Ethnos Review - The Fellowship Of Area Control

Hang on a second here. What's this game doing with Cool Mini or Not's (CMON) name on it? There's no miniatures. No fancy art. No giant price tag. What gives? That tends to be the MO for this publisher with some exceptions that tended to be ports from other countries - a bit like how Rio Grande Games used to bring direct ports over from Germany many years ago. And I've always had a hit or miss relationship with them. Their games look amazing on the table, but never seem to give me enough enjoyment to justify the expense or storage space and yes that includes Blood Rage (takes cover to dodge a few incoming spears). To be honest my favourite games with CMON's name on it have been their non-miniature based titles like Unusual Suspects and The Grizzled.

Ethnos is another title that really doesn't look like something they would publish and I'd barely even heard of it before its release, but the buzz for this game just went off the rails and yet for reasons we'll get to later, it really didn't look like much. And despite being a respected designer, I've not latched on to most of Paolo Mori's gameography (can we use that as a word?) But a skim of the rulebook revealed much promise. Could this be a turning point for the publisher in my eyes?




Designer: Paolo Mori
Publisher: Spaghetti Western Games / Asterion Press / CMON
Age: 10+
Players: 2-6
Time: 45-60 Minutes
RRP: £29.99


From Board Game Geek

In Ethnos, players call upon the support of giants, merfolk, halfings, minotaurs, and other fantasy tribes to help them gain control of the land. After three ages of play, whoever has collected the most glory wins!
In more detail, the land of Ethnos contains twelve tribes of fantasy creatures, and in each game you choose six of them (five in a 2/3-player game), then create a deck with only the creatures in those tribes. The cards come in six colors, which match the six regions of Ethnos. Place three glory tokens in each region, arranging them from low to high.
Each player starts the game with one card in hand, then 4-12 cards are placed face up on the table. On a turn, a player either recruits an ally or plays a band of allies. In the former case, you take a face-up card (without replacing it from the deck) or the top card of the deck and add it to your hand. In the latter case, you choose a set of cards in your hand that match either in tribe or in color, play them in front of you on the table, then discard all other cards in hand. You then place one or more tokens in the region that matches the color of the top card just played, and you use the power of the tribe member on the top card just played.
At the end of the first age, whoever has the most tokens in a region scores the glory shown on the first token. After the second age, the players with the most and secondmost tokens score glory equal to the values shown on the first and second tokens. Players score again after the third age, then whoever has the most glory wins. (Games with two and three players last only two ages.)




CLEAN, YET DIRTY


Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we all know this, but I think you'd have to set the bar pretty low to call Ethnos a pretty game. The artwork is fairly basic and uninspiring - reminds me of fantasy stories from the 70's. The board itself is also pretty bland, though at least it uses some colour to brighten it up a bit. It's about the polar opposite of what CMON tend to do, but then The Grizzled was no different. The box is probably the best part and I've seen better - I fear people are just going to walk right past this game on the shelf or even when it's out in play as a result. I miss Michael Menzel and his boards that are worthy of inclusion in an art gallery.

That being said, the graphic design is pitch perfect. Everything is crystal clear to see whether on a card or on the board. No bizarre iconography or even much text to be honest. Never has anyone had a moment where they couldn't tell something apart or misinterpreted a card. Even the rulebook is dead simple to read and takes less than 10 minutes to go through the whole thing. I've happily lent this game to others at my local gaming club knowing I don't need to be there to hold their hand through it as the only time you'll likely be looking something up is the detailed tribe abilities.

The insert is a bit of a trick though. At first I thought it was great, a spot for everything, even the various boards that don't get used every game. But then you look a bit closer, the insert is actually a mix of impressive design and bewildering lunacy. Firstly, premium sleeved cards don't fit. Secondly there is nothing to hold the control markers in place once you slot them in. Oh they slot in their little tray nicely and it looks very pretty. . . .until you realise that the second this game is any position other than perfectly horizontal, they're going to fly out everywhere along with cards and the point tokens and it's just mind boggling how the publisher didn't think of this, but then I've not known CMON to do well on inserts unless it's holding a miniature in place. Consider tossing the insert if you want to sleeve the cards, which given they get shuffled/handled constantly and aren't the thickest stock ever, you'll probably want to do.


SMALL WORLD, BUT SMALLER


For the most part this is a fairly generic area control game. Here's some territories, get the most control markers on them, score points, job done. And alone that would be pretty dull let's face it especially as you can essentially chuck the theme out of the window as it's a dry Euro through and through. So it's down to the cards to define Ethnos and it does that in spades. Having 12 different tribes allows for a high amount of replayability even though you draw 6 of them in most games. The abilities on each tribe don't sound impressive, but believe me Ethnos plays very different depending on the combination you use.

For example, my first two games we used all 12 tribes, 6 different in each. The first game included Elves and Centaurs besides Halflings and Skeletons. We practically never saw any cards discarded by players thanks to the Elves/Centaurs. And most of the glory points came from large bands with those pesky Halflings. The Skeletons were the icing on the cake. We then switched over and in a game where Dwarves, Minotaurs and Wingedfolk roamed free, it all suddenly turned on its head and became a territory focused bloodbath. Discarded cards were so plentiful as a result allowing for more targeted selection. Such a different game using different tribes and further plays using a more random method still resulted in some interesting play styles and combos.

In terms of balance, that depends on your point of view. I wouldn't say they were all equally powerful, but nothing stands out as broken either. It really depends on when you use them. Personally I found the Trolls and Merfolk to be lacklustre and really adored the Wizards and Elves, but then I guess my style of play was that I wanted to retain cards after forming a band without having to build up again. I did equally well with Halflings, others used Centaurs well and I've seen Merfolk work well for others even if not me. Each tribe has a specific use and it all comes down to using them at the best time.



THINK FAST AND OFTEN


And with all these tribes comes a delightful array of tactical play that you need to work with. A long term strategy won't always work out because you might not draw the right races for the task. Work with what you've got and adapt if necessary. Not to mention you have to be cautious about what cards you're getting rid of after forming a band. Even selecting cards requires you to think about the other players - I can see 3 Minotaurs there of different colours, I don't care about colours, but I know he can screw me over with a Blue leader so I'll take the Blue Minotaur first. And there will be plenty of cursing when someone takes the card you want.

Even the Dragon cards are a nice touch. At first I didn't quite get the point of having 3 of them when 2 of them do nothing. But what they add is a healthy amount of tension at the end of each Age. Soon as that first one is drawn, everyone is on edge. Out comes the second and everyone frantically tries to play as much as they can especially if a player is deliberately trying to accelerate the deck. Cue a cry of "Nooooooooooo" when the third one appears and ruins your plan.



NO TIME TO REST, PLAY CARDS NOW! 


The speed at which Ethnos plays is frankly staggering. Even teaching new players, I've had 4 player games where someone hasn't had time to even absorb the knowledge of the card they've just drawn before it's back round to their turn again. Your first Age will be the longest as players get used to the flow, but after that your turns will be lightning fast. This has one of the lowest downtime periods of any game I've played with only the scoring phase feeling like a bit of a slog, but that's only because everything else feels so quick. Little tip - have only one person handle the scoring and do each territory first, then each player's tribes, it will go a lot smoother.

And that goes for the total length of the game as well. The box says 45-60 minutes and for once that's an accurate representation. You will need to have found some of the slowest players in existence and be playing with 5 or more players to venture much past that even including teaching time, which you all know I factor in to every time critique.

From 2-6 players Ethnos also scales well, but not perfectly. The tweaks to the rules for 2-3 players work nice and 4 players is a perfect sweet spot. 5-6 players is OK, but ties happen too frequently, the downtime increases (though it's still very short) and there's a little too much chaos with the card selection when you have 4-5 other players picking stuff up before it's your turn. These blemishes are pretty minor though and I wouldn't shy away from a 5-6 player game it was offered, but the most fun I've had for that perfect balance has been at 4.



VERDICT ON ETHNOS


It may look bland and uninspiring, but don't let that stop you from giving Ethnos a go. Despite the art and look being very basic, it does have a crystal clear graphic design that should mean that rules queries are kept to a minimum. Teaching Ethnos takes a matter of minutes and even though there are many tribe abilities to get used to, it's still essentially at the upper end of gateway weight level yet scores remain pretty tight for the most part.

This is the Ticket to Ride of area control games, the closest match being Royals from Arcane Wonders and Ethnos just slaps it in the face and replaces it instantly. Extremely simple to teach, quick to pick up and play and with enough variety to enable repeat showings that change the style of each game. Turns are lightning fast keeping downtime to an absolute minimum and yet there's enough tactics involved with the tribes and card selection to prove yet again that a well designed short game will engage someone better than any elongated affair with too much space between turns. It even scales pretty well from 2 to 6 players, though 5 and 6 does lead to a bit of extra chaos factor in the card selection.

Ethnos is a hidden gem within what has so far being a lacklustre year for board games. If the aesthetics and component quality matched the gameplay and length to enjoyment ratio, this would be just about perfect. I struggled to decide on the rating, but with all the positives mentioned, I can deal with the other flaws, art is subjective, inserts are usually tossed anyway and I don't often play with 6 people full stop. By the skin of its teeth it just manages to nail the first '10' of 2017 and proves you don't need 1,000 minatures CMON, you just need a sleek, streamlined game.





BROKEN RATING - 10 GLORY OBSESSED HALFLINGS (JUST)





YOU WILL LIKE ETHNOS IF:


You want an area control game with rules akin to the same weight level as Ticket to Ride.


You like having a variety of setups that change the way the game plays.


You want minimal downtime and a quick game length.




YOU WILL NOT LIKE ETHNOS IF:


You don't like the artwork - even though it's a clean design, it's very bland looking.


You want something more meaty - there are tactics here, but it's pretty lightweight.

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