It’s a rare thing when form and function come together to create something cool and useful, but that’s what you get with the operable gears in Tzolk’in: a rondel game where the board itself moves the pieces! Pretty neat. Check it out:
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Tzolk’in, a worker placement/worker removal game for 2-4 players. Let me show you how to play.
You and your friends play rival tribes during the heyday of Mayan civilization. As the Tzolk’in, the great Mayan calendar, wears on, you’ll compete to gather resources and please the gods to earn victory points and win the game. When the central Tzolk’in gear finishes one full revolution, the game is over, and you tally up the points to see who’s won.
On your turn, you can do one of two things: you can either place one or more workers on a small gear, or pull one or more workers off a small gear. That’s it! Place or pull. The sections around the gears give you different rewards. At the end of every round, the main Tzolk’in gear rotates, which, in turn, rotates the smaller gears one notch. Generally speaking, the longer your worker stays on a gear, the more valuable the rewards become. But if your worker rides a gear for too long, you may get bumped off and go home empty-handed.
The small gears are very roughly themed. The green Palenque gear gets you food and wood. The brown Yaxchilan gear gets you various resources – wood, stone, corn, gold, or a crystal skull. The brown Tikal gear helps you build different structures and advance on different technology tracks that give you various perks. The yellow Uxmal gear is a bit of a grab bag, and the blue Chichen Itza gear lets you spend your crystal skulls to get points, resources, and increased standing on the three different temple tracks, where you worship the gods Quetzlcoatl, Kukulcan, and Chaac in exchange for points and prizes.
When you place a worker on a gear, you have to take a spot on the lowest numbered tooth. Only if that spot is occupied can you take the next one up. If a bunch of the lowest-numbered teeth are blocked by other players, you can still place your worker on the lowest available tooth, which might be this one.
That seems like a sweet deal, but there’s also a corn cost to placing your workers. You have to pay the amount of corn depicted next to the spot. The first space always costs zero corn, but if you want to place on this space, and two of your opponents are already here, you’re forced to take the lowest-numbered spot, which will cost you 2 corn.
You also have to pay corn based on the number of workers you place in a single turn. The first worker you place is free, but for each additional worker you place, the fee goes up. Your player guide makes this easy to calculate: if you place 2 total workers, you’re paying 1 corn. If you place four workers, you’re paying 6 corn. These numbers on the side help you calculate corn costs as you play. If you’ve placed 2 workers and paid for them, and then you decide to place a third, the card says you need to pay 2 additional corn to do so.
You don’t get to take the actions on the gears for placing your workers. That only happens if you decide to remove one or more workers on your turn.
If you decide it’s a pull turn for you (which, if you’re out of workers to place, it has to be), you take one or more of your workers off the gear and optionally take the depicted action. If you overshot the thing you’re after and you want to take an action from an earlier segment, you pay one corn per segment until you reach the thing you’re after. So if you’re pulling a worker from here, you’d normally get to take this action. If you want this one, you pay one, two, corn for it. With one exception we’ll see later, you can’t get any rewards on spots higher than where your worker is sitting. You can remove your workers in any order you like, and indeed, it may be crucial to your strategy to take resources on certain action spaces first, so you can afford the actions on other spaces.
On your turn, you either have to place one or more workers, or pull one or more workers. There’s no passing. You can pull a worker and decide not to take the action on the gear, but that’s likely never going to happen.
After everyone has either placed or pulled, you rotate the big, central Tzolk’in gear counter-clockwise. This moves all workers ahead on their tracks. If any worker is pushed past the end of a track, it pops off and is returned to its player with no reward granted.
Three teeth on the big gear signify special events. When you reach an orange tooth, at the end of the round, all players have to feed corn to their workers. Each active worker you have eats two corn. An active worker is one that’s either in front of you or on a gear. The workers in the supply who you haven’t hired yet don’t need to be fed.
If you have the corn, you have to feed your workers. No opting out. A worker can’t half-eat, so if you have 1 corn remaining to feed a 2-corn worker, that worker goes hungry. For each worker you couldn’t feed, you lose 3 victory points.
On a food day, you also get rewarded for your standing in the three temples. On an orange food day, you get any resource depicted next to the space you’re on, plus any other resource depicted down the line. So if you’re here, here, and here, you get one stone, two gold, and a crystal skull, and two wood.
On a blue food day, you get the number of points depicted next to your temple marker. If you’re here, here, and here, you get 4, negative-2, and 7 points. Additionally, whoever is highest in each temple gets bonus points. On the first blue food day, the most devout worshipper in the brown temple gets six points. 2 points for the yellow temple leader, and 4 points for the green temple leader. On the second blue food day, the brown temple leader gets 2 points. Yellow leader gets 6, and green leader 4. If there’s a tie, the leaders split the points.
The other thing that happens on the first blue food day is that these building tiles get swapped out for Age II buildings. We’ll look at those buildings shortly.
Going first in a worker placement game is always important. Tzolk’in has a special space just for that action. Every time the big Tzolk’in gear advances and no one is on the starting player spot, you place one corn on today’s tooth. This corn piles up until someone does place a worker on the First Player space. That player collects all that accumulated corn – not right away, but at the end of the turn. If the player who placed there isn’t currently the starting player, he or she takes the marker and becomes the starting player. If the player who placed there IS the starting player, the marker gets passed on clockwise. That means that in a 3- or 4-player game, a starting player who places here becomes the last player in turn order!
But there are a few more perks to taking this spot: you get your worker back at the end of the round, without having to take it back on a pull turn. And, you have the option of speeding up time and advancing the Tzolk’in gear two days instead of one. If you do this, you flip your player guide to its dark side as a reminder. If your board is on the dark side and you ascend to the highest step of a temple, you can flip it back over, which allows you to speed up time again if you take the starting player action later. Only one player can occupy the top step of a temple at a time. You can’t speed up time if doing so would pop anyone’s workers off the last space on a gear, and you can’t speed time to skip a food day. The food day festivities just happen at the end of the next day instead.
Those are the base rules in a nutshell. Everything else comes from understanding the actions you can take on the different gears. Let’s start with Yaxchilan, because it’s the most straightforward.
Get a wood, a stone and a corn, a gold and 3 corn, a crystal skull, and a whole pile of stuff for taking these different actions. As with all small gears, this action lets you take any previous action on the gear without having to pay extra corn to do it.
On the Palenque gear, you take either corn or wood. The chit comes with you, so if you take the last corn on this space, the next player who removes a worker from here will get nothing. The initial fishing action is the only space here that doesn’t get depleted. If you take a wood chit, you uncover the corn underneath that can be harvested later. If you really want the corn, but you’re stuck with wood in the way, you can burn down the forest. Discard the wood tile and take the sweet, sweet corn underneath. This angers the gods though, so you have to move your marker down one step on a temple track of your choice. If you’re already impossibly unpopular with the gods, you’re not allowed to burn down any forests, so put your Zippo away, you pyro.
You won’t be able to use an action on the Chichen Itza gear unless you have a crystal skull to place. The rewards for making this special offering to the gods usually move you up in one of the temple tracks, but sweeter spots also get you extra points, and sometimes extra resources. These spots can only fit one crystal skull, so once they’re taken, they’re taken.
The Tikal gear is a bit unique. Here, you can advance one level on one of the four technology tracks. It costs one, two, or three resource cubes of any type to advance on a track. You can’t go past the third level, but if you’re there and you advance, you get a perk instead. I’ll go over the technology track shortly. On the second spot on the Tikal gear, you can construct one of the buildings on this lower tile track. Pay the resource cost at the top left, and reap the reward. Some buildings let you advance on the tech track without paying any resources, some move you up in the temples, and some are farms that let you feed a certain number of workers for less corn. Gaps in the building row are refilled at the end of your turn.
This space lets you advance 1 or 2 levels on a technology track. This one lets you pay to either construct two buildings, or one monument. Unlike buildings, the number of monuments in a given game is fixed – they don’t get replenished. Monuments have meta-scoring bonuses that kick in at the end of the game. The little X above this building symbol means that if you have any building discounts unlocked on the technology track, they only apply to one building you construct, but not the other. If you’re about to build something that moves you up on the Architecture track, you can apply the Architecture perk to your second building, as long as you haven’t already used it on the first. If you build something that gets you resources, you can spend those resources to build your second building. You can’t use your technology track perks to help build a monument. Finally, you can pay any resource to climb a step in two different temples.
The Uxmal gear is a grab-bag of goodies. Pay 3 corn to move up 1 space in a temple track. Exchange corn for resources, or vice-versa. The exchange table is here. Take a worker from the supply, as long as you have one. The worker goes in front of you. Remember: every new worker needs to eat 2 corn on food days. Construct a building, but pay its cost in corn instead of resources – two corn for every resource it requires. If you choose this space, you have to pay for the building entirely in corn – you can’t pay a mixture of corn and resources.
This space lets you pay 1 corn to take any one action on a small gear, except Chichen Itza.
The technology track grants you special perks and abilities. There are four different tracks, and each perk is colour-coded to the gear or gears where it gives you an advantage. The advantages are cumulative; if you’re here, you get this perk AND this perk AND this perk.
On the Agriculture track, this space gets you an extra corn whenever you harvest corn on the green Palenque gear. This one lets you dig down to the corn chits without burning the forest, if the food you need is blocked by wood. You also get an extra corn whenever you go fishing on the blue space on (this) gear. Fishin’ fer corn! This one gets you two more bonus corn when you harvest it on the Palenque gear. Every time you advance from this point, you pay any one resource to move up a step on any temple track.
The Resource Extraction track gets you an extra wood when you take wood on Palenque or Yaxchilan, and the same deal with stone and gold on Yaxchilan. The repeatable perk at the end of this track lets you pay any one resource to get two more of any types.
On the Architecture track, you get a corn any time you construct a building, plus two points if you’re here. You get to discount a building’s cost by one resource of your choice if you’re here. On the last spot, you can repeatedly advance here to pay one resource of your choice for 3 points.
Just a quick side note here about some confusing iconographgy: when you advance along the architecture track, you don’t get to construct a building. These icons mean when you construct a building, you get these benefits. This is a little confusing, because on the Tikal gear and on these building tiles, the exact same icon means “construct a building.” And back to that spot on the Tikal gear: these are the very technology track perks that don’t apply if you choose to construct a second building using this action.
On the fourth and final Theology track, this space means that you can take an action one slot above where your working is sitting when you remove it from the Chichen Itza gear. This one means you can pay any one resource to advance on any one temple when you remove a worker from the Chichen Itza gear, and this one means you get an extra crystal skull whenever you take one from the Yaxchilan gear. This reusable space means pay one resource to get a crystal skull.
The game ends after the round where the Tzolk’in gear reaches the blue tooth for the second time. After everyone has fed their workers and collected their temple bonuses, you convert every single resource you have to corn. You get 1 victory point for every 4 corn, rounding down. Each leftover crystal skull is worth 3 points. Score the victory points for your monuments, and whoever wins gets to behead the other players and keep their skulls as trophies. I haven’t lost yet!
To set up the game, put the board together in this order. Each player picks a colour and takes 3 workers, and a player guide flipped bright-side-up. Everyone places their markers on the scoring track, the second step of each temple track, and the starting spot on the technology track. Deal 4 starting wealth tiles at random to each player. Keep 2 tiles, and return the other 2. The tiles you keep determine the stuff you get off the top of the game. Deal player count plus two monuments to this row, and 6 buildings from the first age to this row. Keep the age 2 buildings at the ready for when the Tzolk’in gear hits the first blue food day. Deal 4 corn chits to all of the jungle spaces, and then cover the last 3 up with wood.
If you’re playing with 2 or 3 players, you need to put dummy workers on the board to make it a little more crowded. Before you decide on your starting wealth tiles, draw the leftover starting wealth tiles one at a time. Each tile mentions a gear, and a spot. Put a non-player-coloured worker on that spot. If this is the first worker to be placed on a gear, block off the spot on the opposite side of the gear too. Continue placing dummy workers until you’ve placed 6 in a 3-player game, or 12 in a 2-player game. 3-player games only use 3 corn-and-wood stacks in the jungle, and 2-player games only use 2. These dummy workers stay on their spots for the entire game, and don’t get pushed off when they go past the last space.
Extra workers go here, skulls go here, resources go here, and corn goes here. Give the starting player token to the player who most recently sacrificed something (i see what you did there), and start the first round. Play goes clockwise. At the beginning of any turn, if you have 2 corn or fewer, you can go begging. This stocks your corn supplies up to 3, but it annoys the gods, and you go down one step on a temple track of your choice. If you have no workers on any gears, and you’re already in the doghouse with all the gods, and you can’t afford to place a worker because you have no corn, AND all the zero-spots are taken, you can cough up all your corn and place 1 worker on the lowest-cost space on the board. But, i mean, that’s really embarrassing. Get it together! The gods are all looking at you.
And now, you’re ready to play Tzolk’in!
YouTube viewer jennisonb37 noted a fine point that needs clarifying: at 7:57, i say “You can’t speed up time if doing so would pop anyone’s workers off the last space on a gear.” That’s not correct. Turning the central calendar gear will always bump off any workers who are on the last space of their respective gears. But if there are any workers in the second last spaces on any gear, you’re not allowed to speed up time by turning the calendar gear twice to bump those workers off. So workers in those second last slots will prevent you from using that optional special ability.
Get Your Own Copy of Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
Tzolk’in definitely does things differently than other games. The worker removal aspect is equally as important as worker placement, and you really have to keep a timed schedule of your strategy in your head to optimize your gameplay. To add your own copy of Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar to your board game collection., click the Amazon link below, and i’ll receive a small commission!
Keep up the good work – this game had me kinda baffled, & now makes sense. A very professional presentation, easy to follow and at a nice pace- not dashing through so fast that you’re lost, I could comfortably follow and wasn’t bogged down in details either, just the right mix of summary with info. Plus fun too- can we have more banjo solos?
Thanks so much! i was really bummed out when i got that banjo years and years ago… found it super-challenging. My next door neighbour asked to borrow it, and i watched in dismay as, a week later, he just sat down and picked out some rolls that i couldn’t seem to wrap my thumbs around. He called it “easy (if you’ve played guitar)” and then threw it back at me.
i hadn’t played guitar. But now that i (sorta) do, i can better understand how he picked it up so quickly. i’ll have to give it another shot soon. Still have the thumb picks laying around somewhere!