Thursday, July 07, 2016

Tribal Knowledge

Since its 2014 release, the board game Five Tribes, by designer Bruno Cathala, has been rocketing up the BoardGameGeek charts. (It now sits a lofty perch in the Top 50.) I finally got a chance to play it and see what all the fuss is about.

The game has some decent flavor draped over it: a struggle to become sultan of a city-state by invoking djinns, maneuvering tribes, and securing influence. But the gameplay itself is somewhat more abstract. Play takes place on a 6 x 5 grid of tiles, each tile beginning with three randomly placed meeples on it. The meeples come in five different colors (the titular Five Tribes), and each color has its own specific game power. On your turn, you pick up the meeples from one tile and then distribute them Mancala-style, dropping one per tile as you work your way from one location to another.

The complexity comes from where you arrive at, and how you arrive there. Whichever meeple color you drop last on your last tile determines the action you get to take on your turn. The number of that color meeple on that tile determines the relative strength of that action. You also then remove all those meeples from the game, and if that empties the tile completely, you gain control of it for end game scoring. And control or no, you also get to take the action innately printed on the tile itself.

I very quickly understood why the game is so popular. It's really a fairly straightforward rules set; the rulebook itself is notably shorter than those of many Euro board games. But you have a lot of strategic options on each turn you take. I mean, I haven't even attempted to explain the powers of the meeple colors, the tiles, the djinns you can buy, or the markers that can be placed on the tiles. Then there's the bidding for turn order each round. Put simply (and obviously), lovers of strategy games are loving this because there's plenty here to love.

You'll probably never count yourself out in a game of Five Tribes, because there are so many different approaches you can take, too many surprise attacks your opponents will have a hard time anticipating, and no way to defend against everything. The rules set just allows for that much variety, and that's before you even add the randomness of the game set-up -- the arrangement of tiles and distribution of meeples on those tiles. There seems to be massive replayability here.

That said, there is something of a double-edged sword too, depending on the type of people you have in your gaming group. For many, the number of choices will lead to crippling analysis paralysis. That in turn will lead to impatient or annoyed opponents. I lucked out and played with a pretty easygoing group, in which each player was willing to stop looking for the "perfect move" after a reasonable amount of time. Because make no mistake, you could spend a long time looking for the perfect move. Indeed, the possibilities seem so vast that I'm not even sure you should spend much time at all planning a turn during the first half of the game; only as the options narrow with dwindling meeples could you possibly run though most of your options.

I could see myself playing Five Tribes again and again. I'd just be careful about the players a chose to play it with. Overall, I'd grade the game an A-.

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