Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Stuck'in 2nd Gear: The Mayan Calendar

I recently managed to get in my 3rd ( and possibly final ) play of Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar.
I first played this game in December last year, and after 2 plays of it i wasnt at all impressed.
I remember calling it "broken" on one of our podcast episodes. I think it was our very first one.
Do I still stand by my comments ? Well, lets find out !

During this recent play of Tzolk'in, i did something embarrassing. Or well, something that i feel very guilty about. I actually didnt try a different strategy from my previous 2 games.
I had wanted to try something different when we first started, but i was pretty drained that day and decided that i needed to take things easy. You see, in my first 2 plays, i did the temple strategy, and then tech + building strategy.
I had wanted to try the skull strategy this time round just for kicks, but since we had played Terra Mystica before this, and i had a really long day in the morning/afternoon, i was too tired to really focus on the skull strategy i was planning for. So i caved and decided to do the same old.
Yeah, just thought i would get that out of the way. Felt like i did myself and the game a disservice, but what to do ?, the train has left the station.

Ok, so i went back to the easy strategy - the temple strategy.
Lets just state the scores up front for those who are interested
Winner - 75 ( temple strategy )
Myself - 74 ( temple strategy )
3rd Place - 45 ( i think it was a monuments + tech strategy )
His Usual Place ( haha, just kidding ) - 41 ( i dont remember what strategy )
* these scores were brought to you by a certain friend who has great gaming bookkeeping skills* - its very impressive. :)

Well, i'm glad to announce that my opinions haven't changed one bit about Tzolk'in.
The main reason i called Tzolk'in broken after my first 2 plays was that the player who employs the temple strategy seemed to run away with the game. Now, before you call me out on it, i will also admit, yes, there are other strategies that win the game. I am not denying it. Just, read to the end first k ? Thanks

I didnt like Tzolk'in after my first 2 plays because the player who adopted the temple strategy came out with big wins over the rest of the players. and when i say big, i mean BIG.

My 1st Play was with 3 players ( 1 who has played before and 2 newbies ).
I won by a margin of nearly 30 points and i was the one who ran with the temple strategy.
The 2nd Play was with 4 players ( 3 who has played before and 1 newbie ).
The player with the temple strategy also won by a large margin. I think it was nearly 25 points this time round. I went with the monument strategy and i never came close. nor did i ever feel i could come close.

After my first 2 plays, i had thought that maybe its because there wasnt anyone challenging myself and the other player during our temple strategy runs. Everyone was doing their own thing and thus the points werent floating around evenly.

But after my 3rd play ( 4 players, 3 who own the game and my 1 lonesome self ), the results were the same. With 2 players doing the same temple strategy, we both shot out in front and still eclipsed the other 2 players by 30 points. So even with the temple points being distributed ( albeit not evenly, i had all of it after the first half, we shared the second half ), we were still far and away the big winners.
*For those who are wondering, if i won all the first half points, how did the winner still get so many points, its because he managed to build the temple monument.

the temple strategy

So after my last play, i came away very dissatisfied with how Tzolk'in pans out.
I know there are other strategies ( skull strategy, big corn strategy, monument strategy, building strategy ), and i know that you can utilize these other strategies to come out victorious.

But what i feel about these other strategies is this:
1) you need to have played the game multiple times ( or at least studied the game a few times ) to know how to successfully manipulate these strategies to your advantage
2) you also need to be lucky that the buildings or monuments required for these strategies to work are available

And number 2 is a big big point. Some of the above strategies just dont work ( or dont give you a sufficient punch ) without the monument or building appearing on the board. Whereas compared to the temple strategy, you dont even need the temple monument to grace 70+ points. It is nearly a given as the temple points never change. In fact, had no one challenged me in my 3rd game for the monument, i would have topped 100+ points easily.

I can understand the lure of Tzolk'in for those who like to explore a game into its greatest depths. And for them, there is a draw and great replayability in Tzolk'in. But for me, i like games where anyone on the onset can learn the game and be competitive right from the get go. I'm not saying that i dont appreciate depth in my games, but i feel that good game design is shown by how easily people can grasp a game's concept, see its different methods of play, pick any and put up as good a fight as even the most experienced player. They won't win, but they will be sticking around long enough to pounce on the leader should he/she ever slip up.
Take Terra Mystica for example. It is certainly a deep game, but i have seen new players really give the experienced gamer a run for their money. The new player doesnt win, but a close 2nd or 3rd isnt something to laugh at. In short, good game design should lead to a good ( pretty well ) balanced game.

a beautiful board for an ok game

But for Tzolk'in, i can most certainly say that, if all players are new, 95% of the time the temple strategy will destroy all other strategies that anyone else tries to employ. And i mean completely destroy. Not even a close 2nd or 3rd. And that really takes the shine off of the game. Its hard to bring people more into a game that proves a little too imbalanced from the get go.
Its the same for any game really. If i picked up a cooperative game, and i beat it on the medium or hardest difficulty level on my first try, it is very unlikely i will want to play the game again. It seizes to be a challenge. A good game is supposed to draw you in with its subtle depth and challenge, and make you want to try something different that may still produce a favorable result. No one likes to fight a losing battle.

So that is how i feel about Tzolk'in.
As my title says, it feels like its stuck in 2nd gear, unable to find the groove to click into top gear.
It certainly moves along as a game should, but never during the game did i find that we were in actual competition. It felt more like the race placing in F1 where each of us have a few laps to clock the fastest timing, and we meet at the end to see who claims pole position.
It simply felt like an illusion of a game. The endless possibilities of doing different stuff is present, but at the end of the day, none of it really matters.



  1. Hi Eric,
    Im Daniele the game designer. While I don't claim that anybody will like my game, I'm a bit sad when I see people that drop it because they didn't understand it. :)
    So I would like to attract your attention to a few consideration that should change your approach to the game.

    1. Learning curve and points. This game has a new mechanic that require a bit more to get acquainted with... 3 games are really too few to get it, so the learning curve is longer.
    But scoring 40 points at Tzolkin is like scoring 18 at Agricola, and saying that temple strategy trashes the others with 74 points it's like saying that the ONLY guy who managed to buy an OVEN/KITCHEN in Agricola trashed all the other players by scoring 29 points!!!:)

    2. Temples. You can raise on the temples by doing ANY strategy. If you go for buildings there are plenty of buildings that raise you on the temples! That means that you can score a big part of the temple points that another player score going only for them, but you have a stronger structure that let you score points with buildings/monuments.

    Just a couple of hints here:
    - You can raise the resourcs tech track and use gold to sell at the market for corn, buy the key temples building in ageI, meanwhile raise the buildings tech track and build EVERYTHING in ageII with a couple of monuments. When you learn how to manage this you will trash a temple strategy! I saw 120+ points made with this.. ;)
    - You can raise the buildings tech track first. And buy any building with discount. That means that you will buy the most of AGEI building with just wood or for free! And score 2 points each. You will advance the resources tech track USING BUILDINGS. In the end you build 1/2 monuments. You can get wood/corn on Palenque.
    It's very satisfing to move your score track each time you build a farm fo free... :)

    3. Skulls. The easiest strategy to score 90/100 points is actually skulls. Just be sure to IMMEDIATLY raise to the second level of Teology tech track. And later to the last level.
    So each skull you place you double step on the temples! But you score for placed skulls. If not challenged here you can easily place 7/8 skulls on Chitchen Itza...
    Place the first ones on first position to taka advantage of Chaac... and contend the its bonus in the first age... then concentrate to Kuulcan to get the free skull in the 3rd quarter...
    And you don't need ANY monument to score 90/100.

    4. Monuments. Jonathan said that with a temples monument would get alot of points... The temple monuments are the MOST expensive, and one of them give AT MAXMIMUM 21 points... and what if they are not out?
    ALL the other monuments cost less, and many of them can give you more points... if you go for building you will build 12 to 15 buildings, that means any of the 4 'buildings' monuments (that cost less then the temples ones) will give you 24+ points.
    The 2 tech tracks monuments also easily gives 27/33 points.
    Of course going for monument is not a strategy! You have to couple them with buildings.

    In the end, the key of this game are TECHNOLOGIES! You have to develope them before doing anything else, and learn how to improve the last steps, expecially exploiting the buildings powers at the right time.
    The problem when playing with the same people with the same strategies is that you don't get stimulated... if you manage to do something else succefully then anyone else will want to try something to beat you :)

  2. hi Daniele, many thanks for your comment!
    I am willing to give it a go and try again because I certainly can see how other ways can score points as well. Its just... the temple... always seems to beckon to me... ;p i need to be less fixated on it and try other methods...

    Jon on the other hand has a different opinion on Tzolkin..

  3. I have played twice now, and I really enjoyed this game. Lots of depth and an intriging worker placement mechanism. I like games where you feel like you can improve and do better next time and you can see where you made a poor move. This game gives me that feeling and makes me want to try again to do better and be more efficient. Lots of fun for me.

  4. hi Daniele !

    thanks for your comments. its nice to see that a game designer has read our posts on our website. :)

    i dont really want to get into a thread about whether i understand your game or not. In my opinion, i do understand your game and the different ways it can be played. but i guess you see it otherwise. but not an issue. to each his own. ;)

    i do want to say that i do agree that there are other scoring strategies and paths to victory, i too have mentioned it on my post. :)
    however, my issues with these other strategies is that it takes a trained hand to accomplish them, and more importantly, it requires a particular monument to be effective.

    the temples give you a lot of points ( with or without a monument ), but the tech strategy or building strategy requires the particular monument to be built. and this is where i find the game breaks down. if 2 players go after the same strategy, one will get the monument, the other will lose out, and he/she will be out of the game. or worse ( or better ) still, the player doing the skull or temple strategy can simply purchase it to hinder the other as the skull strategy and temple strategy give you resources that you may use to block other people out as both of these strategies do not require a monument to be effective.

    i am not saying that the temples strategy is unbeatable. :)
    what i am saying is that the temples is a safer and easier to accomplish strategy that affords the player flexibility to still mess with other players. the other strategies are tile dependent and luck dependent and is only executed well after repeat plays. but sometimes a game doesnt get repeat plays especially if after a few plays everything seems to always fall into the same mold

    a good game should be able to avoid that pitfall. the deeper strategies may lay hidden under the surface, but on top of the surface it should still provide multiple interesting and balanced ways to win the game. make people interested and hooked so that they can find out the rest of the deeper strategies.
    its like meeting the opposite sex for the first time. you only have a few chances to create a positive first impression.

    lastly, i cant say that i agree with 2 of your quotes

    "The 2 tech tracks monuments also easily gives 27/33 points"
    I think these are the hardest 27/33 points to earn in the game. just from my own experience. leveling up on the tech track is not an easy task

    "The problem when playing with the same people with the same strategies is that you don't get stimulated"
    For me, the game is supposed to stimulate me, not the people i play with or the strategies they use. I always use new strategies when possible as long as i find the game affords me the opportunity to do so. which is way i said i felt quite guilty of using the temples again on my previous play. if i have another play, i promise i will do something different. :)

    well, i'm sorry if it sounds like i am bashing your game. i dont mean it that way. its just that i possibly fall under the category of people that dont quite like the game. i can see why people do like it, it is very highly ranked on BGG. :)
    but for me, its not really my cup of tea.


  5. Just someone who has played the game a few times...

    The temple strategy has no technology to bolster it. This is the gist of the hints that a developer of the game is trying to tell you.

    The very fact that you call it the 'tech strategy' is misleading, as techs are not a strategy within themselves (even with the monument, you will still be [or at least should be] getting the majority of your points in other ways. The strength of technology is that it makes your moves more powerful every single time.

    If you actually level up your technology in the building / skull / corn / resource area, then those areas will give you much more output.

    It is understandable that newer players may not understand the strengths of these technologies and thus view the temple path, which doesn't make use of any technology to be easier to do relatively well with.

    However, even without looking at monuments (which tend to be of more benefit to any other strategy other than temples), the other strategies all have very strong point bases, not even including the fact that it is possible to level up temples while doing these other strategies.

    Skulls with the 2nd technology will get you a significant amount of temple levels.

    A significant number of buildings will give you levels in temples.

    And of course, the strength of the corn strategy is in large part the flexibility, where you can get resources, buildings, levels in temples, worker placements and such all with just that one base resource.

    With that said, I would also like to add a few tips to help you with your difficulty in leveling up on tech tracks.
    -The earlier you level up on tech tracks the more benefit you get throughout the entirety of the game.
    -By leveling up on tech tracks by spending resources early on at the 1/2 resource level, you can use the (generally cheap) buildings that add 1 tech level for free to ascend to the 3rd resource level.
    -Don't forget that your starting tiles can include free technology levels. You can easily reach the 3rd level of any technology before the first feeding turn by simply starting at the first level, buying the second level, and buying/using a building for the third level.
    -Don't be afraid to go for multiple techs instead of focusing on 1. They all have very helpful additions to almost any strategy and for the cost of a few resources and one worker, you can raise multiple techs at the same time.
    -Lastly, building more on my first point, the tech levels tend to give you more stuff, freeing up more time/resources/corn to be used in continuing to level up tech levels. It is like a beneficial cycle where advancing in tech makes it easier to continue to advance in tech which then makes everything else you do better.

  6. hi,

    thanks for your comments

    i do understand what you are trying to bring across ( that the techs let me be more efficient and grant me greater benefits through the game ), its not something that i didnt know already.
    its just that, unfortunately, i am not convinced that it is any better in helping to win the game than the temples strategy

    i think it best to agree to disagree as my opinion is formed from my own plays of the game and i guess yours is formed as such as well

    if we do get to play together, that would be nice