Board Game Review: Five Tribes

A view of Five Tribes being played. There are 30 square location tiles arranged in a five by six grid. Each tile has a representation of a location from a stereotypical Arabian city, as well as a victory point value and an action icon. Distributed amongst these tiles are meeples in various colours, wooden camel tokens in various colours, wooden palm tree tokens, and wooden Arabian palace tokens. Around this playing area can be seen various resource cards, djinn cards, victory point tokens, a turn order track with Arabian-style towers marking players' turn order, and reserves of the various wooden meeples/tokens. A couple of weeks ago, I was looking through the top 100 ranked games on Board Game Geek. I noticed, to my dismay, that I had only played about seventeen of them. That was when I decided I needed to fix that. So I made a new year’s resolution for 2017. Before the end of this year, I want to, at some point, be able to say that I’ve played at least 80 of the games on BGG’s top 100 list. This led to me playing Five Tribes with some friends last week.

I’ll talk more about this resolution on my other blog, where I’ll also keep track of how many I’ve played. But for now, I will use the opportunity to review a wonderful game. At first, I was hesitant to try it, based on the relevant episode of Tabletop. I have learned that I need to be less reliant on that series. Games that look uninteresting to me turn out to be a lot of fun. That was the case with Five Tribes; I really liked it. So let’s see why, starting with the numbers:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 3
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 1 hour
Gamer Profile Ratings:
Strategy: High
Conflict: Medium
Social Manipulation: Low
Fantasy: High

An Overview of Five Tribes

Two to four players take on the roles of nobles in the mythical city-state of Naqala. They are attempting to manipulate the five tribes who live there in order to gain enough power to become the new sultan. They accomplish this by accumulating victory points. At the end of the game, the player with the most VPs wins.

There are several complications to this, though. For one, players start with a number of coins, which they can spend and gain throughout the game. But each coin is also worth a victory point! So you need to spend your VPs in order to win, but don’t spend too much, or you won’t win!

Another is the fact that there are many other ways to earn victory points as well. It’s not really possible to keep track of how many points each player has until all categories are scored at the game’s end. So it can be hard to adjust your strategy to compete with other players; you just have to slug it out as best you can until the end, when you let the dust settle and see how well your strategy worked.

How To Play Five Tribes

The board is made up of thirty tiles, arranged in a 5 × 6 grid. Each tile has a VP value (some in red, others in blue; this is important for certain actions). They also have an action icon, and a place to put your camels. The board starts with the meeples distributed randomly, three on each tile. The meeples come in five colours: white, yellow, green, blue, and red. Each player selects a colour (black, orange, blue, or pink). They get thirty gold coins (face down so other players don’t know how many they have).

Moving Meeples

On your turn, you pick up all the meeples on any one tile. You then ‘sow’ those meeples, mancala-style, moving from tile to adjacent tile (not diagonally) as you drop one meeple on each. The last meeple that you drop must match the colour of another meeple (at least one) on the final tile. That means that you can’t drop the last meeple on an empty tile. Then you pick up all the meeples of that colour from that tile. This gives you an action:

  • If they are yellow meeples, you keep them. They’re worth 1 VP each at the end of the game, as well as bonus points for having majority.
  • If they are white meeples, you keep them. They’re worth 2 VP each at the end of the game, and you can use them to gain djinn cards.
  • If they are green meeples, you get to select resource cards. Take a number equal to the number of meeples you picked up.
  • If they are blue meeples, you get gold coins equal to the number of adjacent (diagonally as well as orthagonally) tiles with blue VP values, multiplied by the number of meeples you picked up.
  • If they are red meeples, you get to assassinate another meeple. Remove a meeple from the board, or from the yellow or white meeples held by other players.

Tile Actions

Once this action is complete, you may take the action of the tile on which you landed. Each tile has an icon telling you which action it grants you. Actions available from tiles include:

  • Buy a djinn. Each djinn grants you special abilities. One protects you from assassins. Another lets you place meeples on an empty tile. There’s one that lets you gain additional resource cards. And so forth.
    To purchase a djinn, discard two of your white meeples (you are allowed to use a slave card in place of one of the meeples, but not both).
  • Place a palm tree on the tile. This increases the value of that tile by three points for each palm tree.
  • Place a palace on the tile. This increases the value of the tile by five points per palace.
  • Acquire resource cards. There are two variations of this action:
    • The small market: spend three gold to take one of the first three available cards.
    • The large market: spend six gold to take two of the first six available cards.

Controlling a Tile

If, when you take meeples from a tile, there are no meeples left on that tile, you gain control of the tile. Place one of your camels on it to indicate that it is yours. Other players may still drop meeples on that tile, and may even land there if more meeples are placed there later. But at the end of the game, you score the VP value of that tile.

Turn Order

Five Tribes uses a variable turn order. At the beginning of each round, the players (going in turn order from the previous round) place their towers on the bid track. They must pay gold coins equal to the value of the space they’ve chosen. Other players must then decide whether to place their tower in front of you, letting them go before you, but paying a higher cost, or after you, so you go before them, but they pay less. Then, as each player takes his turn, he moves his tower back off the bid track onto the turn order track.

Resource Cards

Most resource cards represent market goods, such as jewels, fish, crops, or cloth. These can be worth points, but the more duplicate cards you have, the less they are worth. They may be turned in on your turn for gold coins. Any you have at the end of the game are scored as VPs.

Those cards that are not market goods represent slaves. Slave cards can be used in various ways, such as substituting for a white meeple when purchasing a djinn. However, they are not worth any points, so you want to be sure to use them, and wisely, before the game ends.

The End of the Five Tribes

The game ends when one of two conditions are met:

  1. A player places his last camel on a tile.
  2. There are no legal moves for the meeples still on the board.

The players then stop and total up their points in the following categories:

  • Gold Coins
  • Yellow Meeples
  • White Meeples
  • The VP value of your djinn cards
  • The VP value of the tiles you control
  • Palm Trees
  • Palaces
  • Resource Cards

Add all your categories together, and the player with the most VPs wins!

Final Thoughts on Five Tribes

I really didn’t expect to like this game. The episode of Tabletop in which they played it made it look confusing and convoluted. But now that I’ve played it myself, I realise that it’s not that difficult at all. It’s a lot more thinky-thinky than I had first expected. And the various paths towards VPs make for an interesting variety of available strategies.

The one thing I keep seeing when people talk about this game is how they are bothered by the presence of slaves in the resource cards. In Tabletop, they chose to refer to these cards as ‘assistants’ instead of slaves. To which my response is, yes, slavery is terrible, but why don’t these people have as big a problem with assassins? In fact, that episode of Tabletop made frequent reference to ‘murder money,’ as a result of one of the djinns that a player possessed. I find it a little incongruous to be so flippant about killing, especially for money, but being so squeamish about slavery.

Anyway. Overall, I quite enjoyed this game. I wouldn’t mind owning a copy. But of course, it’s not for everyone! Give it a try, decide for yourself, and always remember to

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.