Five Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala
Published by Days of Wonder - 2014
Designers: Bruno Cathala
Head Artist: Clement Masson
2 - 4 players ~ 1 - 1 and 1/2 hours
Review written by Luke Muench
It’s hard not to turn the corner of a BoardGameGeek page without seeing the name “Bruno Cathala” written reverently, and with good reason. A designer that’s helped create some of the most noteworthy games in the industry, including Shadows Over Camelot, 7 Wonders: Duel, Kingdomino, and, my personal favorite, Cyclades. So it goes without saying that Five Tribes was a title that immediately grabbed my attention; with such a talented man at the reins and a unique and colorful theme, it was hard not to get pulled into the experience, and it’s clear that I’m not the only one. As of writing, the title stands as the 48th highest ranked game of all time, and has spawned multiple expansions and promos.
Yet, as time has stumbled forward, I’ve found myself growing less and less interested in bringing it to the table, and when I do bother to bring it out, it ends with a certain frustration, a light irritation in the back of my head. It’s a thought that prods at my mind, asking, “Why did you ever like this game in the first place, and what about it irritates you so?” And while it’s a disappointing question to ask, I think it’s worth exploring.
It’s not unusual for modern games to iterate on the classics, but Five Tribes is unique in that is one of the few games to adapt the core concept of Mancala, whose mechanics have surprisingly gone untouched over the years. The main crux of each round is bidding for turn order with victory points, followed by players picking up a handful of meeples and procedurally dropping them, one at a time, on adjacent tiles, creating a breadcrumb path leading to your ultimate destination. Once you reach your final tile, you pick up the meeple you dropped and all matching meeples, a requirement being that at least one meeple of the same color must be on that last spot. Each color of meeple acts as a form of currency, interacting with the various systems and forming the strategic core of this “kitchen sink” style of game.
By that, I mean that are a bunch of loosely connected ways of getting points, each more or less sectioned off from one another:
The yellow meeples are viziers, which rewards the player who has the most at the end of the game. Each vizier is one victory point alone, but your collection provides an additional ten for each opponent who has less than you.
Elders, the white meeples, are used to pay for djinns, mystical entities who provide players with game-breaking abilities and beautiful art. They’re also worth two points each if you keep them, but that’s highly unlikely, as most djinn provide at least four points plus their ability at the cost of two meeples.
Green meeples are merchants, allowing you to scoop up and collect goods from a market. Successful set collection can result in a massive 72 points, encouraging you to get the rare cards while they’re available. You can also obtain snake charmers this way, acting as a currency for different card effects or obtaining djinn.
Blue meeples are builders, rewarding players by giving you some extra cash immediately. By multiplying the blue meeples you pick up by the number of blue spaces surrounding and including your tile, players can earn a lot of victory points, giving you more victory points to bid with as well.
Finally, assassins, the red meeples, allow you to kill meeples off the board or those that your opponents have collected, allowing you some control over the board state. More often than not, these will be used to claim territories.
Oh, that’s right, territories. Each tile represents a different location, each with their own victory points and abilities. When you end a turn on a specific tile, two things happen. Firstly, if you claimed the final meeple on that tile and it isn’t already claimed, you get to place one of your camels on that spot, earning that many points. Secondly, that tile provides the player with an ability. Some are mandatory, such as placing palm trees and buildings on that tile, earning the owner of the tile more victory points. Others are optional, such as buying a djinn or goods from the market. These tiles act as the only way of obtaining these resources, meaning they will often be fought over in some capacity.
The game ends when either a player runs out of camels or there are no more legal moves in the board, at which point the humongous pad is pulled from the box and points are arduously scored over the course of five minutes while everyone else cleans up. Whoever has the most points wins. Which, frankly, is a rather boring and anticlimactic way to end any experience, bringing a halt to all the action to do some lengthy arithmetic. It’s an aspect that wore on me over time with 7 Wonders as well, making the end results feel somewhat underwhelming.
Regardless, there is a lot going for Five Tribes. Each game feels different due to the djinns and market cards that appear, as well as the randomized board set-up, changing the game dramatically. There are a huge variety of ways to score, and it just feels like an enormously complex game.
Emphasis on “feels.”
See, for all its technicalities and the thoughtfully laid plans that you can lay out, Five Tribes is a game of randomness with a layer of thought lightly draped overtop. First, the bidding system presents itself as interesting and intense, as players are asked to spend precious victory points to vye for their place in the que. Yet, due to the enormous number of options in the early game, most players choose to bid zero coins if possible, as there’s almost no value to picking a certain move over someone else. I’ve seen players win solely from bidding nothing and saving up their money while selecting from what moves are leftover.
And even when you do bid for turn order, there’s the issue of the board state. Much like Potion Explosion, Five Tribes is a game in which every action you take affects the actions of others in an immediate way, resulting in pre-planning becoming moot. You may have the perfect move laid out, but unlike Cyclades, you get one bid, and if you’re outbid, you don’t get to set your bidding marker elsewhere. This causes players to be forced to take tediously long turns after their initial choice is completely stymied, either by someone else taking that same move or placing meeples in a way that makes it impossible.
Then there’s the issue of the meeples themselves. Beyond making this game impossible for the color-blind to play, the meeples are not made equal in the slightest. Blue and green meeples feel particularly weak due to a reliance on uncontrollable aspects of the board state, whereas Viziers (yellow meeples) can practically guaranteed 30+ points endgame if a player gets enough traction early on. Assassins can easily be exploited to snipe extra territories, but are rarely used otherwise. This leaves the elders, by far the meeple type that I’ve seen fought over the most, with the board being devoid of them within the first three rounds. I can’t say I’m surprised; the djinn look amazing and feel awesome when you start collected them in front of you… until you realize how little they do.
Most djinn do one of two things; give you a lot of points and a very situational action or give you a handful of points and a powerful action. There are a couple of exceptions, but they are few and far between, often interacting with a very specific mechanic in the game. This leaves many of the djinn feeling interchangeable, despite the beautiful art and emphasis the game puts on them. After the first few games, I would often ignore them for dominating territories, by far the most rewarding aspect of the game in my eyes.
By far, the most enjoyable part of Five Tribes is finding fun ways to manipulate the board, embracing the best parts of Mankala. Not only is it satisfying to make clever and seemingly powerful moves, but it also pushes the game forward, both in terms of scoring points and satisfying one of the endgame conditions.
That being said, every aspect of this game is miniscule. Five Tribes stands out through its visuals and theme, but to some gamers, the sheer quantity of systems and possibilities will be completely overwhelming. Due to this, most games I’ve played require that players take a ten minute sabbatical in order to take their turn, deciding between the seemingly infinite combinations of movement.
To combat this, Bruno Cathala has been quoted in the comments section of Shut Up and Sit Down to encourage players to just guess at what the best move is and have fun with it. And to some, that’s more than enough, but for me, that speaks to an experience that you don’t learn from. At the end of each game, I never feel like I obtained any insight or knowledge that I can carry over to a future playthrough. The set-up results in a randomness that makes me hesitate, and the inability to plan ahead makes each turn feel like it drags.
That being said, this game is fantastic in its presentation and functionality, and it has every right to be where it is. I know many people who gush about this game, because they aren’t looking to learn or improve game to game. They just want to have fun, and that’s perfectly okay.
Hilariously enough, TCbH’s founder Jack and I are very opposed on our thoughts on Cathala’s games. While I can’t stand Five Tribes any longer (a game he continues to adore), I have fallen in love with the depth and intelligence of Yamatai, a game that improves upon everything I’ve seen here and makes it a brain-burning delight of an experience (you can find Jack’s woefully misguided opinions on Yamatai here). And honestly, I think that speaks to Cathala versatility as a designer, capable of making games that appeal to all sorts of players.
Five Tribes, at its core, is a beer and pretzels game disguised behind a complicated veil. It presents a lot of smart and heady ideas, but encourages you to just take a risk and have fun with it. The expansions simply include more of the same, adding a new type of meeple and a bit more randomness, embracing the essence of what the game is. Much like a djinn, the game’s strategy is somewhat ethereal, a wisp of energy everyone is attempting to grasp before it slips back into a dirty old lamp, and drawing players into the world of Naqala again and again.
Who Should Get This Game: Those who value aesthetics, theme, and fun over the nitty gritty of a game’s strategy.
Who Shouldn’t Get This Game: Those looking for a deep, complex game that challenges them every time it hits the table.
Luke Muench is a regular contributor to The Cardboard Herald and host of the Budget Board Gamer youtube channel. You can also hear Luke's Champions of Midgard review as well as behind the scenes deliberations on our most recent episode of the TCbH Reviews podcast.