The Games We Play

The Games We Play

A repository of reports on the Wednesday night sessions of the club and anything else related to the club or boardgaming in general, which may be of interest to anyone who may be passing by.

Thursday 13 December 2012

The Mayan Calendar - it really is the End of the World (but at least it’s not World Without End…).

Okay - let me state straight away that I think Tzolk’in is, in all probability, an excellent game. I love worker placement; I love bits that interact; I love difficult decisions in games… I had, to a point, a really good time playing it. … However, I have issues with the game, most of which are not to do with the game itself, but more to do with how I operate.

 Tzolk’in, if you haven’t heard of it, is a game based on quite thorough research of the Maya Calendar, its Long Cycle, Short Cycle and the various periods which make up those (I’d be interested to know if the different cogs have numbers of teeth which equate to the various short periods which make up the numerous elements, but as I couldn’t remember what those period numbers were, I couldn’t check).

In essence, it’s a worker placement game (yay!, my favourite (not joking)), but with a twist: the main mechanism consists of a series of interlocking cogs which are an active part of the board. By active, I mean that the board itself affects your decision making, and it will change, not necessarily to your liking, dependent on player actions. For the most part, you could regard the board action as predictable, but you can’t guarantee it.

 On their turn, players have one choice: place workers and pay the cost for placement; or remove workers and receive the benefit which results from their board positions. Players may not combine placement and removal - it is either/or, in a similar fashion to The Manhattan Project. The number of actions is limited by how many workers the player chooses to place or remove and, in the case of placement, whether the player has enough food to pay for the placement.

 Once each player has taken their actions the turn has one last phase, which is for the interlocking wheels to rotate, thus moving all the workers to new spots where you may or may not like the benefits.

Now, I don’t want to spend too much time describing how the game works because there’s far too much going on in this game (FAR too much) for me to describe it adequately in less time than the game plays. (Maybe you can do that, but I can’t, or am not willing to. If you know me, you know what I mean and shall be thankful; or if you’re just browsing this, then you have to take it as read that, really, this is the easier option and you can all thank whatever god you pray to, or just shrug your shoulders and live-and-let-live.) Instead, try to imagine someone making a design decision to combine Caylus with Mousetrap (slightly facetious of me) and a funky mechanical version of the card-shifting function in Through the Ages… but you only get cards for which you have placed a worker on a previous turn…

 Yes, it sounds shit when I explain it like that, but then I try not to compromise when it comes to quality.

 So, here we are, with the genius of the game: the rotating actions/costs/benefits; which also happen to be, in my case, its downfall… or should I say, in everyone else’s case, should I happen to be one of the players. The problem is this: I have a problem. I am not a linear thinker. I do not absorb rules by reading the rule book and knowing what happens. I absorb rules by practical experience, by iteration and re-iteration, and I communicate my experience in the same fashion. I think this is a function of my employment - for more than twenty years, I have worked in an industry which demands prioritisation: thinking is cyclical and rewards an approach which discards everything but the most important and immediate event and its effect, then, once that event and effect is processed and accommodated, one can proceed to re-process the list of required events, select the most important, discard the others and work on the event required. This makes me quite successful in some game genres, especially those which are tactical rather than strategic.

The trouble with Tzolki’in is it requires assessment of the current, future and far future possibilities simultaneously, and my brain just doesn’t work like that. The result is that I suffer from an embarrassing - and almost debilitating - level of analysis paralysis.

Now, AP is not something that I find predictable. In many games, I don’t feel I suffer at all (though my wife would disagree); but there are some in which I brain freeze like I’ve swallowed a pint of Cherry Garcia. Of all the games I’ve encountered, Tzolk’in is the Primate (in the sense of first, rather than ape-like). And this is my problem with the game: if I’d been playing against myself (not solo, because solo games bore the hell out of me - I mean, who wants to play games which don’t involve other people - surely that’s the point?), I wouldn’t have felt so self-conscious. But from the first turn, I knew I would be the game’s problem and started apologising. This is a good game (gimmicky, yes, but still a good - and perhaps even great - game). I liked what it did. I REALLY liked how it did it; I loved the fact that the game principles can be communicated in a sentence, though it needs an in-depth explanation to give details of what that place-workers-or-remove-workers mechanism actually entails; I was excited and entertained by the novelty of worker movement.

What broke the game for me was ME: because I was so consciously aware of the time I was taking, as the game progressed I felt I was getting wearing for everyone else. Whether this was true or not is irrelevant (it’s true, by the way): it’s how I felt. This meant enjoyment for me decreased as the game progressed, and my ability to apply my analysis to the game diminished as my worry about how I was impacting others outside the gamespace began to crowd into my play.

 I won’t bore anyone else with further details, but suffice to say that this is the best and most interesting game I’ve played and which I’m unlikely to play again. I’m just too boring when I get like this. It’s no fun for anybody else, and it’s no fun for me when I know I”m affecting the enjoyment of others.

Seldom have I played a game when I’ve finished feeling so torn; and never have I played a game and finished feeling so psychologically aware of my own failings.

Make no mistake: this is a game I feel warrants extended play, and which I’m itching to play again, but I feel my inability to process its information quickly demands that I step away.

 I am very disappointed.


  1. By the way, I'm annoyed that I spelled calendar incorrectly in the title and there seems no way to amend it. Balls.

    1. You can just go back and edit the title. I've done it now