Design by John D. Clair
Published by AEG|
2 – 6 Players, 1 1/2 – 2 hours|
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Set at the origins of the earth and the emergence of the first continent, Ecos: First Continent poses the question, “What if the formation of the Earth had gone differently?” An intriguing question which conjures-up a multitude of scenarios. What if land masses had formed differently? What if jungle creatures dominated the land? How would vast oceans affect life on the land? The questions boggle the imagination and make for an intriguing theme for a board game.
Ecos: First Continent is designed by John D. Clair, whose true claim to fame is Mystic Vale, a highly creative and entertaining game that has spawned numerous expansions. This game is very different and, indeed, bears little, if any similarity to his breakthrough title. I appreciate originality and creativity in game design, so the designer gets kudos for not resting on his laurels and past ideas.
Ecos is a combination engine-building and tile laying affair, one that is easy to learn and play. The board is formed throughout the game by the placement of large hexagonal tiles, each depicting one of three types of terrain: desert, water or grassland. Upon these tiles will be placed a variety of animals (over a dozen different types), mountains and/or forests. Four tiles form the initial board. Players each receive a “dial” token, which shows the distribution of the eight different element tiles, all of which are placed in the included cloth sack. Players also receive seven “energy” cubes and a starting deck of 12 cards, three of which begin in the player’s display. In subsequent games there is an advanced method of drafting cards to form each players’ initial deck. All remaining cards are separated into blue and brown decks.
Game play has an element so strikingly similar to that found in Augustus that initially we all thought the designer must be the same as that title. Each turn the active player (termed the “Harbinger”) draws and reveals an element tile from the bag. All players place one of their energy cubes onto a matching icon on one of the cards in their display. Each card depicts a number of icons, and once each icon contains a cube, that card is complete and its power can be used by the player. This is exactly the mechanism originated in Augustus. Exactly.
If a player cannot place an energy cube–or opts not to–he instead rotates his Dial card 90 degrees. When the card is rotated twice, he may gain a new card from his deck (draw two, keep one), or wait until the card is turned a third time, in which case the player may choose an energy cube or play a card into his display. In either case, the Dial card is reset to start. Sometimes it is wise not to play an energy cube so the player can rotate their card, giving them these options.
The powers on the cards vary wildly. Abilities include placing new tiles; adding animals, mountains and/or forests; gaining and/or placing new energy cubes; gaining or playing new cards; etc. Many cards earn the players victory points, often by meeting certain conditions. A few examples:
*Gain 7 victory points per landmass fully surrounded by water
*Choose a direction; move all Antelope in that direction, if possible. Gain 2 victory points per Antelope that moved.
*Place a gorilla token; gain 5 victory points; gain 2 victory points for each forest in this mountain habitat
The idea is to build a series of cards that complement and enhance each other, forming an engine of sorts. By doing so, it is possible to score a multitude of points — sometimes 20 or more — when a card is triggered.
Once a card is triggered and its benefits derived, it is rotated 90 degrees. There are leaves along the edges of the cards that indicate how many times a card can be triggered before being discarded, so a player cannot use the same cards indefinitely.
The harbinger continues to draw tiles out of the bag, one-at-a-time, allowing time for any players who have completed a card to execute the relevant actions. When the harbinger draws one of the two “wild” element tiles, players may place an energy cube on any symbol on any of their cards. After any cards are resolved, all tiles are returned to the bag and the role of the harbinger rotates to the next player in clockwise order.
Play continues in this fashion until all triggered cards are resolved after the drawing of one of the wild element tiles. If one more players has 80 or more points, the game ends, and the player with the most points is crowned victor and considered the most ecologically evolved.
There is much to like about Ecos. I always enjoyed the tile drawing and cube placement mechanism from Augustus and it is put to good use here. While it can sometimes be frustrating if the tiles you need are not drawn, it really is a matter of playing the odds and giving yourself the greatest opportunity to place energy cubes and trigger lucrative benefits. In the early stages of the game, this process goes quickly. However, once tiles begin being completed, it can take quite some time for all of the abilities to be resolved.
I also enjoy the idea of engine building, amassing a collection of cards that complement each other so that chain reactions can occur, often resulting in copious amounts of points. There is a certain feeling of cleverness when the proper types of cards are assembled and the cascading effect is generated. The problem, however, is that it takes a considerable amount of game time to assemble these cards, and once triggered, opponents can take a nap while one resolves all of the cards that may subsequently be triggered by chain reaction effects, a process that is quite tedious. It can be quite boring for everyone else.
Coupled with this time that it takes to assemble the cards is the fact that in the early stages of the game it is unclear what one should be doing. Early cards count for the placement of animals, tiles, forests and/or mountains, and without a good knowledge of the cards one will be acquiring throughout the game, these placements seem purposeless. Many times I placed tiles, animals or terrain with nothing more than a hope that I might get a card or two that would allow me to benefit from these placements. With the advanced drafting method a player can possibly acquire some complementary cards, but there is still a large degree of uncertainty as to which cards will be acquired during the course of the game. These cards may or may not contribute to one’s engine building efforts.
I find the length of the game, as well as the amount of time it takes to resolve actions of triggered cards when they cascade, to be problematic. The box boasts a game length of an overly optimistic 45 – 75 minutes. Our games have all clocked-in at well over two hours…and it wasn’t a riveting two hours. A lot of this time is occupied by just waiting for opponents to finish resolving their cards, which isn’t very exciting.
Ecos has me torn. It is a game wherein I enjoy some of the central mechanisms, but the down time and length of the game tarnishes the overall experience. As with many games, players who have considerable experience with Ecos can and will undoubtedly play considerably quicker. However, in nearly all of my gaming environments, I am almost always playing with folks who are new to a game, so gathering a group of players who are all intimately familiar with a game is a true rarity. So, sadly, I see little hope of these issues being resolved. As such, I am afraid I will stick with the world as is instead of trying to recreate it in Ecos.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Joe Huber (1 play): As with many games of this ilk, there seems to be too much importance in having cards that work together for Ecos to really click for me. It’s not a bad game, but – if combinations are so important, the game should be over much faster. When the underlying effort is focused on such a light concept, and the game feels so long – it’s not a game I’ll seek out a second play of.
Frank Branham (2 plays): The game reminds me in feel a bit more of the same designer’s Space Base, but somehow not as massively compelling. Combinations are required in both games, but the larger number of cards in play in Space Base allows for more mixed strategies. Ecos is a more thinky game, and one I want to spend a little more time with. However, I suspect it ends up at about 20 minutes per player, which makes a smaller number (3, maybe 4) to be the better choice. That it has 2-6 on the box sounds dangerous, as 6 players sounds like it would progress as a painfully plodding pace.
Dale Yu: 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. I agree with Frank that playing with 6 sounds painful, but it’s been good at 2p, 3p and 4p counts.
Mitchell T: Given my environmental studies background I am always interested in ecology-themed games. Plus, I enjoy card combos and tile placement. So I was very enthusiastic to give Ecos a try. I played it four times at a two player count. Yes, there are a few interesting design features, but we found the game tedious, fiddly, lackluster, and very much a multiplayer solitaire experience. We lost interest in the outcome and possibilities about midway through each play. Plus, despite the neat illustrations and mapmaking, the game is less about ecology and more about finding ways for your creatures to survive in changing environments. Not ecology per se as much as adapting to different tile arrangements. I applaud the effort and can see how others would enjoy the experience, but we didn’t feel there was sufficient gameplaying interest to pursue it further.
Patrick Brennan: Gamer bingo combined with a mass of card effects. You place cards into play that allow you to score and then other cards that allow you to build the eco-system your scoring card(s) want. The score cards require all sorts of combinations of terrain tiles which you adorn with trees, mountains, and various animal tokens. That part is cool. Each card has a set of resources it needs to activate, and the game proceeds by someone pulling resources out of a bag, each player marking each resource off one of their cards, until someone has a card whose set is complete. The game stops and the card activates. This produces a weird alternation of fast pace and very slow which lessens enjoyment – players like consistent pace. Also, I’d only play with 3, max 4, never 5 or 6. Cards can be used a set number of times (good) which is marked by rotating them, meaning you have to read your cards in 4 different directions (bad). This was awkward, but we fix it by placing a “use” token on a card each time instead. The game gets a bit same-y towards the back-half, but the ton of different score conditions to shoot for promises enough variety for replay, as long as you don’t mind the winner being as random as the card combos they draw.
Brandon Kempf: I’ve only sat down and played this once after waiting seemingly forever for it to show up. The funny thing is, the one play seemed to last forever as well. It really is a clever idea idea on paper, combo building in your tableau, while building the land for the animals to roam, and the theme is really a fantastic idea, but in execution, Ecos manages to not live up to expectations. It’s one of those games in which there are so many choices available that you try to make sure that you are making the best choice each and every time, but the fact is, there really aren’t that many viable choices. It causes the game to drag on. That waiting ultimately made me quit caring. Also, 80 points for a win is unbearable, if I were to ever play again, I’d suggest the 60 point win barrier, but something tells me that it would still drag on a bit too long, and then feel cut short combo wise, so I just don’t think it’s for me.
Simon Neale: The production quality and the “bingo” style mechanic is what drew me to this game at Essen, especially as the game Augustus is popular at home. Ecos delivers a much more interesting gameplay and the engine building aspect of the cards gives a reasonable amount of strategic depth. I can appreciate the comments about downtime when a player triggers multiple cards on their turn but those turns are not frequent enough to be problematic. Additionally we play our games to break 60 points and not the 80 for the full game which means that the games complete in between 45 and 75 minutes (4 players). After learning how to play the game with the planned starting card sets, I recommend using the drafting variant to build initial hands of cards as it allows players to start to build the engine they want to play during the game. Overall, I think that Ecos has a lot to offer and I have enjoyed all my games, each one of which has resulted in very different habitats being created.
4 (Love it!):
3 (Like it): Frank B. (with 3), Dale Y, John P, Patrick Brennan, Simon Neale
2 (Neutral): Greg S., Joe H.
1 (Not for me): Mitchell T, Brandon K