Right everyone, I need you to listen here. This is going to be a rough review. I’m going to be unironically saying things like ‘table presence’ (urgh), ‘analysis paralysis’ (urgh, urgh) and ‘mancala mechanisms’ (ur… uh?). I’m going to be talking about this game in a way that makes it sound like I’m treating you like the hard-core, lost-cause nerds of /r/boardgames and BGG. I’m going to say things like ‘points salad’ (urgh). It’s going to be rough. I apologise in advance – I don’t even know if this jargon will make any sense to you. Put your hand up if you know what any of those terms mean.
Did you do it? Did you put your hand up? I really have no idea, I can’t see you. That was a silly thing to ask you to do.
I’m sorry about this, but in my defense the publishers are as much to blame as I am. On the back of the box, it says that Five Tribes is ‘a bit more of a gamer’s game than Days of Wonders’ standard fare’. It’s right there on the box – it’s a gamer’s game. It expects a degree of literacy in game systems that other Days of Wonders titles don’t. We’ve looked at Ticket to Ride, Memoir ’44 and Small World already on the blog. All of those games are marked by the ease with which people can pick up and start playing – even Memoir ’44 is about as newbie friendly a wargame as you can hope to find. Five Tribes needs you to dig deeper. It needs you to dig a lot deeper. There is a vein of pure, unrefined fun in here but remember – you need to dig.
I’ll be upfront though about my views here – you should dig. Five Tribes is a genuinely marvellous game of deep, contemplative consideration of an ever changing game state. It’s like staring into the shifting heart of a wooden mandala. It’s beautiful. It’s as deep as a grave, as deep as the ocean. This is a game though for people that like to work for their fun. I think it is one of the best games we’ve looked at here on the site. I also think you need to be very mindful of where the fun comes from before you rock on up to your ‘friendly local games store’ (urgh) or faceless online retailer to purchase it. It might be difficult to ‘get it to the table’. Urgh.
First of all, the set-up of this game is bananas. If I were ever going to write a sketch comedy show about board games, and lord knows someone should, Five Tribes would make an excellent subject for a skit. That skit would be an extended parable of delayed gratification, where just when you think someone is done with the ludicrously drawn out process another baggy comes out and another phase begins. Five Tribes is like a parody of itself. Let’s step through it just so you can see.
You start with a stack of tiles, each of which shows a special action that someone can undertake through the game. You shuffle this stack of hard cardboard which is exactly as awkward as it sounds, and then you lay it out in a six by five grid.
A pain the arse, right? Oh, my sweet summer child. We’re just getting started. Then, you grab your great big bag o’ meeples. It contains ninety differently coloured figures, each representing one of the five tribes (TITLE DROP BOOM) of the fictional Arabian landscape of Naqala. You draw those out, three random figures at a time, and drop each set onto a different tile in the landscape.
This is a task of such annoyingly finnicky precision as to induce a mental state like a board game equivalent of highway hypnosis. You’re forever taking out too many or not enough, and then having to place them laboriously on the tiles so that they’re standing up. You need to stand them too, because later on you’ll be laying meeples on their back while you’re playing. Already we’re about five minutes into the process, and we’re not done.
Once you have the meeples placed you then shuffle the resource deck and draw out nine cards. The deck is made up of small, awkward cards and as such it’s difficult to properly shuffle. As too are the square djinn cards that likewise need shuffled and then drawn out – three of these.
Here’s where the process starts to become comedic, because we’ve spent so much time and we’re still not done. WE’RE STILL NOT DONE. Next, you need to get hold of your palm tree and palace tokens, and put them to the side within easy access of everyone. You’ll be using them quite a lot as time goes by.
Then you take your player turn markers, which look like multi-coloured micropenises, and place them on the bidding order track. Above that, you place the turn order tracker that is used to handle the turn bidding. If you’re playing a two player game you’ll use the pink and blue minarets for this because there are two of each for that colour. Otherwise, pick a penis you like and that’s who you control. Just like in real life.
And then finally we have the game board set up. And it looks lovely – Five Tribes is a striking game with a staggering degree of table presence (urgh). The reward you get for this laborious setup isn’t fun, but spectacle. You can take a few moments here to catch your breath. Better? Good, let’s continue. Yes, continue. WE’RE NOT DONE YET.
Next, we need to give each player their camels – for a two player game you use a larger allocation of these so part of this partitioning is making sure you put the spares off to the side, or bring them back into the game for smaller counts. Then, you need to give everyone their starting money, in the precisely enumerated quantity of nine five-value coins and five-one value coins.
Are we done? Please, are we done? Yeah, we’re done. Finally, we’re done.
This setup is so laborious, and so tedious, that it was genuinely the sticking point for me when deciding what score to give Five Tribes. It almost scored lower purely because of the fact I inwardly groan when I consider playing it. I took the photographs for this review in an intensely bad mood because of how long it took to go through the process. This review is a thousand words already and all I’ve done is complain about the setup. It’s a problem.
But look – isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it an eye-catching marvel of interwoven colours and mystery? Look at all those tribes, peacefully co-existing – it’s as idealistic as an episode of Star Trek. Once you’ve gotten over the (camel) hump of setup, it’s all a thrilling downward freecycle from there. From this point on, Five Tribes becomes gaming gold. At least, for a certain kind of player. We’ll get to that.
On one level, Five Tribes is incredibly simple. You begin a round by bidding for turn order. Everyone chooses how much money they’re going to spend to decide when they get to act. This is the first wonderful thing about Five Tribes because the money you have is also a victory point count. What you need to do, every turn, is decide just how much of your current score you want to sacrifice to get the chance to improve upon it. If you’re the first person to bid, you might think ‘Eight’ only to find everyone decides to cluster near the zeros like tramps around a trashcan fire. Or you might think ‘three’ only to see the five, eight and twelve spaces taken up in quick succession. Three of the players can choose to pay nothing for their turn, but each time a 0 space is taken it nudges all the previous zeros a step back in the running. The bidding in Five Tribes is a social deductive game all of its own. What you’re paying for is the option to move when you think it will be best for you – that isn’t always first.
Once the turn order has been established, players each take their turn to make their move. Here, you pick up a handful of the meeples on a tile, and then wander a path through Naqala, dropping a meeple on each cardinal direction tile you pass through. It’s a standard Mancala mechanism, in other words. You must end your path dropping a meeple onto a tile that already has a meeple of that colour, and you can’t backtrack. Aside from that, you have few restrictions. You might pick up a white, green and red meeple from a tile.
Drop the green meeple off to the east of the starting tile…
Drop the red one off at the tile north of that…
And then drop the white meeple onto the tile north of that one.
When you drop your final meeple onto a tile, you collect up all the meeple of that colour, and that gives you a special effect that you execute.
A green meeple represents a merchant, and lets you draw resources from the resource track. Blue represents a builder, and gives you points based on the number of blue point tiles in the nine-cell neighbourhood. Red are assassins, and can kill meeple at a distance – or meeple in front of other players. White are elders, and yellow are viziers. Both of those get kept in front of the player that claimed them. Elders are a currency that can be used to purchase genies. Yellow are lucrative victory points in the final count. Here, we dropped a white meeple onto a tile containing two other while meeple, so we collect up the three of them leaving only a solitary red meeple in its place.
If we clear a tile of all its meeple, then we claim ownership over the tile and get to place a camel on it. We’ll get points for that tile at the end of the game, which is reason enough to claim it. However, regardless of ownership of a tile the person that lands on it can also perform the action associated. We just robbed a tile of three elders, but we also triggered the ‘sacred place’ action represented on the tile. That permits us to use our elders (and potentially any fakir resources we have collected) to purchase one of the powerful genie cards that let us change the way the game works. Genies are a kind of perpetual power-up – some offer passive buffs, others let you convert elders and fakirs into special effects. I don’t know exactly what this represents thematically, but it seems very much like you might be either rendering them into Djinn Soylent or just straight up sacrificing your elderly to the desert.
Once our turn is over, we take our player marker and put it onto the bid track again – the player that goes first in a round also gets the first opportunity to make the bid in the next. That… is not necessarily a blessing. Not only is the first bidder at the mercy of imperfect information regarding everyone else’s intention, Five Tribes is a game that is incredibly difficult to play optimally. It’s difficult to work out just how much turn order is worth. If you were the last to go in one round, you may want to pay the maximum needed in order to go first in the next – playing two turns back to back can be very powerful. Unfortunately though you’ll also be the last one to bid, so you’ll always be paying the most you would have had to pay, or missing out entirely on the opportunity. Is that worth doing? You probably won’t know and it’s slim comfort to know that neither will anyone else.
There is you see an awful lot of churn in a game of Five Tribes. The game state is going to be radically different each time a player has had a go at it. The number of meeple accumulated on a tile is a delicious option you have available right up until the point it suddenly becomes as palatable as a slug sandwich. If you have three meeples on a tile, you move three tiles. If some bastard drops a fourth meeple on the tile you were eying up then you need to make four moves. The perfect journey you plotted out from start to end becomes more like a family road-trip. It’ll be filled with regret and recrimination and end in a tantrum as the driver overshoots the correct exit ramp from the motorway and drives the family into a far off field.
Still, you might get lucky. You might scoop up green, white and red meeples from a tile and then carefully drop the white and green ones off like a conscientious taxi driver before slipping the red into its new home. Boom, you grab the two assassins, claim the tile, and then you get to use your assassins to kill a meeple within two squares. In later stages you might use that convenient murder to claim control of a distant tile. You can also use it to kill elders and viziers that have been collected by your opponents, depriving them of points and power.
But again, look what you’ve done in the process – you’ve probably thrown a massive turd into the swirling stew of someone’s strategy. Every time you drop a meeple on a tile, you take the whole possibility space of the game and rotate it through a random number of degrees in a random axis. Tiles that were perfect are now terrible. Tiles that were terrible are now perfect. Everything old is new again, and vice versa. While you rarely directly interact with other players in Five Tribes, you leave a stink trail of shattered dreams behind every meeple you drop. It’s the gaming equivalent of letting loose a vigorous fart on an especially windy day. God help any poor sap downwind of you.
Five Tribes, in other words, is a game that creates the context for some genuinely intense analysis paralysis (URGH). For those that have never encountered this linguistic war-crime of a term, it’s used to describe what happens when someone can’t make a decision between what seem to be roughly equally valuable moves. Some games are especially prone to this, and Five Tribes is one of them. The core game action is deceptively simple, but in that simplicity lies a depth that can be staggering. The simplest part of it is ‘where should I start and where should I end’, but that’s only the shallow waters of this oscillating ocean of options. You also need to consider how you’re going to enable other people with each meeple you drop behind you. If you place a single meeple onto an otherwise empty and unclaimed tile, you’ve just created a lucrative scoring opportunity. Are there tiles that would let someone claim it? What about assassins? What about assassins supercharged with fakir cards? Are there any genies in circulation that would change the state of that play? What about the ones in the marketplace? Could someone get a genie that would let them score based on the move you just made?
Then, with the next meeple – all of those calculations have to change because you’ve just altered the state of the board, including the results of your previous calculations. Have you just opened up this tile, or the one before it? Is anyone in a position to take advantage of it? Would they if they could? What about with the next meeple, and the next? What are you actually looking to accomplish, big picture? What are the chances your next turn will be able to proceed without it being impacted by the turns other people make? Will your bid order in the next round change that? What about if you change the path you take with the meeple? Where are the best start and end points, and what meeple in what order should you put down to maximise your benefit and minimise your risk?
It’s very, very intense and made more intense by the sheer number of options you have available. Remember those resource cards? You get points for collecting sets of these, and the more you have in a set the more exponentially valuable it becomes. You might want to land on one of the market tiles, even if you can’t claim it, just for the chance to buy a resource that’s valuable to you.
One element in a set gets you a single point. Three gets you seven. Five gets you twenty one, and so on all the way up to sixty points for nine. You can make a living in Naqala by focusing on resources alone, and frequent trips to the market can be the accelerant that shoots your score up into the stratosphere.
You can also make a living by focusing on genies because they can be intensely powerful. Each awards victory points, but they also let you plug-in powerful abilities that piggyback on the opportunities other players seize. Monkir earns you money any time someone lands on a palace tile. Sidar lets you take a fakir and spend it on a random resource. Utug lets you spend elders to claim empty tiles. Jafaar lets you keep one step ahead of the hitmen, and so on. You could forge these together into an unstoppable engine of economic progress if you like and if you can constantly generate the older people needed to satiate each genie’s otherworldly appetites.
Or maybe you’re the speculative type and you want to earn your fortune through land deals. As you land on oasis and village tiles, you get to place palm trees and palaces – those intensify the value of those tiles for the owner. If you claim them, and continually cultivate them, you’ll find yourself as rich as a Sultan by the time the game ends.
Combinatory strategies too work well – basically, everything you do is going to earn you points and you may find that circumstances dictate the path you take more than your aspirations. Five Tribes then is a good example of a point salad (URGH) – you put together your victory from whatever is to hand, throwing it into a bowl and adding seasoning largely as a result of the ingredients you can get rather than what you might want. You can win regardless of the path you take, although those that double-down on a specific strategy will be more generously rewarded should the game yield itself to their ambitions. This is the element of the game that generates the intense uncertainty that goes into making decisions during a turn. Is it better to claim a tile or a genie? Is it better to bid high on the turn auction or low? Who knows? Nobody knows. And you’ll drive yourself to despair if you try to compute the probabilities. You know that a game offers you a lot of point options when it comes with one of these bloody things in the box:
Some people can’t help attempting the calculations, and I’d be wary of recommending Five Tribes to groups where anyone is prone to analysis paralysis (URGH MICHAEL CAN YOU JUST NOT). You can spend five minutes thinking through your move and still be no further along. It’s not even a game where you can think it through while other people are making their own moves. By the time your turn comes around again, the board is going to represent a whole new world. A new fantastic point of view. Really in Five Tribes you only care about one other player at a time – the one that’s going right before you. That in turn means that there is a danger that the game might play at a pace best described as ‘geological’. Continental plates might shift more rapidly than the meeples in Naqala. What you need then is a group of people willing to let their calculations be tempered with instinct. You probably aren’t going to make a lot of perfect moves in Five Tribes, but it’s enough to make consistently good moves and there are always plenty of those available. The game won’t work well if people can’t fight their instinct to optimise. Even if people invest the effort, Five Tribes doesn’t proportionately reward you for the cognitive calculation you might put in. The difference between two and twenty minutes of thought may only be a few points.
But if you are able to put together a group that can play more fluidly – my goodness. It is such a wonderful game that even writing this I’m itching to break it out and play. Every part of the game is polished to a fine sheen – it’s a game that plays effortlessly, with no awkward grinding of rules or regulations. You can invest meaningful thought into every move whilst admiring the depth of the experience. Playing a game of Five Tribes is like immersing yourself in a championship level chess match, but with less stringent entry requirements. Five Tribes will make you feel very clever if you let it. It’ll also make you feel dumber than a bag of bricks. It’ll swiftly modulate between those, turn to turn. You’ll set up chains and combos and get a warm glow of smug satisfaction in return. You’ll grab a massive mittful of meeples, drop them on a pile of empty spaces, then scoop up a set of assassins to grab two tiles at once. You’ll manipulate circumstances to land on a sacred place and grab the genie that turns your five points of Viziers into fifteen. However, you’ll also miss out on the most obvious scoring options and miscount your moves often enough to shake any self-belief that you actually understand how numbers even work.
Five Tribes permits turns of steady progress, but also genuinely large windfalls that are exciting to engineer and admirable to observe. That’s not always true in one of these mid-weight Euro games (URGH STOP IT MICHAEL JUST STOP IT WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS), and handling it so well and so fairly is a level of achievement beyond even that. And Five Tribes does all of this while providing some of the most wonderfully luxurious components I’ve seen in a game. Five Tribes is an absolute treat, and while I advise a degree of caution for those looking to buy it, it’ll completely justify its setup time for a group compatible with its somewhat peculiar requirements.
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