Review: Five Tribes

Designed by Bruno CathalaFive Tribes builds on a long tradition of German-style games that feature wooden meeples. Here, in a unique twist on the now-standard “worker placement” genre, the game begins with the meeples already in place – and players must cleverly maneuver them over the villages, markets, oasis and sacred places tiles that make up Naqala.  How, when, and where you dis-place these Five Tribes of Assassins, Elders, Builders, Merchants, and Viziers determine your victory or failure.

Five Tribes is for 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and older and takes approximately 40-80 minutes to play.

source:  Days of Wonder blog

Five Tribes Box ArtRobin’s Preconceptions.

  1. Selling out at Gen Con within a few minutes of each day, it was obviously a hot game. Often these games become a damp fuse, and this is Days of Wonder first foray into this type of game. Is there cause for concern about it being overhyped?
  1. Based on the review from Richard Ham (Rahdo Runs Through), I was concerned about the two player game, and the games overall staying power. Richard had also mentioned an issue he had had with the use of slaves in the game.
  1. I really enjoy the idea of using mancala as a way to move workers as seen with games such as Trajan and Theseus, and as used in a game that I have been working on. I hope the use of this mechanic works with this game.

Steve’s Preconceptions.

  1. I count four Days of Wonder games amongst my all-time favourites (Ticket to Ride, Memoir ’44, Mystery at the Abbey and Shadows Over Camelot) and therefore I am excited to be playing a new ‘big adventure’game from DoW.
  1. But it looks like a Euro worker placement.
  1. It reminds me distinctly of Istanbul. Can’t we just play that again instead?


Five Tribes Setup
Five Tribes Set Up
Image by Days of Wonder

Steve asks Robin.

Steve: Does the mancala mechanic work as well here as in Theseus, for example?

Robin: The mancala system in Five Tribes works whereby a player gathers all the meeple tribes from one tile location, and moving one tile at a time, deposits a tribesman on each tile they pass over. When the player places the last meeple, they remove all the meeples of a matching colour from the board. The player is then able to complete a series of actions (based on the tribe removed from the tile, and the type of tile itself). The mancala system within Five Tribes must adhere to 3 golden rules;

  • The last meeple placed MUST be from the same tribe as one already on the tile on which it ends
  • All movement is orthogonal
  • You may not immediately backtrack onto the same tile.

Like most mancala systems, placement of each tribesman can have an effect on both your opponent and your own future turns, in fact this is one of the few areas in this game where you can directly influence your opponent’s turn.

When learning the game, the positioning of each tribe’s placement whilst moving from tile to tile will not immediately be important to you, however with more plays, as you become a better and more strategic player, this placed will undoubtedly become more important.

The most important consideration about this calculation is where you will end up, and what colour meeple (tribe) is placed there. It is the core of the game, and will no doubt lead to people overthinking their turn. It is here where the so-called analysis paralysis of players who need to carefully consider their movement will become apparent.

There are many things that a player must actually weight up. Not only do they need to decide where to move from, how they will get there, where they will move to, as well as the consequences therein, but they will also need to learn how to optimise their strategy. To then be able to take the action of the tribesmen that were removed from the tile and the action of the tile itself, but also if you clear a tile completely of tribesmen you will be allowed to mark ownership of that tile by placing one of your camels on it (which in turn will score you points at game end).

At the start of the game, unless players are very lucky in the random layout of the board, there can be a sense of not knowing where to start, as there may not be an apparent strategy. That however, is one of the things I like about the game, there appears to be many routes a player can follow in order to become the Great Sultan. No one route will ever be “correct”, and in fact if anything is to be learnt from the initial play-through, it is that it is better to diversify amongst many different ways in which points can be scored. Underestimate nothing. This itself can be a lifesaver when you simply can’t decide what to do, sometimes it might just be a case of jumping in with both feet and doing something just to see if it pays off.

This game IS the mancala mechanic. It’s what gives the player something to think about, and what raises the game (which otherwise utilises basic set collection, area control, and bidding mechanics). One element of the mancala that I particularly enjoyed, was the fact that as long as you adhere to the three core movement rules, you don’t have to move in circles, instead tracing direct lines, or zigzagging from tile origin to tile destination.

Steve: Did you look at the yellow meeples in front of you and think ‘my army of viziers will help me win and become The Great Sultan’?

Robin: The game felt very thematic to me. This was greatly assisted by the beautifully crafted wooden components; camels, palm trees, and palaces, as well as the lovely looking artwork on the tiles, Djinn cards, even the more simplistic looking merchandise cards.

Above all else, the roles of the Tribe meeples undoubtedly help set the theme, and whilst the builders and viziers might not immediately be obvious, the roles of the elders praying to the Djinn, the merchants gathering their goods, or the assassins picking off other tribesmen one meeple at a time most certainly are.

That said I admit that during the first game I was more concerned with learning the game than telling a story. I have no doubt that in my next game, I will be focusing less on rules (which are extremely easy to grasp), and more on the gaming experience and the stories told therein.

One other thing I wanted to comment on was the layout of the tiles, with their starting 3 tribesmen per tile, I was worried that players adding palaces, oasis, and camels of their respective various colours, the board would become an overly cluttered multi-coloured mess as the game went on, but of course removing the tribesmen meant that the board clears itself, and the colours become fewer. At game end we found it helpful to remove any unused tribesmen from the tiles before scoring.

Steve: Did you feel you ever had a particular desire to bid high to go first?

Robin: It is worth noting here that we played a two-player game, other reviewers have preferred the game when playing with 3 or 4 players, and in some cases have had an issue with the turn order mechanic and how it works for 2. I don’t believe either of us experienced this same issue.

In order to establish turn order, Five Tribes utilises an interesting bidding mechanic. At the start of the game, the player components are randomly distributed onto the bid order board. Once there, players will in turn order, move their piece to one of the free spaces on the turn order track, and pay the cost of the respective spot, thereby “bidding”on that position.

The gamble is that in order to ensure a higher likelihood that you get to go first the more it will cost you to bid for that position, and ultimately, indirectly, in victory points, as money is worth victory points at the end of the game.

However you need not worry too much, as there are three positions that will actually not cost you a penny. Mind you, there is a potential non-monetary cost associated with these free spots. If you are the first (or second) to position your piece on a free spot, another player can move you down the “free”order line, and take your earlier position for free.

Player turns are then resolved in the order of highest bidder first. Once that player resolves their turn, they move their piece back to the first available spot on the bid order board, so by paying more, not only are you buying the ability to move first, but also bidding first in the next round.

I never felt under any major pressure to have to bid for a turn order, although I did swap positions a couple of times from 3rd & 4th turn to 2nd & 4th turn. This was more to mix things up a bit that because of any one particular strategy. It’s here where there may be an issue with the turn order structure, based on the fact that there is simply so much that a player can do early on in the game, and that any player who goes before you, can directly influence your ability to do what you may have originally planned. Therefore I wasn’t really bothered about making a substantial bid. Instead I simply applied an attitude of making the most of what I was left with.

The only time in the game where I would say I had a particular desire to play first, was in the very first round, and this was because there was a particularly tasty looking setup, whereby three tribesmen had been randomly distributed onto the same tile, and I could easily get there with a fourth tribesman in order to remove them, place a camel, take the tribe action, and then take the tile action.

This is not to say that in another game, I won’t have any desire to bid for first place again, on the contrary, such a decision would very much come down to the layout of the game at hand, and a very solid example of why a modular set-up is such a great thing, providing variety at the start of every game.

Robin asks Steve.

Robin: I know you were concerned about this game being a dry Euro. How did the game feel to you having played it?

Steve: So let me lay it out on the table (to use an appropriate phrase), Agricola killed my desire to play Euro worker placement games. Nearly. What I have matured to realize is that I prize a fun, thematic experience more than any given style. Something that draws me in and entertains me; something I can build a story around while I’m playing. Five Tribes provided me theme in spades. It spoke to the part of me that loves Tales of Arabian Nights and Lords of Waterdeep –the latter of which I appreciate is also a standard Euro in fancy duds. It never felt dry, perhaps in part because of DoW’s production values and incredible design. The other thing to say is that it isn’t strictly a worker placement game. I didn’t ever get the sense of frustration that made me want to make the Agricola board go airborne when my strategy was continuously blocked while desperately trying to feed my family. In Five Tribes I always felt there were meeples to mancala around the board and useful actions to take.   A brief pause for a definition: to mancala (verb), the act of moving in unison with others, simultaneously leaving a person at the last visited location. Often used when sharing a taxi. “Shall we mancala from the party? Drop me off at the fried chicken place.”

Robin: Days of Wonder produce some lovely looking games, and whilst some of them have been “one-hits wonders”, they also have a back catalogue of some wonderful game series (Ticket To Ride, Small World). What about this game exceeded your expectations?

Steve: Days of Wonder have rarely done anything wrong in my eyes. Memoir ’44 and Ticket to Ride were my introduction to gaming and I love them just as much today as back then. Shadows Over Camelot is just about the perfect game in my opinion. My little gaming group have played it more times than I care to remember! The fact is that I was fully expecting not to enjoy Five Tribes, because of the type of game I thought it going to be. So from a game play and enjoyment perspective, everything exceeded my expectations. More importantly, this is a step above DoW’s ‘non-franchise’big box games such as Colosseum and Cargo Noir –which perhaps have disappointed the market despite high production values. There is just more game here. Five Tribes does an incredible job with its components –pink camels, enough said. The art is immersive, the card and token quality is exactly what you’d expect from DoW and the meeples, palaces and palm trees feel substantial and meaningful.

Is there a franchise here? Maybe. The Arabian Nights provides such a huge archive of inspiration that it could very well spawn intriguing new tiles, actions, Djinn and coloured meeples. Cathala’s game, however, does not need it. This is not a ‘wait for the expansion to upgrade the game experience to what it should be’situation. The game deserves the buzz it received, which is great for DoW after a series of solid, if unspectacular, standalone offerings.  

Robin: The game is language independent, and is actually a very simple game to teach despite having a 13+age bracket, however the game could become very thinky. Do you believe this will be an issue, and if so what type of gamer would it appeal to?

Steve: Well it appealed to me after one play and that is some achievement given my initial misgivings about the game. The 13+age bracket seems fairly conservative, possibly based on the perceived complexity of the mancala mechanism. I definitely experienced ‘thinky’moments and was glad I took the rulebook’s advice about laying the meeple flat while planning moves around the tiles. I would actually be more concerned about playing this with an adult who suffers from AP than a 9 year old. I’m sure the most rewarding experience will include building action/card/elder combos and optimizing opportunities to cut off your opponents’best options. But just grabbing a handful of meeple and moving them round the board and seeing what you end with was still an enjoyable way to play the game. If that’s the best way for a child under 13 to handle it then I see no issue with playing this way.

Five Tribes definitely has a family friendly feel to it, aided by the gorgeous artwork and solid components. The icons on each tile and Djinn are clear, although I appreciated the comprehensive double-sided player mat. I knew exactly what turn we were on, whose go it was and what my options were. The ease of learning and following the rules will really allow for concentration on the mancala movement and associated strategy in future games. Oh yes, there will be many future games of Five Tribes!


Robin: I really enjoyed Five Tribes, and that wasn’t just because I won our initial game. I would be slightly concerned with playing with more than three players, specifically because of the downtime between turns. I feel that the way the game plays, there is enough time for players to work out one or two strategies for their next turn whilst other players take their turn, but of course they must come up with more than one strategy, as their plans can easily be torn asunder by another player placing one meeple (in passing) on the tile you were moving from, or by removing the tribesmen that you planned on taking for yourself next turn. I had no issue with the two-player game, and would happily play it that way every time. I really enjoyed the mancala mechanic. It certainly lives up to other mancala style games, and fits well into the style of this game (tribesmen moving from location to location). I don’t think the game surprised me in anyway, there was always plenty to do and think about, so I never felt stranded without an option (with the exception of one of the game-end initiations being unable to move any tribesmen). A very enjoyable game.

Steve: This review could have been so different, if my preconceptions had proven founded! This game has so much to offer besides the enjoyable mancala mechanic. The large selection of Djinn available will no doubt change the players’ strategies every game, as I found myself playing to the strengths of the Djinn under my control. There is just enough a player can do to mess around with an opponent’s strategy (moving meeples, clearing useful tiles, assassinating viziers) although I focused predominantly on playing my own game first. Add into the absorbing gameplay the lush artwork and components and this will certainly keep coming back to the table. More than Istanbul? Beforehand I was dubious about needing to learn yet another Euro game that seemed similar to Istanbul. My conclusion after our first game is that I would happily play either in the future, maybe Five Tribes more than Istanbul, in fact. It has that little sprinkling of Days of Wonder magic dust, I guess.

Robin’s Recommendations.

  • A game for gamer families ready to move to the next level from gateway games.
  • People who love games with Camels.
  • Anyone who enjoys the mancala system.

Steve’s Recommendations.

  • A compromise for Europhiles and Euro-sceptics around the same table.
  • Anyone who likes the Arabian Nights/Middle Eastern/marketplace theme.
  • Days of Wonder fans awaiting their return to top form.


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