It’s often tempting to heap praise on simple games. With so many games out there with 30 page rulebooks, interlocking systems, and 12 pounds of plastic; a simple game can be a refreshing change of pace. However, simplicity for its own sake is no more an inherent virtue than detailed miniatures and 7 decks of teeny cards. Complicated games can be elegant, but fall apart when the experience isn’t worth the bloat; simple games stumble when they have no tension or purpose. Ethnos from CMON is an easy game to pick up — and one with the tension and drama of a Minotaur-led horde of Halflings and Dwarfs rampaging through your neighborhood.
12 mythical races, from Giants to Halflings, populate the land of Ethnos. Each has its own special ability though only 6 races will be available in each game. The chosen race’s cards are shuffled together to form the Allies Deck and it is from here that you’ll form groups of warriors in a rather simple form of set collection. The primary system will be familiar to anyone who has played Ticket to Ride. Players can pick either a face-up card or draw blindly from the deck hoping to build sets of two different types: all the same color, or all the same race. These sets represent mercenary bands and are used to place control markers into the various colored provinces on the map.
A 1-card set is all you need to place your first token in a province, but from there it gets more expensive. You can build a set of any size but to place an additional token you’ll need to play increasingly larger sets of monsters. 2 or more cards for your second token, 3 or more for your third, and so on. These tokens are never removed so the battle for control is both ever more expensive yet self-balancing. It’s hard to run away with an area when you need 6 cards to put another token in Straton. You certainly can horde Orange cards in an attempt to push a province out of reach of your opponents but you’re giving up an opportunity to play in the 5 other provinces while you do it. It’s risky, but that is what makes Ethnos so freaking good.
There is risk in everything you do though it’s so subtle it’s almost hard to see it. It’s accomplished through a few very simple tweaks to the classic “draw from the public row” mechanic. The first is that the public row is not refilled when you draw from it. Once it’s empty, it’s time to draw blind off the top of the deck. The second is that the row is refilled when someone plays a set out of their hand and it’s refilled with all the cards they didn’t play. That’s right. All the cards you jealously gathered and hoarded are put back up for public grabbing as the mercenaries you didn’t send into battle become annoyed and abandon you.
These two simple changes lace every decision you make with the kind of risk that makes your knee bounce and your palms sweat all over the colorful yet slightly cheap cards (sleeves recommended). Reaching for that 5th or 6th card so you can make that power play into a province is tantalizing but making too many draws before you play your set means flooding the market with your leftovers and watching your opponent’s faces light up as you give them the Blue Merfolk or Green Minotaur they’ve been waiting for.
Sets don’t have to be built to place control markers. Just like Ticket to Ride, you’ll score for each band you’ve made at the end of the round based on their size. Unlike TTR, the cards sit in front of you until the end of the round meaning you may play a few small sets just to get the cards out of other player’s grasp.
There are a lot of little layers to consider to your set collection and I haven’t even gotten to the racial abilities. See, every set gets played with a card chosen to be the “leader.” The leader’s color determines which province you play into, and the race determines which powerful ability you get to use. Dwarves score bonus points at the end of the round while Wingedfolk ignore colors and place control markers anywhere. Skeletons boost your numbers for control tokens but crumble by the end of the age and disappear before end of round scoring. And Halflings do nothing but pad your numbers; they’re far too small to be effective leaders on their own.
There’s a lot to Ethnos and yet there isn’t a lot at all. It’s not just simple, it’s elegant and elegant games are worth heaping praise on because they get played over and over. The strategy is rich and will change every game, yet it’s immanently approachable. Ethnos is Blood Rage for the Ticket to Ride crowd-and everyone else-and I can’t get enough of it.
Featured Image Credits: Rafael Cordero
Image Credits: Rafael Cordero
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Raf Cordero writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. Chat with him on Twitter @captainraffi.