Ethnos – Review
Ethnos was a jarring experience for me. Board games don’t often completely catch me off guard, but this was a rare occasion where my final impressions differed completely from my expectations. I thought Ethnos would be a deep, strategic affair that used cards and set collection as a vehicle for a intricate area control game. It ended up being a unique blend of Ticket to Ride, Rummy and Small World that is quick to learn and play. The set collection is largely consistent with what you’d expect, but the interesting twists with the various tribe abilities, and the area control aspect adds another layer to think about, which gives Ethnos its own distinctive feel.
ARTWORK AND COMPONENTS
It’s unfortunate that a game that surprised me so much has such a bland visual appeal. That isn’t to say the artwork is poor, because it is, in fact, very well done. However, nothing about it stands out or catches your eye. Oddly, the most eye-catching thing about the whole package is the colour choices of the control markers. It doesn’t bother me that the control marker colours are vibrant or odd – I actually enjoy the different choices they made here – what bothers me is that they stand in such contrast to the rest of the art and style of this game, which is mainly drab, uncoloured and unremarkable.
The game lacks character. I’ll use a previous example again: Small World. The board, box and components all have their own unique flavour and style that trademarks them as a member of the Small World family, whereas I feel like I’ve seen much of the artwork in Ethnos before in other games. Not in a specific game, necessarily, but rather just in general. I don’t want to come across like I’m throwing the artwork completely under the bus, because I actually think it’s well-designed and drawn. It just needed something to make it uniquely Ethnos and I don’t think it has that.
However, I really enjoy the theme. I’m a sucker for fantasy-themed games and that’s part of what drew me to Ethnos. Dressing up the card suits as tribes and having each one be its own race was also a fantastic choice, even if the character art on the card is fairly uninspired. If I type “elf” or “orc” into Google, I would expect to see characters quite similar to these. Obviously, Ethnos is not the first or last game to incorporate these characters, but other games have done a much better job of taking these well-established races and injecting them with their own signature style that adapts them for a new setting. Instead, Ethnos sticks with mostly what we’d expect.
It’s unfortunate that a game that surprised me so much has such a bland visual appeal.
In terms of components, the thing that immediately jumped out to me was the insert, which is something I appreciate a lot. I found it immensely satisfying that every component had its own spot, making it a breeze to organize and store. The control markers are passable and made of fairly basic plastic. They are also lightweight and will often slip from your fingers or fall out of place in the box. However, they stack well and I enjoyed using them for the most part. As I said previously, I also enjoyed the different colour choices, even if only because it was a departure from what you are used to seeing from other games. I just wish the vibrancy of the control markers was a style present in the rest of the game’s imagery.
A turn in Ethnos can sometimes be mere seconds, especially in the early stages of the game, but this is a reoccurring theme. Every time you play a band of allies, otherwise known as a set, you discard everything else in your hand. So you essentially reset back to having no hand and need to build it up again by drawing a single card each turn. This is where Ethnos felt reminiscent of Ticket to Ride, where turns can also be fast and the cards also facilitate mechanics on the main board.
Speaking of the main board, this is where Ethnos’ area control mechanics come in. You play sets of cards to place control markers on different territories. Since you must play bigger sets than the amount of control markers you already own there, the later stages of the game usually involve players seeking out larger sets in order to place last minute markers. This is an interesting concept and, for the most part, it worked well. However, there is a definite luck aspect to this that can sour the experience. When drawing from the top of the deck, you can sometimes go many turns just drawing cards and not finding what you want. Eventually, as you reach your max hand size, you give in and play a less than ideal set, lose the rest of your cards, and restart the process of trying to find the necessary cards to place in a specific territory. Since the lead card has to be in the correct colour to place in any given territory, you’re not just looking for specific tribe cards, as sometimes you need a single colour to allow you to place where you’d like.
Thankfully, there are the unique tribe abilities. This is where Ethnos truly shined for me. Despite its flaws and potential stumbles, the uniqueness and variation of the Tribe abilities, coupled with the fact that different combinations and pairings offer entirely different experiences, made Ethnos a joy to play and gave me something new to discover each time. A game with Halflings tended to skew players toward prioritizing large sets, rather than focusing too much on controlling territories. Normally players can tie for control in a region and split the points, meaning they can focus their attention on winning certain areas and then tying in others, so they don’t lose ground, but a game with Trolls and their tie-breaking mechanic meant that a player could use ties as a legitimate path to victory if they secured enough of the Troll tokens. A game with Merfolk led to all kinds of unexpected plays with the additional control markers that could be placed anywhere. Games with Wizards tended to be much more hectic, quick affairs because of the additional card draws, leading to more panic, anxiety and quick sets to ensure placement of control markers before the round would end. These are just some examples and because all these tribes can end up in different combinations together, no game of Ethnos felt quite the same. This is definitely the aspect of the game that kept me coming back and excited to play again.
The most interesting and rewarding games of Ethnos allowed the area control to take center stage and provide the bulk of the points. With certain combinations of tribes, usually ones involving Halflings, you could almost entirely ignore the area control aspect and focus most of your time on forming 6+ card sets. In my experience, this happened more often at low player counts, but I strongly preferred the combinations of tribes that allowed for an even split between the mechanics of the game, in terms of where the bulk of your points came from.
My issues with the look and style of the game aside, I had a lot of fun with Ethnos. I tend to really prefer games that give me new experiences each time I play, and Ethnos is one of those games. Also, it doesn’t demand a lot of time. It was just as easy to teach to my consistent board game group as it was to my fiancée, who is more of a casual player. While the theme, art and box cover certainly give the impression of a more complicated affair, Ethnos is really quite a simple game, which is what I really love about it.
The game moves at such a quick pace, but it always provides me with plenty to think about and consider. If I spent too much time trying to get the right cards to place a single control marker in a certain territory, I would often lose my footing in another territory and end up having to change course or make tactical decisions about how much I was willing to fight for a particular region. All the while, I’d also try making my bands of allies substantial in size to score the bonus points. Giants, Orcs or Merfolk would offer additional scoring opportunities and even more options to consider. Ultimately, Ethnos does not achieve the same levels as a game like A Feast for Odin in regards to the number of ways to score points, but since it’s so short and it has such a simplistic ruleset, it definitely surprised me with how many paths to victory I often felt I had.
I tend to really prefer games that give me new experiences each time I play, and Ethnos is one of those games.
There’s also a level of surprise as to the round or game ending, because Ethnos will end depending when the dragon cards come up, which you also have to consider when trying to squeeze in your final plays. While this can sometimes lead to frustrating results where you end the game with a hand of cards you didn’t use in time, since you pressed your luck, it never felt too random or punishing. Generally, you’ll decide for yourself how much risk you want to take. In the end, games where I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted just made me want to play again right away.
Ethnos provides a lot of replay value with its 12 tribes and various possible combinations. Honestly, in terms of different play experiences, Ethnos ranks up there with the best of them for me. There is just so much variety depending on available tribes and, while some combinations are undoubtedly less interesting or downright less fun, for the most part they all provide their own challenges and nuances, and half the enjoyment is discovering the best path to victory this time, when faced with a new combination.
Ethnos isn’t cheap, but it isn’t too expensive either, and for what you get here and how often it will hit the table thanks to its quick playing time, it’s well worth the price of entry. On top of that, inserts are normally sacrificed to lessen the price, but Ethnos’ component storage is excellent. Overall, the package is well priced and offers a lot for the cost.
At first glance, Ethnos disappointed me with its bland style and lack of character. It also caught me off guard by having more similarities to Ticket to Ride than to other area control games. However, when I actually dove in and played multiple times, I discovered the sheer charm hidden beneath the uninspired exterior. Ethnos is worth owning and playing multiple times to discover all the different possibilities. I hope somewhere down the road they revisit Ethnos and perhaps update the art to help set it apart with its own unique feel. For a game with such surprisingly delightful mechanics, I was just looking for something with an equally unique style. That aside, the art is still well-drawn and I continue to look forward to playing Ethnos. Ultimately, I think that says more than anything else.
- Tribe abilities provide new experiences each session.
- Lots of tactical decision-making.
- Very quick to play and learn.
- Artwork is generic and uninspired.
- Some tribes, such as Halflings, are less interesting.
- Bad luck can sometimes lead to several uninteresting turns.
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