Review – Archeos Society
|Space Cowboys (Asmodee North America)
|Set Collection, Family Game
When a new game reimplements an old one, comparisons are inevitable. However, Archeos Society might be one of the weirdest reimplementations I’ve encountered. Half of the game is absolutely identical to Ethnos, the 2017 title from Cool Mini or Not. But the other half is not the same at all. Is that good, or bad? Let’s take a look!
First, let me say that this was one of the hardest games to review I’ve had in a few years. I’ve played Ethnos many times and enjoy it, and trying to figure out exactly how to rate Archeos Society, comparatively or on its own merits, has been tough. I’ve played it several times now, with wide groups of people, mostly folks who are unfamiliar with Ethnos, but always with at least one other player who did know it. I’m going to try breaking this review up into presentation and gameplay, and even though my bottom line (spoiler) is that you have to let this game stand on its own, we’ll still do plenty of comparisons along the way.
Let’s start with the bad. And here, I’m not talking about the theme, or the gameplay changes, or anything like that. I’m talking about the graphic design, the rulebook, (lack of) player aids, and so forth. For me, this is by far the most frustrating part of the game, and below what I’ve come to expect from Space Cowboys. I’ll list my grievances in increasing order of frustration.
As I understand, Asmodee either owns Space Cowboys or has an exclusive contract with them, and owns Gamegenic. So why don’t these cards fit back in the wells with Gamegenic sleeves on? They had this figured out with Elysium almost a decade ago.
The player colors are black, white, gray, brown, beige, and tan. Seriously. While it’s cool that the meeples look like vehicles, and I understand they wanted colors separate from the card/track colors, they could have done something else. Pastel colors, neon colors, anything else.
The scoreboard is paper thin, and the track boards are too small to always see the numbers when you have six people around a big table. Furthermore, when moving on a track actually has you go down in points, the victory point star has cracks going through it. A good idea, in theory, except that it completely obscures a “-2” that looks like a “2”; a very annoying thing to realize when it comes to time to score the round.
The cards are beautiful, but have no text on them, and the icons are good but not great. During my first game, I was very annoyed about this. On repeated plays I found the symbols fine, but first impressions are everything. Lots of players kept asking “What’s this leader do again?”, and it’s very easy to confuse the -1 to travel and +1 for sets when you first start. All of this would be fine if the game included player aids. The only aid is the back of the rulebook, which is horrifically wordy. While I would love full sheet player aids, simply including 6 or 12 more cards with a summary of information for the characters and the advanced tracks would have gone a long, long way.
Lastly, the name is bad. I could tell one group was really enjoying it and wanting to commit the game to memory, yet they had to ask me more than once “What’s the name of the game again?”. It does not stick at all, and in my experience, made-up words (Catan, Waterdeep notwithstanding) don’t seem to work as well as clean, one-word titles like Splendor, Scythe, Cascadia, or, you know, Ethnos. It’s too bad that Stonemaier just recently used the name Expeditions, as that would have worked wonderfully.
On the bright side, yes the art is very nice, the card is a very nice card stock, and I do like the organizer for the cards (once I find tighter sleeves). I also really appreciate the symbols used to differentiate the colors on the tracks and cards; this was a big help when a player could not differentiate yellow/red/orange. Ultimately, while my complaints about the presentation are plentiful, they are all overcome after maybe two games.
I separated this from Presentation simply because I’m not as sour on it. I always thought Ethnos was horribly ugly, and needed a graphical update. This game is much prettier, but the theme is also way different. While medieval fantasy is by far the most overdone genre, hunting for lost relics is pretty overdone too. On top of plenty of games I previously owned like Incan Gold and Karuba, I currently own The Quest for El Dorado, Lost Ruins of Arnak, and this. How many Indiana Jones games do I need? Yet, I think the theme change is right for what Space Cowboys is trying to do. My wife would have taken one look at Ethnos and said “You can play that at boys’ night without me”; she played this happily and enjoyed it quite a bit. There might have been a better theme to use, but this one’s fine (except for the name).
Let’s start with the one I think everyone agrees on: when the tableau is out of cards, you draw two cards if you take from the top of the deck. This is a brilliant change that plays to this unique card system: that would be a broken, horrible rule in most card-based games. In Archeos Society, players must discard all their cards they don’t use in a set, meaning that those extra cards often end up in other players’ hands anyway, and things balance out. But, once the last card is taken from the tableau, excitement is still generated and everyone starts yelling “Merry Christmas!”. Friends who own Ethnos said they’d be playing with this rule from now on.
Now, let’s move on to the tracks. First, let’s get over the idea that this is a huge change, because it isn’t as big as it looks. Nothing in Ethnos makes the actual map of Slovakia matter at all. You don’t move around the board or care about adjacency whatsoever. The board could have been tracks, just like these. The difference is simply that the tracks would have 1st/2nd/3rd place scoring, with randomized tokens every time you set it up. And to be honest, looking back, I cannot believe that they didn’t just do that for the back side of the track boards. (Suggestion for future expansion?) It would have been a great way to alleviate a lot of the complaining on BoardGameGeek.
But, this game was not made for BoardGameGeek hobbyists. It was made to turn Ethnos into a family game, and it succeeds. Personally, I like it when games make me angry. I like having the tension of someone taking my spot, or killing my stuff. During some comparisons to Ticket to Ride, one player said he likes Europe for the stations that prevent players from blocking each other, and I said that that’s not the way to play Ticket to Ride (for me). If you like that aggressive tension, it’s completely missing with these tracks. But a lot of players don’t like that, including gamers! Look at how many advanced, complex Eurogames these days are multiplayer solitaire, or look at the explosion of non-interactive flip-and-writes. There is a market for this style of gameplay, and the card play still keeps the game away from zero interaction at all. My wife hates area control or any kind of comparative mechanism; she refuses to back down on Military in 7 Wonders and then finds herself frustrated when the game is over. On the contrary, she won her first game of Archeos Society and wanted to play again.
There are also some major gameplay advantages to the track system. The most obvious one is that the game works much better with 2- or 3-players than area control does. While I don’t see myself reaching for this over dedicated 2-player games like Splendor Duel or Mandala, it is rare to have a game that works equally well from 2-6 players and they accomplish that here. I thought it worked really well at 3, except that I’m not sure I love the rule that 2- and 3-player games play one less round. I understand the logic, but we definitely felt our 3-player game could have gone a little longer.
Now, Ethnos has some “emergent” complexity from the differentiated values of each color. Sometimes green is just better scoring than red. But since it’s area-majority, you have to decide if you’re going to be someone who gets in a huge fight over that spot, or if you’re going to sneak points that no one else wants on the weaker colors. I really like that, and you lose that with static points for each track in Archeos Society. However, again, this is not the worst trade-off.
Maybe die hard Ethnos players will disagree, but we found that it was almost always best to play as large a band as possible in Ethnos. I tried doing this in Archeos Society during my first game, and came in last. The most obvious reason is that the sets (now called “expeditions”) are now just worth fewer points, capping at 12 points instead of 15. However, the dynamic nature of the track requirements, where later spots often require fewer cards than earlier spots, means that even 1-card sets are actually quite often valuable. And even though using exactly the same 12 abilities for the card types seems like a missed opportunity, several of them require a more creative thought process than before. Figuring out exactly when to go up on the Linguist track to get a bonus movement is not as simple as it was in the past, for example. Or placing a 1-card set just to get an artifact with the Curator is a much better move than it was in Ethnos, if done at the right time.
On top of this, there are also the advanced tracks on each side of the board. I will say that I was a bit disappointed in one respect: a few of them do have a bit of interaction amongst the players, but it didn’t influence things to the extent I hoped; you’re not going to recreate that dynamic push and pull of “playing the players” that Ethnos had. On the other hand, they are a pretty interesting bunch and do provide variety for repeated plays. They’re also not too difficult to understand, although I again wish there were player aids for each player.
The important thing here is that you just have to see this for its own game. It will not replace Ethnos with your gaming group that likes Ethnos. Which is fine! Someone in that group already owns it. This is a great family game with one of the best cardplay systems around, keeping the game fast and furious and engaging. (I even told one player who picked up his cell phone, only to find it was his turn again before he could unlock it: “This is a fast one, buddy, no time for cell phones!” And thank God for that.)
At first, I found myself quite disappointed with Archeos Society. I still have graphic design complaints, and the gameplay did not feel the same as Ethnos. But the truth is, it’s not supposed to. You have to let this game stand on its own two feet. The reality is that the card play of Ethnos, fast and furious and tense, was always the best part, and that’s still here. The track scoring is different, yes, but it has different gameplay benefits and I think that along with the theme, it broadens the appeal. I’m glad some friends still own Ethnos, but I know I’ll get this to the table more often, because my most common gaming partners are my wife and my oldest daughter, and they’re much more interested in this. And the bottom line is that this is an incredibly fun game that I’ll be hanging on to. With a perfect presentation, I’d be giving this game a 9 or even a 10. As it stands, it’s an excellent family game deserving of a high score.
The Bottom Line
Archeos Society is an excellent family game that stands on its own, apart from its predecessor.