/ Matt M. Casey / 4 am Mon, Oct 13 2014
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  • Five Tribes -- a twist on the worker placement game

    Five Tribes -- a twist on the worker placement game

    Worker displacement games will soon pack the shelves at your local tabletop game store. For that, you can thank Five Tribes’ designer Bruno Cathala. By Matt M. Casey

    Cathala’s Five Tribes inverts the popular worker placement game genre. In worker placement games, players use tokens (commonly called “workers”) to claim the exclusive right to perform a specific action.

    Five Tribes does the opposite. The game starts with three random worker tokens on each of 30 tiles. On their turn, the active player must move workers from an occupied tile onto nearby tiles in a manner that evokes Mancala<. They must also remove at least two workers of a single color from the last tile they move a worker onto. Then, the player takes an action associated with the removed workers’ color.

    From a high-level, Five Tribes is relatively simple: Move workers. Take workers off the board. Take an action. But, like the game Go, the actual gameplay quickly grows complex. Players must balance the potency of currently-available actions against their long-term strategy. In their interim moves, they also have to avoid creating potent arrangements that may benefit other players, which can happen when they move the wrong worker to the wrong tile.

    But sometimes a player may want to do exactly this. In Five Tribes, players bid for turn order, which means clever players will occasionally take two turns in a row, allowing them to exploit the potent situation they just created.

    This game could have been paralyzingly intellectual. The board starts with so much information openly available that players can try to predict several actions into the future. Left unchecked, this could lead to the kind of excessively slow play colloquially known as “analysis paralysis.”

    Except Cathala added two fringe elements to soften the game: trade goods and djinn. Players can buy djinn by landing on a space with a lamp icon and paying the price. Only three are available on any turn (they’re refreshed at the start of each turn), and each djinn comes with a strategy-bending ability. This, too, gives players an opportunity to be clever. By taking the right djinn at the right time, players can bolster their own strategy or undercut other players’.

    Trade goods and Djinn both come from a shuffled deck. Together, they create a limit to how far players can predict each others’ moves. They also give new players a chance — albeit slim — of remaining competitive with players more experienced with the game.

    While Five Tribes itself is excellent game that strikes a balance between simple rules and complex gameplay, it may be more important for the mechanic that it introduces. At present, no popular game uses a mechanic similar to Five Tribes’ worker displacement. And Cathala’s approach clearly doesn’t exhaust the medium.

    At the very least, another game designer could strip-out the few random elements and watch players twitch, but the mechanic has more potential than that. Designers are likely already experimenting with different worker abilities, different board arrangements and different supporting elements. While the possibilities may not be endless, they are open-ended enough to evoke Dominion.

    Dominion, the original deck-building game, debuted in 2008 and ignited a minor revolution in tabletop game design. Before Dominion, the idea of building a card deck as part of a game was unheard of. Once designer Donald X. Vaccarino introduced the idea, other designers seized on it. In 2011, according to data from BoardGameGeek.com, publishers released a total of 61 games that used some variation on deck-building mechanics. And many of those games were very well reviewed.

    It’s entirely possible that Five Tribes could incite a similar creative rush. Cathala’s newly-minted worker displacement genre offers a powerful and flexible framework in which designers can build a wide variety of experiences. Given it’s likely impact, gamers might be smart to play Five Tribes now; it will better prepare them for what comes next.

    Five Tribes ($53)

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