Five Tribes is the latest success story from publisher Days of Wonder, the powerhouse behind the Ticket to Ride series and Small World, both of which are huge and deserving hits in physical and app forms, as well as less mainstream titles Memoir ‘44 and BattleLore. Five Tribes will likely achieve success closer to the first two titles in the Days catalog, featuring straightforward rules and attractive components, but it’ll need some adjustments to the theme to avoid offending some potential players.
Five Tribes is a complex scoring game, but not a complex strategy game: The mechanics themselves are simple, but there are many different ways to earn points, enough that it can be hard to keep track of your own score or those of opponents’. Unlike most meeple-placement games, Five Tribes has you start the game with all of the meeples on the board, three per tile, 90 in total, in five different colors that have different functions during the game. Players bid in each round to determine the turn order, placing their tokens on a track that fixes bid values at specific numbers and creates a disincentive for anyone looking to bid zero early in the process.
On a player’s turn, s/he takes all of the meeples from one tile and then drops them one by one on a path of adjacent tiles, ending the trail on a tile with at least one meeple the same color as the meeple still in the player’s hand. The player then takes all of those same-colored meeples and takes a step based on the meeples’ color—scoring points now or later, acquiring merchandise cards, or using “assassins” to take out a meeple on a nearby tile. If the player took all remaining meeples from that tile, s/he gets control of it, scoring points at the end of the game equal to the number of points shown on the card plus potential bonuses for tiles with oases or palaces. (A player can also take control of a tile via those red assassin meeples if s/he kills the last meeple on another tile.)
Many tiles allow the player to call upon one of the Djinn, powerful bonus cards laid out next to the board, granting bonus points or extra powers. White meeples, otherwise worth two points each at game-end, are the primary currency for acquiring Djinn cards and invoking the powers of those with recurring abilities. Djinn cards are themselves worth additional points at the end of the game, but acquiring one with a specific power or cumulative bonus early in the game can mean a much larger boost to a player’s final tally as long as s/he tailors his/her strategy to the Djinn.
Green meeples allow the player to gain merchandise cards, laid out in a market also near the board, with nine such cards visible, with the goal of collecting sets of up to all nine different goods available in the game. (There’s another card type I’ll discuss below.) The value of a set of merchandise cards increases as the number of different goods in the set does, more than arithmetically but not exponentially as it does in Stone Age; some goods are more common than others, with scarcity indicated by a lower number of dots on the bottom of the card. Collecting a group of N green meeples entitles the player to draw the first N cards in the row displayed, while finishing a move on a small or large market tile enables the player to buy one or two specific cards from the display to try to complete a set.
The game ends when any player has placed all eight of his camels on tiles (taking control of them) or when there are no legal moves remaining on the board. The final scoring is involved, as it is in other games like 7 Wonders or Agricola, although the scoring in the latter is more intuitive to players facing the board. In Five Tribes, players earn points for yellow and white meeples still in front of them, tiles they control (plus oasis and palace bonuses), Djinn cards’ fixed values, merchandise sets, and money, plus any bonuses from Djinns they control—eight sources plus the bonuses. We found in multiple games that we didn’t know who was winning until the final tally, when the winner was usually surprised by the result.
There’s a significant flaw in the theme of Five Tribes, however, making it probably the least socially aware game I’ve played: Slaves. Five Tribes has slaves in the game and treats them like property, something you can trade in to get other things you need (such as Djinn cards) or increase the bonuses from blue “builder” meeples. The images themselves show darker-skinned people in shackles, and as if the indignity couldn’t get any worse, at the end of the game you get points for all of the merchandise you’ve collected but receive nothing for any slaves you haven’t worked to death … I mean, exchanged for something that earns you points. (One of the merchandise types is ivory, shown as a basket full of tusks, which I might find objectionable if it were the worst aspect of the theme, but it’s not.) This game is too good to be sunk by a tasteless design choice, and I hope those cards are redrawn and retitled in future printings.
A typical game of Five Tribes takes an hour to 90 minutes, with winning scores in four-person games in the 140-160 points range. With fewer players—there is a two-person variant that increases each player’s camel supply to eleven, a nod (I presume) to Spinal Tap—the bidding process isn’t as meaningful, so no one player is likely to bankrupt himself trying to keep his place in the queue, and it’s easier to plot moves further in advance; I’d still recommend the game with three players but with two there are better options. If designer Bruno Cathala can make the theme and artwork a little more culturally sensitive, Days of Wonder should have another crossover success on their hands.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.