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Tribes – a prequel Civilization game

There is no shortage of Civilization games. Several implement or ape in board game form the popular Sid Meier computer game from the early 1990s. Editions, revisions and updates of Civilization are still being turned out for pretty much every computer, video, tablet and smartphone platform, and we’ve seen an equally steadily stream of board game versions, including yet another new implementation this month from Fantasy Flight Games as Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn.

Almost all Civ games have in common their representation of technological development from around or before the bronze age through to the nuclear age and sometimes beyond. They also usually work as 4X games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), and it is conventionally the extermination (inter-player combat) that forms the pinnacle of other actions: exploration, expansion and resource accumulation often serve as mere preludes to an inevitable conflagration.

Tribes: a prequel to Nations?

Tribes: Early Civilization appears very much in this mould; hardly surprising given both the title and the game’s pedigree from Swedish designer Rustan Håkansson, best known for the Civ game Nations. Where Tribes differs, however, is in the way it remains very much in the prehistoric period. Sure, you develop your technology, but this isn’t a game that’s going to see you progress from inventing the wheel through to launching a colony ship to Alpha Centauri. In Tribes, you may be doing pretty well if your civilization gets much beyond inventing the fence. It’ll be drinks all round if you manage to discover fermenting. Essentially, in technology terms, Tribes ends around the point where Nations begins. Think of it then as board game prequel.

Tribes box lid


Most civilization games follow a strict predefined ‘tech tree’, where discoveries follow a set path based on a logical progression: you can’t go on to develop a technology without previously having discovered the very specific technologies on which the new discovery is predicated: you would need, for example, the wheel and horse-riding before you could develop the chariot. Tribes largely abandons this rational incremental approach to invention in favour of allowing a rather more random and seemingly illogical sequence of inventions. There’s still a tech tree, but the tiles on it are positioned randomly at the start of every game. In play, you’ll find this can sometimes jar and be less immersive, especially as the impact or effect of a technology often seems equally counterintuitive. The reason for the randomised tech tree is that it’s a way of adding variety to the game: it – and the fact that you only ever use half the tech tiles in each game – means that you will never find any two plays of this game to be exactly alike. To further shake up gameplay between games, the board has an A and a B side so that the relative positions of the tech tiles can be varied from one play to the next.

Tribes Tech Tree board

Tribes: a tech tree race game

In Tribes, actions are dictated by the tiles laid out in a column which is irrelevantly referred to as a Time Path. Players can take the tile at the base of the column for free but they must pay a seashell (think of it as a currency unit) on each of the tiles below the tile they want to take. This is becoming an increasingly popular game mechanic – used to good effect, for example, in the Century: Spice Road game, published last year by Plan B.

When a player takes a tile, they also take any shells on it, and they take the grow, move, invent or explore action indicated by that tile. Tiles are then usually replaced at the top of the Time Path, so they will still be available to other players but will need a heavy expenditure of seashells to take until they work their way lower down the queue. Some of the tiles are events, many of which are potentially negative. These are likely to build up an accumulation of shells on them as they are successively passed over, and part of the tactics in this game is deciding when it may be best to take an event card and risk its negative impact in return for its accumulated shells value.

Time Path for Tribes

Players who tend to go for a money strategy in games need to note that, although I described them as a currency, seashells in this game are only spent to pass over tiles you don’t want to take: they don’t convert into victory points and so they don’t score anything at all at the end of the game. You always score more victory points by being the first to develop a technology, so, in practice, what Tribes largely comes down to is a tech tree race game.

Tribes: easing your way into Civilization games

Tribes does not have the same epic feel as more traditional Civ games. For starters, it is notably quicker and easier to play than most of its predecessors. The rules overhead is light enough for this to be viewed as a gateway game (“Early Civilization” in the other sense of the words: you can treat the game as an introduction to concepts that are taken and developed further in some of the longer, wider reaching, more complex tech tree Civ games). The game is straightforward enough to appeal to non-gamers. Nevertheless, there is still enough meat and strategy here to satisfy seasoned games players, particularly in the manipulation of tiles in the Time Path.

Turns are quick in Tribes. Even with players who are usually prone to hesitancy, there is very little downtime and you can realistically expect to complete a game in less than 45 minutes. That also sets Tribes apart from almost every other Civ game. The option is provided for solitaire play: the Tribes rules include a way of playing against a dummy opponent. This works adequately, and it’s always good to have a solo play option, but the solitaire game here comes off as a poor second to playing this as a two, three or four player game.

Tribes: just three of the 4Xes

I mentioned Civilization games as usually being 4X games. Tribes really isn’t. You’ll certainly, eXplore, eXpand and eXploit but this is not a game where you will find yourself building up to an eXterminate denouement. A couple of the event tiles replicate the effects of conflict but Tribes is much more a game driven by passive aggression. You will find that the ‘take that’ elements to the game are largely confined to opponents trying to prevent each other from taking the tiles that they are after. You will almost certainly find an opponent taking a tile just so as to be able to move it from the bottom to the top of the Time Path and so price it out of your reach. An event tile might typically give a victory point bonus if the player taking it is the player with the greatest strength. If you are not that player, you might nonetheless choose to take the event tile simply to deny it to the player who could score from it. Otherwise, there is not so much player interaction in Tribes; again, this is not a game where you’ll be negotiating or trading between players.

Tribes player board

This all means that this is not a game where the tribes are going to descend on each other to club each other’s brains out with the thigh bones of a mammoth. You are not, in the main, laying waste to your opponents in this game. For many, that will be a very positive selling point, but if you are one of those who demands all 4Xes in their Civ games, then this is probably going to be the game for you.

Tribes: in the lap of the dogs

You get a feel for the prehistoric theme, and it’s not dissimilar to the feel when playing Hans im Glück’s Stone Age or Mage’s Hoyuk. The events are also reminiscent of the catastrophes in Hoyuk, and, as in the way most people play that game, you can see them coming and have a chance of mitigating any negative effects. The randomised tech tree will doubtless give rise to wry amusement when you find it imposing implausible connections between developments. In one game we played, dog domestication turned out to be the precursor to the development of polytheism. Needless to say, this gave rise to an endless stream of aphorisms substituting ‘dog’ for ‘god’.

All in all, this is a light easy-to-play title that’s worth checking out, particularly if you’re on the lookout for a new gateway game. As such, Tribes scores a Neolithic rock solid 6/10.

5 (100%) 1 vote
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Selwyn Ward

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.