Board Game Gumbo contributor, Zack Moneaux, is back with another review, this time with the newest John D. Claire release from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG). Zack has the luxury of playing lots of solo games, two player games, and thinky euros with his own game group, plus the omni style of games that comprises our Gumbo Game Nights.
You like Bingo?
What about spicy Bingo?
Introducing Ecos: First Continent, AEG and John D. Clair’s latest game, in which your Bingo sheet controls the very future of a fledgling ecosystem. A game where every excited shout of
“Bingo!” “ECO!” is punctuated by powerfully shifting landmasses, beautiful expanding jungles, erupting mountainscapes, and brutal animal on animal death murder.
First up, the boring stuff. The production is acceptable. I think there’s more art on the box than the rest of the components but what’s there looks great. The cards are high quality, though awkward to hold, fan out, and generally peruse. The land and ocean tiles are different thicknesses. I’m told this was intentional. It does not look good. Another couple millimeters of difference would’ve made all the difference. My friends thought it was a production issue and laughed when I told them it was for a “3D” effect.
The tile bag is amazing and I want to make a small pillow out of it. The tiles themselves are finished with a layer of paint I worry may eventually flake or otherwise wear. The cubes are pure, raw, unpainted eurowood and thus eternal. The animal tokens have a purpose made organizer with a secure lid. This is appreciated. I now don’t have to buy a $37.98 wooden insert and lie to myself about how it will allow me to play the game more. The wooden trees and mountains are a great touch. The score sheet has a typo because numbers can be tricky.
Overall I like the production. My biggest actual issue is with the cards, which my tiny man hands have trouble organizing and fanning when I’m asked to hold onto 18 or so at a time.
The theme is ‘bingo-ing about’ to build an ecosystem. This theme is thin. It does not evoke the smell of verdant petrichor and jaguar droppings, nor does it evoke the smell of stale cigarette smoke and hours-old hotdog water from my middle school summers working in the concession stand of a Bingo hall in its twilight years. What the theme does do excellently is help teach you the rules:
“What do cheetahs do?” You ask Ecos.
“They go fast and eat things.” Ecos responds.
“What about Sharks?”
“They go fast and eat things, in water.”
All the animals generally make sense and do what you think they should. Jaguars need trees, hippos can be on land or water, storks fly, antelopes are braindead lemmings. I never felt particularly engrossed in the theme but it did give an interesting backdrop to the rock solid mechanics.
One player takes the fantastically made bag of elements. Ecos calls this player “The Harbinger.” At least 3 minutes of your first 45-60 minute game will be spent laughing about this name. “The Harbinger” draws an element token and everyone simultaneously covers that element’s icon on a card in their tableau using one of their cubes.
If a player has covered all the icons on a card, they are required (ed.’s note: see page 6 of the rule book if you doubt Zack) to shout “ECO!” before releasing and resolving the powerfully creative Gaian force encapsulated within.
This raw manifestation of unbridled nature generally results in you adding or manipulating a facet of the expanding ecosystem. You’ll add green hexagons. You’ll add brown hexagons. You’ll add blue hexagons. You’ll add both wooden trees and wooden mountains. Sometimes if you have the right color hexagon you’ll add a small, round animal token. Other times the power of the card will, like a lens of sea glass, refract the elements and through biological alchemy allow you to put another cube on another card, possibly resulting in another “ECO!”.
All of these actions feel immensely satisfying. Every “ECO!” I’ve belted in every game I’ve played has been full of actual real person joy. They do not, however, feel thematic. That’s fine though, the bellows do not need to be thematic to make for a great game. Just keep it in mind when you’re sucked in by the beautiful box. You’re buying a highly interactive and competitive abstract-ish game, and competition is here in spades.
For your first game, it’s recommended you use a premade deck of cards before moving onto drafting. These decks are actually well made and I could see playing with them again but the real meat here is in the drafting.
Cobbling together a tree planting strategy with a side of antelope on antelope action is probably at least four times as exciting as it sounds. This excitement is compounded by the aforementioned “ECO!” chaining, where one card can set off another card, can set off another card, etc. These are always joyous but they are the product of one of my few gripes with Ecos. Ecos comes with 105 cards to draft from, each with a unique ability. Only a quarter of these cards are actually awesome and those tend to be limited use. Yes I can unleash my shark on your pod of manatees, but I can only do it once in the whole game and only then if I’ve drafted the single card that allows me to place a shark.
Much more of the deck is made up of “busywork” cards. These cards turn one element into another or give you another cube and a separate element. Many of these cards add terrain, trees, and mountains. Nearly every bad thing I have to say about Ecos is due to this design decision. I perfectly understand why this was done, I just don’t like it. Due to the bingo element, the game is powered by input randomness and the players must build their tableau to mitigate whatever comes up into elements that work with their deck. Without these busywork cards, the game would be a luckfest.. Their existence gives players a surprising amount of control.
My issues are mainly in the complete disconnect of finally getting to shout “ECO!”, maybe even several times, when all I’ve accomplished amounts to board game chores. Very rarely does an “ECO!” lead to something actually cool happening, and then it’s usually in the back half of the game once I’ve done enough chores that Ecos allows me to have fun. Without this system, however, the game would be chaotic and full of wild swings with waves of destruction and animals barreling into each other. Ecos feels very deliberately designed with a razor focused pacing that allows the players to collectively build their own little plot of Earth before harvesting the fruits of their labor.
Minor gripe with intentional design aside, I only have praise for Ecos. It sets up quick. I can teach it in like 5 minutes. It has a lot of replayability and depth via the drafting. Above all, everything about it (apart from busywork cards but I know you euro types are into that) respects my time. That is probably the biggest thing I look for now. I want to be able to set a game up, teach it, get to the meat of it and start climbing the skill curve in a play or two. Ecos easily accomplishes all of this and goes the extra step with simultaneous gameplay that manages not to feel chaotic. Overall Ecos is just a really solid game with a lot of life into it. If you have a group that likes to play a game over and over this is one to check out.
If Ecos looks interesting to you I also recommend Seasons by Régis Bonnessée for more deep, replayable drafting goodness. Originally I felt Ecos could replace Seasons on my shelf but they both really embody what I’m looking for in board games.