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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.

Cracked LCD: Five Tribes in Review

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Bruno Cathala’s Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala is the newest issue from Days of Wonder and it is looking like a smash hit. But I wouldn’t call it a return to form for the French publisher, that has long specialized in great-looking, accessible family games. Don’t get me wrong, Five Tribes is definitely a great-looking, accessible family game but it also stands apart from the rest of the company’s catalog as something potentially more complex and intricate, straddling the line between the anybody-can-play simplicity of 1990s-style “German game” fare and more recent hobbyist designs that favor multilayered mechanics and density. I’ve been completely fascinated by how well this game accommodates two very distinctive styles of play without shortchanging either the casual or hardcore player or requiring any kind of rules modification.

The game may not tell much of a story, but the chunky wooden palaces, palm trees and camels along with a lovely color palette, fantastic illustrations of all of the Djinns and the thematic notion of the titular Five Tribes combine to create an evocative, Arabian Nights-style atmosphere. Village tiles are laid out in a 5×6 grid and each is populated with three meeples from those specialist tribes. On your turn, you pick up all of the meeples on a tile and move them- Mancala style- from tile to tile, dropping one on each that you visit. The hard and fast rule is that the last meeple you place must be on a destination tile that has one of the same tribe (color). When you finish your move, you take all of the meeples of that final color into your hand. If you clear the tile, you get to place a camel on it to claim its point value.

Then you take the action of that tribe. Yellows are elders- you keep those for a majority scoring at the end of the game. White are viziers, you’ll need them to buy and use the powerful Djinn cards that impart various bonuses and advantages as well as points. The green tribesmen are traders, and for every one of them you pick up from a destination tile, you get to take a trade good from a market row. Income is managed by blue builders, who give you money based on the number of builders multiplied by the number of blue-numbered tiles around the destination. Tribe red are the assassins, who let you kill an Elder or Priest held by another player or you can kill a meeple on a tile- which may clear it and allow you to claim it with a camel.

On top of the tribe movement and actions, which are an obvious ongoing concern for the player, there are also actions on each of the village tiles. Some let you buy goods from the market row. Others let you spend viziers to buy Djinns. There are tiles that improve by building palm trees or palaces on them. So on a given turn, you might be looking at a number of possibilities and combinations of actions between the tribes and villages. Turn order can be tremendously important, and each turn is prefaced by a pay-up-front auction to see who gets to go before everybody else messes up the board. Even pulling up the rear, it seems like you’re never far from a clever, high-scoring play- if you can sort it out from the game state when your turn comes around.

But Five Tribes is hardly a solitary, processional and mathematical exercise. Not only is the board in a constant state of player-generated flux, the Djinn cards really mix things up quite a lot to the point where some of them might be considered imbalanced by some players (read: the players not using the ones regarded as problematic). They all have proper names and great illustrations, along with thematic powers that give impart a nice mythic flavor to the game. The assassin tribe also creates a subtle but potentially impactful way for players to directly affect holdings within clear restrictions. Taking an assassin action to knock out someone’s priest before they’re about to activate a powerful Djinn is always fun, as is assassinating a yellow Elder to claim the majority of them right before the end of the game.

By the time that end rolls around- let’s call it around 60-75 minutes, more if you’re playing with slowpokes or MENSA members- points are tallied up including money, village holdings, Djinn cards, sets of market goods (more variety equals more points), tile improvements, and the number of white and yellow tribespeople you’re left holding. Naturally, it’s pretty much impossible to excel across all of these scoring vectors so determining the right pathways is both a tactical and long-term core competency.

Making an audience feel smart is a powerful attractant, and Five Tribes excels at providing players immediate satisfaction. Players score something every turn, and while it is true that this is the kind of game where there are lots of points up for grabs at all times from many sources, it is also true that spotting those smart moves and leveraging the advantages of the Djinn cards and turn order will provide better results. There’s a lot to take in at first, but after a couple of games it becomes much easier to see certain patterns and pathways that will yield higher scores. This is where some of the “min-maxing” can come into play, and this is where the ugly specter of analysis paralysis can cause the game to drag. I would argue that Mr. Cathala has actively attempted to thwart the AP-prone by including plenty of baffles such as variable elements (which change not only every game but from turn to turn), hidden scoring and a fundamental reliance on player activity to alter the game state constantly throughout play. In short- don’t overthink it.

At least that’s how I play- I look for those smart, fun plays and rake in the points. I groan when I see somebody grab an opportunity I missed, but I don’t care to hyper-analyze the game. It’s usually pretty clear in most cases where the better payout is. You should use the Djinn Utug to claim the 15 point village and not the four point one. Anybody can see that. But where it gets a little hairier is choosing how much money to spend on going first in a turn, since then you’re weighing out a net gain for getting to an action or actions first versus the cost of claiming first player rights. Then there are the combinations of tribal actions paired with village actions, and the consideration of what potential moves you are setting up for subsequent players. Valuation becomes very tricky the more you squint at it, and this is where Five Tribes actually allows players who want this kind of challenge to dig in for it.

I love this game, particularly how you can play it completely as a lightweight game with fun mechanics that create lots of satisfying “aha!” moments or as a heads-down strategy game where you are always evaluating multiple scoring options across a highly volatile board. It’s a game that is definitely on trend, matching up with recent efforts that have prioritized accessibility and simplicity over the complexity and bulk that had been favored among the Eurogame set over the past several years yet it retains the appeal of the more complicated titles in that genre. This is exactly the right kind of game Days of Wonder should have released here in 2014, and between this title and Mr. Cathala’s other big recent release, Abyss, I think we’ll be hearing his name quite a lot in the Spiel des Jahres discussion next year.

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