Tribes: Dawn of Humanity is a pared-down engine-building game with a civilization flair. Players are leaders of a tribe trying to develop new technologies that will increase their tribe’s size and status over the course of the game. And while Tribes is pared down both in terms of its mechanical underpinnings and in terms of its theme, there are still enough clever bits to recommend it as a solid light-to-midweight Euro game, if that’s your jam.
The main subject of interest in Tribes is the action-selection mechanism. On any given turn, players choose one of the actions from a track, and after the player performs that action, that action goes to the back of the line.
Actions include procreation (…ahem), which places new tribe members in your area; exploration, which places new land tiles in your area; movement, which allows your tribe members to occupy different land tiles in your area; and technology development, which is the main mechanism for scoring points. Each of the basic actions–procreation, exploration, and movement–are on two action tiles each: one with that action by itself, and the other showing a choice of that action or the development action. Where the engine building comes into play is that each of the basic actions is performed according to a player’s advancement on that track. At the start of the game, procreation produces one new tribe member, exploration yields one new land tile, and movement lets you move just one tribe member. But as the game progresses and players move up the tracks, their actions get more and more powerful. And how do they move up the tracks? By developing technology, of course!
You can probably almost hear Elton John singing “Circle of Life” at this point. And the interrelatedness of all the actions is one of Tribes’ greatest strengths. In order to make your movement actions count, you need tribe members to move and land tiles to move them to. It isn’t worth having lots of tribe members unless you have land where they can go and the ability to get them to those lands. And exploring new lands won’t make a difference without tribe members to reach them and the movement necessary to get there. And technology ties all of these actions together: In order to develop a technology, you have to have tribe members on a number of matching land tile symbols, which requires all three of the other actions.
Tribes is a very tightly designed game in this respect, and it is a race: each technology is worth a diminishing number of points the later you research it, and the technology in the game is a tech tree: you have to research level 1 before level 2 and level 2 before level 3. So players are constantly looking at their board, trying to discover little efficiencies that will allow them to blow past their rivals.
One way to do this is by skipping ahead on the technology trees. Each tribe receives one arrow at the start of the game, which lets them use their advancement on one track to jump ahead in another. I might want to jump ahead on another track either to get more points, or to avoid the hard work of developing prerequisites, or to get a particularly juicy bonus. The arrow is a great way to subvert the usual method of climbing the technology tree. But since each player only has one, players can’t undermine the entire game’s tightness. Rather, the arrow acts as one get-out-of-a-jam-free card. And these arrows are double-edged: while they might allow you to innovate beyond your typical capacity, your arrow remains on the board, allowing all other civilizations to follow in your footsteps.
Yet for all its tightness, Tribes is as smooth as a procreated tribe member’s bottom. It’s easy for new players to jump in and see how all of the actions are connected, and the way to earn points is straightforward.
I mentioned that the action track conveyor is the centerpiece of Tribes, and it’s time to return to that. When an action is chosen, it’s moved to the back of the line. The reason that matters is because you are limited in which actions you can choose. You can always choose the first one for free, but if you want to choose one further down the line, you have to put a shell on each action you skip, and if you choose an action that has already been skipped, you get the shells.
This pay-to-skip aspect of the action-track system isn’t really all that new. Games like Small World or Firenze before it, among others, have forced players to pay something to pass over less-desirable options in a moving conveyor of choices. But Tribes’ innovation comes in the currency that is paid. In Small World, players pay points; in Firenze, players pay resources that they need to build. In Tribes, there is an entirely separate currency–shells–that is only good for one thing: passing over tiles you don’t want.
In itself, this doesn’t sound all that interesting, and might even be less desirable. In a game that I described as “pared down,” is there really justification for complicating the game by adding another currency? But really, the shell system is fairly brilliant. Similar to the rats (by whatever name you call them) in any Stefan Feld game, shells force players to consider doing something that may not help them toward victory but may keep them from pain later on.
The obvious thing that could cause them pain is forcing them to take a worthless action because they don’t have shells to skip it. But Tribes increases the value of shells with events.
Events join the action track when certain technologies are researched. Each technology tile has four positions for player cubes, and above certain spots is a lightning bolt, signalling that an event will join the track. Most events target another, separate track that doesn’t help with any of the basic actions in the game–strength. The strength track has a single use: measuring who is affected by events and the level to which someone is affected.
Most events in the early game are positive. All players might be able to explore according to their strength, or procreate according to their strength, or move according to their strength. But there are other events that are less universally beneficial. Some events award the choosing player points if they are highest on the strength track; some events punish the choosing player if they are lowest on the strength track.
This is where the shells come in handy. Because events only trigger when they are chosen, and eventually they will make their way to the front of the action track. Sometimes you want to choose an event because it will benefit you more than everyone else, or maybe you can choose the event that awards points for the strongest tribe even if you aren’t the strongest just to keep another player’s score down. But those negative events can be devastating, and woe betide you if you are forced to choose them when you are the weakest.
These considerations add a welcome element of risk to the game. Again, shells only really matter if you want to take an action that isn’t first in the action track, so you could tempt fate and only take shells that are on actions you already want, trusting that the action you want will always be available when you need it. Similarly, why advance on the strength track if it’s only valuable situationally? But then you need to make sure you’re not in a position for situational devastation.
Again, Tribes is a very tightly designed game, and even though the shells and events system adds some complexity to the game, they keep the game from becoming a purely mechanical affair.
The way the technology trees are laid out in Tribes originally annoyed me–why would a breakthrough in jewelry making open up an avenue to making cheese? Because these technology tiles are randomly laid out (although in Age-appropriate rows), one technology development doesn’t necessarily logically lead to the next. However, this is one area where simulation is wisely sidestepped to create a more interesting game. Because the way the tech trees appear on the board is one of the main points of difference from game to game, which (in part) addresses what is likely to be a major criticism of the game: that there’s not a lot of variety.
In my first game, there was no technology that allowed us to advance on the strength track. What this meant was that all of us were equally the strongest and the weakest tribe, so we all had reason to avoid the bad events and claim the good ones. This kept the action track very competitive, and shells changed hands frequently. Of course, this also made climbing the individual action tracks, which offer points the higher you go, feasible, resulting in lots of potential end-game bonus points. In another game, the tracks were more evenly balanced, meaning the majority of points needed to be gained through technologies in-game; there weren’t a lot of end game scoring opportunities. Also, because strength was more distributed, claiming event tiles was a more tactical, in-the-moment decision. I have been surprised in my games how much the shifting technology tracks affect the game. I’m not sure that I would call this “replayability”–every game progresses in roughly the same way, even with the variety of these tracks–but I’m grateful for what variability there is.
Tribes’ smoothness is easily its greatest strength; it is also likely to be its greatest knock. All of the actions are very easily understood and executed, and there are just a few ways an engine can be developed, and for this reason it feels like the game is missing some bite.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t love games with cluttered rulebooks and lots of edge cases. However, it’s often the rough patches or the little niggly twists that give each game its individual character. High Society‘s straightforward auctioning would be nothing without its accompanying “but least money loses.” 7 Wonders‘ science symbols, which always raise eyebrows among new players (and which often still need to be calculated by experienced players), force interaction and “hate drafting” in a game that could otherwise become multiplayer solitaire. The random events in The Quacks of Quedlinburg, which cause the most confusion (why isn’t an FAQ included in the rulebook?!), also introduce drama and spontaneity into a game that could devolve into runaway leaders or constant explosions.
If Tribes has one weakness, it would be theme (which is abstract and doesn’t offer many handholds for players to grasp). But if it has two weaknesses, it would be theme and that the game is sanded down to industrial smoothness, the board-game equivalent of a “radio-ready” single that, while catchy and easy to sing along to, doesn’t offer the kind of emotional substance that feeds the soul. Tribes is a very clever game, and playing it is a fun experience. But upon reflection, it feels a little hollow. And because the variability from game to game is fairly low, it means that most games, even with small changes in what’s available, will play out in similar ways. A small expansion, I think, could infuse the game with new life, and I would welcome that, because the core of what’s here is worth building out.
The components in Tribes are very nice. The cardboard components are on thick stock, and the wooden pieces are well colored and well suited for the game. The game is very lightly illustrated, which is a bit of a bummer, and it does cause the theme to recede even farther into the background. Nevertheless, the game looks nice on the table, and the components don’t at all feel cheap. The box is much bigger than it needs to be–the central well of the game box is illustrative, holding all the components in roughly half the volume of the box–but that’s a fairly standard complaint nowadays and is only likely to bother people like me who lack the space to store big game boxes.
Tribes supports two to four players, and it works well at all counts. I enjoy the scramble for points in a four-player game the most, but the game functions well (and is scaled decently well) for two players–although especially with two, it feels even more like a race than at higher counts. The rulebook is very clear (with good examples), and I love that the game can be taught and played reliably within an hour.
Tribes: Dawn of Humanity is a clever action-selection game that offers lots of clever trade-offs in an attractive package and a short playtime. The theme is highly abstracted in favor of a smooth playing experience, and indeed, it does seem like maybe a little more of the game was left on the cutting room floor than I would prefer. But what remains in the Tribes box is still of interest and will definitely appeal to casual gamers and those who like short, punchy, clever Euro games that aren’t taxing but still offer good decisions.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Thames & Kosmos for providing us with a copy of Tribes: Dawn of Humanity for review.