Monday, June 10, 2024

Board Game Top 100 (2024) Part 39 (20-19)

#20 Ethnos

Players compete to have the most influence among the various kingdoms that make up the fictional fantasy continent of Ethnos. They do this by gathering the support of the various fantasy creatures who live on the continent (set collection) and then sending these creatures to the kingdoms of Ethnos to establish a presence there (area control.)

At its core, Ethnos is about set collection. The various fantasy creatures that populate the continent of Ethnos are represented by cards. These cards are each tied to a specific kingdom on the continent as well. So, every card has two qualities, much as other playing cards have a suit and a value. Here instead of suit and value, it's creature and kingdom.

It's hard not to think of the creature depicted on a card as its value and the kingdom named on the card as its suit, but it's more like every card has two suits and no value. As you collect these cards in hand, you are trying to match sets of either creature or kingdom. It's the number of cards in a collected set that gives the set its value.

If you collect a set of all one kingdom, then your set will be made up of a variety of different creatures, and you will have your choice of which specific creature to place on top of the set. If you collect a set of all one creature, then your set will be made up of a variety of different kingdoms, and you will have your choice of which kingdom to place on top of the set.

The card that you place on the top of a set is important because it tells you two things. One: it tells you which kingdom you can place an influence marker in. You must place your marker in the kingdom on the board that matches the top card of the set that you just played. Two: it tells you what special power your set gives you at this moment.

The creatures in Ethnos all have special powers. These powers all manipulate or change the rules in some special way. For example: mermaids move you up a special mermaid track that grants you bonus points at the end of the game, and when you reach certain milestones on the track, you can place a marker out on the board in any kingdom that you want regardless of what is already there.

Oh, yes. "What is already there," is important. You can only place a marker into a kingdom if the size of the set that you just played is greater than the number of markers that you already have in that kingdom. This means you have to build larger and larger sets as the game progresses.

Ethnos has a dozen different creatures and you only play with half of them in any given game. This provides a lot of different powers and a lot of variability. The different combinations of creatures in Ethnos creates new strategies and surprises in every game, but these creatures don't provide the only surprise twist to the game play in Ethnos.

I left out one important rule. When you play a set, all other cards that you have in your hand are discarded into a face up draw pile. This means that any other set that you have started is now laying out there for everyone else to draw from and that every time that you play a set, your hand is empty and you have to start over from scratch.

This creates a lot of tension in the game as you struggle to decide just how long you hold onto cards before you pull the trigger and play your set. If you wait too long, you'll be giving great opportunities to your opponents. This tension creates just the right kind of excitement in the game because your opponents are all struggling with the same tough choice.

So, to summarize: in Ethnos, players draw a card and add it to their hand from either a face up draw pile or the face down deck in order to create sets. Sets are played to add markers to the shared board and score points. Sound familiar? This is the exact game play of Ticket to Ride, but Ethnos is so much better.

The fact that you discard your hand every time that you play a set, and the fact that every set played has a special power, and that these powers change from game to game … all of this escalates Ethnos and makes it an awesome replacement for Ticket to Ride (that you won't find in my top 100.) 

Ethnos is a masterpiece. Normally, area control games like this don't appeal to me, but Ethnos has a few clever tricks up its sleeve that elevates it and lands it in my top 20. 


#19 Cartographers

In Cartographers players each have a score sheet made up of a square grid, basically a piece of graph paper. Players draw map symbols into the squares on their paper. The symbols are simple. You don't have to be an artist to play this game. That's not the point. The point is to arrange the symbols in specific groupings. These symbols represent specific map features.

These groupings and how they are scored is determined by public objective cards that change with every game. There are 16 objective cards, but you only use 4 with each game. You label these cards with letters from A-D and you score two objective cards every round, scoring each card twice (AB, BC, CD, DA) during the four rounds of the game.

Every turn a card is flipped showing either two polygon shapes and one map feature, or two map features and one polygon shape. Players choose what of the options on the card that they are going to draw, and then they draw them onto their personal maps, keeping the public objectives in mind.

In addition to the cards showing shapes and features, there are special cards called ambush cards. When one of these is drawn, the shape drawn represents monsters that are invading your land and are worth negative points unless you are able to surround them with other map features, isolating them. The twist here is that you hand your map to an opponent, and they get to draw the invader shape.

Cartographers falls under the category of roll-and-write or flip-and-write games, but it feels different. The "canvas" you are working with here is wide open, and the invaders add an element of interaction that is not found in other games of this type. It's a puzzly polyomino game that just works.

I started out by saying that you didn't need to be able to draw, but the drawing is fun here, whether you consider yourself good at it or not. In every game of Cartographers that we have played, we have pulled out the colored pencils and given our maps the royal treatment. It's fun! It's kind of "coloring book" the game.

Also, as with many games in the "... and write" category, you can play with any number of players without impacting the game play, provided you have enough pencils. We took Cartographers to a family gathering, and played 10 people, and everyone had a blast!

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