Sunday, 23 July 2017

Five Tribes

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Five Tribes from Days of Wonder is recent enough, but not exactly new. I missed trying it when it first came out. On a recent outing to Boardgamecafe.net when we were deciding what to play, I grabbed it off the shelf and asked whether anyone could teach it. Happily we had both Jeff and Ivan who could.

Five Tribes is best known for the congkak / mancala-like mechanism. On your turn, you must move meeples (people). You pick up all meeples from a tile, then distribute them all. You drop one on a tile orthogonally adjacent to the original tile, then another one on a tile adjacent to the second one, and so on, until the last meeple is dropped at your destination tile. As you travel from tile to tile, you must not immediately backtrack. If you want to return to a previous tile, you will have to make a big circuit, and that's assuming you have enough meeples to let you travel that big a circuit. One important rule is the last meeple you drop must be of the same colour as at least one meeple already on the destination tile. This also indirectly means your destination must not be vacant. If we look at the photo above, slightly to the left of centre there is a tile with one yellow and one white meeple. If you pick this tile as your starting point and you pick these two meeples up, you can travel right, drop the white meeple, and then travel right again, and drop the yellow meeple. Your destination has a yellow meeple, so this move is valid.

This is how game setup looks like. You have a 6 x 5 grid of tiles, each randomly seeded with three meeples. That row of 9 small cards on the left are resource cards you can collect. The row of 3 large cards are the djinns you may summon to help you. Meeples come in five colours. They are the five tribes, and they have different abilities. When you move people, the last meeple you drop triggers the tribe ability. You remove all meeples of that colour from the destination tile. The number of meeples removed determines how strong the ability is. If you trigger the white or yellow tribe, you collect these meeples and put them before you. They are worth points at game end. For the yellow tribe, when the game ends you compare your tribesmen with every other player, and score 10VP per opponent if you have more than him. Meeples of the white tribe can be spent to claim a djinn and also to invoke the djinn's power. The blue tribe makes money. The green tribe collects resources, of which there are two categories - merchandise and slaves. Merchandise cards are worth points, depending on how many different types you manage to collect. Slaves are jokers which can be used to summon djinns, to support the blue tribe in earning more money, and to support the red tribe in assassinating more distant targets. Finally, the red tribe are the assassins. They can kill meeples on the board and also meeples belonging to players. If you kill the last meeple on a tile, you get to claim that tile, which is worth points. If you empty a tile due to your Move Meeple action, you also get to claim the tile.

That orange camel is a player marker. This tile belongs to the orange player now. It is worth 5VP (the number with the blue background). This tile has a palace icon. Each time it becomes the destination of a Move Meeple action, a palace must be built, regardless of whether the tile already belongs to a player. Palaces are worth 5VP each. Whenever a tile is the destination of a Move Meeple action, there is an associated power. Some are mandatory, like palace construction. Some are optional, like summoning a djinn (see the tile to the left of the palace tile).

You start the game with $50. Money is victory points. At first I thought $50 seemed a lot. You only use money for bidding for turn order, and sometimes you can spend money to buy resource cards. Only after playing I realised the turn order bidding can be quite competitive and costly.

In a four-player game, everyone has 8 camels. Once any player uses up his, i.e. he has claimed 8 tiles, the game ends. The game also ends if there are no more legal moves on the board.

You use the minaret-shaped player marker pieces and the small board on the right for turn order bidding. The spaces on the turn order track have different prices, ranging from 0 to 18. At the start of a round, you take turns claiming a spot and paying the price. Naturally, the more you are willing to spend, the higher the chance of going earlier. There are three spots for $0. If you bid $0, you take the lowest spot, but it is a risky one. If a player who bids after you also bids $0, he pushes your backwards. He will take his turn before you.

Some of the point values of the tiles have a blue background, and some a red background. There is meaning behind this. The blue background tiles affect how blue meeples earn money. When you trigger the blue tribe, the money you earn is based on the number of blue meeples removed multiplied by the number of blue background tiles in the vicinity - the definition of vicinity being the destination tile itself and the 8 tiles surrounding it, both orthogonally and diagonally. The tile in the centre with the orange camel has one blue meeple and one white meeple. If you start the Move Meeple action here, you can drop the white meeple on the tile to the right, and then the blue meeple on the rightmost tile, which already has a blue meeple. You will earn $6 - 2 blue meeples multiplied by 3 blue background tiles in the vicinity (5, 5 and 10).

These are the various resource cards. The rightmost is a slave. The others are merchandise. The slave only exists in the first edition of the game. In subsequent editions the slaves were replaced with fakirs (clergymen), because some players were offended by the existence of slaves. I personally don't mind the slaves. Slaves are a historical fact.

The Play

I played with Heng, Allen and Dennis. All four of us were new to the game. When Ivan and Jeff taught us the game, they said this was an AP (Analysis Paralysis) game for new players. We said AP was a player problem and not a game problem. However AP turned out to be true. There are indeed many possibilities on the game board, especially in the early game. You need to peruse the board to find the most lucrative opportunities, and at the same time plan your move such that you don't create good opportunities for the next player. If you want to be exhaustive in working out all possibilities and their consequences, it will take a long time.

Allen was first to settle into a clear strategy - the landlord strategy supported by djinns. He summoned a djinn early, which let him directly claim vacant tiles. He also made use of the red tribe to assassinate the last meeples on tiles to empty them and then claim them. In a four player game everyone has only 8 camels, so the rest of us were under tremendous pressure of the game ending soon, once Allen placed his 8th camel. The rest of us should have worked together better to slow him down, e.g. coordinating our moves to minimise leaving empty tiles, or tiles with one meeple left, especially when they are high valued tiles. It was our first time playing so we didn't think that deeply. Dennis went the merchant route, actively collecting resource cards. Heng focused on collecting yellow meeples, and later diversified into white meeples too. I mainly worked on the blue meeples, which helped earn cash. On one of my turns I spent 4 slaves to boost the income I gained from a blue tribe move. I invested in collecting resource cards too, but not as heavily as Dennis.

The board situation constantly changes, so it is difficult to make long-term plans. If you plan early, by the time your turn comes, you may no longer be able to do what you had wanted to do. You would have to analyse anew. For players who are adamant in working out all options in detail, this game can grind to a halt. I prefer to play this way: On others' turns, I analyse the board to get a rough feel of the opportunities. When my turn comes, if what I want to do is still available, I can quickly make my move. If things have changed, I will analyse the recently changed areas to see if there are new opportunities. I try to find a decent move without over-analysing, and when I make my move, I keep in mind that I should not create a windfall for the next player.

Most strategies in this game need persistence, and this somewhat conflicts with the tactical nature of the game. The everchanging board makes longer term planning difficult. However the value in the long term strategies is that they create different priorities for the players. Different players will value the same item differently. If you are pursuing a yellow meeple strategy, they will be more important to you than to the other guy who is pursuing a djinn strategy. You need to consider not only what is helpful to you, but also what others value. If you are the only player collecting white meeples, and there is a good opportunity on the board, you may get away with a low bid for turn order because the others will probably choose to do something else. Of course, someone may still decide to grab that pile of white meeples simply to deny you. When you decide on a strategy, it doesn't mean you can execute that strategy every round. Sometimes the opportunities simply don't come up. However you should always keep an eye out, and you should try to create those opportunities yourself.

Halfway through the game, an idea came to us that on average we should try to earn about 10VP per round. 10VP = $10. By using this guideline, we could better decide how much to bid for turn order. If a good move would give me 18VP, I could afford to bid $8 for it. The 10VP guide was just based on gut feel. We were not sure whether this was a fair benchmark. Going last is not necessarily bad. Although going first guarantees no one will block a move you want to make, if you go late, there may be new opportunities opening up.

Our game was played with Allen constantly exerting pressure to end the game early. I was surprised he was not the eventual winner. Heng won the game. His focus was the yellow meeples. Near game end I managed to catch up to him, and both of us earned 25VP from the yellow meeples. Heng's biggest scoring category was cash. He did not spend much on turn order bidding, and whatever he saved meant more points for him. He also scored in most other categories; not many points in each of them, but they did add up. I scored much in cash too. Thriftiness was a valid strategy!

The Thoughts

Playing Five Tribes is a pleasant experience. For a family game, it is slightly more complex than average, and it is a little thinky (or a lot if you are AP-prone). It is not the Ticket To Ride type of family game. I enjoy the feeling of trying to find gems amidst chaos. It is like those puzzles where you need to find hidden items in a large and busy drawing. In Five Tribes, that large drawing is constantly changing, and new hidden items will appear. In fact, you get to create your own hidden items. Normally I dislike games with "multiple ways of scoring", because they feel like a jumble of mechanisms forcefully tied together. Five Tribes does have "multiple ways of scoring", but I find that the spatial aspect binds them together well. When you do traveling, which pile of meeples to pick, which coloured meeple to drop at every step, and where to stop are all part of the spatial element of the game. Some tiles are worth more VP than others. Some tiles will grow palaces, and some will grow oases. There is a very real landscape to consider. The diverse parts of the game feel concrete to me. They are no longer a bunch of mathematical formulas to be manipulated.

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