Dale Yu – Review of Ecos: First Continent

Ecos: First Continent

  • Designer: John D Clair
  • Publisher: AEG
  • Players: 2-6
  • Ages: 14+
  • Time: 45-60 minutes
  • Times played – 3 with review copy provided by AEG

In Ecos: First Continent – the game asks the question: “What if the formation of Earth had gone differently?” Players are forces of nature molding the planet, but with competing visions of its grandeur. You have the chance to create a part of the world, similar but different to the one we know. Which landscapes, habitats, and species thrive will be up to you. Gameplay in Ecos is simultaneous. Each round, one player reveals element tokens from the element bag, giving all players the opportunity to complete a card from their tableau and shape the continent to their own purpose. Elements that cannot be used can be converted into energy cubes or additional cards in hand or they can be added to your tableau to give you greater options as the game evolves.  Mountain ranges, jungle, rivers, seas, islands and savanna, each with their own fauna, all lie within the scope of the players’ options.

Each player starts the game with 7 cubes and the Dial token in their chosen color.  An initial landmass of 4 tiles is made in the center of the table, and the rest of the components are placed where all players can reach them – extra land and water tiles, two organizers of animal tokens, Mountain and Forest tokens, and energy cubes.  Finally, the 40 Element tokens are placed in a drawstring bag and mixed up. Each player also starts with a hand of 12 cards, 3 of which are placed face up on the table to serve as your starting cards. The game recommends specific decks/hands for beginners, and also includes other ways to setup including a draft mechanism.  The cards not in starting hands are separated by back (blue or brown) and shuffled into two decks.

The game is played simultaneously – though this does not mean without any constraints.  The game is played in a number of rounds; until at least one player has at least 80 points at the end of any round.  Within each round, there are a number of turns, each following a simple pattern:

The start player draws an element tile from the bag and shows it to all players.

Every player now either places a cube onto one of their cards on a space with the matching icon OR they rotate their Dial token 90 degrees clockwise.  Rotating your Dial Token is the way to allow yourself to draw new cards into your hand (after 2 rotations) or to play a card from your hand onto the table (after 3 rotations).   There will be plenty of times when you will choose not to play a cube onto one of your cards in order to force your Dial token to rotate to get to these gain/play card actions.

the dial token, close up and blurry (of course)

Now, any cards which have all of their spaces occupied by cubes are completed, the cubes are taken off the card and the effect of that card is resolved.  These are done in clockwise order from the start player. When a card is activated, look at the number of leaves currently on the top side of the card; if it is more than one, be sure to rotate the card 90 degrees after using it so that there is one less leaf than before activation.  If there was only one leaf there, discard the action card after using it. Also, if you’re not the first person to activate a card in the round, when your turn comes around, you can choose to take your cube off of it and rotate your Dial token instead (because sometimes previously played cards will change the effect of your own action or possibly nerf your action completely). 

Examples of card actions:

·         Place a specific type of land/water tile to the map

·         Add a Mountain or Forest marker to an appropriate landscape tile

·         Place an animal token on a landscape tile (that does not already have one) – All animal tiles tell you where they can be placed validly

·         Move an animal token – they can now be placed on tile types that do not match where they must start

·         Gain an element – this is a virtual thing; you place a cube on a card icon that matches OR turn your Dial token 90 degrees.  Cards can never put cubes on themselves.

·         Gain a cube – take a cube from the supply and add it to your pool of available cubes

·         Gain victory points

Repeat the process – that is, unless the start player drew out a Wild Element token.  In that case, after this turn, all of the drawn elements are returned to the bag, the game is paused to see if it is over, and if it is not, the bag is passed to the left and the next player becomes the start player for the next round.

Again, the game ends at the end of a round when at least one player has 80 points or more.  There is a fun sudden death tie-breaker – if scores are tied (greater than 80) at the end of the round, the Element bag is reset, passed to the next player, and the next round is exactly one Element tile – well, mostly because it’s a guarantee that someone will have more than 80 points.  Play this one element tile, and if one player has the highest score to themselves, the game is over. If not, repeat the tiebreaker. And interestingly, the tiebreaker is not just for the people tied; everyone gets to play, and it is possible for the winner to be a player who was not involved in the original tie!

My thoughts on the game

Ecos was a game that was very high on my anticipated list from GenCon 2019.  AEG has had a number of other designs from Clair that I liked (Mystic Vale, Space Base), and I was really excited about the idea of a “turnless” game.  I should start here and say that I think that the statement that this is turnless or has simultaneous play is a bit misleading. In the end, the format is really just like Era where there are some phases where players can play simultaneously, but there are other phases where you end up going in turn order (i.e. resolving cards) – so in the end, you’re still waiting around for the slow person to figure out what they want to do with their card.

That being said, the debate over turnless or not shouldn’t matter because the game is quite enjoyable, and even with some AP-prone people, it manages to move along at a decent pace.  If you’re playing the game for the first time, I might recommend playing the first few turns in order just to make sure that everyone understands their options and rotate their cards, etc.  But, once everyone has a hang of things, the first part of each turn can be played quickly and simultaneously. Be sure to yell out “Ecos” if you have a finished card so that everyone else knows who needs to resolve a card that round.

We have mostly stayed to the recommended starting setups so far with the cards, and in each set of twelve cards, there seems to be 2 or 3 viable strategies that are easily set up for you.  You probably can’t do them all, but you still have some latitude as to which way you can start the game. Of course, you can quickly get away from the basic strategies with as few as one or two added cards to the deck.  We have found cards that consistently provide 12-20 VPs upon completion, and once I find a card like that, my goal is to then set myself up to be able to complete this until the well runs dry. Usually, this involves finding ways to generate the rare resources which it requires – usually the deer icon.  There are only 2 of these in each bag (assuming you see all the tiles), and you can always convert the wild at the end of the round to a deer. But, if you want to trigger your card faster, you will need to find other ways – usually cards which generate virtual deer or wilds – to get these rare resources more often.

I like the way that you can either use a drawn resource to add a cube to your cards or to turn your Dial token.  Early on in the game, the decision is always interesting, because you often can benefit from scoring simple cards to get small-ish rewards in resources and whatnot, or maybe you’re better off turning your Dial to get more cubes or new cards into your deck to build up your engine.  Late in each round, be sure that you know how many of each resource are still available in the bag. You might not want to tie up your limited supply of cubes on cards which might not finish any time soon – because you might be better off trying to finish other cards off first to recycle cubes.  We have found that it’s helpful to group the drawn tiles by type so that it’s easy to see how many of each have been drawn.

And before I forget to mention it, there’s the matter of the world being built on the table too.  As much as you’d love to concentrate on just cards that score you points, you’ll also have to spend some of your energy on cards that modify the growing world and its animal inhabitants.  After all, many of your scoring cards will depend on the current status of the land and animals, so unless you want to be at the mercy of the other players, you’ll have to try to shape it in the way that you want too…  Of course, if you spend too much time doing this, you might miss out on opportunities to score points, so you’ll always have to be balancing your options on what to do.

Our games so far have been right around an hour, and I think that they will eventually end up closer to the 30-40 min range once everyone is familiar with the cards and how all the scoring conditions work.  While I wouldn’t say that the turn is completely free form – there ends up being very little downtime – really only waiting for people to resolve their finished cards; and even then, you’re usually either watching how they managed to score points with their card (in part so you can work to prevent later big scores) or watching how they change the landscape as each change could have a big effect on your own scoring chances.  The rules suggest that you could have a draft to determine your initial card hands, but man, I think that could take as long as the game itself in my group. I would be content to either stick to the starting hands as suggested in the rules or maybe deal each player X cards and let them keep the 12 that they like best.

Timing can be a tricky thing too, especially near the end.  Twice I’ve been the first person to hit 80 points, but then watched in horror as tile after tile was drawn from the bag without seeing a wild, and I watched my opponents end up catching up and eventually eclipsing my point total to take the win.  As I mentioned earlier, some cards can score 10-20 VPs, so no lead feels safe in Ecos. The indeterminate timing of the endgame here means that you have to constantly be working on continuing to build your engine, and not just shoot for a target of 80, because there could still be plenty of game left after you hit that target number!

Ecos gives the gamer a nice mix of engine building and resource management.  There is both some advance planning needed as well as the ability to make tactical decisions on the fly.  The starting hands definitely shape your initial strategy, but ultimately, each game should play out uniquely depending on which random cards you add to your hand as well as how the landscape evolves on the table.  Ecos is a game that I am quite excited to get back on the table to play again soon. After the first week in my game collection, it has already eclipsed Mystic Vale as my favorite Clair game and has pushed Tiny Towns out of my favorite 2019 AEG game slot.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

James Nathan (1 play): Before adding comments here, I searched Dale’s text for mentions of “bingo” or “Augustus”, as the aroma of those mechanics was emanating from my experience: You have a tableau of cards in front of you, your marker in hand, ready to cover up whatever the bingo caller hollers out: Sun! Water! Deer!  When your card is full, you could yell “Ecos!”; you could also yell “Bingo!” But this isn’t “here’s your random grid” bingo; instead, you’re crafting the available slots as you play cards.

I found myself triaging my initial hand of cards as I do in Agricola: “here are the 4 or 5 cards I’d like to play, in the order I hope to play them; I’ll set these other 12 over to the side as there is no way I’ll ever play them.”  To continue the analogy, just as in Agricola, part way through the game I took a look at those other cards and –hey! Those could be useful just about now! I may not have seen it at the beginning, but they could really come in handy.

There is some iconography that I wasn’t thrilled with, and one player’s strategy was oddly synergistic with mine, and so the geographical features that player was adding to the board was fueling my points engine –they just didn’t know it yet because the point card was still in my hand.  Neither of us was doing much to interact with the other player, as their strategy centered around the animal tokens, and only 1 of my cards involved those.

That said, the Bingo-core makes it a lot of fun and I enjoyed the world-building of the map.

Dan Blum (1 play): As James alludes to, the core mechanism of this game is identical to that in (Rise of) Augustus. However, Ecos is a significantly meatier game and I’m much more interested in playing it again than Augustus. It’s still not a deep strategy game, given the random nature of both card and element draws, but there are some interesting things going on. My only real issue with it was that the end game seemed to drag on too long. This may just have been due to everyone being inexperienced, but even if it continues to happen it’s easy enough to lower the target score.

(NB: the rules actually suggest that you could decide to play only to 60 VP for a shorter game)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it. James Nathan, Craig V, Dan Blum
  • Neutral.  John P
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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