[This review was originally posted on my blog Ludo Lodge with additional photos and formatting]
A full list of my game reviews can be found HERE.
Ethnos is a light strategy game of set collection and area control, released in 2017 by designer Paolo Mori. Players will collect cards depicting different fantasy races, and play bands from their hand in order to score points and jockey for area majority in each of the regions on the board. After three ages, each with their own scoring rounds, the player who has earned the most glory will be victorious!
At the beginning of each game, six fantasy tribes (five in a 2-3 player game) are randomly chosen, and the cards for those tribes are shuffled together to create the main deck. The board consists of six regions, each of which is randomly assigned glory point markers, which will define how they will score at the end of each age. Each player is dealt one card from the deck, and then three dragon cards are shuffled into the bottom half of the remaining deck. Players then take turns choosing between just two options:
Take a Card – At the beginning of the age, a certain number of cards will be dealt into a face-up row. A player may take one of these cards to add to their hand, or take the top card from the deck. Note that unlike Ticket to Ride, this card row does not replenish when cards are taken. Therefore, it could (and likely will at points during the game) become completely empty, leaving only the top card of the deck as an option. A player is only allowed to hold ten cards, and cannot take this action if it would violate that limit.
Play a Band – Instead of taking a card, a player can choose to play a band. A band is a set of cards that are either all the same tribe or all the same color. A band is played in front of the player, and will remain there until it is scored at the end of the age. When playing a band, one of the cards must be played on top as the leader. The leader indicates two things: the color of the leader shows the region where the player may place a piece, and the tribe of the leader specifies the special ability that will trigger. For example, if a band was played with a red leader, then the player would be able to place a token in the red region, but only if the size of the band was greater than the number of tokens the player already had in that region. This means that the more tokens you play into a region, the harder it will be to play additional tokens there, as it will require larger bands. If the band is not large enough to surpass the existing tokens, it can still be played for points (which are scored at the end of the age), it just won’t result in a token being added to the board. Once a token has been added to the board (if applicable), and the leader’s special ability has been triggered (more detail on this later), the player must then discard the rest of the cards in his hand, face-up to the public card row. This is a big paradigm shift from a lot of games that encourage stashing up tons of cards (you all know that Ticket to Ride player that has a quarter of the deck in their hand, or you are that player), as any cards that you can’t include in your band will only gift your opponents with more choices in their card selection. Starting on your next turn, you can take a card to start building up your hand from scratch again, working towards your next band.
Play will continue around the table with players taking these two actions. Tokens will be played onto the map, and cards may be returned to the card row as the bands are played. At some point, a player will draw the first of the three dragons that are shuffled into the bottom half of the deck. The dragon is set aside and a new card is drawn in its place, but everyone knows: only two more dragons to go. This starts to put the pressure on, because when the third dragon is drawn from the deck, the age ends immediately! As a result, the end of each age turns into a game of pushing your luck: do you take another card this turn to try and make a larger band, or do you play a smaller band with what you have in case the dragon gets drawn before your next turn?
One of the biggest selling points of Ethnos is the special abilities of the different tribes, and the fact that only 6 of the 12 tribes are used in any one game. Each gives the game its own flavor, and they provide interesting decisions as you try to determine which card to make the leader of your band, thereby activating its ability. Here is a brief overview of the twelve different tribes included in the game:
Wingfolk – You can place your token in any region, instead of just the color of the leader.
Minotaur – Your band is considered one larger for purposes of playing on the board.
Dwarf – Your band is considered one larger for purposes of scoring at the end of the age.
Wizard – You get to draw cards from the deck equal to the size of the band.
Elf – You can keep cards in your hand (instead of returning them to the card row) equal to the size of the band.
Halfling – You don’t get to play on the board (but there are twice as many Halfling cards, making it easier to make big bands that score more points at the end of the age).
Troll – You get to take a numbered Troll token that is used as a tie breaker when doing regional scoring.
Orc – You get to place a token on your personal Orc board matching the color of your Orc leader. This board can be cleared at the end of an age to score points based on the number of tokens (it’s like playing Orc bingo).
Giant – If this band is the largest with a Giant leader that has been played this age, score 2 glory points and take the Giant token that scores if you hold it at the end of the age.
Merfolk – Move spaces on the Merfolk track (separate board) equal to the size of the band. For each symbol passed on the track, add a token to any region of your choice for free (the Merfolk track also scores as its own region at the end of each age).
Centaur – If the band allowed you to play a token on the map, immediately play another band from your hand before discarding.
Skeleton – Cannot be used as a leader, but can be a part of any band. Is discarded at the end of the age before scoring bands (so it can beef up your numbers for playing in a region, but doesn’t help with scoring bands).
As you can see, there are a lot of varied and interesting effects, and the feel of the game will be very different depending on which six are in play.
At the end of the age, every region scores based on the glory point tokens that were randomized (though sorted in increasing order within a region) at the beginning of the game. After the first age, only the first glory point value is awarded to the leader in that region (or split in the case of a tie). After the second age, the players with the most and second most will score the second and first glory point token respectively, and similarly, all three tokens are scored after the third age (there are only two ages with 2-3 players). Once all the regions are scored, players also score for each of their bands. This follows a pattern of larger bands being more valuable, with a band of six cards earning 15 points, while bands of one and two score 0 and 1 respectively.
If it is the end of the first or second age, all cards are shuffled back into the deck, and you deal a single card to each player and shuffle in the dragons to start the new age. All tokens on the map remain, so players will continue to add to their existing stacks which requires increasingly larger bands. At the end of the third age, the game is finished and the player with the most glory points is the winner.
What Is It Like to Play?
One big advantage of Ethnos is simply how quickly it plays. Even with 6 players, there will be times when you are surprised to find that it is your turn again after just a few seconds. This is simply because there are only two options on a player’s turn, and usually players have already decided whether they are ready to play a band right after they took their last card. Play flies around the table as everyone takes cards to build up their bands, everyone waiting to see who will play a band first, possibly returning the perfect cards for someone else. While the strategy found in Ethnos is not extremely deep, there are still interesting decisions to be made. Here are some examples of what might run through a player’s head:
I could play this band of three cards now, or I could wait it out and try to get a larger band that will be worth more points. That said, a larger band will still only put one token on the map, whereas playing more smaller bands can help me establish presence in several regions. Plus, taking more cards increases the chances that I will have to return excess cards and help out my opponents. Since it is the first age, I think I am going to try and get more tokens out and focus on band size in the later ages.
I could split my hand to play a band of three green cards, or a band of three Minotaurs. I don’t really want to play in the green region, but that would allow me to make the green Wizard my leader, and I would be able to draw three cards. On the other hand, the band of Minotaurs would let me play in orange which is a big point opportunity for region scoring, but it is kind of wasting their ability since I only have two tokens there anyway. I think the extra boost of cards from the Wizard is worth it, plus I don’t want to make the Wizard available to other players.
The last dragon could be drawn at any time, and I have four Halflings in my hand. I could play them now to be safe, but don’t think that will net me enough points to catch the player who is winning. Everyone else has been collecting cards, so I think there is a good chance that some bands will be played before my next turn, which will both delay the dragon as well as give me an opportunity to pick up more Halflings. It is risky, but bumping my band size up is a significant increase in points and I think it is my only chance of catching up.
The game is definitely filled with more tactical decisions than strategic ones, though there is definitely room for some longer term decisions around what tribes you might try to focus on and what regions you invest in versus building larger bands. Each new card that you add to your hand creates a new little puzzle for you to make decisions around. You may have been collecting green cards, but then draw a matching tribe of a different color. Now you have to think, “is it more effective for me to keep going after greens, or should I collect the tribe instead?” At many points during the game, players will be drawing blindly from the top of the deck, so each one of those cards has the potential to change your tactical trajectory. Add in that the regions have different randomized glory point tokens, as well as which ones other players have presence in, and the decisions around which leader to play are not trivial. Each age eventually reaches a point where players are pushing their luck not knowing when the final dragon will be drawn, and often there are players that are trying to accelerate the round by only drawing from the top of the deck. The game has a nice arc as the region scoring scales up every age, often leaving room for players to make a comeback in the final round.
How is the game's replay value?
The main source of replayability comes from the random selection of six tribes to use in each game. The varied tribe effects can really change the feel of each game, especially the ones that add in an additional board such as the Orcs or Merfolk. The core gameplay is certainly repetitive, so the replay value from any given player’s perspective will largely rest on whether they find those primary gameplay decisions compelling or not. Probably more than any game I’ve played, Ethnos just begs for an expansion to be released. All the designer and publisher would need to do is add an additional batch of tribes and the replay value would shoot up significantly. I find the design to be very clever, and I feel like it would be a huge missed opportunity to not explore the formula with some more innovative tribes.
How does it play at different player counts?
Ethnos boasts a flexible 2-6 player range, and actually plays really well at each player count! I will elaborate on this in my Things to Like section, but I see this is as a big strength of the game.
What games are similar?
The main mechanic of collecting cards to play sets is very reminiscent of Ticket to Ride, though the tweaks of not having the card row replenish automatically and not allowing players to hold cards after playing a set really gives it a different feel. The area control piece could be compared to games like Small World or El Grande. Ethnos definitely fits in the light “family-weight” strategy games category.
How long is the setup time?
There is a little bit of extra setup since you need to randomly pick six tribes and then shuffle the corresponding cards into the main deck (as well as shuffling the three dragons into the bottom half), but that pretty much covers all of the setup. Set out the board and deal each player a card and you are ready to go.
How difficult is it to teach new players?
As is true with any good family strategy game, Ethnos is very accessible and easy to teach. Players can only do two things on their turn, and the concept of bands needing to match in color or tribe is fairly easy to grasp. It is the kind of game that I feel okay just explaining the basics and letting players figure things out as they go in terms of how to play effectively. It may be wise to pick tribes that work better for new players as certain combos could be less ideal for an introductory game, but if all players have some level of gaming experience, they shouldn’t have any problems getting up to speed.
Things to Like
The Varied Tribe Effects Make the Game Interesting
All of the basic game mechanisms are solid and simple, but it is the special abilities of each of the tribe cards that really carry the game. They are what gives the game great replay value, but also drive most of the interesting decisions in the game. As you build up a hand, you are trying to figure out which band will be best to play, and a huge part of that is which leader’s ability will be most effective. There is no doubt that the tribe abilities are the number one thing that Ethnos has going for it.
Turns Are Lightning Fast
Ethnos may have some of the fastest turns of any game I have played. It is not uncommon for players to be surprised that it is already their turn again, and that is greatly beneficial in keeping everyone engaged throughout the game.
Plays Well at All Player Counts
A game that plays from 2-6 players is very versatile, but often times games advertise a player range that does not represent the game at its best. I have played with every player count from 2-6 players, and I have found Ethnos to really hold up well at every player quantity. With 2 players, it is a very different feel. Not only do your turns come much more quickly, but there are also some core rule changes. First, both player’s tokens are considered for determining the band size required to play in a region. So even if you only have one token in the region, the two tokens of your opponent will force you to need a band of four cards or more to play there. Additionally, only two ages are played, and in the second age only the player with the most tokens scores a region. However, if the other player does not have any tokens in the region, the player with majority will score both the first and second age glory point values. With more players, the interest shifts in the direction of more competition for regions requiring players to be more judicious about picking their battles. For me, having a game that is easy to teach, plays in an hour, and plays well from 2-6 players is a huge plus.
Scoring Tradeoffs Are Non-Trivial
Ethnos is a relatively simple game, but I found that there were rarely “obvious” moves that would maximize points. For example, playing smaller bands will score fewer points, but may allow you to get more tokens on the map that will stay there through all three scoring rounds. On the other hand, I have seen players easily score the most points in a round through only playing big bands. While the lack of tokens on the map made it difficult to compete for regions in later ages, focusing on scoring points through bands remained a completely valid strategy. This makes Ethnos a light game that is accessible to players who are less interested in strategy games, but still provides enough interest for strategy gamers that they don’t feel like they are just running on some predetermined strategy and that the game is “solved.”
Fills a Flexible Niche in My Collection
If I only built my collection around games that I love more than any others, I would have a ton of heavy strategic games that are hard to teach and not accessible in most gaming situations. Instead, I am always looking for games that fill out a variety of situations so that I have good options regardless of who is available to play. The fact that Ethnos plays well from 2-6 players, plays in an hour or less, and is easy to teach while not being completely random and luck-based, makes it a very versatile option in my collection. I’ll admit that Ethnos is not going to compete with a lot of heavier strategic titles on my list of favorite games, but a game that I enjoy that is so accessible and effective in a large number of situations will easily secure a spot in my collection.
Things to Dislike
Card Row is Often Depleted, Leading to Top-Decking
I imagine that for anyone who favors a more strategic experience, this is likely to be their largest complaint. Due to the card row not automatically refreshing, there are many times in the game where it is exhausted and players simply draw cards blindly off the top of the deck. This can often feel like a decision that was made for you (well I am not ready to play a band, so I guess I’m taking the top card), and also can lead to big swings in luck. If everyone is drawing off the top of the deck, naturally some people will get cards that fit really well with their hand, and others will not. This is certainly a negative mainly caused by expectations, because if you are truly treating it as a lighter family game, you may actually welcome this randomness as it evens the playing field to give less-skilled players a chance of competing. But I definitely found that this was the one aspect of Ethnos that didn’t seem like an “elegant” part of the design.
High-Scoring Moves Can Often Be Attributed More to Luck than Skill
This goes hand in hand with the previous negative, but I feel is worth mentioning. Often times, the highest scoring moves in Ethnos are when someone is able to play a maximum-size band of six cards. And, largely due to the top-decking issue described above, getting to this band size often has more to do with luck that skillful decision-making. That said, I think it still works given the intended strategic weight of the game. And while it can often feel like a player with a large band got lucky, many times it is actually the other players’ fault for not recognizing that someone is collecting a certain type, and letting them collect them, unblocked, from the card row.
Disconnect Between Gameplay and Art Style
Many of the reviews for Ethnos thus far have emphasized how dull and generic Ethnos looks. I actually don’t share this sentiment, as I find the artwork good and the overall aesthetic pleasing, albeit not flashy. That said, I really don’t feel like the art style was the right choice for this game. The cover artwork does not scream “light family strategy game,” and I think that is ultimately going to keep Ethnos from hitting its target audience. In my opinion, the game would have benefited from being illustrated similar to something like Small World, where the style is more cartoony and humorous. This does nothing to prevent me from enjoying the game, but I think it causes a lot of people to overlook Ethnos which is too bad.
Game Design Perspective
While many of my favorite games are very complex strategy games, I almost have a higher appreciation for simpler games that achieve a desired experience without a lot of rules overhead. Ethnos is one of those designs that is so simple, that it is surprising it hasn’t been done before. It combines set collection with area control, and adds some really simple twists with the tribe abilities, rules for required band size to place in a region, and the card row replenishing when players have extra cards after playing a band, rather than when players take cards. One of my favorite things in game design is when a solid core game system is created that then opens up a world of opportunity to expand with special abilities. Some very good examples of this are Cosmic Encounter, Agricola, Magic: The Gathering (or really any CCG-style game), or, to make a digital comparison, Binding of Isaac. I feel it would be such a wasted opportunity if CMON (the publisher) does not capitalize on this design and explore it in an expansion that adds new tribes. Ethnos may fall short of Ticket to Ride in the elegance of a family-weight game design (in my opinion), but the fact that I consider it to be close and a good alternative is a huge complement.
If you are looking for a light strategy game that is easy to teach and covers a lot of player counts, I think Ethnos is a really solid choice. The decisions feel fresh, there is almost no downtime, and the variable setup with the tribes and region scoring make every game feel unique. Plus, it is always nice to have some other strong options for gateway games with new gamers.