Reviewed by Pevans
GENTES (Spielworxx/Tasty Minstrel Games, 1 to 4 players ages 12 and up, 90 minutes; $59.95)
I do like a civilisation-development game and Gentes designed by Stefan Risthaus has approached this theme in an interesting way. There is a map (centred on the Mediterranean, natch), but this only plays a minor part in the game. Instead, the action spaces on the board and the available “Civilization”’ cards (a row below the board) are the heart of the game. Playing “Civilization”’ cards into your tableau provides resources, bonuses and, of course, the points you need to win.
Players take an action not by placing worker pawns, but by taking an action tile (there are only so many for each action) and putting it on their ‘Time’ track. What’s more, most actions require that they add”‘Hourglass”’ tiles to their time track, too. And, once the track is full, they can’t do anything else for the rest of that round. You can immediately see that planning how best to use your limited time is crucial.
The Hourglass tiles are also one of the game’s neat touches. One side shows a single hourglass, the other shows two. If you need to put two hourglasses on your track, you can use a single tile showing two, or two tiles, each with a single hourglass. Sounds like an easy choice: the double only takes up one space. However, at the end of the round, single hourglass tiles are discarded, but doubles are turned over. Thus a double-hourglass tile may only occupy one space, but it does so for two rounds. A tricky decision already!
The Civilization cards are grouped into three ‘Eras’ and cards from the first era are laid out at the beginning (players get to draft two cards each as part of the set-up). After two rounds, a new era starts, the old cards go onto the discard pile and cards from the next group are laid out. However, players can still buy cards from the discard pile, which is a nice touch. As you’d expect, the cards get more powerful as the game goes on, with the third era cards emphasising victory points (I like to build the Pyramids – 18 points are very useful).
Interestingly, there’s no monetary cost on the Civilization cards (though there is a cost to taking the action of playing a card). There are, however, pre-requisites without which you can’t play the card. These include having certain people (more about these later) in your civilization and possibly other things. When you play a card, it may have immediate effects – such as scoring points – or a permanent bonus, such as income at the end of the round (note that there’s no automatic income for players – you need to find ways of generating it). However, my favourite cards are the ones that give you an action space. These let you take an action (once a round), without having to put an action tile on your time track – just hourglasses. I find this really useful, especially if you can get cards down early on.
As I’ve already mentioned people, let me say more about them. There are six different types, organised into three opposed pairs, such as Priest and Scholar. These are shown on each player’s own board (below their time track) with six spaces in a row between each pair. Markers then show how many of each type a player has, but the pairs can’t overlap. Thus, if you have six Priests, you have no Scholars. Players only start with a few people and there’s a useful bonus for filling your grid.
Gaining extra people can be done through the “Training” action. The cost of this is indicated by a row of tiles, one for each type: cheap at one end and more expensive at the other. It’s no surprise that when somebody trains people, the type/s they pick move to the expensive end of the row. This is another neat mechanism and, while the expensive cost is not prohibitive, it’s great when somebody else’s training moves the tiles you want to the cheap end – timing is important in many ways in this game.
The way you pay for taking an action is another ingenious mechanism. It needs a bit of thought at first, but you quickly get the hang of it – especially as the costs are shown on the board. For example, training one person at the cheap end costs just one coin. However, by paying four, you can train one at the far end of the row. Or both the first two. Or two of the first (or second) type. What’s more, the amount you spend is decided by the action tile you take. Take the tile with ‘4’ gold on it and you’re spending four regardless. I may want to train one cheap person, but I’m spending four, so I might as well train two.
This mechanism applies to the action of buying Civilisation cards, too. Here you can buy up to three at a time from the row – if you can afford it (and the action tile for this amount is available) – or up to two from the discard pile. It’s important to remember that the amount you spend depends on what’s on the action tile. It’s up to you whether you get full value for your money – and sometimes you just have to over-pay.
The action of playing cards is limited to one each time. There’s a useful bonus here. Cards in the first two eras have icons on them and you score points when the card you’ve just played matches a set of icons already in front of you. It’s a small incentive to collect cards of a particular type.
The other major action is placing a city (wooden pieces in players’ colours) on one of the sites depicted across the board. This produces immediate income (cash, points or cubes that permit special actions). Not just from the city placed, but also from the other cities the player has in the same region (the map is split into three regions). Aha: an incentive to get lots of cities into the same region. Except that, at the end of a round, players get income from one city in each region. Yes, there’s a counter-incentive to spread them around.
As an alternative, cities can be placed in the ‘Hometown’ area. There’s no income from this. Instead, each row is linked to a particular action. Having a city here allows you either a bonus or flexibility on how much you spend when you carry out that action. I mentioned above that training a single person may only cost one. However, if you take the ‘4’ action tile, you’re spending four regardless. The Hometown ability lets you spend exactly what you need to. It may not sound like much, but my experience says it’s really useful. The designer seems to think so too – doing this is limited to once a round.
There are two other, minor actions available to players. One is simply to take cash. This costs hourglasses according to how much you take. The second gives you the start player marker (and a couple of coins). The marker takes effect at the end of the round, making the owner the start player for the next round. If nobody takes the marker, the start player does not change. Being first to play gives you first choice of action tiles, so it’s clearly an advantage. On the other hand, the last player in the round can react to what others have done.
There’s some administration at the end of a round and, after every two rounds, the game moves into a new era. This means new Civilisation cards, but each player also gets to extend their time track by an extra space. This is really useful – as are the few buildings that let you do this during a round as well. There’s a hand limit on Civilisation cards at this point – something to bear in mind during the round.
After six rounds (three eras), the game ends. In another neat touch, players get half points for cards in hand that they meet the pre-requisites for. (It can be really annoying to miss out on playing a card in the last round, but at least you get some points for it.) Any cards in hand that can’t be played also score half points – negatively. So be careful what cards you have left. There are also penalty points for leftover hourglasses (otherwise placing two-hourglass tiles in the last round would be a no-brainer) and a few points for remaining cash and cubes. And that’s it: most points wins, of course.
Gentes is such a clever game. I’ve played it a few times now and am still exploring the options available. The Civilisation cards are certainly at the core, but you need the right people before you get the cards down. Hence you need to train people. And getting cities onto the board provides cash and resources to do everything else. (Though I’m leaning towards putting cities in the Hometown area.) Bottom line: you need to do everything and you need to do it better than everyone else. (There’s also a “deluxified” edition’ from Tasty Minstrel Games – completely unnecessary, as far as I’m concerned. When I first came across this word, I guessed it meant removing the luxury from something. But apparently TMG uses it to mean “deluxe”. Go figure.)
I am thrilled to find a civilisation-development game with such different (and ingenious) mechanisms. Okay, the purchase mechanism isn’t obvious, but you’ll understand it by the end of your first game. I am hooked. (Good job there’s a solitaire option at the moment!) I think of the designer, Stefan Risthaus, as producing neat little card games, but Gentes is on a different scale. That’s 10/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – – Pevans
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