Review: ‘Five Tribes’ (Board Game)
F*** djinni, get moneyon February 12, 2015 at 8:00 am
Like the sands of the hourglass…
Okay, I’m not even going to attempt that intro, it’s so hokey.
“Five Tribes” is a game set in Arabia. There are deserts, oasiseseses, little turban-wearing meeples, gorgeous and imposing djinns (Because it’s lame to call them “Genies”), camels, and a smattering of political incorrectness. You’re going to set this game up in front of your friends are they are going to gaze upon the game, then at you, then back at the game as their faces contort into a state of worry and panic.
There is a lot of stuff. It looks complicated. You’re going to try to ease their fears. “No, this is very simple. I promise.” And then you’ll explain how a turn works and they’ll go, “Ah, yeah. That is actually pretty simple. But how do I win?” Then, quite gently, you’ll lift the pad of scoring sheets out of the box and slide it in front of them.
This may be the point where they attempt to flee the premises. Don’t let them. Remind them that you’re not making them play “Twilight Imperium” and that you can make things much worse for them. MUCH worse.
What? Getting your friends to play board games isn’t like a hostage negotiation for you?
There are lots of ways to score points. That’s where the game’s complexity comes from; but, it’s incredibly easy to grasp. Despite the fact that the game takes fifteen minutes to set up, it will only take a few minutes to explain.
But, it’s also a eurogame, which means it wears its theme very loosely. The mechanics and strategy aren’t really born from that theme. “Five Tribes” lies on the simpler side of this spectrum, however. It’s not nearly as mathsy as eurogames can be. This means it can serve as a good introduction to more complicated games for your friends.
The real question is whether “Five Tribes” is actually a good game. Does it have enough jewels in its turban? No. Does it have enough sand in its shoes? Noo. Does it have enough water in its hump… is it well designed enough to make it last and feel satisfying to play years down the line?
As I mentioned earlier, a turn in “Five Tribes” is actually really simple. The play area consists of a 5×6 grid of tiles. Each of those has a variety of meeples on it. You’ll start by picking all of the meeples up off any tile and then dropping them, one by one, on adjacent tiles. You’ll cut a path through the board, finally dropping your last meeple on a space with meeples that share the same color as it. You’ll pick all of those same-colored pieces up, get a reward depending on what color they were, and do whatever the tile tells you to do. That’s it.
What specific meeples to go for and what tile abilities you want are what drives the game’s strategy.
You can pick up Viziers, which give you a ton of points at the end of the game if you have more than other players. Or maybe Assassins, which let you kill off other meeples. Or Builders, which give you lots of money. Merchants let you collect goods. And Elders, which let you purchase all-powerful djinns.
If you collect enough different types of goods from the merchants, you get an obscene amount of points. Djinns all give you lots of points, but they all give you powers you can use on your turns. And since money is worth points at the end of the game, Builders are good too. Assassins may sound weak, but they let you kill meeples. If there is a single meeple left on a tile, then you can take that tile over. Every time you empty a tile at the end of your turn, you get to put one of your camels on it, and THAT gives you points.
Basically, like a lot of eurogames. everything you do feels rewarding and works towards victory. This makes players feel good. It makes them feel like they’re always accomplishing something. But, this can also mean it’s hard to determine what the best thing to do on your turn is.
This is especially true in “Five Tribes”, as there is no real planning you can do. The board is never going to be the way you left it. It can also be difficult to take an interest in other player’s turns, since there is almost nothing they can do that affects you, outside of a few djinn powers or maybe a stray assassin turn that takes out of your viziers.
So, pretty standard stuff for eurogames, right? Very little player interaction, tons of ways to earn points, no clear indication of who’s winning, poor use of theme. Is there anything noteworthy here?
At the start of each round, you have to bid for turn order. This is one of the best and most important parts of the game. See, since your coins are worth a lot of points at the end of the game, you want to hang onto them. But, you also want to make sure you get your turn when you want it.
Now, I know what I said before about there being no real planning you can do. That’s mostly true. Each turn largely consists of you doing what you think will get you the most points you can possibly get at that moment. However, maybe the player who went last left a huge opening you can exploit and you want to go first to take advantage of it. Or maybe you went last and set yourself up for something, so you need to go first to enact your plan.
This bidding, while simple, makes the game more exciting and dynamic. Correctly used, it can make planning viable and powerful. Incorrectly used, it can ruin you, as you have to actively throw points away to get a favorable turn order. If there isn’t something profitable enough to gain, you can spend too much.
Still, playing a 3 or 4-player game is a chaotic experience. Even the bidding doesn’t really cure that ailment much.
“Five Tribes” is a different experience as a 2-player game, though.
See, when playing with two players, each person gets two turns per round. This means they have to bid for two turns a piece. This small change suddenly transforms the experience into something really thoughtful and tense. Letting someone snag two turns in a row, while you go first and last is brutal. And since there is only one other player, you’re much more engaged in what they’re doing, because it is going to directly affect what you do on your turn.
It also may be a really good game for couples, seeing as the pieces for a two player game are the exact same colors as those bubblegum cigars new dads excitedly shove into unaccepting mouths when their child is born. Hell, maybe the game is meant to be an aphrodisiac to get couples in the mood. Have you seen the shape of these pieces? They’re not subtle.
Sexy djinns and sexy pieces. Mmm… let’s have a baby, honey.
“Yes! We’ll call our firstborn Bruno!”
Lastly, we have to deal with this game’s messy theme. It doesn’t work, at all.
…or does it?
On the surface, the game seems like the theme was tacked on somewhere in the middle of the design process. One that was specifically chosen because it’s fairly unique in the realm of board games. And the theme of Arabia and djinns and deserts doesn’t really matter. There were no mechanics that were informed from the theme.
I mean, the game is called “Five Tribes” to signify the five different types of meeples. But, really, were there ever tribes of builders or merchants? No, it’s just a more evocative sounding word than calling the game “Union Workers” or “Day Laborers”.
Except, there is a different theme here. One that lies outside of the game’s aesthetics. One that’s actually brilliant.
In reality, this is a game where you’re all playing cutthroat entrepreneurs. You’re bidding for turn order to be the first to grab at important business opportunities. You’re making deals with various merchants in the region. You’re hiring builders to expand your empire. You’re encountering small villages and gathering information on ancient deities to befriend. You’re hiring unscrupulous types to take out people of influence that are willing to help your rivals. You’re gaining trust with people in power. You’re haggling for goods and selling them for a massive profit.
Then, once these meeples have served their purpose, you throw them into a black bag, never to be seen or heard from again.
There are even slaves you can purchase, which you can use and dispose like currency because there is nothing that will stop you from getting what you want. That’s awful! But it works here.
You have to constantly juggle how much to invest in something with how much return you’re going to see. That’s the secret genius here.
It works if you buy into this idea. The idea that this game’s theme, the unintended one, is one where you’re all playing greedy, power hungry jerks. Dirtbags who are unabashedly selfish, unmitigatingly cruel, and borderline psychotic. You know, like real CEOs. This game asks the players, “How good are you at being awful people?”
To this, the game is actually kind of brilliant.
But, I can’t review a game based on things I’ve made up.
Look, “Five Tribes” is a good game, even a little better than good when playing with two players. I like its simplicity, I like its design, and I like the visual puzzle it puts in front of you. Carving paths of meeples and shutting off paths for your opponent is satisfying.
But I still stand by my assessment that this is a good game to get people into the world of board games. It’s certainly works better as that than it does as a gamer’s game.
It’s generous with its components, it looks great on your table, and the manual is extremely slim and easy to understand. It’s a very good product. Not great, but very good. Certainly worth it if you’re looking for something with more crunch than other entry-point games, like “Ticket to Ride” or “Carcassone”.
My version of the game, though… fuck, that would light the industry ablaze.