In Teotihuacan, players represent members of rival noble families, aiming for eternal fame and glory by contributing to the construction of the monumental pyramid of the sun, in the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan. Worker placement and resource management are deftly combined to make a game which tests players’ planning skill, and their ability to adapt to an ever-changing board.
A lot of attention was directed at Teotihuacan when it finally hit UK shores. It was described as a spiritual successor to Tzolk’in, a previous game by the same designers. But where Tzolk’in had revolving interlocking gears which set it apart from anything else at the time, Teotihuacan is focused on the construction of the Pyramid of the Sun. In fact, players get to build the pyramid in the centre of the board, choosing and placing blocks to score victory points.
The basic mechanics of Teotihuacan (designed by Daniele Tascini and Dávid Turczi) can be explained fairly simply. There are eight action spaces, arranged, surrounding the central great pyramid space, around the outside of the board. These spaces are activated as a rondel - players move one of their three workers up to three spaces (clockwise) around the board, taking an action in the space on which they land, ignoring any spaces which they pass.
Three of the eight spaces are simply there for collecting building materials, two are spaces for constructing the pyramid or adding decorations to the pyramid, using the resources gathered elsewhere (both score victory points). One further space is the alchemy tile, on which players may research upgrades to specific actions, and another allows players to construct rows of buildings in honour of nobles (thus earning victory points and progressing along the Avenue of the Dead). The final space, the Palace, has no specific action associated with it, but it has other in-game significance (think the Go space, in Monopoly).
The game lasts through three eras, with each era being successively shorter than the previous one. A marker (light disc) determines how many rounds remain in the current era - it is moved forward one space at the end of the last player’s turn, until it reaches its final destination (the dark disc) - at which point an eclipse scoring occurs. Once an eclipse happens a third time (or if the great pyramid has been completed) the game ends, with a final scoring.
So far, so straightforward. But do not be deceived. Whilst the actions themselves may be straightforward, a player’s ability to take these actions can be confounded by other players… or even by their own workers. There are four resources in Teotihuacan: three are construction materials (wood, stone and gold), but the fourth, cocoa, is a sort of in-game currency. In order to take the main action on any space, players must pay one cocoa (to the bank) for each colour of worker already on that space by the time they land there. This means that taking any action may cost up to four cocoa. However, the benefits of taking any action are increased by having more of your own workers there, so this is a bit of a double-edged sword… it may cost more to take an action if you already occupy a space, but the benefits are greater as a result
Of course, if you don’t have any cocoa, your options are limited - either move to a space which is not already occupied (not always possible) or don’t take a main action. At some point you are going to need more cocoa, and you may have spotted that there has been no mention of a space for collecting cocoa. There isn’t one. Instead, cocoa can be collected by taking a “collect cocoa” action, instead of a main action. There are, of course, other ways of acquiring cocoa, but the collect cocoa action has the greatest return given its availability.
At the end of each era, during the eclipse, players must also pay cocoa for each worker that they have in play. Some workers may need to be paid more than one cocoa. The cocoa requirements in the game are high
Building the Great Pyramid
Using blocks to build the great pyramid costs resources (of course it does) - it takes a combination of stone as building material, and wood to hoist the stones into place. Therefore, stone blocks on the ground level have no wood requirement whatsoever, but each level above this requires one more piece of wood. The higher the blocks are in the pyramid, the more points they score. But points are also scored for positioning.
Each block has four symbols on it; each symbol which matches the one below it when it is placed scores an additional point. Occasionally the symbols are coloured. If a coloured symbol matches the one below it, a player can move their marker up the temple track which matches that colour. Each of the three coloured temple tracks provides an additional bonus - cocoa, victory points or building resources. The pyramid tracks also provide end-game scoring bonuses for players who are first to reach the final step.
Workers and Ascension
Apart from building (and decorating!) the great pyramid, there is nothing which mechanically sets Teotihuacan apart from other worker placement games with resource management…. So far. Workers aren’t the usual meeples… in Teotihuacan, workers are dice, and workers are never rolled. Each time a worker is used to take a “main” action on a space, the value of the die is increased by one.
When a worker reaches a value six, they ascend. Three things happen when a worker ascends: The light disc progresses one step closer to the dark disc (shortening the era), the player receives a bonus (extra cocoa, extra points, progress on the temple tracks, or a fourth worker), and the ascended worker is reborn, with a value of one, on the Palace space.
The face value of the workers has two other effects in the game. Firstly, it can affect the gains from visiting spaces such as the resource spaces - more resources are collected by workers with higher values. But - and this is the one to be mindful of - workers with a face value of four or five require two cocoa during the eclipse phase. So, the race may be on to ascend at the end of an era - which will, of course, bring the end of the era ever closer.
Worker ascension may not sound like the most interesting mechanic in a game, but it turns the age of workers into a resource which needs to be managed, in order to gain bonuses, whilst also limiting costs. And it can lead to some of the more agonising decisions.
Final Thoughts on Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan doesn’t set the world alight. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table which will make you feel like it has something special and unique to offer (unlike its older sibling, Tzolk’in). But honestly, when was the last time that happened? It’s a rare event, right?
It does, however, have a lot of variability right out of the box. All of the spaces, the upgrades, the bonus tiles, the end-game scoring bonuses, can vary through the use of additional tiles. Replay-ability is high. Also, Teotihuacan doesn’t weave a lot of mechanics together to make it a complex game, unlike other games of late.
Worker placement and resource management is an obvious pairing, so much so that they seem almost inseparable. Beyond this, however, the tile laying mechanic of the building action is a key feature of the game, but it doesn’t feel like a core mechanic. There are other familiar mechanics which make an appearance through the game (there are bonus tiles which provide an opportunity for set collection) but these do not dominate. Instead, these present themselves as potential routes to victory, giving Teotihuacan a feeling of variety about it, even though it is essentially a traditional worker placement game.