Who is the best Heavyweight box(er)?
When you look at worker placement games, two of the big-hitters are Tzolk’in and Teotihuacan, both created by Daniele Tascini. At first glance they have many similarities and both are extremely well regarded. Some gamers look to Boardgamegeek for an assessment of their gaming choices. At the time of writing, these two are ranked 38 and 62 respectively.
The question though, if you enjoy worker placement games, is whether a love of this genre should make you consider one of these classics? Better still, is there room for both of these heavyweights in one house?
Like a pair of heavyweight boxers, slogging it out in the ring for supremacy, these games have different strengths. Which one might be able to deliver a knockout punch? Will it go to points and judge’s decision at the final bell? This blog gives you a ring-side seat and chance to see these games trade blows from the initial weigh-in, through the first few rounds and then to the final bell. Sit back, enjoy the hype and imagine yourself at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas as we answer which of these two is worthy to raise their arm in victory.
Tzolk’in burst onto the scene eight years ago, announcing itself as a Euro heavyweight with its standard size box and bizarre stage name. (The name itself refers to a unit of time, the division of the 260-day cycle of the Mayan calendar. This civilisation originated in 1800BC, and peaked as the predominant culture in Central America from 250 to 900 AD.) This is a large game. It weighs 1.5kg and 'Winner of the 2013 Spiele Hit Für Experten' [Game for Experts] is plastered on the lid. The makers say it is suitable for 12 years + and a game lasts 90 minutes. In reality, this game has more stamina – probably nearer two hours for a four-player battle. That said, it is best for older children, teenagers and adults. Tzolk’in is not difficult to grasp but it does require persistent focus throughout play.
Teotihuacan is the upstart. It is looking to muscle its way onto the gaming table and usurp its older brother. Its training camp is further north in the Americas, hailing from the ancient pyramid city of the same name that was taken over by the Aztecs in what is now modern-day Mexico. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the games appear similar in size, but Teotihuacan weighs in at a massive 2.01kg. This game obviously packs some serious components. The box artwork is not as brash or colourful as Tzolk’in.
There are no Lonsdale belts or Spiele des Jahres labels draped over the shoulders of the box. (For the record, Teotihuacan did get voted the best strategy game of 2018 by Dice Tower Reviews.) The slightly muted colours still draw the eye and depict wonderful images of the ancient Central American pyramids and temples. This game comes with a 14+ rating and will almost certainly take two hours to complete (as a four-player contest). What it does have as USP over its sibling is a solo game. It is like buying a couple of sets of boxing gloves and having a big punch-bag thrown for practice.
The Opening Bell
The first thing that confronts you in opening Tzolk’in is the gears. The game board is a mosaic of large, inter-connecting pieces, each of which contains a gear wheel. These fit together like a mechanical clock. The larger central cog meshes nicely with the five surrounding wheels at the sides. The board is bright and full of primary colours that depict different zones.
Each of the five smaller cogs are named according to their activities. Players have some starting tiles from which they choose basic resources. Rather than raw eggs and high-protein supplements, this game is all about corn. Without corn you cannot survive in the Mayan civilisation that is Tzolk’in.
Teotihuacan not only carries more weight but has a longer reach than its older rival. Unboxing this Aztec wonder reveals a huge board and components galore. This game demands plenty of space to work. Before any piece is placed, it is as though this boxer is already in the middle of the ring demanding to get noticed. The board area is about 50% larger.
For the Aztecs, their fighter is being fuelled by cocoa. This is the currency that enables you to work in this game. Pivotal to this game’s success is pyramid building. From the outset your eye is drawn to the half-finished pyramid of tiles in the middle of the playing area. Surrounding this 3D structure are eight working areas. The relative positions of these can be changed in every game just to keep opponents on their toes and improve replayability.
At the beginning of every turn in Tzolk’in you have to make an initial decision – either send your workers out, or retrieve them. You may not do both and you cannot pass your turn. Your minions can be sent to one of the five areas depicted by the smaller cogs. Each one has their own workspace on the wheel and cannot be forcibly removed from it. The five key areas are; clearing jungle with corn harvesting, resource acquisition, developing technologies, spending time to appease the gods, and an amalgam of the other four zones.
However, there are limits on where your men may work. Placing workers will cost corn. The more you send out, the more corn it costs. If other players (or your own workers) are already occupying certain areas, it will cost even more corn just to play. Sometimes, through others' actions, you might have insufficient corn funds to pay for all of your workers. It is a bit like a ticket-tout putting up the prices of any clandestine tickets as the day of the big fight draws near. If you have no corn to pay and play, you can always grab first player, save your corn and then take the first opportunity to take control by landing the first punch.
At the end of each round the central wheel is turned by one notch. This moves the smaller cogs and advances your workers to more “profitable” areas. This is Tzolk’in’s party piece. The key to doing well and holding your own in this game is forward planning. You need to ensure that you align your workers in various gears so that they can be retrieved at an optimal time – a bit like a boxer landing a jab, a hook, then an upper-cut combo.
Teotihuacan, at first, seems to have little in its armoury to offer. With only three worker dice per player, the choices on offer seem limited. Similarly, only one worker may be moved each turn, and only by a maximum of three spaces. This might seem like trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back. The Aztec workers are depicted by D6 dice, the number of pips showing the experience and efficiency of each worker.
The one-two “sucker punch” of Teotihuacan is that you can align two or three workers in the same zone. Then they can work like a tag team and, with careful planning, a huge number of resources or additional points might be gained. With each action, your natives gain experience and “power-up” and increase their value. The pressure to earn cocoa is still there, but is not all consuming. Indeed, the presence of cocoa appears to have little influence on gameplay. In Tzolk’in your actions could be determined by others' gameplay; in Teotihuacan you are the playmaker. Your performance is fully dependent on your ability to plan your personal moves and optimise worker placement for resources etc.
Going the Distance
Pace yourself. These worker placement games are long. For Tzolk’in a whole game is determined by a complete rotation of the central cog (or 28 turns). At every quarter turn (seven rounds) all of your workers need feeding with yet more corn. This can mean that, during preceding turns, your focus gets distracted by the quest for corn. Rather than leaving this to the last minute, this is best managed by a slow, steady build up over many turns before reaping the benefits. The most effective punches are all about getting the foot placement right, having the correct stance and then throwing the punch, rather than a wild, desperate flailing of the arms.
Teotihuacan is a similarly paced game. The length is about 30 turns. Victory points and rewards are gained at the first, second and final eclipse. Cocoa is required for worker payment, but these mid-break reckonings are more about rewarding good play decisions rather than a scramble for survival. The key for preparing for the eclipse is to optimise your ability to be handsomely rewarded for previous actions.
Calling a Time-out
In the same way that boxers need attention of their trainers between rounds, for Tzolk’in the natives need to take a break from harvesting or resource gathering. In both games, workers can gain a reprieve and instead gain the favour of their gods or even sit back and develop technologies. The gods reward them with victory points, bonus harvests or even make resource production more efficient.
Religion and worship are also key in Teotihuacan. Workers can call time and jump off the treadmill of constant circulating around the board. They do this by locking themselves away with their god and seeing what rewards might be bestowed. Getting back in the game does cost cocoa but, as in life, taking time out to re-focus will bring greater long-term benefits as well as some short-term bonuses.
The Final Bell
As we approach the final bell, neither game is able to deliver a knockout punch. Tzolk’in continues to pursue a relentless onslaught of corn collection to survive. If you have worked well and had an efficient “engine” going then the technologies and upgrades will work too. This allows you to have more favour with the gods. If the gods want you more than others then this is translated into additional victory points.
Teotihuacan’s big weapon is the pyramid. The ultimate aim is to work together to complete a four-layered temple with embellishments. Every brick laid will score more favours (points). The taller the pyramid the greater the rewards. In the event that the pyramid is completed, the game ends immediately. This is uncommon. Instead, like its older brother, this game has a tenacity that will persist until the final bell (the third eclipse). At this day of reckoning, additional points are scored depending on how your community of workers have lived and contributed to the building projects.
There is no clear winner in this contest. Both games are evenly matched in terms of time commitment, table-top presence and even player engagement. The final outcome will have to go to a points decision by the judges. For this discussion I have enlisted the help of five other family members and together we played these two bruisers on consecutive days.
Tzolk’in is much more dependent on others' actions. With a three or four player count, the others will have a greater influence on your options and choices. This means there is more of a shared playing experience. The key is to pre-plan your moves, anticipate others' approaches, defend your position and prepare to wait a turn or two to optimise your path to victory.
Teotihuacan feels as though you are playing against the game. Whether it is with two, three or four players, there seems to be little change in your approach. This is not so much about survival but about gaining more victory points than others. There is some player interaction, depending on who wins the race to acquire certain technologies or who grabs certain pyramid pieces. Ultimately, this is more of a mental workout in forward planning and using your personal workers together to achieve the best outcome. If you fancy a game that also offers a solo variant then this could be your choice.
The family has been split straight down the middle (three versus three). However, we are unanimous that both games should remain in our gaming collection. Both will be played (when time allows) and the choice will probably be determined by who shouts loudest at the time.