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Subject: BoardGame Generations — Ethnos rss

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Kenton White
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Ethnos

Ethnos had been on my radar since CMON Expo back in May of this year. The early buzz was Ethnos combined area control a la Blood Rage with simple set collection reminiscent of Ticket to Ride. Lackluster art and production kept Ethnos on my "almost purchased" list for many months — there were simply games I was more excited about! This month I succumbed and got Ethnos for me and my boys.

Our first play through was a fun and memorable experience. It was just me and my two boys, ages 6 and 9. We randomly picked 6 ally races from the dozen provide (this actually was very controversial — my oldest son had his heart set on Orcs, which weren't in our draft). The allies were dutifully shuffled, 6 dealt faceup (twice the number of players), and we each drew a single ally. Edit: this should have only been 5 cards, 2 more than the number of players!

The conceit of Ethnos is that we are uniting the different tribes to assert control over the 6 kingdoms. Each of the 6 kingdoms is colour coded with 2 matching colours in each tribe. Playing a card of the matching colour lets you place your token on the corresponding board region, staking a claim to that kingdom.

So our game started pretty much with each of us playing the single card from our hand, staking our claim. Each tribe has their own special ability. We saw how our opponent's card triggered something really cool, like placing an extra token on the board or drawing back cards into your hand.

On turn two we needed to refill our hand (we had no cards!). You can take one of the face up allies into your hand or draw randomly from the top of the deck. Now here is an interesting decision. Some areas are more desirable than others — the different kingdoms are assigned random point values. You could pick a card with the colour matching the highest point kingdom. But, some of the tribe abilities provide an amazing power — do you pick a tribe for its ability despite the colour?

Turn 3 and we each play our selected cards, increasing our dominance of the 6 kingdoms. At this point, several of the kingdoms have multiple tokens — we are all tied for control. It be nice to get 2 tokens in a kingdom! Placing additional tokens requires playing a set of cards, either matching colours or matching tribes, with at least one more card than tokens you have. Want to increase from 1 to 2 tokens, play at least 2 cards. Want to go from 4 to 5 tokens, need to pony up a set of 5 cards.

Now we're looking for more than just colour and tribe — we're trying to make sets of cards. The face up allies are quickly depleted (when you take a face up card it is not replaced). We start blindly drawing form the deck, hoping to make pairs and triples. Finally one of us does and triumphantly plays the set. But wait, there is one more layer. When playing a set, any cards from your hand not played as part of the set are returned to the face up ally area for your opponents select. Those powerful cards you wanted to use later are gone, given to your rivals. While collecting sets is important, it is equally important to keep an eye on what you will be giving up.

(Art is adequate, if a little generic.)

This continues until 3 dragons, which were shuffled into the bottom half of the deck, are drawn ending that age. At this juncture areas are scored and points are awarded for the set of cards you have. All of the cards are shuffled, your hands are reset with a single card, and the face up allies are laid out. Area markers remain on the board, making it more difficult to continue adding control markers. Larger sets are needed along with increased risk that you will discard just the card your opponent needs. This continues for 2 or 3 ages, depending on player count.

There is a lot going on in Ethnos: area control, set collecting, drafting, press-your-luck, and special powers. Each turn presents multiple decisions. Play a pair now to empty your hand (and prevent your opponent from getting those cards) or keep trying for a larger set. Play the minimum cards to add a token or build sets as large as possible. Play a set to gain control of an area or play a set to activate a tribe's special power.

Even with all of these decisions, turns are quick and the game is very easy to learn. The game introduces each concept elegantly and simply. Turn one, play a single card for the colour and special power. Turn 2 draft a new card, either for the colour or special power. Turn 3 & 4, try to create a pair of something. Turn 5, play that pair and discard remaining cards. Each turn builds on the concepts introduced in the previous turns, until everyone (even my 6 year old son) is making complex trade offs and decisions.

(Don't expect the signature CMON overproduction. Minis are not included.)

There is quite a bit of player interaction. It is so much fun to place an extra token into a juicy kingdom, stealing control from your opponent. Or drafting a card your opponent was collecting, slowing their plans. This interaction never feels mean. Area control changes frequently. When an opponent wrests control, you are probably only 2 turns from having a set sufficient to retake control. And when an opponent drafts a card you had your eye on, it will probably become available again in a turn or two when they play a set. The random end condition (draw the third dragon from the deck) ensures that everyone is playing hard to win. Sitting on a fat hand of cards, waiting to win several areas just before the age ends, is not a viable strategy. While you may deny your opponents time to take back the area, you are just as likely to have the age end before you can play your cards.

If discarding your cards when playing a set sounds harsh, rest assured it isn't. In practice, the discard mechanism is more about pacing the game than penalizing players. Most of the time you will be able to recollect the cards you discarded, as your opponents focus on their own set collection. Discarding does prevent players from chaining successive sets together turn after turn, slowing down the pace as you bring those discarded cards back into your hand. In our games, the discard mechanism worked to keep area contests very tight — it is rare for a player to gain a lead larger than 1 token.

My only complaint is that the drafting is either feast of famine in the later ages. As players try to create larger and larger sets of cards, the face up allies will quickly be consumed. You will then spend a few turns randomly drawing from the ally deck until someone makes their set. When a set is made, there is now an abundance of face up ally cards.

Ethnos is a really smart game. It is mechanically as simple as Ticket to Ride — its core is set collection. Yet there are enough decisions that it could almost qualify as a mid-weight game. Add plenty of player interaction that never feels mean and this becomes a fun and memorable gaming experience.

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Edward B.
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Simple but retaining enough decisions to make it interesting. Agree with you, there! Slight correction to your game: with three players, you only choose five tribes, not six.
 
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