Five Tribes starts like a tale out of One Thousand and One Nights. The sultan has died, leaving behind no heir to the fabled desert sultanate of Naqala. What this land needs is a proverbial hero – an Aladdin, a Sinbad, an Ali Baba. Could it be you? Could you liaise with the five tribes that roam the nation? Could you conjure up djinns and one day rule these people?
Bruno Cathala is the brains behind Five Tribes. His portfolio is full of popular, family-weight titles. (Kingdomino, Jamaica, 7 Wonders Duel, and 2019 release Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon, to name but a few.) It’s a 2-4 player game published by Days of Wonder, the folks behind Ticket To Ride series, Small World and Memoir ’44. All are super-successful games. Does Five Tribes live up to these high standards? Or is it a diamond in the rough?
Crosshead- Introducing the mancala
At its core, Five Tribes features a mancala system. It involves picking up tokens in a space, moving around a track, dropping one off at each location. The destination – where you end up – is what’s important.
The mancala is not a new board game mechanism, like worker placement. Archaeologists found evidence of these types of games in Ethiopia in the 7th century AD. Back then, components used were small stones, or seeds. The ‘board’ consisted of rows of concave grooves.
The Five Tribes ‘board’ consists of thirty square tiles, aligned five by six in random fashion. This represents the sultanate of Naqala. And, instead of stones or seeds, Five Tribes features universal-sized (ahem, Carcassonne) meeples. These come in five different colours, each colour representing a different tribe. There’s 90 meeples in total. Three random meeples get placed on every tile to start. That’s a lot of scope for a modular set-up!
A round in Five Tribes begins with a public bid – 0-18 coins – on a turn order track. Highest bidder goes first. They pick any tile that has at least one tribe-meeple on it. (At the start, that’s every tile!) This player picks up all the meeples on that tile and counts them. Then they move that many tiles away from this now-vacant tile.
This doesn’t have to be in a straight line; it can snake around. It must be orthogonal movement (not diagonal) each time, though. (Exception: you can’t hop back and forth between two tiles.) For every tile they move, the player drops off one meeple on that tile. The tile upon which they place their final meeple must contain at least one meeple of matching colour.
Then the player then takes [i]all[/i] meeples of that matching colour off that destination tile. It will be one of the five colours – one of the five tribes – and this triggers that tribe’s ability.
Yellow Viziers collected score at the end of the game (set-majority). The white tribe are Elders. These too remain beside the player that pluck them off the board. This tribe summon djinns (genies). And we all know what genies grant you!
The green Merchants earn you Resource cards. The more unique Resource cards you collect, the more points you’ll earn. The blue Builders help you get coins. Multiply the blue-value tiles that include and surround the triggered tile by the number of Builders claimed. (Coins are 1VP each at the end, as well as bidding currency.) The red Assassins can ‘kill’ another tribe member! (Either a pre-collected Vizier or Elder, or any meeple on the board within legal distance.)
Once activated, tribe members leave from the game (except Viziers and Elders). Then, the player triggers the action of the tile, itself. These include placing palm trees or palaces, increasing that particular tile’s value. Markets allow players to claim Resource cards in a set collection variety. Sacred Places allow players to summon djinns. These cost one Elder, plus a second Elder or a Fakir card. (Some djinns cost further Elders and Fakirs to function, though.)
If a player is successful in removing the final meeple from a destination tile, they claim that tile. They place a camel on it, and score that tile’s points.
Then it’s the next player’s turn. At the end of a round, players will bid for turn order again. The game ends if there reaches a point where a tribe member cannot move to a tile with fellow members. Or, if a player places their final camel, play continues until the end of that round. Points only get added up at the end – which sometimes results in a surprise winner!
There’s an abundance of player interaction in Five Tribes, every turn. Players pick up meeples, relocating some to new tiles en-route to their chosen destination. They create drastic changes to Naqala’s layout.
Extra meeples arrive on certain tiles. So, if a player picks up those meeples later, they’ll have to move extra spaces to accommodate. Or, take a different route to drop them all off. Which tribe members you drop, and where, makes locations more or less appealing. Drop a Merchant on a tile that already houses a few, and it’s a gift to opponents. Spread the Merchants out and they’re less valuable. Also, by you moving the tribes, it impacts how difficult or achievable it becomes to empty a tile (to place a camel).
Consider, though, that you can move meeples to clever spots, helping yourself. If you own an Oasis or Village, you’re going to want rivals ending their turn there again later on. (They’ll have to place a palm tree/palace, thus gifting you end-game points.) So, dropping matching tribemeeples back over your own tiles might lure players in.
Players also interact using Assassins. The Viziers can be big point-scorers. You earn 10VP per player that owns less Viziers than you. Plus, 1VP per Vizier that you own. So in a four-player game, if you own the most, they’ll net you over 30 points! Sometimes players assassinate Viziers, so be wary of making yourself a target!
In a similar fashion, the Elders are vital to summon djinns. Does a rival own a powerful djinn that requires further Elders to activate? They could fall foul of assassination, too…
Artwork & Components
Five Tribes is by Days of Wonder, who are renown for high production quality. It shows here. The trees and palaces are large, wonderful chunky-cut wooden pieces. They look superb on the table, living up to the exotic locale. The tribe meeples are a recognisable shape. Unfortunately, there’s no way for colour-blind players to distinguish them.
Player colours are strong tones of pink, orange, blue and black. The bidding markers are minarets, evoking the Islamic association of the region. (Those looking for innuendo might see them as borderline-phallic. There’s always one!) Players’ camels can start to become lost among a busy tile. If not paying attention, people could mistake the blue player’s camels for Builders at a glance.
Naqala’s desert tiles are sand-coloured and beermat-size. Clément Masson’s artwork shows drop-down views, depicting life in Persia of old. It’s not eye-popping, but that’s a good thing. It’s subtle, rather than distracting. After all, players will be more focused on which colourful tribe members reside there.
There’s a structure to the anatomy of tiles. (Make life easy for yourself and align all tiles the same orientation in set-up!) Classic gold trim surrounds the red or blue values in the top-right. The tile action itself is explicit in the bottom-left. A circular space sits bottom-right for a camel, if claimed.
The Resource cards are small (the same size as the default train cards in Ticket To Ride). The artwork is clean, though – no squinting required. The Djinn cards are bigger and have language-independent iconography depicting their power. Five Tribes comes with an A4 player ‘Summary Sheets’ and are essential for your first few games. They explain each Djinn’s power in case the iconography baffles.
Ain’t never had a friend like me
The djinns’ names are all references to Arabic hidden meanings or folklore. For example, ‘Marid’ is a type of shaitan (evil spirit) from Islamic mythology. ‘Bouraq’ translates as ‘lightning’. According to Islamic tradition, it was a transportation device for prophets. This is a cool touch from Cathala. However, the Bouraq djinn doesn’t provide a power to do with lightning, or transportation. It allows the owner of this card to spend an Elder to place a Palace on a Village.
Before this review, my Arabic theology knowledge consisted of pop culture and Hollywood. I didn’t realise Bouraq had anything to do with lightning until I researched. But know I know its meaning, I can’t but help wonder: is this a missed opportunity to further inject theme? Or was I happy enough playing Five Tribes not knowing about the actual origins of the Djinns?
Another pub quiz fact: mancala derives from the Arabic word, ‘naqala’. (Wait, isn’t that the name of the… Yes. Yes it is.) It means ‘to move’. This subtle wordplay gets two thumbs up.
Final Thoughts on… Five Tribes
Five Tribes is a game that can split opinion. No two games are alike, thanks to a nigh-infinite modular set-up. Set-up (placing 30 tiles, and then three meeples per tile) is a tad clumsy. On the flip-side, each turn sees you removing meeples back into the drawbag. You pack the game up as you go!
The mancala system brings immense player interaction. Five Tribes is about reacting to the best move available right now. Planning two or three turns ahead is impossible. An ever-changing landscape evolves across the 30 tiles. This can become overwhelming for players who suffer with analysis paralysis. No one can prep their turn in advance; instead, they have to wait for the previous person to finish. The spotlight’s on them, and there are dozens of choices. Lucky then, that the game lasts 50-80 minutes and never outstays its welcome.
Five Tribes shines at three or four players. (It can play up to five with the Artisans of the Naqala expansion. This adds a larger Naqala and a sixth tribe colour, among others.) The game is a different beast at a two-player count. Both players get two coloured minarets to bid with each round. It’s possible that a player could take subsequent turns within one round. Depending on where they drop off their initial meeples, they could set themselves up for their next turn. This could cause more AP!
The colourful array of meeples draws attention to the appealing tiles. Do you want quick and easy cash? End your turn on a tile that’s accumulated Builders. Want to grab some Resource cards? Look for the green Merchants. Once you’ve found that tile, then look for matching tribe members nearby who can be the trigger. You see, it’s only AP-prone if players approach it from the wrong angle.
Player order bidding can be important. Going first is appealing if there’s an obvious sweet spot. (Lots of Elders on a Sacred Place tile, for example.) But how much should you bid for it? Coins are worth points at the end. Aggressive bidding might get you your desired move, but did you make a profit? And in doing so, have you then set up the next player an equal – or better – move by relocating certain tribe members?
The three zero spots available are clever for turn-order catch-up. If a player bids zero early in turn order, a later player can also bid zero. This pushes the initial player back in turn order, even though they bid the same amount. This rewards or punishes those that gamble on having a ‘cheap’ turn.
Besides the infinite modular set-up, the biggest variable ace in the hole are the djinns. Some of their abilities are better than others. Sibittus allows you to buy an additional Djinn (if you can afford it) each turn. It’s a bit overpowered, but only if opponents let that player accrue lots of Elders.
It’s possible to win Five Tribes without summoning djinns though, which is great. Gaining all nine different Resource cards, for example, is worth a whopping 60 points. Being frugal all game, or earning big bucks with Builders can also sneak the win. We found that racing to trigger the end-game by placing your last camel doesn’t always work out. You need to do a bit of everything, but not spread yourself too thin. That’s solid game design.
The mancala system is both Five Tribes’ greatest strength, and its glaring weakness. The physicality of moving tribe members is fascinating to witness unfold. It’s also a delight to perform, yourself. Working out the perfect move is rewarding, especially when you drop tribe types off on ineffectual tiles. In equal measure, it can cause AP to rear its ugly head.
Five Tribes more than lives up to the Days of Wonder yardstick of looking top-notch. It isn’t as ‘gateway’ as the likes of Ticket To Ride, though. Five Tribes might be the most complex board game Days of Wonder have published. That’s not tough, though. It’s a gamer’s game rather than it is for younger or casual family groups.
I love the modular design to Five Tribes, and, to my tastes, the mancala. While the theme doesn’t transport you to a whole new world, it is present. My advice is to keep an oil lamp within grabbing distance. You can always give it a rub, if you wish slower players would hurry up…