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Huzonfirst
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Designers: Simone Luciani, Daniele Tascini
Publisher: Czech Games Edition, Rio Grande
Players: 2-4
Ages: 12+
Time:
90 minutes

Theme: Ancient Mayan Civilization Building
Main Mechanics: Worker Placement, Resource Conversion

Times played: 4, twice with prototype, twice with published version

For those of you reading this: rejoice! Despite the predictions of wild-eyed pseudo-scientists with weenie beards on the Discover channel, the world did not come to an end today. Either the Mayan calendar makers were mistaken or something interrupted them just when they got to December 21, 2012 (like, I don’t know, maybe a horde of European invaders). Your reward is you get to live to read this review of the game based on the Mayan calendar (your high school English teacher would have referred to this twist as irony).

Human nature being what it is, most gamers who see the Tzolk’in gameboard are immediately attracted to the game, but then quickly say, “Hmm, it’s got to be a gimmick.” The reason for both reactions is the same–it’s those wonderful interlocking gears. Thankfully, Tzolk’in is not a toy and the gears are not a gimmick, but rather an extremely clever way of handling an innovative game mechanic: a worker placement game where your payoff depends not only on where your workers are, but how long they’ve been there.

As Time Goes By

In Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, the players represent leaders of different Mayan tribes. They attempt to do the best job of representing their people by building structures and long-standing monuments, displaying piety to the three Mayan gods, educating their tribes in various technologies, and making sacred sacrifices to the gods. The player who earns the most VPs by doing this wins the game and can pose for the centerfold in the next Mayan calendar.

So let’s take a look at the board that’s been grabbing so much attention. Once constructed, the board includes room for six gears. There is a large central gear and five smaller ones, each of which interlocks with the central gear. There are indentations between each of the teeth of the gears where a single worker can be securely placed. The board shows what the benefit is from each space associated with the gears. When the central gear is rotated, all the other gears rotate as well, automatically advancing the workers which rest on them. The effect is a simple way for the workers on a gear to have their benefits increase every turn they stay there.

Before we get to the specifics for doing this, let’s talk about how the game begins, because this is also quite innovative. After determining the player order and revealing the starting buildings and monuments, each player is dealt four starting wealth tiles. These include things the players can start the game with, including various amounts of corn (the game’s currency), different resources (there are three of them in the game–wood, stone, and gold), crystal skulls (used for making sacrifices), advancements on the tracks that show technology knowledge or the temples that show loyalty to a god, even extra beginning workers. Each player secretly chooses two of these to begin the game with and reveals them simultaneously. This is an excellent concept and one I expect to see in other designs in the future. It not only effectively differentiates the players at the start of the game, it also gives them a good deal of latitude in determining their strategic path at the outset, without them having complete control over it.

Each player begins the game with three workers, plus whatever goodies they get from their two starting wealth tiles. Play then begins with the first player.

Gear Hopping for Fun & Profit

The first thing you have to do on your turn is decide if you want to piss off a god. If you have less than 3 corn, you can go begging, which raises your corn total up to 3. But doing this “angers the gods”, which means you have to lower your level on a temple by one step.

Then comes the worker-related part of your turn, which means you do one of the following:
* Add one or more workers to the board, possibly at the cost of some corn;
* Remove one or more workers from the board and gain the benefits of where the workers were standing.

You cannot do both and you cannot do neither. This simple rule means you’ll have to carefully plan in order to accomplish the things you need to do.

Let’s look at adding workers first. The workers you place can go on different gears or the same gear–any gears you want to occupy. When you add a worker to a gear, you have to place it at the lowest unoccupied space. If this is the first space on the gear, there’s no cost for the placement, but if it’s a higher space, you have to pay one corn for each level higher than the first. In addition, it costs you 1 additional corn to place a second worker, 2 additional corn to place your third worker, and so on. All these costs are additive. So if you want to place three workers and one of them goes on the second lowest space on its gear, the total cost will be 4 corn.

Removing workers is just as simple. Just look at the benefit next to the space the worker was on and receive it. Some of the benefits allow you to take an action. You have the option of receiving the benefit from an earlier space on the same gear, but you have to pay 1 corn for each space you travel back to. A worker on one of the last two spaces of each gear can take any benefit on that gear, with no corn payment.

Here’s a brief summary of the benefits on each of the gears. I’ll discuss some the rules behind these benefits a little later.

* Agriculture: You can gather corn and wood here.
* Resources: You can get all three of the resources here, along with some corn and crystal skulls.
* Construction: The actions you can take here allow you to construct buildings and monuments, along with advancing on the technology tracks and temples.
* Commerce: Kind of a catch-all gear, where you can get extra workers, buy and sell resources, and use corn to construct buildings or advance on temples.
* Worship: You can sacrifice crystal skulls to the gods for significant VP awards.

Let’s look at some of these concepts in detail.

Agriculture – Many of these spaces represent jungle and the only way of getting the corn benefit is if someone took wood from that space in an earlier action. But a player can get the corn directly by burning down the trees. However, this “angers the gods”. Who knew that the Mayans worshiped such a bunch of irritable deities?

Buildings and Monuments – Every player has 6 buildings available to them at the beginning of their turn. Each costs a specific combination of resources to build. Most of the buildings emulate actions on the board, but either provide VPs or give you less costly ways of doing them. At the midpoint of the game, a new set of buildings are introduced, which are more expensive but yield more powerful effects.

As opposed to the buildings, there are only 6 monuments available for the entire game. They are very expensive, but can be worth a lot of VPs at the end of the game, depending upon the things the purchaser has accomplished.

Temples – Each of the three gods in the game has their own temple, which are shown as step pyramids on the board. Players climb in level on these pyramids in a variety of ways. Certain levels show resources on them and at two points during the game, each player receives the resources for all the levels they’ve achieved. At the midpoint and end of the game, every player receives the VPs associated with their temple levels. In addition, the two players with the highest levels at each of the temples receives bonus VPs.

Worshipping – The fifth gear is the largest in the game and every space has room for a single crystal skull. When a player removes her worker from one of these spaces, she places one of her crystal skulls on the space (so each space can only be used once), gets the VPs associated with that space, and goes up one level on one of the temples.

Technologies – There are four technology tracks and each gives benefits for one type of action. There are three levels in each track and they cost one, two, and three resources to advance to, respectively. All of the levels give the player a greater benefit when certain actions are accomplished. For example, one technology gives you more corn when you gather corn on the Agriculture gear, while a second technology gives you bonus resources when they are earned. The third technology yields bonuses when building and the fourth gives you benefits when worshipping. The bonuses are cumulative for each of the tracks. After you achieve the third level in a technology, you can still benefit by advancing on the track; each track gives you a special bonus in this instance if you spend one resource.

After every player takes their turn, it’s time to end the current round, but the way that’s resolved depends on a location I haven’t discussed yet. There’s a starting player space on the board, separate from all the gears. If no one places a worker there during the round, the start player for the next round remains the same and one corn is added to the space, which accumulates round by round. The start player then ends the current round by rotating the central gear one space, advancing all the workers at the same time, and then begins the next round. If, however, a player does put a worker on the starting player space, they take all the accumulated corn and become the new start player for the next round (if the current start player goes there, the start player marker rotates clockwise to the next player). They then have the option, for that turn only, to rotate the central gear by two spaces, advancing all the workers twice as far. Needless to say, this can really throw a Mayan monkey wrench into the most carefully laid plans, so players need to take that possibility into account. Usually, each player can only do this double advancement once a game, so there’s a limit to how many liberties can be taken with the calendar.

Four times over the course of the game, you have to feed your workers. Hey, jumping on and off of those gears gives a meeple an appetite! You have to pay the bank 2 corn for each of your workers, or suffer a reasonably stiff VP penalty for each unfed dude (so this is not the game for a starvation strategy). The ability of some of the buildings is to help with these requirements when dinnertime rolls around.

It’s the End of the Game, As We Know It

When the central gear has made one complete revolution, the game comes to an end. This coincides with the fourth Meeple Feeding. The players score for their temple advancements (for the second time), get VPs for any monuments they’ve built (based on their achievements), and get some additional VPs for any corn, resources, and skulls they have left over. Even with Doomsday on the horizon, one thing remains the same: most VPs wins.

Designing a successful game is a delicate balancing act. It needs to have enough innovative aspects to attract the Cult-of-the-New crowd, while also providing enough familiar elements so that less adventurous gamers aren’t scared off. It should have enough of a “Wow” factor to lure gamers in, but also have solid enough gameplay to keep them coming back. And the game should have enough complexity to give it depth, while still being simple enough that most players won’t be overwhelmed. One of the reasons Tzolk’in has been so popular is that it does a great job of walking the tightrope. Its worker placement mechanics are comfortingly familiar, while introducing the element of time makes those same mechanics feel innovative. The gears can attract you from across the room, but there’s much more to the game than those rotating pieces of plastic. And the game is simple at its heart–most turns involve the movement of three or fewer pieces–but the planning necessary to optimize those moves gives the game considerable depth. It’s a very accessible game, that appeals to a wide variety of gamers.

The gears are not a gimmick because without them, the game would not be feasible. (This is not just hyperbole; after trying the prototype back in April, several of us were worried that the final version of the game wouldn’t include the gears, because they would be too expensive to manufacture. Petr Murmak of CGE said he wasn’t sure what the published version would look like, but that it would include gears. Period!) Just as the production wheel greatly facilitates the play in Ora et Labora, so the gears in Tzolk’in make what would be a laborious, error-prone process simple. Playability is much more than a gimmick.

You’ll need the time the gears save you to help plan your moves. The fact that you can’t add and remove workers on the same turn means you’ll have to carefully look ahead to accomplish exactly what you want. In addition, keep in mind you have to do one of the two options–those Mayans didn’t believe in do-nothing concepts like passing! So, for example, you may have to keep workers back, just so that you can have another turn of adding, to allow your workers to advance one more space. All of this gives the players some very different kinds of planning decisions than are typically found in games of this kind. They’re not mind-bending–after all, you’ll never have more than 6 workers to worry about–but they’re still quite challenging and very enjoyable.

The rest of the game is nicely designed as well. The starting wealth process is a really good idea and gets the game off to an excellent, and accelerated start. Much of the rest of it is a cube salad, with the typical conversion of resources to special abilities and VP items, but at least the abilities are varied and interesting and they all seem well balanced. There are quite a few strategies to explore and since many of them depend on the monuments available for that game, the game has a high replayability factor. Best of all, with such limited actions, turns usually are quite short and the game moves along at a nice pace, just the thing when you’re trying to sneak in one more game before the coming apocalypse. It all adds up to a very enjoyable package and is one of my favorite games of the year.

The player interaction is all indirect, but there’s still quite a bit of it for a Euro. Grabbing spaces on a gear that an opponent was eyeing can be affective, particularly if they are short on corn. Changing the first player can alter things as well, since each position in the turn order plays very differently (the first player has cheap, but weak positions open on all of the gears, for example, but the last player is much more likely to be forced to spend corn for advanced, but costly positions). Nastiest of all, of course, is the dreaded double spin, which always seems to catch some players by surprise. I think the level of interaction is good, so that you need to be able to take advantage of tactical positions left you by opponents, but there’s still plenty of ways of executing your chosen strategy.

The physical production is remarkable. The gears work smoothly, without jostling the workers (although some early versions of the game required that the connecting holes be enlarged). The gears are attached to various portions of the board, which are assembled in jigsaw fashion, so that you never have to remove the gears, an ingenious solution to a thorny production problem. The board is colorfully and clearly illustrated. The workers, corn, and resources are just cardboard tokens and wooden pieces, but happily, the crystal skulls are small plastic skulls, which are very cool looking. The buildings, monuments, and starting wealth tiles are all unambiguously designed. The publisher did a first-class job producing the game, which definitely adds to its appeal.

Tzolk’in is another excellent game from CGE and is, in fact, the first one of their titles not to come from Czech designers. Gameplay is smooth and challenging. My games have all been with 4 players and that may be the optimal number, but with 2 or 3, dummy workers are added to the gears to simulate the greater competition for space. I’m usually not a fan of artificial ways of adding fictional players to a game, but this seems like an unusually elegant solution and many gamers report that the game works well with lower numbers. Plus, the game looks great and is a guaranteed conversation piece when it’s set up in its full glory. If you were afraid of picking this title up because the world was coming to an end, one look at the calendar will show you that that excuse is gone. So go out and buy a copy, since it probably won’t be the last thing you do!
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Wade Broadhead
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This game lived up to the hype at BGGCON 2012, it was one of my favorite plays.
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Marco Poutré
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You took quite a risk since you actually posted this on December 21st. Just imagine how foolish that review would have looked when read from a nuclear shelter.
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Huzonfirst
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Marcon wrote:
You took quite a risk since you actually posted this on December 21st. Just imagine how foolish that review would have looked when read from a nuclear shelter.

Hey, that's how I roll. And if that had occurred, as an extra bonus, the game would have then been glow in the dark!
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J. M. Lopez-Cepero "CP"
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Great review! I participated in the Tzolk'in contest and had to read the rules to dig out some of the replies - and immediately put the game in my wishlist. This review piques my interest even more. From what I see, there is a lot to like in the game and the replayability is high, which helps rationalizing the decision

I would like to ask two questions and add a small comment.

d10-1 First question, how language-independent is this game? From the rules I'd say that the only use of written language is in the rulebook, and that everything else (board and tiles) uses icons - which means that all editions are the same save for the rulebook. Can anybody confirm this? For some reason, German copies are much cheaper than English copies (here in Spain, at least) and I wouldn't mind printing out a manual if I save 15€ in the process (yep, that's the difference here - about 35€ for a German copy, about 50€ for an English copy - which seems a rather expensive price to pay for a translated manual which is not even in my mother tongue ). Besides, most of my usual gaming partners are only happy if the game is in Spanish or is otherwise language independant.

d10-2 Second question, can anybody attest to how well the game works with 2? I play a lot of games with my GF and try to buy games which play well with two.

nuclear The comment is related to the above question d10-2 and to this part of the review:

Larry Levy wrote:
My games have all been with 4 players and that may be the optimal number, but with 2 or 3, dummy workers are added to the gears to simulate the greater competition for space. I’m usually not a fan of artificial ways of adding fictional players to a game, but this seems like an unusually elegant solution and many gamers report that the game works well with lower numbers.


It does seem like an elegant solution indeed, and I have seen it in action - it's actually very similar to CGE's own Dungeon Petz, in which dummy imps go around three groups of action spaces. I immediately thought of DP when I read that snippet of the rules

Again, thanks for a great review! thumbsup
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Geoff Burkman
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d10-1 Your assessment is correct; the game is virtually language-independent beyond the rules. Your stratagem sounds quite economical.

d10-2 Can't help you on that one as I've not played it 2p.

Quote:
...it's actually very similar to CGE's own Dungeon Petz, in which dummy imps go around three groups of action spaces. I immediately thought of DP when I read that snippet of the rules ...


d10-3 Good artists borrow. Great artists steal. --various attributions
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Huzonfirst
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The game is completely language-independent. I would think that the German version would work just fine for you.

Unfortunately, I haven't played the game with two, so I can't comment on your second question.
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Alexander
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great review for a fantastic game, its really one of the 3-4 best euro games in my collection and its wife friendly also.
I have played 4-5 2 player games and i must say that its also one of the best 2player eurogames.
Its great, i dont think anyone who plays euros should miss it.
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J. M. Lopez-Cepero "CP"
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Thanks Larry Levy, MisterG & Alexander for your replies, they're much appreciated
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