What if the formation of Earth had gone differently?
In Ecos: First Continent, players are forces of nature molding the planet, but with competing visions of its grandeur. You have the chance to create a part of the world, similar but different to the one we know. Which landscapes, habitats, and species thrive will be up to you.
Gameplay in Ecos is simultaneous. Each round, one player reveals element tokens from the element bag, giving all players the opportunity to complete a card from their tableau and shape the continent to their own purpose. Elements that cannot be used can be converted into energy cubes or additional cards in hand or they can be added to your tableau to give you greater options as the game evolves.
Mountain ranges, jungle, rivers, seas, islands and savanna, each with their own fauna, all lie within the scope of the players' options.
Augustus for Gamers?
John D. Clair of Space Base and Edge of Darkness fame, has a special place in my heart. He is a designer of games that make me feel part of the world he creates. He challenges my thought process on how to play his games best and has provided my wife and I with a lot of fun. I always look out for his games and when I saw Ecos: First Continent was being launched this Autumn, I knew it would be a must have purchase for me. I like the way he constructs games. Despite some suggesting this was a rip off from the great Rise of Augustus, I like to see it more as "Augustus for gamers" and trusted this would bring something new to my table.
A whole new world!
Thematically, it delivers in spades. Ecos: First Continent is all about reforming the world as you see fit. Moulding a new planet to suit your purposes. I love that idea, and the gameplay fits the mechanic well. Yet theme isn’t the main thought process throughout the game as you consider more the strategy than aesthetics, and this is a good thing. The theme draws you in, the strategy keeps you engrossed.
Your job is to race to 80 points as quickly as possible with multiple actions available such as crafting new grassland, sea or desert tiles. Introduce some animals to your new planet, or perhaps bring trees or mountains into the world. All to complete your own personal scoring opportunities.
What’s inside the box?!
Opening the box, I was initially a little disappointed with the lack on inlay. I know some prefer a clean box or to buy or make their own, but it does make it hard to keep things tidy without one with the amount of components. Putting the game away now does make me shudder a little thinking how everything is rolling about. This is very much a horizontal storage game! There is then a little assembly to be done with the storage components for the animal tokens and energy cubes, which is simple enough, but the fragility of these cardboard holders frustrates me. These should have been plastic in my opinion.
However, the rest of the components are great. The trees and mountains are so tactile and beautifully designed, and the tiles themselves are so thick I often think two are stuck together. Then of course there are the element stones you pull from the bag, and the bag itself which are simply gorgeous!
Game play starts with a quick but rewarding drafting phase. For new players starting hands are on offer to make it simple, and I do advise this for your first few plays. Not to speed up the setup, more to help you learn what makes a good and bad hand and ensure an even game. But once you have understood the cards various actions, which only takes a game or two, the drafting mechanism is simple and adds a more competitive element to start the game. Most importantly though, this eliminates any end of game arguments about luck around the cards you were dealt.
With your starting hand ready the game in full begins. One player acts as the “Harbinger” by pulling elements from the bag until the wild symbol appears. Then the next player takes over this role. Bingo style, all players place an energy cube on the cards they have in play on the corresponding element symbol that has been pulled from the bag. If you don’t have a matching symbol, there are other options around getting new cards or new energy cubes. There is always a playable action for all players, every turn. You are always involved, playing simultaneously.
This makes variable player counts all have a similar game time with a variance of around 20 minutes. When a card is compete and all elements have been filled, that player must cry “Ecos” and can then utilise that cards effects. Be that with some tile building, adding animals to a mountain, or perhaps building up a huge forest of trees. All of which needs to be within your game plan based on the points available to you from your current cards.
I played recently with a mountain strategy and had five cards all of which worked in harmony with each other. One simply let me lay a mountain and get two points, another let me get a point for every mountain in the largest mountain habitat, and other got me three extra points if the mountain I was laying was within a cluster of at least three other mountains. As such, on some turns I was getting well over ten points for simply laying a mountain. Some say this is largely down to luck, based on what elements are drawn. I strongly disagree.
Every player knows what cards you have, what elements are in the bag and most importantly, in what quantity. If you select your active cards appropriately, you avoid luck and play the percentages. For example, sun elements will come up most. There are ten of them within 40 stones in total. River stones are the second most popular with eight out of 40. Whereas there are only two dear elements. Also, many river and sun cards offer cascading effects to get other less common elements. Such as a card that needs two sun symbols and one river to activate which then rewards you with two points.
But more usefully, one grasslands and one egg element (at least that’s what we politely call them in our house) to lay on any other active card. Adding these cards to another higher point scoring card that needs eggs and grass to activate. I don’t see how this is luck at all. This is forward thinking strategy, based on probability and keeping multiple options open. You can set a strategy that negates the importance of what comes up and be able to do what you want no matter the draw, mostly!
All games of Ecos that I have played, I have ended with cards in my hand that have not been played and cards on the table that have not been fully activated. As such, you can select some harder cards amongst the easier ones. If the elements come that you need for it, great. If not, you have other cards you can use instead, that if you choose wisely, can help the other harder cards anyway.
As such, for me, playing Ecos is highly rewarding. There are many opportunities for multiple moves, with cards that allow you to trigger another cards powers. Shouting “Ecos” three or four times at once is a lot of fun as one card gives you want you need to complete another, a cascading affect that is deeply satisfying. It can be annoying for other players watching you quickly turn the tide with powerful high scoring moves as the game progresses into the later stages. But this of course means that you are never out of the game no matter how far you fall behind.
One card my wife had in a recent game gave her two points for every five points she was behind. She was able to activate this card three times and came back from trailing by 43 points to lose narrowly by only four points.
I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys light strategy games with multiple turn options. Who want a game that plays equally well in two-six players. This is in my top five for 2019 and my gut tells me it will stand the test of time. It'll become a firm favourite in my household for many years to come.