I’ll put my cards on the table. I think genealogy is a great theme for a game. Several games are built around a multi-generational or inherited trait mechanic. It didn’t attract much love elsewhere but, for me, GaGa Games’ Among Nobles was one of the most interesting games of 2015. In that game, you were pairing nobles from various late medieval families and producing off-spring who matched their parents’ genetic traits. Having enjoyed this and other games with a family tree theme, like Matthias Cramer’s Dynasties: Heirate & Herrsche (Hans im Gluck), I was especially looking forward to playing Calliope Games’ Ancestree.
And Ancestree is a game that comes with a very distinguished pedigree. It was created by Eric M Lang: a designer with a cult following and long and impressive back catalogue (Blood Rage, Rising Sun, Arcadia Quest, The Others, Call of Cthulhu, Quarriors, and numerous dice and card games in the DC, Marvel and Game of Thrones universes: with all the expansions, the list runs to nearly 40 pages on Boardgamegeek). Eric Lang’s games have not all been smash hits but there are a lot of highly ranked games on the list.
Build your own family tree
Ancestree is a drafting game that is very easy to learn and play. It uses tiles rather than cards but the mechanics will be familiar to anyone who has previously played a card drafting game. Each player draws a hand of tiles, chooses one, plays it in front of them and passes the others to the player sitting next to him. This is repeated (alternating between clockwise and anticlockwise passes) until everyone has chosen five tiles and laid them all out, if they can, to form their own tableaus.
After the first tile has been laid, all further tiles have to be connected to at least one existing tile via a leaf, representing descent on the family tree (leaf/tree geddit?) or via a heart, representing marriage. Some tiles have more connections than others: many have no hearts to match up and some have no further connecting leaves, so can have no descendants assigned to them. On the other hand, some tiles may represent wealthy characters, so players will need to weigh up whether to take a tile that has plenty of potential for connections or to go instead for a tile with fewer onward connections but which delivers victory points through income.
The game is played over three rounds and, at the end of each round, players receive money (which equals victory points) for any coin symbols that are shown on tiles in their tableau. Players are also seeking to develop dynasties: tiles of the same colour or bearing the same symbol which link vertically across multiple generations. There are five sets of colours/symbols and, at the end of each round, the player tots up the number of generations for each colour and compares the total with that of the players to his immediate left and right. Players score for every dynastic house with more vertical links than each neighbour. At the end of the game, players also score what are oddly described as ‘bonus’ points for the number of marriages in their family tree.
I Wonder where I’ve seen that mechanic?
Part of the skill of this game is judging what to prioritise and when. The coin icon on tiles pays out at the end of every round, so a tile with coins played in the first round will, in total, be worth three times as much as one laid out during the course of round 3. Dynastic lines that are longer than those of your neighbours score an increasing amount each round: just one point apiece in round 1 but three points each in round 3.
If the ‘compare with your immediate neighbours’ scoring system sounds familiar, it’s because you’ll probably have seen it used in other games – most obviously for scoring military strength in Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders, published by Repos. Ancestree is a much simpler game than 7 Wonders, so you might want to consider it as a gateway game to ease players in and introduce them to card drafting and this 7 Wonders mechanic.
As with the military in 7 Wonders, the system of comparative scoring means that Ancestree requires players to focus not just on their own family tree but also those of the players to their immediate left and their right. The end-game ‘bonus’ for marriages is only one or two points for the first few but once the total has hit four or more, each further marriage is worth 5 points. It can potentially be a winning strategy therefore just to go for and lay out tiles connected by marriage. You’ll have to watch to see if, perhaps, another player is attempting this because that will affect what tiles you choose to pass on in the draft…
So, even though the game is simple and straightforward, the different potential scoring options open up genuine opportunities for tactical play.
Racial stereotypes and recycled images
The problem is that Ancestree is not a game that grabs people’s attention. It’s not that Calliope have produced the game on the cheap. Far from it: the rules, for example, are printed on heavy paper – actually thicker than the cards I’ve seen in use recently in some other games. And the publishers haven’t skimped on components: there are more pre-punched coins and scoring tokens supplied in the box than you could ever conceivably need to play the game, even with a full complement of six players. Despite all this, Ancestree suffers from the fact that it just isn’t visually appealing.
Assuming you are not offended by the racial stereotypes represented by the character images, there is nothing inherently wrong with the cartoon graphics on the tiles. The problem is that the character images on the tiles are repeated far too often. There are 110 tiles but all of the images are used at least twice and several are recycled as many as six times. It’s thematically solid that racial characteristics should recur across generations but it just feels wrong to see exactly the same images entirely duplicated and to even have identical characters married to each other. Yes, this is a game that permits not just same-sex marriage but even, seemingly, marriage between identical twins.
On the plus side, the use of symbols as well as colours to distinguish the five different dynastic lines will be welcome by those who often voice criticism of board game publishers for not doing enough to help those who suffer from colour vision deficiency (colour blindness). Except… Except that this does seem to be something of a belt and braces approach given that the five dynasties are also all racially very distinct: Black African, Oriental Asian, Middle Eastern Arab, White European and Native South American. The stereotypes are such that you can tell at a glance which is which without even looking at either the tile colour or the symbol. It may convey an unwelcome perspective on the game, however, if you reason from this that the game rewards players for achieving greater racial purity than their neighbours!
The game’s relatively humdrum appearance does seriously hamper its appeal. This is not a game that is ever likely to generate a buzz of excitement when you open up the box and show off the components. That really is a pity. If this game had been more visually striking, it would have served a very useful niche as a simple and potentially enjoyable way of introducing its core mechanics to new players.
If you’re looking for a simple gateway drafting game and you’re not put off by the graphics, then Ancestree could yet be the game for you. The rules are clear. You can play through a game in about 20 minutes, so it’s never going to overtax anyone’s attention span. It’s enjoyable enough to play and it works fine as a filler. Although the box says the game plays 2–6, and there is guidance in the rulebook for playing a two-person game, the game is really designed to be played by three or more. Taking all this into account, it would be generous to rate this game higher than 5/10. The rating would certainly be higher, however, if the same game were better presented.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.