Tzolk'in is one of the more widely recognised recent games, because of the gears. The first thing that comes to the minds of jaded boardgamers (like me!) is probably this: Is this just a gimmick that will soon be forgotten, and can the game stand on its own after the novelty has worn off? My opinion is the gears are just a tool to implement what is special about the game - the timing element.
Tzolk'in is a worker placement game. There are so many such games nowadays that whenever I hear this term again I roll my eyes. A worker placement game that doesn't offer anything else that is compelling will not be able to leave much impression. Tzolk'in's twist is that when you place your worker, you don't gain an action or benefit immediately. You only get it when you retrieve your worker later on. On your turn you may either place workers, or retrieve workers you have previously placed, and you are not limited to one worker in either case, just that if you place more than one worker you need to pay additoinal corn (corn = money). Workers can be left on the board for as long as you like. They are placed on the gears, which turn one notch at the end of every round. Whenever your worker shifts position, he usually moves to a space that gives a bigger benefit. So it is good to leave a worker on the board for a long time, just that during this time he is tied up with waiting.
The central gear is the one you turn. You turn it anti-clockwise, and the other gears will turn clockwise. The upper right section is the three temples. Depending on your standing at each of them, you will be awarded resources or points. The middle right section is the tech table. The lower right section is the monuments and buildings. Whenever anyone builds a building, another one replaces it, and mid way through the game the remaining buildings on the board are replaced with another set of buildings for the second half.
This particular gear is for collecting wood or corn. At the start of the game, some of the spaces have a wood tile stacked on top of a corn tile. You need to chop wood (and remove the wood tile) before you can harvest the corn (and remove the corn tile). Once the corn tile is removed, you can't harvest corn anymore, unless you have learnt a specific technology that ignores the corn tile requirement (I think of it as sustainable development).
Because of this gear mechanism, there is an interesting rhythm to the game - when to place workers and when to retrieve them, how many to place / retrieve, and maintaining enough cash (corn) to have flexibility. Sometimes when you need a worker to take a specific action, you have to plan a few arounds ahead for when he will reach that particular spot. You will be forced to retrieve workers when you don't have any on hand to place, so that's another aspect to think about.
Normally in worker placement games it is better to be the start player. In Tzolk'in it is not always so. When placing workers, you must place them on the lowest available spots on the gears. If you go late, then the weaker spots may be taken up by your opponents' workers, thus allowing you to take the stronger spots. This is provided you have enough corn of course, because placing workers on more powerful spots requires corn.
The actions that you can take when retrieving workers are not very different from other medium-to-heavy Eurogames. You collect resources, you convert them to victory points, you increase your standing at temples (i.e. an area majority competition), you construct buildings (which give you special abilities), you construct monuments (which give VP's), and so on. At the end of each quarter of the game, there is a food day. You need to feed your workers two corn each (i.e. like Agricola), and you are penalised -3VP per hungry worker. After that rewards are given depending on your standings at the temples.
The game ends when the central gear completes one full rotation, which I think is a nice touch.
The three temples. Each step indicates the resources and VP's awarded. Resources are awarded after the 1st and 3rd food days, and VP's the 2nd and 4th. The VP's above the temples are the bonuses for the leading player at each temple, for 2nd and 4th food days respectively.
I played a 2-player game against Han on BoardGameArena. I was initially a little doubtful whether it would work as a 2P game, but it turned out OK. From the start of the game, I decided to get as many workers out as possible (you start the game with three, and can increase to at most six), and to make sure they never go hungry. More men means more work get done, I thought. At the start of the game everyone is dealt four starting cards from which to pick two. These determine starting resources and special abilities. One of the cards I picked let one of my workers eat for free. Throughout the game I kept constructing buildings that gave me free meals. Eventually I had so many such powers that all six of my workers ate for free. That was fun. But then it occurred to me that such an achievement gave me exactly 0VP. What was I thinking?!
My buildings and starting card have a total of six "free lunch" icons - man with two corns and a big tick.
With fewer players, some spaces on the gears are blocked out using black markers.
It was around mid game that I realised I should have spent more effort thinking about how to score points, e.g. paying attention to the monuments available for the game (which changes from game to game), and also competing at the temple standings. I then did plan to require some crystal skulls, and then deposited them at the sacred Chichen Itza gear to earn points and gain standing. Unfortunately my strategy during the game didn't really jive with the monuments available, so I didn't go for them. Anyhow, I hadn't been spending much effort on accumulating resources, so it would be a struggle to assemble the building materials.
Han miscalculated during the first food day, and caused some of his workers to starve. That was painful as he lost more than 10VP! However he did better with resource collection, and in the second last round of the game he orchestrated one big move where he ensured he beat me at all three temples, and then by using the first player privilege he also sped up time (oh yes you can do this), causing the game to end one round early. He came from behind and beat me 56:54! I have to say this friend of mine sometimes really impresses me. He doesn't lose heart no matter how far behind he is and always plays his best. I wonder whether it is something to do with his training and his job. Afterall a doctor operating on a patient cannot easily give up and say screw this. It's a matter of life and death.
End game. Han (green) beat me (red) at all three temples!
Tzolk'in is a game that is heavy on medium-term planning and coordination. It's worker placement, but I find it has quite a unique rhythm because of the timing aspect. I enjoyed this. The actions behind this core mechanism are nothing new though, pretty much what you can see in many VP-scoring Eurogames. I guess it is fine as long as the whole package is balanced well, and it has enough thematic elements. One thing I found was I needed to focus on one or two areas and I couldn't try to do everything. For example, the techs. As you progress on techs, the benefits get more and more powerful, so I feel it is better to keep using them rather than spending your actions on advancing other techs. This is the opposite of Agricola, which encourages players to take a balanced approach and to do moderately well in every area. I like that players are encouraged to specialise, because that tends to result in them have different strengths and priorities. It creates an interesting dynamic where players try to go for less competitive areas, and yet at the same time need to ensure others don't get a free hand to do what they want. I'm not sure whether this is all just because I played poorly though. It might be why I wasn't able to do well in multiple areas. I guess I will need to play more to find out.
The tech table. The four horizontal rows are the four techs. You start at level 0. When you advance to Levels 1 to 3, they make certain actions stronger. After you reach Level 3 and perform advance again, you have no more to advance, and instead you gain the benefit in the rightmost column.