The fictional locale of Ethnos is divided up into six different territories. To start, players randomly pick 6 of the 12 fantasy races that come with the game and form a deck. Players are then given a helping of tokens in their preferred color and are tasked to do one of two things on their turn: they can draw a card from the deck / “face-up market” or they can play a band (set) of cards that are either all the same color or contain all the same race of creature. Choosing one card from your band as your leader, allows you to activate a race-specific power and you then get to place one of your tokens on an area of the map that corresponds with the color of your leader card. It’s kind of like Ticket to Ride, but instead of collecting train cards, you’re collecting fantasy creature cards and, instead of placing trains on a board, you’re placing tokens to try to control certain areas of the map. You will gain points for controlling these areas at the end of a round, or Age as they’re called in the game, as well as for points corresponding with the size of your bands that you played throughout the Age. What determines the end of an Age you ask? Why dragons of course! There are three dragon cards shuffled into the bottom half of the deck and once the third is revealed, it’s an immediate end to the Age. This simple little mechanic provides for some real suspense as players push their luck in an effort to get another band played before the third dragon strikes.
The game provides a really neat twist on the set collecting and card drafting that can be seen in a game like Ticket to Ride. In Ethnos, you cannot horde your cards in an effort to get the right bands and then play them whenever you feel like it. If you have 10 cards in your hand, you have to play a band on your next turn and the cards that you do not use in that band have to be discarded to the “face-up market.” As a player, you may have a band ready to be played, but you notice that your opponent is nearing their ten card limit and you decide to hold off playing your band to see what goodies your opponent will discard. This method of discarding is a clever change that really provides some extra choices and interesting moments.
Ticket to Ride is one of my gateway games into the hobby of modern board gaming and is still one of my family’s favorites to play. Ethnos scratches a very similar itch but provides a few more interesting decisions as well as some variability from game to game. It’s simple to teach and the different combinations of fantasy races that can end up in the deck drastically change the game and forces players to change up their strategies. This cannot be understated. Ethnos shines because of the replay-ability factor each of the twelve fantasy races provides with their rule breaking powers. For example, playing an Elf as a leader of your band, will allow you to hold onto cards (instead of discarding them) after playing a band, while a Wizard will allow you to draw a new card for each one you have to discard. Some of the others even introduce new components. The Orcs, for example, require each player to have an “Orc board” in front of them and each time they place a token on the map with an Orc leading a band, they get to place a token on their “Orc Board.” These tokens can be cashed out for points at the end of the Age or saved over multiple Ages in attempt to score more points. And that’s just three of the twelve fantasy races that are included with the game!
It’s also worth mentioning that the theme of this game doesn’t deter non-fantasy loving, casual gamers. While I feel like dragons and trolls can only make every board game more interesting, it’s just not everyones cup of tea. I’ll admit, when one of my friends saw the box art (as beautiful as it is), they visibly cringed, but by the time we had finished the game, they were ready to play again immediately even though it was after midnight!
Ethnos is a fantastic game! It can be played in under an hour (twice if you’re playing with two or three players), it’s easy to teach and provides variability from game to game. While the race specific powers, coupled with the fantasy theme, might deter some people, I would argue that Ethnos would make a fine introductory game to new players. Ethnos can hold its own on any game shelf as a game that gets people thinking without leaving them overwhelmed and could comfortably sit between the popular gateway games Ticket to Ride and Small World.