Chess has a term called Zugzwang. German for “compulsion to move”, it refers to a game state where someone is in trouble because they have to move a piece every turn. If they could pass and leave a strong board formation, things would be peachy, but no: Zugzwang.
This is a very interesting philosophy to apply to tabletop games in general, and I’d like to explore two games in particular that use zugzwang as a major source of conflict: Condottiere and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar.
In Condottiere, players lead armies of Italian mercenaries fighting over the country’s city-states. Each player has a hand of mercenaries of varying strength, as well as other cards with special effects. The game takes place over a series of battles, where players play cards from their hand to earn the most points. You win by either conquering most of Italy or by controlling a contiguous line of city-states, meaning that some battles are going to be more important than others to you.
There are two rules here that are very important to our discussion:
- You don’t draw cards between battles unless all but one player has an empty hand.
- On your turn, you have to either play a card or pass. If you pass, you can’t play cards for the rest of the battle.
This means that maintaining a secure lead in a battle means continually playing your powerful cards – cards that you might have wanted to save for later. If you pass, you’ll save some of your mercenaries, but your opponents will be able to surge in with cards to which you can no longer respond. This momentum – being forced to continually play cards if you want to stay in the battle – is zugzwang in action.
This creates some very interesting strategic and mechanical situations. Players will often be forced into tough choices where they either must overcommit to maintain a secure lead or take a gamble on passing. This also means that “worthless” cards with low point values have their own benefits – by throwing them away, you can force your opponents to show what they’ve got.
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar
Speaking of revolving!
Tzolk’in is a firm believer in zugzwang as well, but uses it in a different framework. Condottiere is luck-based, with significant hidden information and bluffing components, while Tzolk’in is a grindy worker-placement Euro with perfect information that requires a lot of forethought.
Though there are a lot of spaces and fiddly rules, the available actions in Tzolk’in are about as simple as it can get: Either place workers into the collection of plastic gears on the board, or take them off. Placing workers costs corn, the currency of the game, while removing workers gives you the effect of whatever space they’re currently on. Each turn, the gears rotate, moving placed workers to spaces with more powerful effects. You must place or remove workers, and you cannot pass.
To illustrate the challenge this gives, imagine you have three workers, the amount you get at the beginning of the game. You place all three of them on gears. Now, what happens on your next turn? Even though you wanted to wait for your workers to reach a stronger space, you have to take one of them off for something weaker. Because you have to do something, because you can’t pass, you now have some significant sacrifices to make.
When doing something on your turn, you have to think about the options that you’re providing yourself on the next turn. With no workers to remove, you’re costing yourself corn by placing them; with no workers to place, you have to make a decision about what track you want to temporarily give up. It’s a brain-melting puzzle and one that only gets harder as your and your opponents attempt more ambitious strategies over the course of the game.
Mandatory actions as a driving force mean that everyone has to make a decision on their turn, even if they’re choosing between a bad result and a terrible one. This leads to a stronger sense of engagement with the game as opposed to games where not taking any significant actions might be the best strategy. When applied correctly, zugzwang can be one of the most compelling mechanics possible in tabletop games.