Ethnos (2017)

Ethnos is the game that you might get by putting Ticket to Ride and Lord of the Rings in a particle collider and smashing them together at relativistic speeds.    Actually, no – scratch that.   Ethnos might be set in a fantasy world but it doesn’t have a fraction of the depth and mythology of Middle Earth.   Ethnos is more like the bastard offspring of Ticket to Ride and your high-school attempt at writing high fantasy for an English class.   It’s also, by quite some margin, the ugliest game we’ve looked at on Meeple Like us in quite some time.

Ethnos box

Certainly not Lord of the Blings

There is something weirdly regressive about a two-fold game board, especially one bedecked in drab greens and half-hearted geographical flourishes.   Part of the first impression I got from Ethnos was likely long-repressed psychic damage from eighties board-games.   Four-fold boards feel modern.  A two-fold board feels archaic.  It’s maybe the most precisely petty objection I’ve ever had to a game.   It has absolutely zero bearing on how the game plays.  That doesn’t change the fact I have the words ‘eww. two-fold board’ playing on a loop in my head in the place I’d normally find critical thought.

Two fold board

Come on, CMON. What even is this?

But come on, look at it.  Has any game in recent memory done so little to win your affection?   Even the name makes the game sound like a brand of discounted petrol.  It sounds like something you’d find for sale in a rural village a hundred miles away from civilization and safety.     One minute you’re filling your car with Ethnos, the next you’re staring frantically out of the head of a wicker man as hooded figures approach with blazing torches.

A game doesn’t have to be attractive to be good though – it’s nice when board games are beautiful physical artefacts but it’s not a prerequisite for fun.   Ethnos may have not made an effort for your date but is it going to be enjoyable company regardless?   The good news is yes, it is going to be enjoyable.  The bad news is that it’s not really enjoyable enough to warrant an awful lot of your attention.   There was a lot of hype around Ethnos when it was released, but much of that seems to have evaporated over time.    Enthusiasm has a half-life and even in the course of a single year we’ve seen this have a considerable impact on the public appreciation of Ethnos.  It’s a perfectly fine game, but in the modern climate fine isn’t really enough.

Oh, spoiler alert I suppose.  That was supposed to be the conclusion of the review.  Never mind.

Chosen cards

Cards absent humanity

Here’s how it works.  You take a small deck of cards that represent the various races that might inhabit the land of Ethnos and you shuffle them up.  You deal out a number of these and this is the demographic makeup of the land over which you’re going to be fighting.  It’s a bit like the randomizer system in Dominion where the availability of certain races in play is going to change the texture of the experience.

Victory point tiles played

Tiles don’t make it any better really

The various victory point tiles are shuffled and allocated to the board, placed in ascending order in each region so that they become progressively more valuable as the ages go on.    Gaining control over a territory is easy in the first age, more difficult in the second, and intensely challenging in the third.  Your ability to slide into a territory’s DMs is based on the number of markers already present, and it’s the players with the most markers that will harvest the rich crop of victory points that grow there.   Again, not a new idea but it works well in the context of the game.   It adds a flexibility to area control that lets you invest for the long term before you reap the more lucrative dividends.

Althea victory point distribution

Althea, noted for its patches of green in a body of verdant green greenness.

Look at Althea here – a territory worth nothing in the first age, a parsimonious two points in the second, and a whopping ten in the third age.   You could seed that territory with your troops early on in the ages so as to take advantage of the relatively looser constraints on your movement.   Or you could just leave it to a massive group punch-up in the third age so as to maximise the benefit of every one of your cards in the short term.

You take each of the cards that belong to the decks for each of the races in Ethnos and you bang them together and shuffle them long and hard.  You then seed three dragon cards into the bottom of the deck.  When all three of these have been drawn the age is over and it’s time to do a round of scoring.  It’s exactly like in Skyrim where the arrival of Alduin signals the end of all things except that it doesn’t really because life somehow still goes on.   At the end of the second, or third, age the game is over and a winner declared.

Dragon cards

At my level, each of these dragons can be one-shot with my crafted bow.

That’s your setup, and the game itself is pleasingly simple and straightforward.  There’s a central supply of face-up cards, and a face-down draw deck.   During your turn you can claim a face up card, or draw an unknown proposition.  Or, if you have enough cards in your hand to make it worthwhile you can play a warband.  For that you need to play a set of cards matching either a race or a region of the board.  You pick a leader for that warband, and trigger the special power associated.  If you played enough cards, you also place one of your markers in the region indicated on the leader card.   Each of the bands you play during an age gets scored when the dragons return, so you want to play many bands, and for those bands to be as big as possible.

Table of scoring for warbands

Charts and tables always make things more exciting.

Oh, and when you play a warband you discard all of the rest of your hand to the central supply where any bastard around the table can merrily scoop them up.   We’ll have cause to come back to that later.

That’s it.  That’s everything.

At least, that’s everything in the rules.  The rest of the game is to be found in the cards, and more explicitly in the interaction of the different races.  The game of Ethnos is played in the combination of races that are active during the session and the effect is considerable.  Consider the orcs – if they’re in the game you get to play a little minigame of territorial raiding.  Every time you send a warband rampaging through a territory you get to place one of your markers on your own personal orc board.  At the end of the age you can choose to cash them in for a fresh board or let them ride on like the long-shot in a bookie’s accumulator.

Orc board

It’s like a Tolkein themed Starbucks loyalty card

If you’re playing with the giants, every time you play a larger band of giants than anyone else you get to claim the giant token.  Every time that happens you get two victory points, and the person holding it at the end of the age brings further glory upon their house.

With the Merfolk there’s a whole other board that you progress on as you play down warbands.  The player farthest along there will get glory points for their efforts, but there are also squares on the board that permit you to place a marker anywhere in Ethnos when you pass them.   Merfolk are apparently like ninjas in Ethnos – they strike silently from the shadows and change the political landscape accordingly.

Merfolk board

Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter

When you play a band of wizards, you get to draw cards from the deck after you discard.  If you play elves, you get to keep a number of cards in your hand during the discard.  Halflings don’t let you place a marker on the board but there are two dozen of the buggers in the deck and as such they make it easy to play really big, high scoring warbands.  Wingfolk can place markers in any kingdom on the board, regardless of leader affiliation.  Skeletons are jokers, increasing the size of warbands for the purpose of claiming territories but falling into dust when it comes to scoring.  Minotaurs are brutally powerful and act as a larger warband for claiming territory.  Dwarfs count as a larger warband when it comes to end of age scoring.   Centaurs let you play a second warband from your hand just for having played them first.

Only six of these races will be in the game at any one time, and as you can imagine the combinatorial effect of this leads to a range of interesting tactics you can employ over the course of an age.  Favoured strategies might not be available from game to game – it forces you to improvise within a game landscape that creates conflict through the uneven distribution of victory points through the ages.   Races play against point distribution, and the increasingly oppressive entry requirements to territories lends a varying value to each of the different powers.  It’s nice.  It’s clever in an understated way.   The way the game forces you to discard cards when you play a band is on the verge of being genius – it creates a beautiful elasticity in the economics of hand management.  You want big warbands, but you can only get them in fits and starts.  When you finally play them you’re going to be delivering a substantial Christmas pay-out to everyone around the table.  You only have the supply and the deck as a way of building your hand, and the deck is always an uncertain gamble.  Maybe you’ve been waiting on the two merfolk that will let you steal a difficult territory away from an opponent.  Suddenly seeing four of them cascading into the shop is like Santa filling your stocking from your Amazon wishlist.   It’s good for you, but it’s so bad for the person that just sent them tumbling into your net.  The great thing is everyone knows the sacrifice associated with a big warband and so every moment of satisfaction here comes at the cost of a deferred karmic judgement.   You’ll get yours, soon enough.  It’s really very nice.

Regardless of these admirable qualities though, I found myself underwhelmed by the package as a whole.

Placed markers

The saucers have landed! Aliens everywhere!

The problem really is that while all of these ideas work very well in theory and on paper, they don’t work as well together as you might expect.   The variable races are a great idea, except when paired with the discarding system you end up with the systems acting against each other.  Wizards let you draw fresh new cards, elves let you keep cards, and centaurs let you play two bands at once.  All of these races hugely distort the central supply mechanism by hugely restricting stock or alleviating demand.   The problem is corrosive, because it eats away at the veneer and reveals the fundamental weaknesses of the foundation.   The lack of meaningful churn in the marketplace of allies means that you have to rely on drawing from the top deck.  That turns what is an otherwise clever game of set management and push your luck into a function of statistics.  It becomes something akin to a game of blackjack where you lose any meaningful ability to influence outcome and simply have to resort to choosing your bail-out point.   Any one of these races in a game upsets the equilibrium of the systems.  Since there are only twelve different races in the box the chances are pretty high you’ll end up with two or even three of them in play at any one time.   In such games you’re pretty much just drawing a random card and working out what to do with it within board constraints that often mean you’re choosing between only one or two sensible options.  You don’t even really need to be there – someone could flip a coin on your turn to simulate the decisions you’d make.  ‘Heads.  Draw a card.  Tails.  Place my biggest band in the best region where there’s any point in me playing’

Age three battle

All in.

The variable value of the regions too is a nice system that creates reasons for tension and gives you opportunities for investing your efforts in early ages so as to reap a disproportionate reward for later turns.   That only really works in the two-player game though.  In the third age everyone has spread into territories and the cost of entry becomes higher for everyone – sometimes so high that you need to focus on those territories where the cost is lower if you want to have any chance of playing a marker.   That’s Real Nice if there’s a penalty to you delaying entry into a region, and that’s exactly what happens if the entry cost is a function of every marker in the territory.  That’s how it works for two players.  In games with three or more players the only cost to entry is the number of your markers that are there.  In theory there’s more demand on your cards as time goes by, but in practise it has an almost negligible effect.  In theory the value of some of the race powers would ebb and flow as the ages go on – Minotaurs with their additional conquest strength would grow in value, and thus in desireablity, as it became increasingly difficult for anyone to place a marker.   That doesn’t really happen though since you’re usually your own pacer for marker placement and you don’t need to play a marker to score a warband.  Even if it did it would only underpin how problematic the other race powers become with regards to ally availability in the central supply – you can’t build a meaningful strategy with random draws from the top of a deck.  It’s not even as if you can simply use the two-player rule in three player games – the number of tokens that make their way into territories would soon make any advancement at all mathematically impossible.

Third age board

A world war.

There are a lot of good ideas in here, but they just don’t cohere in a way that makes for a satisfying game experience.   There’s a lot in Ethnos that feels like Ticket to Ride, but even in that it doesn’t offer much of value because those elements just aren’t as inherently cathartic.  It feels really nice to lay down a track in Ticket to Ride.  It feels like a chore to place a new marker down into a territory in Ethnos because the cheap plastic doesn’t stack well at all.  It’s like trying to balance a snooker ball on top of a Jenga tower, and all that happens a lot of the time is you end up pinging a disc across the table like it was an errant tiddlywink.    Even if that weren’t the case, there’s no sense of ownership or accomplishment that comes with building a stack of control markers when in the end they don’t have a significant impact on the game.  A single large warband will outscore even the most valuable territory.

I have enjoyed playing Ethnos, but really when I look it in context with all the other games on my shelf I find its structural flaws are sufficient to talk me out of playing it in almost every situation I can envisage.   It’s simple enough to be a good introductory game, but its fun is not reliable enough to remotely dethrone Ticket to Ride.  It’s variable enough to offer a lot of replayability through combinatorial explosion, but Dominion offers the same with much greater resilience in the playability of combinations.   If I want escalating costs for expansion and consolidation, Concordia is still almost impossible to beat.    Ethnos is a grab-bag of solid ideas that are well executed in each individual case.  The problem is that these potentially glimmering gears crunch and grind against each other more often than they mesh.     It’s not without its positive qualities, and when the systems do work in concert it’s an enjoyable game.    It’s not that I resent the time I’ve spent with Ethnos.  It’s just I have no desire to spend any more time with it than I already have.

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