Five Tribes -- a twist on the worker placement game


Erm, you thought it was so nice you had to print it twice? Or something…?

Great review Matt. Your writing is always so crisp and insightful. I agree that Five Tribes brings a unique and interesting take on a familiar mechanic. What I marvel at is that it has taken this long for someone to hit upon this inversion of the traditional style. Now that Five Tribes has broken the code I expect (like you) to see more of the same.

Five Tribes has been a huge success and with good reason, Cathala is rightfully very proud of this title. Though I would not put it on par with Dominion’s creation of the deck builder game style.

At first, I thought it was more of a sea change, but as I reflected upon it, it occurred to me that this is more of a tinkering than a creation of a new game style. Worker Placement is a wonderful mechanic largely because it can be revised and refined in so many ways.

Consider Village which added a temporal element to the mix, or Stone Age that infused luck to the equation, or Alien Frontiers that use die roles to serve as workers. I am not undermining your central premise, Five Tribes does do something unique that feels incipient with potential, but Cathala is continuing a long tradition of making Worker Placement fresh and new.

The thought process for that art must literally have been “how many offensive stereotypes about the middle east can we shove onto one space?”

I was kind of looking for a diplomatic way to say it, but yeah.

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My lunch time work group has been playing this everyday for the last 2 two weeks. Including set-up, we get through a game in about 75 minutes. I hope it catches on because so far it’s a really good game. It’s Mancala meets Stone Age mechanic is elegant, simple and challenging. This game has certainly replaced Spiel des Jahres winner Istanbul in my collection. It’s a more dynamic game and I appreciate the constantly mutating board.

It will be interesting to watch this one and see if the “slave controversy” which I don’t find a problem, will hurt sales at all.

(Replied to the wrong thing, trying again.)

The popular worker placement game genre? All I could think of was (the previously-featured, surprisingly playable Game With a Message) Sweatshop. But I’m not much of a board gamer.

Hmm, interesting. I had not really considered that when contemplating the box art. It should be known what you see in the video is a prototype (not that you can really make it out). The game art is, to my mind at least, fairly non-offensive.

It should be known that Five Tribes is set within a fictional realm, derived from The 1001 Arabian Nights. Each of these archetypes exist within that work, the courtesan assassin, the sage, the fakir, the trader. It should be noted that these are the roles that exist within the game (or some variant thereof).

Should game designers (and artist generally) avoid that subject matter for fear of giving offense? I ask this not as a critique or commentary, but earnestly. I see this as a manifestation of a specific literary source and its seems to me to be a fair representation.

This also accounts for the inclusion of slaves within the game, to which many people take offense. I can think of many instances when slaves figure prominently within the 1001 Arabian Nights and know of at least 3 of the tales that feature a slave character. Should this source be avoided altogether as a theme for a board game, or any other adaptive work because of the inclusion of these elements?

I am not familiar with Sweatshop but worker placement is a hugely popular mechanic within “designer” board games. It should be noted in the parlance of the hobby “worker placement” does not specifically mean the placement of “workers” per se, but meeples or tokens that are employed to perform certain in game “tasks”.

Some thoughts:

  • I haven’t played the game, my comment is only about the art.

  • Yes, the art may be a faithful rendition of (certain intentionally chosen) characters from 1001 Nights. But images only gain meaning in context, and the context of the art is different than the context in which those stories were written, and so the meaning of the images (as well as the way they socially function) is different.

  • This image is one of very, very many that are currently floating around Western media which perpetuate the idea of the Middle East and its inhabitants as exotic, dangerous, and unsympathetically alien. Images contribute to cultural norms, and these norms help justify all sorts of violence on real-life brown people.

  • “Should game designers (and artist generally) avoid that subject matter for fear of giving offense?” I don’t care about offence, I care about violence. If the game designers care about not perpetuating those systems that justify violence, then I’d say yeah, try to avoid exoticising and stereotyping people of colour.

  • Even the best of us are guilty of sometimes not thinking though the repercussions of everything we say and do. It happens. My criticism doesn’t mean the artist/designer is A RACIST AND A BAD PERSON WHO MUST BE SHUNNED FOREVER OMG, but rather, it’s an opportunity for them to see their work through someone else’s eyes, and improve it if possible. The presence of criticism shouldn’t immediately signify the failure of a project, but rather, it’s a response that’s part of a (hopefully) two-way dialogue between people who contribute to culture and their audience.

Also, I totally recognize that this is far from the MOST racist depiction out there, but with that said, my criticism was pretty mild too, as far as that goes.

You make valid points all and I commend you for bringing to the fore (at least for me) interesting thoughts about the impact that theme (and the affiliated art) can have upon a game and its place within a broader cultural context.

I have great affinity for Arabic lore (and the lore of all cultures, actually). I was very pleased to see this game explore that theme (at least on the surface). I now have to pause and give some thought to my response. I suppose for me, I find these stories (and many others) to be inherently exotic, after all they represent a world that did not exist (at least not in a literal since). So can that be avoided?

I would ask further, what about the images are dangerous or unsympathetically alien? The fact that the female bears a dagger (or whatever it should rightly be called)? The game does feature assassins and she is representative of that role. I would not think of that as unique, as games of all types and exploring themes across many cultures feature similar characters. Would it be culturally responsible to exclude a role of such a type from this game, because it might invoke negative impressions? Is the costuming represented in the picture inaccurate, the architecture? I would call it stylized to be sure, but is it unrepresentative of a distant era?

I guess the thing that I am the most curious about is the question of invoking violence. I recognize that these matters are nuanced and insidious, but is the fantastical exploration of themes that derive from certain cultural sources verboten because to represent that outside of their original context might create the impression in the minds of some that this archetype is representative of something actual and present?

I want to be clear, I ask all of this earnestly. I commentate on boardgames with some regularity and I am an avid fan of the role of games as a basis for building community. I am proud of the board gaming community’s general inclusiveness and I work actively to improve upon this. Some discontent arose in response to this games inclusion of slaves and as a fan of the 1001 Arabian Nights I consider the critique misguided. I think I may have been to cavalier in discounting it and not considering these matters more carefully. I thank you for bringing my (and others) attention to this. I do not know that I agree with you entirely, but I a glad I have been given a chance to consider this matter more carefully.

I think more people in this discussion should learn about the Enter button and how it can create paragraphs.

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Better? :wink:

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So much. Can you go back into the original review as well? I gave it a really good go, but the wall of text was just too much for me.

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Bruno Faidutti, a noted designer of games similar to this, wrote an interesting article on orientalism* in games that’s worth a read: Postcolonial Settlers.

(*Orientalism is the depiction of the Orient or Middle East as Westerners perceive it rather than how it really is.)

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Thank you!

But it’s in not-English! /whinewhine

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Scroll down for the English. (Sorry, should have noted that in my post!)


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