Rise of Ecosgustus
Because it is the ken of board game critics to reduce every design to “It’s just this one game plus this other thing,” it would be easy to dismiss John Clair’s Ecos: First Continent as just Paolo Mori’s Rise of Augustus plus a map. That would be doing it a disservice. For one thing, although Augustus and Ecos share a heritage that stretches all the way back to Adam and Bingo, in practice there’s enough consanguinity between them to make their intermarriage technically legal in at least three states. You do you, you crazy lovebirds.
The real issue, however, is that Ecos is so damnably playable. If I were in a bad mood, I might almost call it cynical. Instead, let’s go with insidious.
The draw of Ecos is that it’s immediately rewarding. If it were a treadmill RPG, it would give you a decent weapon right up front and then keep the plus-level gear popping from its baddies’ corpses in perfect pace with its increasing difficulty. If it were a bucket of movie popcorn, each mouthful would boast a golden ratio of fluffy kernels to coconut oil and M&Ms. If it were a board game, it would say on the side of the box next to the playtime, player count, and recommended age, “simultaneous play.” Oh wait, it does say that. The promise of no downtime, writ like gold lettering along the spine of a holy book.
Even better, the whole thing can be taught almost as quickly as it’s set up. Each turn, someone draws a tile from a bag. That tile shows an icon; maybe grass, or a vine, or a little cave drawing of a reindeer. Before you on the table there are cards, one set per player. Each card has a cost. If you see an icon that matches the tile just drawn from the bag, you place a cube on it. Fill up all its icons with cubes and you get to take that card’s stuff. Maybe a new tile on the map, or a mountain, or an antelope. Maybe cubes on other cards. Or maybe, just maybe, a lion, which will then run amok across the savannah gorging itself upon everything with a heartbeat until all that remains is a mountain-sized lion with its limbs sticking out at distended angles, the circle of life at last drawn to a closed loop.
Congratulations, the game chirps, with all the canned cheer of a slot machine. You’ve done something. You big person. You master of your domain. You absolute Moriarty-level genius. Now draw another tile before the meaningless of existence catches up to you.
Part of Ecos’s sleight of hand is that everything complicated can be taught as you go. Better to keep the stream of rewards flowing uninterrupted. For example, what if you don’t have the current tile’s icon? Have you wasted your turn? Of course not. Ecos wouldn’t do that to you. Whenever you can’t use an icon — or opt not to — you’re allowed to instead rotate your player tile. Rotate far enough around and you’ll earn new rewards, like additional cards from the game’s two decks, which slowly transition into your hand and then onto the table, or an extra cube so you can have more icons covered at a single time. Even when you’re losing, you’re winning.
The rub is that Ecos is largely a spectator sport. If you play with pre-built decks, you haven’t even put in the effort of drafting your own combinations of cards to tinker with. It’s an illusion that’s slow to set in. The first play is exhilarating. So is the second. Game after game, its incentives remain enticing. Your continent grows from four tiles to a dozen. Its featureless prairies sprout mountains and forests. Entire ecosystems (yep) of animals spring to life, then migrate, then eat each other. And every step is rewarding, because the landscape is blossoming and your points are ticking gradually upward. Design via Skinner Box. Dole out rewards one nickel at a time, even if they aren’t wholly deserved.
Perhaps worse, “simultaneous play” isn’t always true. Oh, everyone covers icons at the same time. But then somebody will trigger one ecos — that’s what you’re supposed to yell when you complete a card, since “bingo” is too shameless — which triggers a second ecos, possibly even a third or fourth. Then you’re waiting around as that person executes a chain of decisions. Rewarding to whomever’s struck the jackpot, a jolting halt for everyone else. Or perhaps you’ll bother to draft your own starting decks, because those combinations of cards are the one arena wherein your decisions hold real weight. Except drafting cards is painstakingly slow. Draft four from this deck, then eight from this other deck, then pick three to put on the table. Simultaneous play? Only most of the time. It’s the first simultaneous game I’ve seen literally put someone to sleep.
But here’s the deal: for all my sourness, Ecos has its hooks deep in me. Under the skin, beneath the muscle, tugging at bone deep.
On one level, Ecos appeals because being aware you’re chained to a treadmill doesn’t mean you aren’t still running in place. Everything about its presentation is perfectly arranged to tickle that part of our brains that loves to see lights and music herald how clever we must be, even if we haven’t done anything actually clever.
However, Ecos is also far more than the hollow automaton it sometimes pretends to be. Yes, the majority of its action is there to keep your eyes glazed over. Draw a tile, cover an icon. Draw a tile, cover an icon. Ecos! Now get back to drawing tiles. But the rest is surprisingly impactful. In particular, the way it uses its cards to grow, transform, and disrupt its landscape.
For example, some cards absolutely rip into the terrain. Someone was working toward a bonus for a large populated grassland, only to watch in dismay as you sink its connective isthmus beneath the waves. Other times, cards lend themselves to surprising combinations. One person plops down entire herds of antelope, then migrates them all for a heap of points — only to yelp as your lion tears their entire herd to shreds before they can finish another migration. Others are even downright inventive, such as the card that earns points for every water hex your storks fly over. For every piddly bonus, there are moments that leap forward on the score track, and only because you planned out the acquisition, placement, and sequence of your cards in the perfect manner.
Not that one combo is ever enough. In one of its smartest moves, every card can only be employed a few times. Whenever you trigger a card, it also rotates clockwise. Each side displays a different number of leaves. When you finally rotate away from the side with one leaf, that card is lost forever. This detail makes all the difference. It’s a balancing agent, limiting powerful cards to one or two charges, but even more importantly it forces you to search for new opportunities even as you fire off your current salvo. While a single well-timed play can earn a lion’s banquet of points, it isn’t quite enough to win the game. In order to pull that off, you’ll have to make smart investments. The right cards, with the right array of common and rare icons, selected to trigger against this match’s particular arrangement of landmasses, seas, mountains, forests, and wildlife.
In other words, Ecos has plenty of choices after all — it’s just that they’re less apparent than the turn-by-turn superficiality. Come for the tiles drawn from the bag, stay for how the cards build upon each other. For that reason alone I recommend drafting your hand, even if it prolongs the setup. Of course, this renewed focus introduces new complaints. I’ve seen those migrating antelope about ten times, and strong stork plays at least thrice. Ecos is a game desperate for an expansion or two, if only to reduce the obviousness of certain tricks. An imperfect game that would benefit from additional wrinkles.
For now, though, Ecos: First Continent is insidiously clever. On the surface it’s all treadmills, but its ultimate deception lies in how you arrange those conveyors so they carry you along to your desired destination. The gradual glut of incremental rewards is the sweet stuff that tricks you into taking a bite of something more meaty.
A complimentary copy was provided.