The terms veteran and prolific are words that are probably used a little too liberally when it comes to game designers. However, whilst John D Clair’s name doesn’t necessarily evoke such adjectives, he does have six design credits to his name and you have probably heard of more than one of them, as they include Mystic Vale (AEG) and the incredibly popular game Space Base (AEG). So, I was excited to get a chance to review his latest offering which, like those titles, is also produced by Alderac Entertainment Group.
In Ecos: First Continent (the core game), 2–6 players get to collectively redesign the Earth’s first continent, so far so cooperative right? Well wait! Whilst the players may be collectively designing a hex-shaped continent, this is most definitely a competitive game. Ecos has been available for a couple of years now, so if you’re asking yourself what’s new here, then the answer is that this review will also cover the recently released Ecos: New Horizon expansion. So you’re sort of getting two continents for the price of one.
First up the components. AEG has mostly done an excellent job with the production of these games. The draw bag and the chunky wooden tokens that you draw from it are satisfyingly large and bring a beautiful tactile aspect to the gameplay. The map hex tiles are good quality, as are the other cardboard components. The wooden mountain and tree meeples are excellent and once the game has reached a relatively advanced stage, it has a striking table presence. The game also sees the players adding animals to the hexes. Whilst these are good quality tokens with great artwork by Sabrina Miramon, they are relatively small and the icons on the tokens which indicate where that type of animal can be spawned are incredibly tiny so some may find them tough to read. That said, it’s not a big issue and besides, if you are going to try to put a manatee in a desert than you probably have bigger problems to worry about. The graphic design is also clear and easy to follow.
Gameplay is where Ecos really excels. Easy to teach? Check √ Simple ruleset? Check√ Depth of strategy? Check√ OK, but what if you don’t like multiplayer solitaire? Well, you might not expect much player interaction but your opponents will certainly be out to ensure that the First Continent doesn’t get built entirely to your vision...
In Ecos, one player will be the Harbinger, which is a slightly odd name for the first player and the person that gets to be the bingo caller. While there’s no 'two little ducks', or 'legs eleven', there are a number of symbols and you have a handy guide which tells you how likely the Harbinger bingo caller is to draw the tile you want from the bag.
Now, onto the next positive about Ecos: play is simultaneous, so you really can play this game with six players without worrying about downtime.
So, the Harbinger bingo caller draws a tile and everyone looks to see if they have a symbol matching the tile drawn on one of the cards that is out in front of them; each player starts with three cards in their tableau and ready to use. If you can match the symbol then you cover it with a wooden cube. If you're worried that this is just symbol bingo where the person who gets lucky will match more symbols and win, that's absolutely not the case. In fact, this is where the game gets clever. If you cannot, or choose not to, match the symbol drawn from the bag, you can rotate the tile in front of you. Rotate the tile twice and you can draw a card from the stack or choose one that has been discarded. Got a fistful of cards? Ecos has you covered: just rotate the tile three times and you can play another card from your hand in front of you or get another cube to use to cover the symbols on the card. Rotating the tiles is not only a balancing mechanic, it’s also a meaningful decision that the players need to make.
Once a player has covered all the icons on a card they shout Ecos! (I did say the game used mechanics drawn from bingo). The player then carries out the steps on the card, which could include placing hex tiles, adding mountains or trees to the map, placing animals or changing the map and/or the contents of the hexes. In addition, some cards provide victory points or give you symbols which you can then match and cover on other cards in your tableau or use to spin your tile once per symbol.
The first player to 80 points wins. The game takes 45 to 60 minutes and moves at a good clip, even at maximum player count. The meat of Ecos comes in playing and triggering the right cards in your tableau. The game does allow for more experienced players to draft cards but if you are playing with beginners, well John D Clair has thought of that too, as there are six starter decks that the players can use.
In summary, Ecos is a game with straightforward rules. It looks good, has deep gameplay and meaningful decisions, and it plays in under an hour. I can almost hear all the board gamers’ wallets opening in unison, but let’s just deal with a couple of potential issues before you splash your cash on another game to try to force into that tiny gap in your Kallax shelving (other shelving units are available)...
Firstly, there is the number of eyes you need to play the game, and that is exactly one more than the number of players. Why? Well, you need to keep two eyes on your tableau, but you also need one eye on every other tableau at the table because points can be tough to come by at first but then someone will get a card that scores them enough points to win a Wimbledon tournament in a single turn. Those stronger cards generally have a red edge to make them easier to see on the table, and the rules do suggest the player who plays a red card tells everyone at the table what the card does when they play it, so everyone has fair warning that they are about to be given a whooping. The cards in your tableau also get twisted round when they are triggered and, in the cases of the more powerful cards, they will have limited uses, which also helps with balancing. Plus, you might just find that when it comes to your turn you can hook that card out of the discard pile and use it against the previous owner.
So, all is fair then? Well, not entirely, and that brings me to my second, linked issue with the game. You may find that you simply don’t have an effective counter to that card that Dave keeps triggering, but Bob does. However, no amount of reminding Bob that he can stop Dave from hoovering up points is convincing Bob to counter Dave’s strategy, and you may spend time drawing cards to try and stop Dave but just not get lucky enough to find one.
Then there are the cards... If one player knows the game and therefore the cards reasonably well, they are likely to have an advantage over a bunch of newbies because this is a game that certainly rewards multiple plays. Finally, there is also a repetitive nature to the gameplay, draw a tile, cover a symbol, rinse and repeat. Some people may find this mechanic outstays its welcome even during the brisk 60-minute game time. However, if these quibbles don't overly concern you, then beneath the First Continent you will find a great game with plenty of strategy.
So what about the 2021 expansion to Ecos, snappily titled New Horizon? Well, it's a solid slam dunk of an expansion. It does what most people want from an expansion: it gives you a bit more of the same with an extra 26 cards and a few more animals to add to the hexes. New Horizon also adds another six cards which correspond to six multiple hex regions that come in the expansion box. If you draw one of these cards, you are trying to match, or create that shape on the First Continent, and then you can put down that multi-hex region on top of the map and declare it as, the Sahara, the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, the Nile, the Congo Basin or Madagascar. These regions then give the player that played them a boost in victory points or an ongoing effect that will gradually add victory points for the remainder of the game, leading the player in a certain direction from a strategy perspective and also affecting how other players respond. Tho' the tile art on these regions is super-bland, the New Horizon expansion is simple, straightforward, doesn’t add unduly to the rules overhead and just tweaks the game play enough to keep things interesting. What’s not to like?
(Review by Jason Keeping)