Five Tribes Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2014
Playing Time: 60-80 Minutes
In a very colorful “Arabian Nights” environment, players vie for control over tiles and meeples (tribes) in a dizzying array of options and possibility.
Five Tribes is played on a 5×6 series of tiles. It uses a Mancala variation, wherein you pick up meeples from a tile and move orthogonally, dropping a single meeple as you traverse the terrain, landing on a tile and picking up all of a single color of meeple from that tile. Each meeple color corresponds to a different ability and/or way to get points, and each tile has an ability attached to it as well. Additionally, if you pick up the last meeples from a tile, you claim the tile for victory points at the game’s end. You’ll perform both meeple and tile abilities on most turns, and it’s how you utilize those powers that will determine your success.
Two of the abilities allow you, respectively, to buy goods from the Market in order to build set worth VPs at the end, and another to buy Djinns, which have advantageous, game-breaking abilities tied to them that are often specific but potentially powerful. Fakirs can also be purchased from the Market, which act as kind of a wild card, to help with various other actions.
Lastly, or perhaps firstly, you bid for turn order each round, from 0 to 18, and you’re literally bidding victory points when you do. Some turns can absolutely be worth more than 18 points, so high bids can be as useful as low ones, but strategic, timely bids are crucial.
The game ends when a certain number of tiles are claimed by a player (based on player count) or when there are no legal moves left.
Components in Five Tribes
Five Tribes is a bright, varied, beautiful game. The tiles are colorful and interesting, the Djinn cards are opulent and cool, and the sheer volume of meeples that get placed will light up the table. The components help sell this game, and many people have glanced over and asked what we’re playing when I bring this out.
The tiles are two-sided but identical on either side, which has been pointed out by others as a bit of a waste. I agree. Either make them one-sided or give us alternate tiles to mix up the experience, maybe with an “A” and a “B” side.
A Note On the Cultural Elements
The earliest edition of this game had slave cards, which is historically accurate but misaligned with many modern gamers’ taste in theme. Later editions replaced this with the less charged fakir cards. This later edition is the version I have. I have a hard time being incensed at games, particularly when it seems the publisher wasn’t trying to make a cultural statement with a decision. My vitriol is generally reserved for games or designers who are endorsing something vile through a game’s design, rather than simply depicting it.
However, in a game like Five Tribes that isn’t trying for rigorous historical accuracy, their inclusion could legitimately be seen as being tone deaf. As such, I applaud the change in later editions, while maintaining that many groups will be able to play any edition without issue. YMMV.
Is This the Analysis Paralysis (AP) Game?
I’ll be honest, I’ve never had a session of this take longer than 90 minutes, and I routinely play with max players. There’s a stigma surrounding this game in regards to AP, and frankly, I don’t really see it. At least, I don’t see it any more than lots of games in the hobby. But I do want to talk about why some people see this game as AP-prone.
Nothing in Five Tribes is complicated, but there’s a lot of information to absorb at the start, both in terms of various abilities as well as options you’ll have on each turn. As such, when you introduce this to a new player, you’re going to see a lot of them stare wide-eyed at the board, not quite sure what they should do, and opting for something that is obvious but maybe not their best play.
I’ve seen this enough that I feel I can safely come to this conclusion: Five Tribes is a game that will require a few playthroughs to feel comfortable with, more so than even some games that are technically more complicated. The way information and options are presented in Five Tribes simply takes a bit to digest in a way that translates to deliberate, focused strategizing. So when you see people talk about just doing “something” that feels ok to them on their turn, rather than working toward a deeper strategy, this is what they’re talking about.
However, several plays in, the board is eminently readable by me and others who have gotten to a similar number of plays. It doesn’t mean we’re better at longer-term strategy, necessarily, but that’s because there’s a lot of nuance to how abilities and actions interact. However, on a turn by turn basis, I can survey the board and quickly find 3-4 moves that seem good, then deliberate between them quickly and choose one. I usually give myself 20-30 seconds to search for something better, and rarely find it after the initial overview, then I make my play. In all, my turns are less than a minute, and often discovered and decided upon while others are taking their turns. In other words, it’s remarkably like any other strategic Euro. This ease of play didn’t happen immediately, but also didn’t take long to achieve.
So when I see statements like “It’s AP hell” or “You never really know what to do,” I both understand where the comment is coming from while simultaneously disagreeing that it’s more than a passing issue.
Delight of the Discovery
Five Tribes is generous with rewards in the way that lots of Euros have discovered keeps a lot of players around. It’s a “feel good” game, and even the last place finisher is going to end with a boatload of points.
Everything you’ll do will feel – at worst – good. At best, it will feel great. Five Tribes has a special section of “great” reserved for it, though, and it’s for those moments where you see a really oblique move that will net you a lot of points. And you may want to bid a bunch to ensure you get to do it, but it’s even more rewarding if you merely sit silently and wait for your turn to come around. Sure, another player could ruin your plan by stepping all over it with their move, but that’s part of the drama. The true payoff is when it’s still sitting there after others have gone, like a diamond poking its head out ever so slightly from the weeds surrounding it, and you get to spring your plan regardless of where you went in the turn order.
The payoff is more satisfying when, for example, it incorporates a Djinn you’d purchased recently, which may mean you’re the only one who could capitalize on your intended plan.
The agony of seeing these discoveries go unrealized is heartbreaking in equal measure, but it’s these swings of fortune that give Five Tribes some emotional heft to accompany the joyous, colorful menagerie of play.
Tactics vs. Strategy
As you might imagine from the above, this is a game that is largely played round to round. However, as I’ve watched players mature at the game, I’ve realized that while specific long-term strategy might not be possible, long-term goals are. What do I mean by this admittedly odd distinction? Well, for example, someone will claim some early Merchant (green) meeples, and their clear priority becomes maximizing their Market-bought set(s). Others will amass Elders (white), and will try to angle for the best Djinns to help them build miniature engines. Sometimes they’re simply reacting to what’s on the board when they get to play, but often they’re approaching each turn with a specific goal in mind.
Djinns offer the closest thing to actual engine building, and can further inform individual decisions.
This isn’t engine building is the traditional Euro sense of that term. Your engine will be shallower than in full engine builders. But in creating these types of focus points, you can more easily prioritize actions and decisions.
So is it reactionary? Yes. But ideally, it’s informed, deliberate reactions, not arbitrary ones.
Interactive vs. Mean
I like games that feature direct player interaction, but often this idea seems to be synonymous with “take that” or combative elements. This need not be the case. In Five Tribes, sure, I bet you could find a particularly contentious player whose primary joy in the game is blocking others from what they want. But in general, the game is too wide open to do that. So if the player before you does exactly what you were hoping to do, it’s not out of some harbored grudge, but because that move was equally good for them.
This is further aided by scoring. You might have a sense of who’s winning, but often, that guess is wrong. By putting scoring at the end – and having so many ways to accrue points – there’s rarely a point where the table would want to bash the leader, even if they could reliably do so.
The result is a game that rewards analysis to beat other players to the juiciest options, but not one that promotes any sort of vitriol toward them. As such, it’s a game with a potentially broad audience, and won’t turn off those who hate – say – overt combat or a lack of interaction.
To summarize: The shared space of Five Tribes’s main board, coupled with the fact that every turn is contested via an auction, means that there is, to my eye, a lot of meaningfully direct interaction, but without involving mechanics that are overtly punitive. As such, it’s been a great pick for a variety of gamers in my life, but without compromising for any of them.
Five Tribes has something that makes people want to play more than once, but rather than be vague about why, I think I can pinpoint the reason. I suspect it’s related to the absorption rate I mentioned earlier. Very few feel comfortable during their first play, but they feel comfortable by the end of it. There’s a lot to digest, but none of it is particularly difficult. So maybe 80% of the way through their first play, the game “clicks” with many, and they want a full playthrough with that same understanding. Then it’s deep enough and interesting enough on that second playthrough that the player feels vindicated in their initial curiosity.
This isn’t a hard phenomenon to observe. Play enough games, and eventually you’ll find ones where people will literally say “I need to play this again; it’s good, but I need to play again to really get into it.” Or something similar. I’m the same way. I have games where I am dying to play more, to explore the possibilities it has to offer. Often, this is tied to games with variable player powers. Maybe you want to try Faction Y after playing with Faction X. Five Tribes manages this without such crutches. Players want to see if they can solve the game’s puzzle. Fortunately, perhaps, I’m not sure they can, as the winning strategy seems to shift to account for the setup and player decisions.
I count myself among those who wanted to try it more. I played it once, and really enjoyed it but didn’t fully feel like I comprehended it, then literally went years without playing. I was surprised I didn’t see it show up at the clubs I play at, so eventually I simply bought it, because I wanted to see if my initial impression was correct. To rephrase: the “I need to play this more to dig into it” feeling stayed with me for years with Five Tribes. For reference, I play a lot of games. Even with those I enjoy on a first play, the curiosity tends to disappear after long enough. It didn’t here.
It’s also colorful and quick enough that it attracts new onlookers. Shortly after I purchased the game, I began bringing Five Tribes to my weekly Wednesday club meetup, and promptly played it three of the first four weeks I brought it. This wasn’t because I recommended it at any point, but because someone requested it after seeing it played, or after playing it once. Given the number of people and number of games at these meetups (lots of both), a ratio of 3-in-4 weeks is unheard of. Then that phenomenon snowballed as we played it, with others expressing interest in playing. Now others own it, and it will undoubtedly remain a mainstay in my rotation of games that I bring to the club.
Four is my favorite; turn-by-turn decisions are more reactionary at four, but because of that fact, I think it makes the bidding phase more interesting. The only major strategic change is that the yellow meeple bonus becomes significantly weaker at two players. That strategy track is worth ignoring at this player count, and it likely would have helped if the designer had provided new values for the yellow bonus at 2P.
That said, it affects both players equally, so it confers no advantage. I haven’t noticed major differences at three vs. four players, and the game seems to work well at any player count.
Who Won’t Like This
If you want legitimate engine building and long-term planning, despite the earlier comments, it’s not here in the way that some Euro gamers will want. Also, despite the cool art and components, theme is technically light; it’s meeple-dropping for victory points, not anything resembling a narrative that matches the opening thematic text about winning the throne of the Sultan. If you want rich theme to accompany opulent production, it’s not here.
However, if you enjoyed a beautifully realized setting that compliments the mechanics, that’s here in spades.
I can tell you that I enjoy Five Tribes, but I think the larger proof is in the fact that it’s been one of the more successful purchases I’ve ever made in terms of ease with which I can get this played and how much it seems to be enjoyed by those I teach it to.
That’s also anecdotal in the scheme of things, granted, but every review is technically just one opinion, yeah? This one is representative of a larger crowd than usual.
Five Tribes is rich and generous, colorful and varied, and I’m a bit annoyed because even in my most glowing reviews, I generally like to provide some reasons why certain gamers may justifiably dislike the game. Someone hates every game, this one included, and I pride myself on being able to identify those reasons, even if I ultimately disagree with them. Outside of the possible AP argument, obvious negatives in Five Tribes elude me. I will therefore grudgingly congratulate Five Tribes on its victory over my critical faculties, and move forward in the hope that it remains that way forever.