So I first played Tzolk’in on a date. They’d warned me they were recently out of a relationship and were even more recently realising they weren’t quite ready to date, but that my message what the best thing they had ever received on OKC (noting specifically the lack of sexism, racism, and homophobia in it and my profile–man, the bar is low for being awesome some days) and they’d like to meet up any way.
We went out a few times and sparks did not fly, but fuck did they introduce me to some cool games. I bought a copy of every game we’d played together after we both kind stopped replying to each other’s texts, and that was pretty much the best outcome of any date I’ve ever been on.
For those of you unfamiliar, Tzolk’in is an amazing worker placement game. It has one of the most interesting play mechanism I’ve ever seen. I don’t know any other games that are quite like it. And the board is wicked cool. AND it takes place entirely in an indigenous society in a way that seems deeply researched and minimally problematic.
Game play is based on a conceptualisation of Tzolk’in, the Mayan calendar that controlled the daily life and rituals within traditional Maya culture. The board consists of one large main gear (divided into 26 sections, representing the 260 days of the original calendar), interlocking with 5 smaller gears. Each round, you advance the large gear one space, which rotates all of the smaller gears. These smaller gears have worker places, associated with different bonuses and actions that change as the gears rotate. The primary method of game play involves adding or removing workers from the smaller gears in a way that lets you maximise the bonuses and actions you want to take advantage of.
As I said, wicked cool. And better on the representation front than anything else we’ve looked at so far.
I am not an indigenous scholar by any means, and while I did do a bit of further research while writing this article to confirm my initial impressions, it’s possible I’ve missed some problematic elements in my ignorance. (Please let me know if this is the case!)
But overall, while certainly a bit reductionist by the nature of turning centuries of culture into an hour-long tabletop game, the game play and theme are deeply steeped in knowledge about Maya culture and land. Game play involves a rich and varied society–there are tracks & strategies for agriculture, production, technology, building, and religion.
The different gears are all named for major Maya cities and the resources & actions of those gears vaaaaguely correspond to things those cities were known for. There is an element where you can leave crystal skulls in Chichen Itza, which I thought was a classy way of handling the Tzompantli (skull platform) by modern standards.
The religious tracks honors 3 gods. This is the one area that’s a little dodgy, historically speaking. The gods are Chaac (Maya!), Kukulkan (Maya!), & Quetzalcoatl (definitely not Maya!). Quetzalcoatl is an Aztec god–in fact, the Aztec ‘equivalent’ of Kukulkan. So not sure what’s up with that, except creator ignorance? Particularly since there are dozens and dozens of other Maya gods (and even a handful of goddesses) to chose from. Maybe Google was down that day? But I don’t think this minor mistake is problematic enough to dock points for.
In the next reprint, I can recommend Ixchel, Maya goddess of midwifery and medicine, to replace Quetzalcoatl? We could stand to get some ladies up in here. Also she’s a badass old woman/jaguar. Just sayin’.
The woman situation is a bit grim. Well, to be fair, there’s very little depictions of human/humanoid characters in the art at all. But of what there is: The cover on the box is dudely dude. All three gods are dudes. The generic ‘worker’ symbols are a little gender-ambiguous (all identical though), but from the limited information available about traditional Maya dress, overall body shape, etc., they lean more masculine in my perception. But they are carrying baskets of fruit on their head, a task that is usually heavily considered a female one in most depictions of ‘traditional’ cultures. So, not sure.
The rulebook does a lovely job of being gender-inclusive of players themselves, though. It alternates between using second-person (‘you’) and using ‘he or she’, depending on context. Usually “uses gender neutral language” is my base standard and is not worthy of extra points, but I really appreciate in the specific examples it gave of game play, it alternated between giving examples with female players and male players in equal numbers.
So between that and the gender-ambiguity of the workers, I’m just barely giving it:
For a game about calendar that is thought by many scholars to reflect the human gestational cycle that may have been originally crafted by Maya midwives to predict the birth dates of babies (which makes it even weirder there are zero women in art or female goddesses), this game has absolutely no references to sex, reproduction or sexuality. So I guess I’ll file this under “no mechanism for a player to make choices that implicitly identify a queer sexuality”.
Which is to say:
Dude on the cover of the box is conventionally smokin’. But gender-ambiguous workers are solid and squat. Two of other gods have fairly generic bodies (one with a bit of a belly), and one is just a feathered head with no body. A limited number of bodies overall but each one is different and there’s no dominant body type. I think I’m going to go with:
Given the limited humanoid art and theme, I can forgive the lack of sexuality diversity. But not the complete lack of women, particularly given that one of the gods chosen wasn’t even a Maya one. But the depiction of an indigenous society in a mainstream game was excellent! More like this!