Larry Levy: Review of Gentes

  • Designer:  Stefan Risthaus
  • Publisher:  Spielworxx
  • Players:  2-4
  • Ages:  12+
  • Duration:  75-120 minutes
  • Times Played:  3

I have something of a love/hate relationship with the publisher Spielworxx.  On the plus side, they tend to release the reasonably heavy Eurogames that hit my sweet spot and their designs almost always include an interesting sounding mechanism.  On the negative side, though, their development isn’t always the best, their rules are frequently confusing, and the physical production of their games often manages to be both non-functional and unattractive at the same time.  So I find myself swearing off their titles from time to time, only to be lured in by the next game that sounds attractive.  Such was the case with Gentes.  So the question is, did the positives of this latest release overcome its negatives?

Rather than keep you in suspense, let me say the short answer is yes.  Gentes is an enjoyable game that packs quite a lot of decision-making into a reasonably short timeframe.  It won’t be winning any beauty contests, but the physical design is at least adequate.  It’s not a game I love, but I do like it and it’s one I can recommend to anybody looking for a punchy strategic title.

The designer is Stefan Risthaus, best known for creating Arkwright.  Gentes isn’t nearly as long and heavy as that monster.  Thematically, it’s a Civ-lite style game set in the Mediterranean during the time of Ancient Greece and Rome, although the gameplay is sufficiently abstract that I don’t think much of the theme seeps through.  So while there are some Civilization style trappings there, if theme is important to you, you may want to stay away.

So what kind of game is it?  Action selection is the best descriptor, although it actually feels a lot like a Worker Placement game, despite there not being any workers included.  There’s a central board, but much of it is dedicated to the spaces showing the different kinds of actions that can be taken.  The board also shows a map of the Mediterranean, with 18 building sites that can affect play.  Each player gets a player mat to allow them to track things their position.  There’s also a deck of 54 Civilization cards; getting these cards into play, both for the abilities they confer and their VP values, is the principal focus of the game.

Gentes lasts for 6 rounds, divided into 3 eras of two rounds apiece.  Rounds consist of each player taking a turn in clockwise order, continuing until every player has passed.  On a player’s turn, they select an action, which is usually accomplished by taking an Action Tile from the board.  Action tiles have two types of costs.  The first is money, paid in coins to the supply.  The second is time and in this game, time is decidedly not money.  Each tile shows from one to three hourglasses on it.  The player mats each show a time track with 7 spaces on it (the number of spaces will increase as the game goes on).  After carrying out the action, the player places the tile on the first open space on their time track.  They then take hourglass tiles equal to the number on the action tile and add those to spaces on their time track.  If there aren’t sufficient spaces on the track, the action can’t be taken.  So money may limit the type of actions you take, but the reason for passing during a round will be running out of time.

Hourglass tiles are two-sided, with one side showing one hourglass and the other side showing two.  You can use either side when fulfilling your time requirement; for example, if an action tile shows three hourglasses, you could add 3 one-hourglass tiles to your track or 2 tiles, one showing two hourglasses and the other showing one.  Your decision of how to do your hourglasses comes down to “pay me now or pay me later”.  Obviously, tiles showing two hourglasses take up less space on the track this round.  However, at the end of the round, each player discards all the action tiles, as well as all of the one-hourglass tiles they took, but they have to flip each of their two-hourglass tiles (to their one-hourglass side) and keep them on the track, meaning they’ll have less time available in the next round.  This is a very nice mechanic, giving the players an interesting decision with each action in an easily implemented and straightforward way.

There are four main actions available to the players.  At the beginning of each round, specific tiles for each of these actions are placed on the central board.  The money and time costs for these vary and since a player takes a tile in order to carry out an action, they’re available on a first come, first serve basis.  The tiles are also set up so that players can sometimes choose the kind of cost they want to incur.  For example, the same action can either be taken for 5 coins and 1 hourglass, or for 0 coins and 2 hourglasses.  This is another nice design touch.

So what are these actions?  The first allows players to take Civilization cards into their hand.  There is a display of 8 cards and the cards which can be chosen depends on the number of coins spent.  Higher costs give the player more cards to choose from and can even allow them to take multiple cards.  For example, if 6 coins are spent, the player can either take one of the first 6 cards, two of the first 4 cards, or all of the first 3 cards.

Each Civ card shows its requirements to be put in play and the benefits when they are played.  The main requirement is for the player to have certain numbers of people in their employ.  There are six kinds of people in the game:  merchants, soldiers, priests, and the like.  Players track their people in a display on their player mat using cubes.  There are two types on each line of the display (for example, merchants and soldiers are on the same line), which means that the total number of those two types of people cannot exceed 6.  So if you have 4 merchants, you can’t have more than 2 soldiers.  To help with these requirements, the second kind of action allows you to hire people.  As with cards, the types of people you can choose from depends on the number of coins you spend and if you spend enough, you can even add two people to your display.

The third type of action allows you to play a Civ card from your hand to the table.  Just pay the cost indicated on the Action Tile, select a card from your hand, make sure you meet the requirements, and then play it.

Civ cards can give you VPs, immediate benefits, and/or abilities.  There’s a nice variety of abilities and some of them can definitely shape your strategy.  All of the cards from the first two eras show one or two symbols (out of a total of four) and if the just played card shares a symbol with your previously played cards, you score 1 VP for each matching card.  This can represent quite a boon if you specialize in a symbol.

The fourth type of action is to build a city.  This action tends to be the most expensive in terms of hourglasses, what with Rome not being built in a day and all, but it’s usually worth it.  Cities, which come in three different colors, can only be built once.  Some cities give you coins, others VPs, and still others give you cubes which make it easier to fulfill the people requirements of Civ cards.  When you build a city, you gain the benefit for all your cities of that color.  Additionally, at the end of each round, you can activate one city in each color.  So there are advantages for both specialization and spreading yourself out when choosing your building sites.

Rather than building one of the cities on the map, you can use the building action to construct a “hometown”.  There are nine of these and each is associated with a couple of benefits.  Once per round, you can activate one of your hometowns to take one of its benefits.  Some of these enhance other actions, while others are actions you can take without resorting to Action Tiles (which is nice, since it’s common for those to run out near the end of a round for certain action types).  Based on your strategy, it might make more sense to build on the map or grabbing a hometown might be more beneficial.

There are some other things going on, but those are the principal ones.  After six rounds, you subtract points for each hourglass remaining on your display (so be judicious when taking those double hourglass tiles during the last round!).  Then the player with the most VPs wins and declares themselves the dominant force of the ancient world, until the Visigoths come and slaughter everyone.

So as I mentioned earlier, I like the game.  The decisions are interesting and the action selection system—particularly the time mechanic—works quite well.  The Action Tiles are also a success, as there are enough of them to usually keep you from being shut out of an action (an aspect of Worker Placement games that many gamers dislike), but their limited number means that you’ll often have to take an overly expensive one (or not have any available at all).  It’s a pretty meaty game, but once the players get into the flow of things, it plays quite quickly, which is always a nice combination in my book.  There are multiple approaches to victory and because the order in which the Civ cards come out varies, the replayability is good as well.  It’s probably best with the full complement of 4 players, but it plays well with 3 and even the 2-player game is decent.  I don’t consider it one of the top games from last year, but it’s still a title I’ll happily play.

The theme is pretty thin.  There’s a whiff of a Civilization game (the map helps), but not much more.  It feels more like you’re acquiring and playing mere cards, rather than making actual history-altering advances.  There’s not much to tie them to the theme and the VP symbols are just squiggles on a card, rather than something truly thematic.  Even the different kinds of people you hire are usually classified by their color, rather than a meaningful profession.  It’s not a major issue with me, but it does feel as if this could have been a more “proper” Civ-lite game with just a bit more finesse.

My issues with Spielworxx’s production values aren’t entirely resolved with this title.  Frankly, I find their artistic style to be ugly, which is obviously a matter of taste, as some Geek users consider it to be quite attractive.  There are still a few functionality issues, but it’s better than previous designs.  In fact, the cards are laid out quite nicely and squeeze a good deal of information into an easily perceived form.  The rules are also better than earlier titles, but I’m afraid that’s damning them with faint praise.  It was still a little hard slogging through them without the game in front of me.  In fact, both the game owner and I were baffled by the hometown city rules and needed a response by the designer to a question on the Geek to figure out what the hell was intended.  So some improvement, but still enough concerns to make me wary about future games.

One reason I haven’t embraced the game more is that I don’t seem to be very good at it.  The strategies I’ve employed don’t seem deep enough and are only good for a comfortable third place.  That’s probably a point in its favor, as a more nuanced approach seems to be necessary, but while I don’t need to win games to enjoy them, in this case, I don’t seem to be getting as much out of the gameplay as I’d like.  Perhaps a more significant negative is that the game’s owner, who I thought was very enthusiastic about the title, traded it away.  When I asked him why, he said it was starting to feel samey after about 10 games, so it felt played out to him.  That’s just one data point and getting 10 games out of a design isn’t a bad investment, but it might be an indication that, with a static board and a non-varying card deck, the game might have a limited lifespan.

So, in summary, I view Gentes as a good, but not great game and another feather in the cap for designer Risthaus.  If you’re looking for a Civ title with a strong, immersive theme, this is probably not going to be to your liking.  But if you want a meaty, low luck, and strategic design that can be played without expending too many hourglasses, this is well worth considering.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Lorna: I thought the rules were better than most Spielworxx games but there were still a few spots of confusion.

Mitchell: I played Gentes as a two player match four times. It’s reasonably good. The time action element is very interesting and it adds some spice to the card selection process. However, we didn’t find Gentes particularly dynamic or exciting. It plays quickly once you get the hang of it, but nothing about it really stand out.

Alan How: The first aspect about a game from Spielworxx is obtaining it as the print run is fairly limited; the second is whether it’s one of their great games or good. Gentes is good not great. I found the two player version disappointing as the competition for locations in the board is not as tight with 4 players so I only played once with two players. For me, 4 players is the sweet spot and not much slower than the 3 player version. However, I can see why Larry’s colleague traded it away. The decisions are similar in each game and for me most of the joy in the game had finished for me after 5 or so games. I’d play again but not seek the game out – cult of the new or the unplayed wins out. But the first few games were interesting and my two game groups enjoyed the game considerably. Graphically the game is functional but at least it is easy to interpret whereas I have not found rules issues. I’d recommend it if you are a mid weight gamer but once you discover the routes to victory it will only see light of day infrequently.

Doug G.: Shelley and I have LOVED this Spielworxx game from play #1 (and we were playing it with a rules mix up that made the training of workers even more difficult – see Episode 597 of our podcast – – for the mix up).  The choosing of actions (and the order in which you make those choices) is wonderfully angst-producing. I’m not sure I’d want to play this with its full 4-player contingent, but as a 2-player game with some heft, it will has earned its place on our shelf!

Craig M.: After four plays good not great is an apt description for Gentes. If someone trots this out at game night a year from now, I’ll play it, but it has already come and gone from my collection. I was very surprised to see Gentes get picked up by TMG for the deluxe treatment. I think buyers will end up being disappointed in the long run with the game and that the high end production will fail to hide gameplay that feels just above average.

Jonathan F.: I’ve only played twice and then thought about it for a while. I think the problem is I went in thinking it was a Civ game and played in under 120 aka a grail design.  For us, it was neither.  Yes, you gain a bit of time between the first round and the last round, and yes, cards in the first age are more infrastructure and cards in the last age are more vps, but it does not feel like a Civ game.  In addition, each play was well over 2 hours, not including teaching.  

It is a very well constructed game and with 4p, you did feel the tension of wanting several actions while not being sure which would be gone next round.  Several players liked the ability to plan ahead, as other than unintentional meddling – there are no negative player interactions unless you really look at all boards and swipe cards you think others might want, but the game is pretty punitive about taking cards you don’t plan to build.  I like the time track element, but when you step away, it is basically deferring an action by taking two singles vs. taking an earlier action, which might have more value because it is in an earlier round.  I feel pretty bad saying I was disappointed because my expectations were so high, but it is worth playing once to see if it is your thing – if you do, check out the rules for the new deluxe edition, as they clarify many points left unclear in the original rules (and the game itself is unchanged).

Dale Y: (3 plays)  I really liked this one from the first play, especially the decision making around the hourglasses – do I want to use a double hourglass now but give up an action next turn – OR just take the singles here…   I also enjoyed the ying-yang movement of the six different citizens, and trying to get them to the places that you want them to be in order to play your civ cards.  (This is the same part of the game that I like about Biosphere too – also from SPIEL 2017).  The game though feels a little same-y after my third play with the static setup.   That being said, I certainly don’t feel like I have found (or have seen anyone else find) a devastatingly unbeatable strategy yet.   The rules are a bit confusing, and like Larry, I had to consult BGG as well as email spielworxx directly to get clarifications on a few things that I just simply couldn’t figure out from my reading of the rules.  I’ve never quite determined whether the Spielboxx rules issues are due to translation or if they are just as janky auf Deutsch as well (mostly because I can’t read the German, so I’ll likely never know).   This is a game that I’d be happy to play again (and I will likely play the TMG version when it is available), but maybe not one that I’d bring to the table myself.

Joe Huber (1 play): I saw glimpses of the “good” in the game during the first half – but by the second half of the game I was ready for it to be over.  The theme completely failed to engage – the actions (and action) felt entirely abstract.  And the fact that there’s no differentiation between being the second and the fourth to accomplish a goal made those feel anti-climatic.  Even the time mechanism – while initially feeling interesting – devolved to a parity check.  This definitely isn’t a horrible game – but it’s also not one I feel any need – nor much willingness – to play again.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Doug G.
  • I like it. Larry, Dale Y, Lorna, Mitchell, Alan H
  • Neutral.  Craig M, James Nathan, Jonathan F.
  • Not for me. Joe H.
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