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Five Tribes Review

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There are lots of heavy strategy games that make me feel like a bad player. There are even a few that make me feel like a bad person for decieving and manipulating my way to victory. Five Tribes is the first game that made me feel like a bad reviewer. Because, even after many games, I can’t quite make up my mind how I feel about it.

The design itself doesn’t help. It feels like designer Bruno Cathala poured a random assortment of mechanics into a pestle, ground it up, and put the fragments into a box. There’s still identifiable chunks of games like Mancala, Carcassonne and even Cyclades in there. But there’s also a lot of dust that feels familiar, yet annoyingly elusive.

It’s a pretty tasty mix, though.

Players make a grid of randomly assorted tiles, then drop three randomly coloured meeples on each one. On a turn you grab all the meeples from one tile and drop them, one by one, on a series of linked tiles, Mancala style. The last tile has to have a meeple matching the one left in your hand, and you collect all the meeples of that colour from the tile and remove them from the game.

If the tile is now empty, you get to own it and add its victory points to your total. Then you get an action, depending on the colour of your last meeple and another depending on an icon on the tile. It’s mainly more victory points. Sometimes you collect green resource cards which you sort into sets for points. Sometimes you get bonus points by adding things to the tile, or scoring adjacent tiles. Sometimes you can control an extra tile by eliminating a lone meeple there.

It sounds confusing, and it is: I’ve had terrible trouble explaining the rules. The trouble is exacerbated by an awful rulebook that’s spawned Q&A threads all over the web. Yet it’s not a difficult game to grasp. Everyone will have it mastered by the end of a single game.

The genius of the game is that the chimeric mechanics interlock to deliver an experience that works on multiple levels. At first it looks like a matter of identifying likely tiles to control and grabbing them before anyone else by outbidding them in the turn-order auction. Failing that, you just maximise your points through meeple and tile actions.

As you play, however, layers upon layers reveal themselves, until it starts to feel like it’s varicoloured meeples all the way down. You start to plan moves that won’t leave your opponents with easy control targets. Then you begin to grab useful looking cards before them, trying to work out the cost benefit ratio of who might own what. Before you know it, you’re caught up in an agonising web of what might happen with every single meeple you drop from your sweaty fist onto the board.

And at that point, you’re in trouble.

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A lot’s been made of the potential Five Tribes has for crossing over the boundary and appealing to casual and hardcore gamers alike. All those layers are the reason why. But I don’t buy into this analysis at all, for two reasons.

First, with all those hidden depths, hardcore gamers can’t play with casual players at all. If someone’s going to sit and pick over the strategic bones of every turn, they’ll wipe their opponents off the tile-based board with ease. That’s not going to be fun for anyone else, and that’s no worthwhile family game at all.

Second, working through all the options takes an age. Five Tribes is, from certain angles, a honey trap for analysis paralysis players, sucking them in with a sweetly accessible surface, then ensaring them in the strategic pits beneath.

There’s nothing wrong with a well-designed heavy game, of course. It’s just that when played like this, Five Tribes becomes boring. The game state changes massively each turn, so you can’t plan in advance. That exacerbates the issue, of course, because it makes individual turns longer. You’ll want to grab the AP gamers at the table and suffocate them with the black cloth bag that the game provides to keep meeples in.

Also, everything about the game screams to me that it wasn’t every supposed to be played that way. There’s some neat player interaction mechanics to keep things a bit loose and trashy. The best examples are the genies, cards you can buy on certain tile actions that give you a victory point bonus and a special power. Some of these are really neat, like taking control of empty tiles, or taking away some of your opponent’s collected meeples. It feels like it ought to be a light, fun family game with enough moving parts to appeal to hobbyists. Of which it is, in fact, a magnificent example, as long as you can keep things moving.

That sense is deepend by the presentation of the game. Wooden meeples are passe nowadays, but most of the other stuff is great. Chunky palm trees, golden palaces and vibrant artwork on the genie and resource cards. The player colours are soft pastels, including pink. So there are pastel pink camels in the game, which I presume is a tribute to through the desert.

Five Tribes is great family game with hidden depths which, in turn, sucks hobby gamers into an inviting pit of paralysis which can ruin the game. I can’t make head nor tail of that conundrum, and that’s what makes me a bad reviewer. I had a blast playing the game with family and friends. We enjoyed the fine blend of mechanics, the little bit of interaction and teetering dangerously on the edge of the abyssal depths. So I guess the final judgement is, if you’re going to play Five Tribes, choose your friends – and your genies – wisely.

Splendor Review

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When I cracked the shrink on Splendor (what happened to the missing ‘u’?), I got a nasty surprise. I really thought that so many people had taken the piss out of the overuse of the “Renaissance merchants impressing nobility” theme in games that it had rightly been killed, had its head cut off and its mouth stuffed with garlic-infused meeples that it was gone forever. Yet it it was again, in my hands, in 2014.

But review copies are review copies, so with a heavy heart I began to dig into the box. A deck of cards with some lovely, if rather generic, artwork depicting various scenese of Renaissance life. Some delightfully hefty gem tokens in various colours. A punchboard of nobles and a page of rules. So it was easy to learn, and it looked nice.

Perhaps it wasn’t going to be quite so awful after all.

It was ludicrously easy to learn. Each turn you either grab some gems, spend some of your collected gems on buying a card, or reserve a card to buy later, keeping out of the greedy mitts of your opponents. Each card requires you to pay with a different combination of gem colours but itself contributes a gem to all future purchases. Some are also worth victory points, and you can also get these by “impressing” (oh, God!) one of the nobles with your gem collection. First one to fifteen points wins.

Nowadays I try not to do such an obvious and tiresome thing as a whole-rules paragraph near the beginning of the game but I really couldn’t help it here. It’s just too simple. A child could play this. My children did play it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After reading it, it sounded way too simplistic to even be interesting. My lack of enthusiasm must have shown to the people I cajoled and begged to play it with me: all refused. But eventually, I got my long-suffering family to agree to help me out.

And then I learned a variation on the old saw that one should never judge a book by its cover: one should never judge a game by its rules.

What Splendor actually feels like is a peculiar variation on Ticket to Ride. It’s got the same desperate vibe of trying to collect sets in order to steal goodies from under the nose of your eager opponents, the same teeth-grinding frustration when someone else does it to you.

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But all the rough and ready edges of that design have been gently smoothed away, a set of mechanics moulded and shaped by the passing of the years. In place of randomly collecting colours toward your sets, you choose what you want. Instead of pot luck when it comes to grabbing routes you can “reserve” the ones you really want, at the cost of a turn’s play. Rather than the iron consequences of stolen routes forever closed to you, there’s the hope of a new card that might, just about, fill the same gap if you can get to it first.

The sum effect is one of replacing randomness with choice. How you feel about that depends on how you feel about that great cosmic balance in game design, whether you favour excitement over strategy, thrills over plans.

But Splendor does something that Ticket to Ride does not. Slowly, as you begin to collect cards, it becomes apparent that this is actually a super-simple economic engine game. Your primary purpose early in the game is to buy cards that help you buy bigger cards, on and on up the tree until you can get the fat victory point cards and win the game.

That this ends up happening with incredible speed is another of the game’s surprising pleasures. You only need fifteen to win, and some of the big cards are worth five or more. It’s quite possible for a game that’s been ticking along at a quiet pace to suddenly break into desperate tension as everyone makes a break for victory at the same time, with the win often going in unexpected directions.

Splendor isn’t everything. The theme is comically pointless, and while the stripped down mechanics pack in an impressive amount of variety there’s unlikely to be enough there to sustain real long-term interest. I’m not even sure it’s everything it thinks it is: while moderately strategic, a lot can hinge on what cards come out and turn order.

But Splendour undoubtedly is a quality addition to that small but vital genre of catch-all medium-light hobby games that seem to offer a little bit to please pretty much anyone, like light glittering on the surface of a gemstone. Enough simplicity for anyone to learn, enough strategy to exercise the strategists, enough randomness to satisfy the gamblers, enough interaction to engage the warriors.

A Week with Kingdom Builder

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Why hello. Take a glass, and pull up a chair. Let me tell you about my week.

On Thursday a box arrived containing a copy of Kingdom Builder, winner of the coveted 2012 Spiel des Jahres award. That night I slotted into my well-worn groove on the settee and got down to the job of removing shrinkwrap and popping cardboard. Sadly, and perhaps surprisingly, that task gets tiresome when you’ve done it as many times as I have.

The components are functional, but pedestrian, little wooden houses and lots of brown modular board pieces. I was reminded how unreasonably annoyed I am by the fact that Queen Games puts multiple copies of language dependent components in all their games. So after sorting I’m left with a big stack of cards in every major European language which I will never use, and a small stack of English ones. There’s a big sheaf of individual rulebooks in a babel of tongues.

On Friday I fished the English rules out of the morass and read them. It’s very simple. Take a terrain card and place three little houses on matching hexes on the board, adjacent to your existing houses if possible. Place next to a special hex and gain either points or an extra build power. Attempt to make the best of the three scoring cards out of the ten available that are in use that particular game.

Simple enough that I thought on seven-year old daughter could play it. So on a lazy Saturday afternoon we did just that, dust motes dancing above us in the late winter sun. “This isn’t a game I can beat you at, is it?” she asked. “Probably not” I replied, not wanting to risk disappointment. She duly lost the first game and then inevitably won the second. And the third. By the time I got up off the floor my legs were stiff from sitting cross-legged for so long.

She liked the game, got the strategy of the simpler powers and scoring cards, like points for each building next to a river or mountain. She said she thought it was unusual, and liked the excitement of the card draw that determines where you’re allowed to build each turn. I asked her how much she enjoyed it compared to the other games of mine she’d played. Better than Carcassonne, she thought, but not as good as Wrath of Ashardalon. Sensible girl. I agree entirely.

On Sunday I dared to have another try at the originally abysmal iPad version which I excoriated in a review. The single player version has improved considerably, fixing the slow speed and frequent crashes of the original release. But it’s still got usability issues, and I gave up trying to start the barely-functional multiplayer. Instead I played against three AI opponents who crushed me unmercifully, and demonstrated that it’s a much more interactive with more than two. The board is more cramped and you can engineer races for the best building plots. This is a good thing. I played until my fingers ached.

I tried to confirm this that same evening by playing live on the service Brettspielwelt, the first time in years I’d been there. It didn’t go well. The client was as obtuse as I remembered, and slower. Only a community as insular as gaming would put up with such a poor tool. I did play a game, but only with two. And my opponent, who beat me handily with some clever moves, was silent when queried as to its charms. Either that or they were German.

So on Monday night I gathered with some friends to play, one a gamer, two not. We sat round a homemade table on tatty but cosy chairs in a smoke-filled parlour before a roaring fire. It took no time to explain, and felt so effortless to play that we chatted and chugged beer between moves. The talk flowed freely around the little wooden houses and settled comfortably into the small spaces between the bits of modular board.

There was little of the usual excitement, tension, bending stiff-backed over the play that board games usually generate. Nor did we lose ourselves, engrossed in some shared world or tale that the game provided. But it was strangely engaging for all that, gently occupying active minds in the same way that fidgety people twirl keys to occupy active fingers. And the thrills came, briefly, in the end when we toted up how we’d done against the three scoring measures in use that game. I won against my three inexperienced friends.

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By Tuesday I was convinced enough about the qualities of the game to drop $5 on a promotional
expansion. But not convinced enough to spend 5 Euros, plus a qualifying 20 Euro purchase, plus posting and packing, for another one from Germany.

On Wednesday lunchtime I went for a long walk through my lovely home city, working up warmth and lather against the cold, drab British weather. As I trod the firmament, I thought about Kingdom Builder and about Armadillos. There’s a famous advert from long-ago UK TV that featured the quote “Armadillos: soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside.” Kingdom Builder is the opposite. It’s enormously soft on the outside, almost repellently flaccid. But once you reach the tasty bits within, you’ll find there’s more than a little bite to them.

The next lunchtime I gathered together some of my semi-willing work colleagues upon whom I regularly inflict shorter games. We played Kingdom Builder in a meeting room under the harsh glare of an office striplight. They seemed vaguely annoyed by the game at first, as though without spaceships or monsters and requiring some thought, it wasn’t a sufficient diversion from the drudgery of code. But they settled eventually, and enjoyed it. We couldn’t quite finish inside the hour, not with four, but I’m pretty sure my experience would have told if we’d toted up the score. It felt nice, going back to my desk, to carry a box that wasn’t covered with embarrassing, juvenile art.

My daughter has asked to play it again. So have my friends. The people at work have not, although they’re an uncommunicative lot so that may mean nothing at all. I never got to try it at my local game club, strangers stoked with shared passion gathered in the stifling heat of a delightfully shabby meeting room above a worryingly shabby pub. But they’re plotting a special exhibition game in a bookshop for TableTop Day, and I’m plotting to bring Kingdom Builder along.

I keep most of my games hidden in wardrobes and cupboards. Many are in the attic, nestling close together in airtight containers for comfort against the long dark. But there’s a small selection in open view, downstairs, on a bookcase. Titles I can pull out when my family want to play, or friends come visiting, or I need something to grab quickly before heading out. Games that, basically, anyone can learn and enjoy from small children to die-hard hobbyists. It’s not a big selection because games like that are hard to find. And today Kingdom Builder has taken its rightful place amongst that select and exclusive club.