming partners, and in part because it’s a biological necessity to eat and my body was reminding me of that. After a quick bite to eat I returned to the football field sized room and figured now was as good a time as any to figure out what I actually wanted to do here.

Brandon:  Which was a good idea, because I would have been content staying, gaming, not eating, and eventually wasting away.  As opposed to eating my sandwich and bouncing up and down in Subway while Josh wonders why he’s friends with a man-child.

See, Unity is a bit overwhelming.  It is essentially all the games, and almost certainly the people who want to play them (I never did get that Monopoly game off the ground in 2010 though).  Anyone who has tried and failed to get together a game night just once knows how great this is.  It also gives me that feeling of anxiety when I hit conventions; I can’t focus on having fun, because I’m too worried about the stuff I’m going to miss out on.  “Lunch?  Damn man, the demo of Donald Vaccarino’s mad scientist game Nefarious is demoing and we’re missing it!”  Or even better; “We gotta get more gaming in.  this closes at midnight, we’ve only got… 10 more hours!”

So maybe it’s just as well that we sort of split up when we get back.  Honestly I feel a little bad about it; Josh said at lunch that, while my priorities at Unity are to play as many games with as many people as I can, his plan was to play games with me, and also other people that would be fun to play with.  But he sees some improv friends, and I really want to try this Nefarious demo out, so we divide and conquer.

Josh: Keeping track of our afternoons and evenings in tandem is a logic puzzle that would give even expert solvers a tough time. Instead, let me tell you I had a lot of fun, and here are some of my highlights and thoughts on the evening:

  • I found my friends Nick and Casey playing Ginkopolis, which is the game that throughout the day is seemingly always being played near me. There were two games I had never seen/heard of before Unity that got a lot of buzz were definitely Ginkopolis and “that Mayan gears game” (later discovered that it was actually called Tzolk’in).

This ain’t your daddy’s Mouse Trap

  • My initial fear of going to Unity was who I was going to play games with. For me, playing a game with the right person is usually more important than what game we’re playing, so finding Nick and Casey (and their group of friends) was a godsend. I didn’t actually play a single game with either of them, but I played games with people they knew and got to avoid getting stuck in a game with someone who was too competitive or too slow or too smelly. Every game I played was with people I enjoyed who were friendly, smart and just the right amount of competitive. I’d play with any of them again.
  • Village (a worker placement game wherein part of your goal is to kill some of your workers so that they may be placed in the graveyard) may be the most in depth game I’ve played, or it might be a bunch of bullshit where it feels like you’ve got strategies but in fact you don’t. I’m not positive. That said, the guy who won is apparently “the guy who always wins” among his peers, so it might not be bullshit.
  • While we’re on Village: In most game groups there seems to be a guy who has a distinct style of play that when it leads to victory everyone says “oh man, there he goes again.” For me, it’s my friend Dan who figured out the Chapel Strategy in Dominion before the rest of us. In Village, the guy who won’s strategy involved hoarding cubes and then going to market when he could fulfill 4 orders and the rest of us couldn’t fill any. Final scores were something like 73, 51, 46 and 32. Second place isn’t much of a moral victory when first place was that far ahead.
  • Nefarious, on the other hand, I feel more confident putting in the “mostly bullshit” category. Which is too bad. The theme is cool and the gameplay is interesting, but the options felt extremely limited and I didn’t feel like I had much chance for strategy. I’d play again, but I wouldn’t buy it or advise anyone else to buy it either.
  • Factory Fun was played twice, because even in this gaming land of opportunity, where you can go find ANY game you want, this was so enjoyable that everyone agreed to take 5 and run it back. The gameplay is relatively quick, and the only major flaw I found in my two plays through is that the first two grabs seem fairly arbitrary (and if they are supposed to be, then why not just deal out two machines from the start?). By round three though, when you might want to let a part go, it really shines. And the expert maps are… challenging. If you played Pipe Dream on an old windows PC and enjoyed it, then you’ll like this game. Also, if you like yelling “it’s not a dump truck! It’s a series of Tubes!!”, then look no further.

Senator Stevens would be proud

Brandon: I had tons of fun too. Allow me to expound my earlier reviews, give my impressions, and address some of Josh’s points with a few of my own.

  • I remember distinctly a time when I went to Unity with friends and stressed about playing games with them.  We wasted time, didn’t get much in, and had to leave early.  So while I really like going and playing with friends, it’s one of those places where I usually end up throwing myself out to the crowd to find stuff to play and people to play with.  It forces me to be social, and it’s the most forgiving crowd; everyone’s there to game, without shame or hesitation.
  • Legendary.   I really want to like this, but after one play, I can’t imagine breaking out all the components when Ascension plays the same way and has less setup.  You have your starting decks, various heroes to get shuffled, the villain deck which has minions and major villains, the mastermind, the schemes and scheme twists, bystanders, and a big board. You flip villains into a center row, buy heroes, and fight villains if you have the strength, which at the start you almost certainly won’t. You’re supposed to be working together, as there is a global lose condition, but really, whoever gets the most points wins. It’s okay, but not worth the price and time, even with the old-school comic artwork that’s all over everything in the game.
  • Goblins, Inc. was another game I saw a lot of.  I don’t know how it plays, but I sat next to a game and heard, “okay, this turn you have that goblin pilot the head, then he can switch to engineering and begin repairs while we attack.”  I want to be able to utter things like that, that’s one of the great things about board gaming.  You play a goblin team and build robots to do battle with other goblins.  I don’t know about the game mechanics, but the theme sounds great.
  • Nefarious really is mostly bullshit.  I’m glad Josh and I agree here.  I can almost see the steps that led to it:  you have a game with a lot of mad science kookiness, but it’s thin on mechanics.  You have all these ideas that could make the game better.  So you throw them in as “twists” and have the players flip two over to modify the current game.  And you didn’t bother testing them, because hey, the game plays so quick, why bother?  And you end up with a half-game with a half-mechanic that ranges from boring to broken (with admittedly some good cards in the spectrum, not sure how many).  I’m just a little pissed that I was kept from gaming with friends to play it.  Donald Vaccarino made Dominion, for Christ’s sake!  He can do better.
  • The second major thing on my Unity checklist is to play games I have heard about, but won’t get a chance to play due to their high cost, scarce availability, or the knowledge that I could never get a group together to play them.  I didn’t even know Space Cadets was out, so I was super excited to play it.  It’s insanely complicated, and it wore out its welcome before we were done, around the 2 hour mark.  But there was someone to teach it, people to play it, and while it wasn’t the amazing experience I built up in my head, it was still a lot of fun, and I will definitely look to buy it. If nothing else it will be a cool exercise in teaching a complicated game to a group in a reasonable amount of time.

Everyone’s got a job to do. Not pictured: torpedo firing range, sensor kit, captain tearing his hair out.

  • Damnit I wanted to play Factory fun.  And I never did get a game of Eclipse.  Or Ascending Empires.  Or Galaxy Trucker.  I would see games of them going on, and be busy playing another game.  But I had fun.  It’s important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees here.
  • In the wee hours I played Ticket To Ride Nordic with Josh and Samuel, a guy I sort of know from curling.  I won.  It was pretty sweet.

The closing hours

After the Ticket to Ride game Josh headed out.  And for good reason, it was 11:00pm, maybe later.  I didn’t play any games after that (except one round of Loopin’ Louie.  I’m not proud of it).  But I did get to do the last and, I think, most enjoyable thing on my Unity checklist; teach new games.

There were a lot of Android: Netrunner copies floating around (at number 7 on BGG you better believe it), and a lot of people who wanted to play but didn’t know how.  It’s a difficult game to just pick up.  But I was able to help a few people through the initial stages of the game.  I also got to teach Carcassonne, and introduce my own meeple lexicon to a group.  And a few guys were playing Innovation for the first time, and I did a little Q&A for some of the more obscure rules (remember, you can’t get a regular achievement unless you have enough points and a card of that age or higher in your tableau).

Unity isn’t perfect. It’s perennially crowded, loud, and not terribly well-organized. This is what happens when you strip away the trappings of a convention. The booths, vendors, industry moguls and independent developers, the panels and stage shows, and countless advert handouts are shuffled off, and what we are left with is the mutual agreement of hundreds of people whose singular focus is to game. To play games. To teach games. To buy, sell, and trade old and new titles, ensuring that old games find new life, and new games can become old favorites. To devote as much as a full day in the pursuit of that spirit of gaming. It’s a full day of Any Game Good, and I think that says it all.

Unity Games 2011 (you know its from years ago because its so much smaller). My kind of crowd.