Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Days of Wonder, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 40-80 minutes; $60)

There is something rather romantic – and exciting – about the lands and times of the Arabian Nights. Game designers have been well aware of that as many games have that time and locale as their setting. The latest game to mafivetribes1ake use of that venue comes from the imagination of Bruno Cathala: Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naquala.
Five Tribes is from Days of Wonder which means, as always, first class production values. The “board” is a set of 30 tiles placed to make a six by five grid. Each of these tiles has a Victory Point value awarded to the player who claims them. (Each also has a special action that will come into play.) Upon each of these tiles, three randomly selected meeples are placed. There are five colors of meeples, each color representing one of the five tribes of the game’s title.

Bordering the tile grid are the resource cards and the Djinns. There are 9 varieties of resource cards (as well as “slave” cards). The resource card deck is shuffled and a row of 9 cards revealed. The separate Djinn deck is also shuffled with three Djinn cards displayed.

Players choose their color and receive their player piece and matching camels (the number depending on the number of players). They also get 50 Gold Coins to start. And starting presents the first challenge that players will face in the game.

The turn order track has spaces valued from 0 (there are THREE of those spaces) up to a high of 18. A player moving his player piece here immediately pays the bank that specified amount. The next player may occupy a higher or lower space, paying the cost of the space. Since Gold also counts as Victory Points, bidding needs to be carefully considered. Usually, players are “locked in” to the space they chose; the exception is the 0 space. The first (or second) player claiming a 0 space may be pushed back by a subsequent player also bidding zero. So, it is conceivable that a player can bid 0 and still go second on a turn. With turn order determined, players make their moves.

fivetribes3Rather than a worker placement type of game, Five Tribes is a game of worker REMOVAL. On a turn, a player must take ALL meeples occupying ANY tile and then “seed” those workers onto adjacent tiles, dropping one meeple on each tile they traverse until dropping off their last meeple at the final tile. There are a few restrictions though. First, movement is always horizontal or vertical, never diagonal and “back and forth” movement is not permitted. Second, and the key consideration, is that the color of the last meeple dropped off MUST match the color of at least one of the meeples already on that final tile. Now, all meeples matching that last played piece are removed from the tile and the powers of that color meeple go into effect.

Yellow meeples are the Viziers. Each of these is worth 2 VPs at game’s end. In addition, a player will score another 10 VPs for EACH player who has less yellow meeples than he does.

White meeples represent the Elders, worth 1 VP each at game’s end but are more valuable than that. They also serve as a special “currency” and can be used to “recruit” and activate very valuable and powerful Djinns.

Money is very important in the game and Blue meeples (the “Builders”) generate additional funds. Green meeples (the “Merchants”) enable players to pick up valuable resource cards. Finally, there are the Assassins (red meeples) which can eliminate a yellow or white meeple of another player OR remove any one meeple from any tile within range. (Unlike the yellow and white meeples, green, blue and red meeples are not held. Once collected, they are returned to the bag and are out of play.)

White and yellow meeples collected are placed in front of the player, poised to be used or scored at the end of the game. Blue meeples generating income (the number of blue meeples held in hand multiplied by the number of tiles with VP totals in BLUE giving the number of Gold Coins collected), green meeples allowing the player to pick up a number of resource cards equal to the number of green meeples collected and red meeples, the assassins, eliminating one of another player’s yellow or white meeples OR eliminating a meeple of ANY color still on the board and within range (the number of red meeples equaling the reach, in tiles, of that death blow), once used, are returned to the bag and are out of play. .

fivetribes2Should a tile become empty as a result of a player’s move, then that player gets a reward: that tile (and its Victory Points, ranging from 4 to 15) is his and he places a camel of his color on it to show ownership. As the game continues, you may find that more meeples will be placed on claimed tiles as players move. That is allowed. However, ownership of a tile is final. Once a tile is yours, it stays yours.

While all tiles have a VP value, they also have one associated “action” from a menu of five that can prove to be even more valuable. Two possible actions are mandatory: placing a palm tree (adding 3 VPs to a tile’s worth) and placing a palace (adding 5VPs to a tile’s value) on the tile. Multiple palms trees and palaces may be placed on a single tile. The other three possible actions are completely optional: purchasing 1 of the first 3 resource cards (or 2 of the first 6) for 3 gold or 6 gold respectively and recruiting a Djinn for yourself.

tribes4Three Djinns are available for “recruitment” each turn. All require a player to spend 1 white meeple AND either a second white meeple or a slave resource card. Djinns bestow VPs on their owning player during end game scoring but they also have “powers” that can be very useful throughoutthe game (increasing the value of palm trees and palaces on a tile, claiming tiles, making you immune from assassin attacks, returning meeples removed to the bag to the board and more). Some Djinn abilities cost something (another white meeple or a slave card or both) to activate but, generally, if you afford the activation, do it!

During a turn, a player strapped for cash may sell off his resource cards. Resource cards pay off on a sliding scale, the more different resources you have in a series, the more it is worth. (For example, a single lowly resource card will only get you 1 Gold Coin. Have a complete run of all 9 different resources and you will pocket 60 GC for the set.) There is no limit to how many series you can amass but only 1 of each type of resource is allowed in a set. (Since Gold Coins are worth Victory Points, it is a good idea to only use this money generating mechanism as a last resort, amassing more and more different resource cards for cashing in at final scoring.) The slave resource card has no monetary value. It is, however, very valuable in aiding players in purchasing and/or activating Djinns, a quality that makes them well worth acquiring. (Some have expressed indignation over slaves being a component to game play, a non-issue in my opinion. Still, if such a thing bothers you, consider that you are “liberating” slaves by the playing of these cards.) After each player has gone, resource cards and Djinns are added to the array as necessary so each round starts with 9 resource cards and three Djinns available.

Play continues until either a player has placed his final camel on a claimed tile (at which point the round is completed) OR no legal movement of meeples is possible. Now we score.

Victory Points come from a variety of sources: Gold Coins, claimed tiles, white and yellow meeples, VP values of your Djinns, palm trees and palaces on your owned tiles and the values of resource sets. The player with the highest score wins!

Five Tribes uses a core Mancala-like mechanism of meeple movement to put a nice twist to the worker placement genre of gaming. Although Stefan Feld used a Mancala style of play in his award winning Trajan (Spring 2012 Gamers Alliance Report), Feld tends to enjoy very involved interactions in his “gamer’s games”. Cathala’s use of this technique is much more streamlined and, as a result, much more “friendly” to families and casual gamers. But that’s not to say that seasoned gamers won’t find a lot here to like. They will.

You know that one of five different actions will take place based on what meeples you claim. But which ones will you activate and when? Which meeples to claim depends on what you are trying to do. Want to complete runs of resources? Then concentrate on the green tribe. Impressed by that 10 point bonus for having more yellow pieces than the opposition? Then those are the pieces you need to collect! Want to prevent that? Then those red assassins become a very attractive option. (Even more so, if you can eliminate a single meeple on a tile and claim the tile and those VPs for your own.) The competition for Viziers and the carnage assassins can create keeps Five Tribes interactive as does turn order bidding.

The bidding for turn order is an excellent example of tough decision making too. When you bid Gold Coins for turn order, you are bidding Victory Points. You need to consider just how essential it is for you to go first (or second) to make sure you get to collect certain meeples and/or activate certain tiles. Perhaps it is better to save those GCs and pile up VPs for them when the dust settles. But you also need to assess the value of turn order to your opponents. You don’t want to squander VPs on an unnecessarily high bid but you may delight in forcing an opponent to use more Gold Coins than that player would have wanted.

This is a game with multiple paths to victory and we have found no “perfect” strategy yet in our multiple plays. The variable set up (from the random arrangement of tiles to the random distribution of meeples) keeps the game fresh and just different enough each time to keep you coming back for more. The “cherry on the top” is the first class play aids that make the learning curve negligible and include all of the Djinns and their special powers for easy reference.

Days of Wonder has classified this as a departure from recent releases. On the contrary, with its top notch production values and superior game play, Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala is a return to the kind of quality releases from DoW’s early days when games like Colosseum, Cleopatra and the Society of Architects (of which Cathala was co-designer), Shadows over Camelot and, of course, Ticket to Ride put them on the map. Five Tribes conjures up some serious gaming pleasure.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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