Review: Rise of Tribes


Our prehistoric ancestors had it rough.  Mere survival was difficult, communication and socialization problematic, and the the most exciting advancements on the technological horizon were baskets and altars.  It’s within such hard and inauspicious environs that you must lead your tribe…not only to survive, but to prosper! It may be hard to eject your modern sensibilities and think like a primitive.  After all, for these simpletons Rock ‘n Roll is likely the method of building a crude structure. An Amazon Fire just destroys a rainforest. And the Village People are actually people that live in villages!  But get in their heads, you must, if you’re to rise above all the others.

How To Play

Orchestrating your people’s success in Rise of Tribes takes resourceful management, daring leadership and maybe even some fortuitous events.  You’ll harvest natural resources to build settlements and discover new technology, and grow your tribe to spread throughout the land and contest it’s domination against rival clans.

To achieve such primitive prominence you’ll secure victory points through maintaining villages, sacking those of your neighbors, learning new achievements, completing particular goals and via certain random events.  The design uses a unique dice-activated action selection in which you will collect and spend resources for villages and goals, while increasing your population and moving about the modular board to establish a presence in important terrain hexes and ideally majorities.  Be wary of who you share the land with, though. This is a hardscrabble world that can’t support an abundance. So if a population grows too large, conflict and attrition invariably ensue. And the old adage, “survival of the fittest” verily applies!

The scarcity begins!

Game play is welcomingly regimented into five strict, easy to follow and resolve steps.  Tribal leaders take turns executing each of the five phases, in order, before passing on the action to the next.

The first step merely consists of counting up the villages you own.  You score a point for each one. So far this whole clan ruler gig seems easy as picking turnips.

In step two you roll two dice.  Yep, still sounds like it’s good to be the chieftain!  Sometimes the result will require a little accounting, however.  The custom dice have two faces with sun icons, two with half-moons and two blank sides.  If you ever roll doubles – and yes, double blanks count – you must resolve an event before continuing with your turn.  Unless two events are still in effect, in which case, ignore the doubles. Events trigger differently and last for varying conditions.  Simply follow the text on the event tiles and you shouldn’t need any advisors with CPA credentials.

Choose wisely…

The meat of your decision-making responsibilities occurs in the third step in which you’ll choose two of four actions.  These are designated and outlined on the communal action board. Grow allows you to add meeples to hexes in which you already have a presence.  Move is very much what it sounds like. Gather lets you collect resources – the type of resource depends on which occupied hexes you trigger. With the fourth action, Lead, you can draw goal cards which are either technological advances requiring certain resources to complete, or objectives requiring you to meet a specific in-game criteria.

The unique aspect to this otherwise familiar process is the variable worth of the action based on which die you use to select it.  Each action is seeded with three dice in designated boxes above its title. To begin the game, they are sun, moon, blank, respectively, left to right.  When you choose an action, you take one of the results from the previous step, slide it into the leftmost box of the action table, and bump each die to the next box towards the right.  Of course, the rightmost die is knocked out. This is set aside for the next player.

The new trio of dice then determines the strength of your selected action.  Each option allows for a base value. For example, you can normally add three meeples during Grow, move four of them in a Move, collect two resources from two hexes during Gather, or draw two cards with Lead.  However, if there are two or more suns in the set associated with your action, you can add an additional meeple in Grow, move two more in Move, harvest in three hexes during Gather or grab a third card in Lead.  Conversely, if there are two or more moons in the dice set, then you get and/or do less in all of those actions, instead.

This hex ain’t big enough for the both of us. No, really, it’s not.

Step four takes care of overpopulation, otherwise known as resolving conflict.  If, as a result of any growth or movement, any hexes contain more than five total meeples comprising any combination of nations, then some are weeded out.  Either by famine, disease or war – or any combination thereof that you’d like to imagine. If this excess is only of people in your own tribe, well then silly and inefficient you, remove a number until only five remain.  Otherwise, every chieftain present in the locale removes a meeple at a 1:1 ratio until only one tribe remains. Unless of course that tribe still has more than five gathered, in which case you keep killing them off until reaching the limit.  Note that if all tribes are represented equally, the resulting conflict wipes out all civilizations there! Remember, primitive life equals hard life.

Finally you may reap some rewards in step five.  Here you can cash in resources to build a village (each tribe requires a slightly different combination of goods) or discover technology.  In addition to points, these advances give you ongoing boosts during future play. You may also announce that you’ve met the criteria for any objective cards in your hand – assuming that you have, of course.  Don’t worry. You can’t cheat, because everyone gets to verify and even these primitives aren’t that simple…

Play continues alternating in this manner with tribal leaders navigating the five steps.  As soon as one chieftain reaches fifteen victory points – whether from an action during their turn or counting up villages at the beginning – they are immediately victorious and the game ends.  Snuck up on you? Too bad! Good leaders pay attention to details!

Goals and tech and, uh, that’s all, oh my!

Meet the Flintstones?

One of the more difficult accomplishments in board games is designing 4X civilization building experiences that mimic the breadth of scope one can enjoy on the computer, while still proving playable on the tabletop.  The sheer sandbox nature the genre provides on a computer is impossible to recreate with cardboard. Accounting for the multitude variations and calculations is simply not viable. One strategy to circumvent that shortcoming is to simply condense its reach.  A title like Clash of Cultures grandly succeeds in that regard, yet Rise of Tribes is truncated even more, with a good mix of at least three of the X’s. Sorry eXploration…

So if you’re looking to introduce, or whet the appetite for, a quick-hitting 4X game, Brad Brooks’ third credited design delivers the genre’s crucial high points, sans it’s daylong commitment.  Yet it’s primitive topical focus seems more than just a time-saving choice, but also one about creating a thematically tense game that generates frequent interaction.  In order to keep apace of your neighbors you must establish a bit of lebensraum.  And while it’s easy enough to multiply and expand, sticking around is another matter due to the land’s scarcity – or more accurately your people’s lack of advanced knowledge to bend nature to their needs at this point in history.

Dice that go bump in the night.

Therefore both the conflict phase and population limits impart a key role in both gameplay and theme.  It mimics the prehistoric setting’s harsh parameters of survival within the design’s context of limited space and resource gathering.  Be it famine, disease or warfare, conflict is incessant. The more players, the more frequent, even though the board does shrink with fewer tribes, as well.  Not only is the ongoing interaction fitting, it’s also navigable, which reduces frustration and spite. As resolution is pure math, you can ensure success if the aggressor, while not being caught off-guard as a defender.  There is no luck. Just harsh reality. Still, it creates a rewarding tension than feeds gameplay. And since you can easily replace losses, there’s a repetition that may frustrate some players, but I find actually injects a motlied cyclical process.

The central mechanic that reinforces that cycle is the unique dice-activated action selection.  As the primary element of luck, it can truly be a cycle of rise and fall. Depending on the roll – and what’s already in the action boxes – some rounds will harvest a bountiful plenty.  In others you will scrape by as best you can until the next. Such is life, right? Some gamers may decry the inability to mitigate bad rolls in any manner, because the design provides no such elements.  But with only two dice per toss, a meager three distinct icons and just four basic actions, any form of manipulating results would only stall gameplay and negate its creative ebb and flow.

It’s not much, but your people will get somewhere. In a thousand years, or so!

Two other aspects of this dice allocation also inform play substantially.  One, it’s extremely smooth and intuitive. Additionally the action selection board and the player mats are helpful.  Everything is cleanly designed with clear text. Each action section has a boxed outline to place the evicted die after selecting that option, to avoid any possible confusion.  The game’s phases are delineated on each player’s board. It’s all just as streamlined as it is unique. At least I’m not aware of another design that utilizes a similar manner of dice activation.

Second, more than just ease of structure, it informs strategy in nuanced and subtle ways.  Selecting an action seems straightforward enough, especially given that there are only four non-repeatable options.  However, the dice may influence your decision from turn to turn, particularly if you don’t toss any sun icons. That could mean you’re stuck with an average return, or perhaps even the lesser allocation, which thwarts your immediate plan.  Not only that, but you’ll keep any eye on what dice you’re leaving in the till for opponents. Maybe seeding the box in a way that guarantees the next to pick it will reap the double sun bounty causes you to pause and rethink your selection?  The entire mechanism creates its own little angst. To be sure you’ll largely need to pursue what’s best for your own progress and situation. That doesn’t mean you’ll always settle for less when you don’t have to, nor ignore how your actions might possibly set up and feed other tribes.

The natives are invading! Wait, I thought WE were the natives?!

Indeed that issue can be glaring with one of the design’s quirkier characteristics: Kingmaking in 3- and 4-player sessions.  At its core, Rise of Tribes is a race game. The first to fifteen wins immediately, and victory’s progress is openly tracked in real time.  Before long it will become apparent who is ahead and who is not. Now thankfully, most games are close as in there isn’t one runaway leader.  However, there are usually a couple grinding nose-to-nose towards the finish. This leaves the one or two in their wake the unenviable opportunity to inevitably aid and/or hinder one of the leaders.  It could be in the form of setting up a favorable dice pool as mentioned above. It might result in destroying one of their villages in order to nab a victory point of their own. Or it could ensue from an imbalanced conflict that disproportionately advantages or disadvantages one of the leaders at the expense of another.  It’s an additional mix in calculating whether or not concentrating solely on your own game is greater than going after another.

The tension wrought from its claustrophobic space and racing aspect are further heightened by two more of the design’s key personalities.  First are the significance of villages. They score every round. Therefore they’re both critical to establish, yet also become frequent targets!  Defending your weak hardscrabble settlements isn’t necessarily an easy task, either, thanks to the 5-villager population limit. Loading it up for “defense” may extend its life, but isn’t a foolproof plan.  The problem is, there really are not other plans. You’ll certainly loose villages if everyone is playing right. They’re just too valuable. Not only is eradicating villages the primary way to prevent another from earning points, but you can win one for yourself in the process.  Yet another area that might frustrate some gamers, I enjoy the cyclical nature this aspect represents in the rise and fall of what would have been semi-sedentary communities. Going into the game understanding the design’s purposeful civ building brevity should eliminate those quibbles.

It’s a small world after all.

The second element, in spite of the open score track, is that the game can end unexpectedly!  Here is where the goal cards play a secret sneaky role. To be sure, there is a slow burn as players begin with nearly nothing and gradually grow, expand and exploit the land.  No one is off to the races. It does take some time (thankfully not excruciatingly so) to gather resources to build those point-producing villages and turn in the tech cards, which are one-time earners.  Where things become interesting is in the objective cards that can score in a hurry at three points per success. Everyone has the same personal deck of goals, but draw them at random. So you know what’s possible, but aren’t certain which of your competing tribes might have in hand.

Therefore, you’re constantly paying attention to how others are spreading about the land to meet those marks.  Are they trying to diversify their resources? Are they mustering for an attack against a village? Or are they attempting to claim a pattern of hexes to meet a card objective, only to spring it upon the table for a points boost?  One of my daughters was able to claim victory by completing two objectives on her turn for 6 points, which put her right at 15 and the immediate win. Sure, it took some luck. Not only did she have to draw the two cards to begin with, but the modular board that session just happened to be conveniently arrayed where she could pull them off together – sort of a two birds with one stone tactic.  That scenario will prove rare, but snatching victory with just a single three-point objective certainly isn’t – and can happen any given round in the late game!

Current events even impact the historical world.

Event cards are the other bit that inject some randominity and uncertainty.  Definitely in a fun and rewarding way. There will never be more than two in effect, but it’s enough to add variety to gameplay while further representing the precarious or fickle nature of early humanity.  Some may impose a further hardship. Others offer a boost to one or more tribes. Still others establish a communal goal or objective that is awarded to the first chieftain to meets its parameters. Of course, as the elder who triggers an event with doubles, you will both anticipate and fear the draw.  Events are wonderful elements seamlessly weaved into play without adding too much fiddliness that give the design a dynamic life both mechanically interesting and thematically appropriate.

Despite the Kingmaking element, the design is better suited to 3- and 4-player tilts.  While understandably more Chess-like and controllable, two-player sessions are unsatisfyingly low key for a civilization building game, to my mind.  Not to mention conflicts are decidedly less dynamic. More tribes enhance the constricted space, thus the drama. And I thoroughly recommend going straight to the “advanced” options.  These provide unique asymmetrical powers to individual tribes and toss in some varied terrain with special influences on gameplay. None of these additional rules are convoluted, nor do they add any time to session lengths.  Overall, the title is quite straightforward. I wouldn’t necessarily put it in the gateway category, primarily due to its interaction and deeper strategy. But it’s certainly not heavy and is ideal for the next step up, or a casual 4X romp.

Close game indeed!

So while certainly not a gateway game, Rise of Tribes is nonetheless simplistic for its category, perhaps an introduction to its specific genus.  It can prove quirky when it comes to a runaway leader and/or Kingmaking, combat is reduced to anticlimactic math, and genre veterans may long for a bit more variety.  Yet its clean structure is undeniably intuitive to grasp, while the dice-allocated action selection feels unique and compelling. The bottom line is as a truncated 4X design, less the exploration, Rise of Tribes is imminently playable while providing a fresh civilization building flavor in a satisfyingly rewarding time.


Breaking Games provided a copy of Rise of Tribes for this review.

Modern Stone Age Family

  • Rating 8.0
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Manages a concise civ building experience
Variable powers give tribes personality
Unique dice action-selection models whims of history
Well designed structure eases play
Events add great variety, uncertainty and fun goals/options


Significant gang up on the leader element
Which leads to losing party Kingmaking
Needs more variety in Goal cards

8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Good to know what this is about, I didn’t know it was a 3X-type game. Thanks. You could play this as a sort of campaign before a regular Civ game to determine starting positions. 🙂

  2. The reviewer seemed to imply that incomplete goal cards are secret, and so someone can sneak in a win because no one knows what they have in hand. That is not the case. There is no secret information, so one can often try to take steps to stop an opponent when it becomes obvious how they are trying to win.

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