In a nutshell, Ethnos is a game about a mystical land (called… Ethnos) consisting of 6 different kingdoms. There are 12 tribes living in this land, and your goal is to use them to raid and control as many of the kingdoms as possible. I suspect the name of the game comes from “ethnic” + “-os” (as in “Westeros”). There are 12 tribes, although during the set up phase, you randomly draw 6 tribes to play with. Each creature has a different special ability, so this actually keeps the game fresh each time you play.
I have previously mentioned (once or twice) on this site what a big “Game of Thrones” fan I am. Well, I am an even bigger Tolkien nerd, which is probably why I instantly liked Ethnos. The art was done by John Howe, a renowned Tolkien artist who also worked as a conceptual designer on the LOTR film trilogy. 6 of the tribes also seem to be borrowed from Middle-earth: there are Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, Orcs, Trolls and Halflings. The game is divided into three “Ages”, which end when three dragons appear.
Well, This Is Orc-ward
The other 6 tribes are more Narnia than Middle-earth: there are Centaurs, Minotaurs, Merfolk, Giants, Wingfolk and Skeletons. Once you have drawn your 6 tribes for the game, you shuffle only those cards with your chosen races on them into a deck. Deal out one starter card to each player. Meanwhile you also have to shuffle (face down) the “glory tokens” before placing them in ascending order in their spaces next to each kingdom. All players choose a colour and receive the corresponding control markers.
There are 3 black cards with dragons on them. These get shuffled into the bottom half of the draw deck. Also, before beginning, take cards from the top of the draw pile equal to double the number of players and lay them face up next to the board. These cards form a set of “allies” which are available to draw on a person’s turn. If a person does not want to pick a card from the face up set, then they take their chances with one from the draw pile. Each player must pick up one card when it is their turn to play.
What are looking for when you collect cards? Generally, you look for matching cards: either the cards match because they are from the same tribe, or they are from the same kingdom. Each kingdom has a colour (different from the control marker colours) and there are two cards from each kingdom within each tribe. You need to play sets of cards (“bands”) to put down markers. When you play your first marker in a kingdom, you only need to play one card. For your second marker, play two cards, etc.
It’s Good For Your Elf
The control markers fit nicely on top of each other, so you will be building little towers in each kingdom. When you play a “band of allies” (a set of matching cards), place them in front of you and keep them until the end of the Age (round), as you will get points based on them. Importantly, when playing a band, you choose one card to be your band’s leader. The kingdom your leader is from is then the kingdom you can place a marker in. You also get to use the leader’s special ability, so choose it wisely!
Another thing is you cannot have more than 10 cards in your hand. You might keep drawing cards because you’re looking to collect 5 trolls or whatever, but once you’ve reached 10 cards, you have to play. Also, as you play a band of allies, you have to discard whatever cards are left in your hand (2 exceptions to this are if you use a Centaur or an Elf as your leader, then their special abilities alter this rule slightly). You discard cards face up so that other players can pick them, and you start again.
You keep playing in this way until the 3 dragon cards have been revealed from the draw pile. As soon as the third dragon appears, the Age ends and each player tallies up their scores. You score points for your “bands” and you also earn “glory” in each kingdom where you have the most markers. If there is a tie, divide the points up as far as is practicable (as long as neither player has a troll token). The 2nd and the 3rd Ages are played the same way. You leave the markers on the board throughout.
Calvin’s Verdict: Ethnos
To the casual observer, Ethnos may seem a bit unexciting. You may be imagining a Battle of Five Armies scenario happening on the board, and you may lament the lack of miniatures in this game. A bit of imagination is required; but then again, which board game does not ask this of its players? In fact, I think even people who are not really into fantasy can enjoy this game. I have really come to love Ethnos, and judging by the enthusiastic responses of my board game friends, I know I am not alone.
Once the game is in full swing, and you are battling other players for control of a kingdom, things can get quite heated. The dragon cards add some unpredictability as to when the Age will end. If you love strategy games, then you will love Ethnos. For instance, if you are playing with the Merfolk, Giant or Orc tribes, there are separate little game boards which enable you to earn bonus points at the end of an Age. You can play the long game, even while other players might be thinking more short-term.
I promise not to mention the boring design of the tokens, I promise. This game was a bit of a surprise to me. You see this serious fantastical box, open it up, see this big rules booklet and then…it’s simple. It’s a very simple game. But the beauty lies in the randomising of the races you play with. Haven’t mentioned the boring token design yet, so far so good. The game plays pretty quick and is easy to explain to newbies (just set the game up first to avoid confusing them) and the strategies used by various players varies wildly, which is really cool, it’s boring when there’s only one way to win. I do think the board could’ve done with a bit more design work but that’s a minor gripe. I enjoy this game when I play, and often want to play again straight after, which is a good sign. It’s easy enough to get into and there’s enough replayability for me to recommend this as a gateway game like Catan or TTR.
Game Publisher: Spaghetti Western Games/ CMON
Game Designer: Paolo Mori
Game Art: John Howe
Players: 2-6 players
Play time: 45 minutes – 1 hour (could be longer if first time playing it)