Reviewed by Herb Levy
ECOS: FIRST CONTINENT (Alderac Entertainment Group [AEG], 2 to 6 players, ages 14 and up, 45-75 minutes; $59.99)
The familiar formations of planet Earth had to start somewhere – and that somewhere is here, as postulated in this new design from John D Clair, as players will find themselves as veritable “forces of nature” constructing the land and water – and populating them with all sorts of animals – in the land and water mass destined to become Ecos: First Continent.
Four map tiles – 2 Water, 1 Grasslands, 1 Desert – are placed in the center of the board and act as the beginning of the continent. A wide selection of animal tokens (from cheetahs to sharks) as well as tree and mountain pieces begin off board. Players begin with a “Dial” token and scoring cube in their chosen color, the cube being placed at 0 on the scoring board, plus 7 “energy” cubes. They also get a hand of cards.
Cards come in two varieties: blue backed (which tend to score more points) and brown backed (which are more concerned with building the continent). Players may either use pre-set starting hands OR draft a hand. In either case, players will end up with 12 cards: 4 blue and 8 brown. Regardless of color, all cards share certain attributes.
On their side, all cards display certain icons. In addition, cards will list a series of actions that may be taken (in the order listed) when a card is fully activated. Three of these cards are placed in front of each player (as “active” cards) with the rest remaining in hand.
Constructing a continent requires proper use of the elements. In Ecos, there are 40 element tiles. These tiles depict a particular icon (some fairly recognizable such as “sun” or “grassland” or “animal”, others fairly abstract in design, and two “multi-color” wild tiles that may be used as any icon). These tiles are tossed into the provided bag and the first player (aka the”Harbinger”) draws them out, one at a time.
A drawn tile matching one of the icons found on any player’s active cards, allows one energy cube to be placed on the matching icon found on a card. (Only 1 cube per icon drawn allowed.) When all icons found on a card are covered by cubes, that card is activated and its powers go into effect! This can mean adding land or water tiles to the burgeoning continent, placing trees or mountains, putting animals in their allowed habitats (permissible habitats are noted on the animal tokens), drawing and/or playing additional cards, gaining icons to place on active cards, gaining Victory Points and more. Every card has “leaf” icons (from 1 to 4) on the edges. Whenever a card is activated, the card rotates so that one less leaf is on top until, finally, no leaf remains and the card is discarded. But what if you cannot or do not want to place an icon? That’s where a player’s Dial comes in.
Each Dial begins with “Start” at the top. Each time a cube is NOT placed, it rotates 90°. The first rotation offers nothing but the second time this happens, a player may opt to gain a card. In that case, a player may draw 2 cards (from the blue and/or brown stacks or one each), keep one and discard the other OR draw 1 card from either discard pile. If that action is not taken and another drawn icon is not used, the Dial shifts again and now a player may gain an extra energy cube OR play a card (thereby making it “active”) from his/her hand. Once any of these actions are done, the Dial reverts back to its Start position.
Play continues until the Harbinger draws a Wild. Then all pulled tiles are collected, tossed back into the bag and the next player (to the left) becomes the new Harbinger. This continues until someone reaches 80 Victory Points and is declared the winner!
Graphic quality in Ecos is quite good. The land and water tiles are thick, the tree and mountain pieces are nicely molded plastic and the cardboard containers (that you have to put together) hold the myriad animal chits and energy cubes neatly in place. (A tray to hold the land and water tiles, however, would have been equally welcome.) Rules for animal placement are made easier since each animal token depicts which tiles they can be placed upon – a very good idea. The rules for tree and mountain placement take a little getting used to (desert tiles can hold 1 tree if a mountain is present, grasslands with a mountain can hold 2 trees etc.) but, gradually, this too makes sense. The leaf motif used on the cards is a good idea except it seems you are not counting leaves per se (they tend to blend together); it’s more like counting the POINTED TIPS of the leaves that matters. Since cards rotate, there is a natural temptation to pick them up and read their abilities. This, in turn, can lead to forgetting just which leaf was pointing up when you lifted the card! Be aware and be careful! (Speaking of careful… someone was a bit lax in checking the numbering on the scoring track. There are two “44”s on one side!)
The pre-set decks serve nicely to get you into the game quickly. Once you become familiar with its workings, devising a strategy towards victory makes drafting your starting hand a bit more satisfying. In either case, examining your starting deck to construct an engine that will power you to success makes choosing additional cards that dovetail neatly with your grand strategy easier. Haphazard fumbling will leave you far behind on the scoring track. Victory Points can be gotten surprisingly quickly if you manage to make your cards work for you but, if you opt for a quicker game, the rules allow you to end the contest at 60 VPs.
The “draw from the bag” device is one that has been used before, most recently in Augustus (re-released as Rise of Augustus) which was reviewed in the Summer 2013 GA Report. But in Augustus, where players were helpless if a drawn tile was valueless to them, Clair offers players a chance: use the icon (if possible) OR use the Dial. This virtually eliminates downtime and offers yet another decision to make where you have to carefully consider which choice will better benefit your strategy.
Ecos: First Continent is a departure of sorts from Clair’s previous designs. In both Mystic Vale (Summer 2016 GA Report) and Space Base (featured last issue), players have a limited hand size of cards and, in each case, develop their holdings accordingly. In Ecos, deck-building follows a more traditional approach as both your hand size (and, potentially, your active cards) will grow larger as the game goes on. But the game capitalizes on simultaneous play (as in Space Base) so everyone is involved on every turn. If you get the right tile draw, you may be able to activate card after card. This potential “ripple” effect can cause multiple shifts, catapulting you into a more powerful position (and causing havoc to the goals of your opponents)! These rapid upheavals as tiles may change (from water to land) or animals disappear (eaten by sharks etc.) call for a certain fluidity in your strategy and the constant action keeps all players engaged, trademarks of Clair’s previous designs that work extremely well here. – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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