Paolo Mori has put together some wonderful stuff, ranging from the shipshape Libertalia to the behatted Dogs of War. Both were exceptionally muscular for their size, flexing their wiry ruleset so that even reluctant friends could join in and still feel brilliant after a couple rounds. What’s the one thing better than staffing a snarling pirate den? Fighting on both sides of a mercenary battle, that’s what.
Ethnos joins that brawny pair as possibly Mori’s most sinewy game yet, and not just because it features trolls beating up orcs. Come take a look.
Here’s Ethnos, the land of twelve competing tribes of fantasy creatures — oh, wait, hold on just a second.
There we go.
Okay, so Ethnos isn’t much to look at. Its map is Slovakia in crayon form, for one thing. For another, despite being illustrated by the undeniably talented John Howe, it’s a mishmash of garish colors and all-too-similar fantasy figures — two of the tribes are Merfolk and Wingfolk, and both sport the same silhouette, for crying out loud. A looker it ain’t. Which is a bit of a surprise, coming as it is from veteran good-lookers CMON.
But squint real hard and you might be able to see past all that. Seriously, squint. Because the game itself is special.
The first thing you need to know is that Ethnos is an area control game. Have the most control markers in a territory and you’ll claim its points. Easy, right? Well, that’s just the game’s first era. Later on, points will be doled out for first and second places, and even later there’ll be room for a third place as well.
If that isn’t blowing your hair back, don’t worry, the important part is how that happens. Rather than deploying creatures or casting spells, warfare in the land of Ethnos is all about massing a bunch of monsters into gangs. And that’s as easy as drawing some cards.
Here’s how a typical round plays out. Everyone is holding a single card, some combination of tribe and color/territory. There are a bunch of cards face-up in the middle of the table for you to select from, or you can draw at random from the deck. For the first while, everyone will probably just draw cards — draw, draw, draw from deck, draw a face-up Halfling for some reason, draw, draw. Easy. Fast.
The purpose of all this drawing is to assemble some combination of tribes or territories. Once you have a combo, you slap it down, taking care to place one of your creatures at the top of your newly-recruited gang. This creature’s ability triggers, you add a new control marker to the corresponding territory (that is, if you played enough goons at once), then — and this is crucial — you discard everything else from your hand to the middle of the table. And thus the cycle of drawing and deploying gangs begins anew.
Sounds about as exciting as the game’s art direction, right? Well, sure.
But let’s talk about the tribal abilities. Each of the game’s twelve tribes comes with its own superpower, a tweak that bends the rules ever so slightly. Or sometimes not-so-slightly. You’ve got the usual riffraff, like Elves who let you hold onto cards even after you play a gang, or wildcard Skeletons, or even worthless Halflings who literally have no ability other than that they’re numerous. Sidenote: big gangs are worth extra points at the end of each era, so that army of Halflings doesn’t look quite so stupid now, does it? Meanwhile, there are also tribes who add new boards to the game, like Orcs who quietly amass until they score a whole slew of points in an orgy of pillaging, or Merfolk who might pop into the war from the coast, or Trolls who let you break ties. Does winning ties sound lame? Because in Ethnos there are a lot of ties, and being able to break them in your favor confers an enormous advantage.
That’s just how Ethnos rolls, even the slighter abilities potentially dominating the game if employed properly. Wingfolk bounce between regions, Wizards let you draw as many cards as you just played, and Centaurs — mythology’s dorkiest invention — are absolute home-wreckers when played in sequence against territories controlled by your significant other.
Not that you’ll see all of these creatures in action in a single game. Instead, six of them are shuffled together at a time. Sometimes you’ll have a match dominated by big bands of Halflings and Dwarves, other times it’ll be an all-out race to pepper the map with your control markers courtesy of Skeletons and Minotaurs. It might be trite to say that no two games play out the same way, especially when 90% of your time is spent drawing cards, but… no two games play out the same way.
And anyway, let’s talk about drawing cards.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Ethnos is the way it pitches the simple act of drawing a card as an exercise in pent-up nervous energy. Mixed into the bottom half of the deck are three dragons, and the appearance of the third will bring the current era slamming to a halt. Whenever the deck starts getting thin, every turn goes from feeling like an opportunity to something more like standing in the middle of a busy intersection at midnight. When the era ends, it doesn’t matter that you were holding nine matching Giants. It just ends.
Which is why things get so outrageously tense when the deck gets thin and each blindly-drawn card might nudge you over the brink. And don’t even think about playing a Wizard unless you want everyone at the table to engage in some light profaning.
And that’s pretty much it. Ethnos is a simple little thing.
Don’t think for a minute that it’s shallow, though. There’s plenty here to think about. Should you assemble big gangs for points, or a bunch of smaller gangs to get control markers on the table? Which creature should be this gang’s leader? Which territory should you go after? Can you unseat Geoff from his pitiful hegemony of [insert nonsensical fantasy province title]?
It could be argued that Ethnos occasionally feels toothless. You know, for a game about warring clans. Even the placement of your control markers revolves solely around how many you already have in a particular region, so there’s no real way to “lock down” a hot spot. And absolutely don’t go in expecting a bunch of direct conflict or screw-you moves. Unless nabbing a purple Halfling before someone else is your idea of channeling Sun Tzu.
The thing is, Ethnos is perfect at what it does best. Its rolls around the table at a brisk clip, no real downtime to speak of, and cuts right to the heart of the action — picking up choice cards, playing gangs, cussing when you draw another mismatched card, and crossing your toes when a dragon might show up. It’s a delight.