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It’s a smallish world – Ethnos Review

Once upon a time there was a game called Vinci which involved various historical races fighting it out over a board.  Few people know of it because it was published in 1 B.C. (the year Before Carcassonne), but it was well regarded and still has its supporters today.  Then that game became Small World which spawned all sorts of expansions and a massively overpriced collector’s edition (as an aside, do people actually collect collector’s editions?).  Small World still lives there in the upper echelons of BGG’s hallowed halls, but now into that fantasy world of area control comes Ethnos, the new and extremely hot kid on the block.  So how does it compare, and does it have what it takes to knock those dwarves and skeletons off their perches?

Ethnos Board Game

Crash! Bang! Wallop!

All washed out and coming to blows!  How’s the art?

Ominously, Ethnos’s box art looks as though it belongs on the front cover of some turgid seventies prog rock album, and that is not necessarily a good thing.  Somehow, though, that vision of hazy fur-loined knuckleheads manages to create an atmosphere for the game, one where various factions rampage across a board, even though what lies inside the box is actually a pretty lean set-collection card game with a board element rather than some kind of mini-laden epic that takes four hours to play.

Ethnos Board Game

The board is plain but at least it is functional.

The components for Ethnos are…well, they are fine.  Not great, not terrible, but fine.  The board depicting the six kingdoms is functional, but little more than that, because it is so small that multiple players will have difficulty getting their tokens placed in a manner that makes important information, such as who has the majority in an area, readily visible.  The cards are more or less what you would expect, more hazy artwork, but the real disappointment is the tokens, and part of that disappointment is because somebody somewhere has made a decision that should have worked magnificently but has instead ended up looking oddly out of place.  These tokens are plastic rather than wood, but have been individually moulded to incorporate some kind of faux-Celtic design and taken in isolation look wonderful, resplendent in their vibrant colours.  However, they jar badly with the palette of the rest of the game, are fiddly beyond description, prone to flying out of fingers like oversexed tiddlywinks, and trying to replace them in their bespoke troughs in the insert is at worst a shortcut to madness, at best an invitation to display your knowledge of bawdy Anglo-Saxon.  Also, tilt that box ever so slightly away from the horizontal and they will leap out of their storage areas with enthusiasm.

Ethnos Board Game

Insert is clever, but you’ll come to curse those counters.

Collect or play!  That’s your choice!

With regard to the game itself, the play of Ethnos is simply explained and easily grasped, for, as mentioned, essentially this is a set collection game with a board and a smattering of area control thrown in for good measure.  Starting with a measly single card in hand, on each turn a player may either draw a card from the open display or from the face down deck, or they may play a band of allies.  Allies need to be of the same type, so all giants, for example, or from the same kingdom, which translates to being the same colour, and the card placed on top of that band – the leader – gets to activate its special ability.  If the number of allies in your band exceeds the number of control tokens you have in that leader’s kingdom you get to add one more token, increasing your power in that area…

Ethnos Board Game

Rules are very clear and easy to learn.

…but here’s the wrinkle.  Playing a band of allies from hand means that you must then place all of your remaining cards on the table where they can be picked up by any other player, unless your leader’s ability allows you to sidestep this.  There is also a hard hand limit of ten cards which means that when you hit that maximum you have to play a band of allies and lose the remainder of your hand.  Suddenly those cards that might have been useful to you down the line end up being helpful to your opponent now.

Ethnos Board Game

Playing any card as a leader activates its ability.

Here be dragons!  It’s the end of an era!

Tucked into the bottom half of Ethnos’s draw deck are three dragons cards.  The first two will give an indication that the end of the Age is drawing near, while the appearance of the third will end the current Age immediately.  Points are then scored for the majorities in each kingdom, and also for the size of each band of allies a player holds.  Some of the races in Ethnos also have other scoring quirks at this stage – the Orcs can go rampaging for points, for example, while the holder of the loyalty of the Giants lumbers a few steps up the scoring track.  Then you shuffle up again, redeal, and go through the process once or twice more, depending on the player count, totting up the winner at the end of it all.

Ethnos Board Game

Dragons herald the end of the age.

Where Ethnos comes to life is in the delicate decisions.  Do I play my band now or fish from the draw deck?  Do I go for a larger band for points or play them now for a token on the map?  How am I going to maximise my hand given that I’ll need to put most of it on the table after my next move?  There is also that new balance in each game of the different races because only five or six of the dozen different types are used in each play, of finding out how they play off against or with each other, or how useful or not they can be.

Ethnos Board Game

Chase the points by gaining a majority in each area.

Where are the battles?  It’s all static with no charge!

Those races, though, can lead to some awkward combinations.  Find Skeletons and Halflings in your Ethnosian world, both of which bump up the numbers without bringing too much else to the party, and you will often have to fish for other races to lead your bands of allies.  There is scope for house ruling some pre-game drafting, I suspect, which might balance things out a little more, but the random suck-it-and-see selection as specified in the rules can lead to some decidedly quirky combinations.

Ethnos Board Game

Shuffle and deal to select your races for the game.

I also have a problem with the board itself.  Given that the cover of Ethnos sees these races bashing all kinds of fantasy lore out of each other in some kind of massive battle, it is a real disappointment to find that none of this goes on in the game itself.  Tokens get placed in kingdoms and then, well, they just sit there until somebody plays a larger band of allies and adds one more token.  Presumably these ever larger armies of Orcs and Giants and Merfolk are all assembling during the game and then just sitting around and eyeing each other up warily, and I feel let down that the crashing and banging of battle only happens in a player’s imagination once Ethnos has been tucked away and put it to bed.  Another disappointment is that you cannot move or remove a token once it has been placed, so the main board is decidedly static rather than dynamic, and that is a real minus point.  Sorry to mention it again, but Small World has this element, implements it simply and easily, and is much more fun as a result.

Ethnos Board Game

The board can get seriously crowded.

Gaming is life!  And variety is its spice!

Small World also uses adjectives, and that is a wonderful thing (see, I used one just there), because using adjectives is enough to make anybody sound positively erudite in this modern world of 140-character sentiments.  In board gaming terms what it means is that Ethnos gets by on its races of Merfolk, Wizards and Skeletons while Small World has flying dwarves or stout elves or heroic trolls, and those adjectives, in gaming as in language, mean variety.  Ethnos is ripe for expansion and plays decently enough as it is, but it all feels a little staid and leaden, and the breathless and near-ubiquitous excitement about this game really does puzzle me slightly.

To be scrupulously fair, Ethnos does have variety, but it is expressed in the random selection of races at the start of the game, so there should, in theory, nearly always be a different combination of abilities to fire off each other.  It is good, but Small World (yes, I know, it keeps turning up) goes one step further by allying random abilities to races, and that is hardcore variety, the kind that means no two games are likely ever to be the same, no matter how many times you play it.

Ethnos Board Game

Some races have special powers beyond the main board.

Flat with few!  The more the merrier!

Ethnos also really needs at least four players to shine.  Although the length and scope of the game is scaled down slightly with fewer players, for its world to feel small enough to be pressured there need to be more tokens on the board.  Playing with three works well enough, but a head to head can be a lengthy drawfest and make you long for that third dragon to come out and put an end to it all.  For quick and tight card-driven area control with two I am always going to turn to Sun Tzu, especially because it includes some really clever ideas about the cards, rather than the if-in-doubt-draw approach of Ethnos.

I wonder how Ethnos might fare if it was given the Small World treatment, with Days Of Wonder components and artwork that was less – this is the only description that comes immediately to mind – dour.  It is all just so washed out, so much as if viewed through some pea-souper that you almost have to want to play the game to get through that fug.  Perhaps the land of Ethnos really does look like that – I don’t know, I’ve never been there – but, if so, what are those dayglo tokens all about?  Very odd.

Ethnos Board Game

The colour choices for the tokens are…interesting.

It is also very easy to describe what is going on in Ethnos.  Set collection with a bit of area control, so Ticket To Ride with a dash of Guildhall and a lot of Small World, but describing games in terms of other games is usually a bad sign, because it means that they are doing nothing new.  There is nothing wrong with that per se – Deus, for example, is very much an amalgamation of mechanisms borrowed from other designs – but then the game needs to do at least something that is new and different.  Ethnos is almost unambitiously generic, lacking sparkle and the kind of excitement the box cover promises.

Eth-yes?  Or Eth-no?

I have moaned about the art for Ethnos and I have moaned about the components for Ethnos and I have moaned about the gameplay for Ethnos and the main reason is this – Ethnos has the potential to be a great game.  Bring in some expansions or even a retheme and CMON could be onto winner here, but, as it stands, this is something for the converted or the alerted, because few are going to stumble on this box by accident and wonder what wonders it contains.  All my co-gamers found the playing of it curiously unengaging and it would never usurp Sun Tzu (for two) or Small World (for more) in my collection if I were looking for something along these lines.

Ethnos Board Game

Points, points, points…but no fighting!

My fellow players grudgingly appreciated what Ethnos was trying to do, but not once was there that moment of gaming joy that comes when a game’s unique characteristic suddenly takes its players by surprise.  It is easy to teach, easy to learn and easy to play, all plus points, but it is a Small gaming World out there and Ethnos does nothing either newly or differently enough to warrant knocking those grizzled gateway veterans off their perches.  In fact, despite the best of intentions, it was hard to find this anything but rather dull in the playing and the f-word (“fun”) seemed to belong to another fantasy world entirely.  Play this if you like, for sure, for it might grab you, but try it before you get dragged in by the hype.  For me this is a 6 out of 10, good but not great and needing much more breathed into it before it can think of moving into the territory of some of the other more established gateways out there.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.