I had the immense pleasure of playing Bruno Cathala’s Five Tribes back in April at the Gathering of Friends with Bruno himself. I should have posted a preview then (I even took pictures, dangit), as I adored it so much that I begged Bruno to leave his prototype with me. Bruno had to take his copy with him elsewhere, but the heroic beasts from Days of Wonder left me with their second prototype so that I could share my love of their upcoming game with other Gathering attendees. And share I did.
Seeing the game in its fully published glory when I picked up a copy at GenCon was magnificent. Days of Wonder knocked the art out of the park. Although I would love to see a darker approach to the Arabian Nights theme at some point, I’m delighted at the playful, cartoony style that brings Five Tribes to life.
Setting up Five Tribes is a bit of an onerous task, but well worth the effort. The 30 tiles are laid out randomly in a 5 x 6 grid, and each tile is furnished with 3 of the 90 meeples drawn from a black bag. You then have a random set up that you will never see again. Each player gets 50 Gold, and 8 camels (11 in a 2 player game). Lay out the Djinn and resource/slave cards, and you’re ready to play.
Each round of Five Tribes consists of a turn order auction, followed by the player’s turns. The auction is simple, each player places their domed pillar (that looks like nothing else) on one of the numbered spaces of the turn order track, in turn paying Gold to the bank for their bid. You don’t want to pay too much, though, as each left over Gold is worth a point at the end of the game. Once all players have placed, turn order is decided, as the player who paid most plays first, and proceeding in descending bid order. This also decides the following turn’s bid order, as the player who played first will bid first. Yet, bidding last comes with its own advantages.
“But why should we bid for turn order every round?” Well, the Five Tribes ‘board’ is an arena of ever changing opportunities. Players must carefully examine the board to seek the best opportunities to gauge the value of going first and claiming a play that reaps immense rewards.
“Sweet moves?!” On your turn, you will choose a tile with one or more meeples, take all the meeples on that tile and drop them on a string of adjacent tiles until you run out. It’s a lot like Mancala, but there are a few rules to keep in mind. 1) The last meeple you drop off MUST be on a tile that contains a meeple of that same colour. This’ll be where the action happens (literally). 2) No diagonals. Adjacent means orthogonal in this case. 3) No immediate backtracking. You can change directions and make loops, but you can’t go back to the same tile you just came from.
“What did I just do?” It’s a little hard to picture without… pictures, but you’ve done a few things. You’ve positioned yourself to perform two actions, and you’ve changed the layout of the board. The two actions you get to do are the tribe action that matches the color of the last meeple you placed, and the tile action of the active tile (the one where you placed the last meeple). All the meeples that match the colour of the last meeple you placed are removed from the active tile, and are placed in front of you or back in the bag, depending on their tribe colour. Speaking of which, let’s get into those. This is where the magic happens.
If you remove yellow Viziers, you take them and place them in front of you. Simple. At the end end of the game, you’ll get 1 point for each of them, plus 10 more points for EACH player who has less yellow viziers than you. You have 5, giving you the most in a 4 player game? You get 5 (for the meeples) + 30 (for having more than each other player) = 35 points. Sweet deal!
If you remove white Elders, you take them and place them in front of you. Also simple. They’re worth 2 points each at game end. No more, no less. However, this isn’t their primary use. They’re largely a currency to be used purchasing and using Djinns. More on that later.
If you remove green Merchants, take exactly as many resource/slave cards from the front of the resource row as green Merchants you removed from the board, then toss those Merchants back in the bag. The resources are used to build up sets which can be exchanged during your turn or at the end of the game for victory points. The more different resources you have, the more they’re worth. Up to 60 points if you get all nine!
If you remove blue Builders, you get Gold, which (if we remember) is worth points at the end of the game (1 Gold = 1 point). The amount of gold you get will depend on the number of blue-VP tiles in your general area of the active tile (the active tile and the 8 surrounding tiles). You multiply the number of blue Builders you remove by the number of the blue-VP tiles in the general area to determine how much Gold you get. Four blue Builders multiplied by four blue-VP tiles makes for 16 Gold. What’s more is that you can kick in some slaves you found earlier to help out the builders and really rake it in – toss in 3 slaves to the previous example and you’ve got 4 (builders) + 3 (slaves) x 4 (blue-VP tiles) = 28 Gold!!
If you remove red Assassins, you get to assassinate a single meeple. It can be a Vizier or Elder sitting in front of another player, or a meeple on the board. If you choose to assassinate a meeple on the board, it has to be within a certain proximity of the active tile. How close depends on how many Assassins you removed. If you removed two Assassins from the active tile, you can assassinate a meeple up to two orthogonal tiles away. You can also kick in slaves here, with each slave boosting the assassination distance by another tile. “But why would you want to assassinate the meeples on the board?” Well, if you assassinate the last meeple on a tile, you place your camel on that tile, marking your control of it. You will now get points (the number of which is marked in the top right corner) for this tile at the game end.
That’s not the only way to control a tile either. If, when removing all the meeples of one colour from the active tile, you empty THAT tile, you take control of it and its sweet victory points.
Then, when you’re all done with the tribe action, you perform the active tile action. There are five:
Players continue bidding for turn order and taking their turns until one player has all their camels on the board (in which case the players finish the round), or until there are no more legal plays (in which case the game ends immediately). Add up everyone’s points and determine who among you is the Great Sultan of Naqala (probably me).
I love this game. I love it. It scratches a puzzle solving itch that not many other games in my collection can quite reach. It’s incredibly engaging and will burn your brain turn after turn. The player interaction is indirect, but lies both in the turn order auction and in the new board state you create with every turn you take. Because of this, downtime can be a bit of an issue. As the board is constantly changing, it’s near impossible to plan your turn ahead of time. I feel as though it will offer to moderate to high replay value; the variable set up and wide variety of Djinns ensure that no two games are the same. The art is glorious, and as can be expected from Days of Wonder, the components are top notch.
An experienced player will always beat an inexperienced one, which is good. It’s rare that I truly love a game that doesn’t reward experience over sheer luck. That said, Five Tribes suffers from the same problem as Puerto Rico, where new players will make critical mistakes that benefit other players, which usually allows a more experienced player to run away with the game. Because of this I’ve found it difficult to enjoy the game with new players. If I say nothing and take advantage of poor plays, I’ve won a hollow victory, and caused the new players to feel as though they never had a chance. Conversely, if I counsel a new player on why they shouldn’t make a particular play (especially if I do it more than once during a game), I end up playing the game for them, which isn’t much fun either.
I should note that this isn’t so much a criticism as an observation. I own and play a great many games that benefit experience, and, for me, is one of many things that I look for in a game. And so, I start my Five Tribes teach the same way I do with any game that rewards experience. I say, “This game can be tough to wrap your head around on the first play. I’ve played it before and I’m likely going to win. Your task is to beat each other. And if you end up beating me, I strongly encourage you to rub it in my face.”