Full disclosure: A review copy of Ecos: First Continent was provided by Alderac Entertainment Group.
Alright, we’re digging into some “late October” releases, this week. I think these are commonly referred to as Essen releases, but honestly I don’t totally know when Essen is and I haven’t quite bothered to learn. I might one day, though! I just haven’t had much of a reason to, yet. And that’s okay. This means we’re covering things like Quirky Circuits, Sunflower Valley, and Ecos: First Continent, but October is also Kickstarter Month so we’ve got some more of those (and an EXIT game because why not). Next week is mostly spooky games, so, get hyped for that.
In Ecos: First Continent, players are building up the first continent ever! It’s kind of a big deal. Thankfully, we’re invested in making sure it’s done right; we just, unfortunately, have different viewpoints on what constitutes “right”. Maybe you think it should be more water, but I love deserts, but this other force of nature here is just a fiend for forests. It’s going to end up likely being only one of us who can fully realize their vision; is it going to be you?
Surprisingly light, here, given the depth of the game. Give each player a dial with START pointing up:
Also give each player 7 element cubes:
Place the score board in the play area, and put all the score markers on the left side:
Place the land tiles in this starting configuration:
For later games (or if you wanna ~get weird~ in your first game), you can try alternate configurations:
Place the Mountain and Forest tokens nearby:
Also set out the token trays:
Place the Element Tokens into the Element Token Bag:
Make your starting hands, using some of the red cards:
And some of the blue cards:
This differs a bit based on your player count and what you want to do. For your first game, there are footprint icons on all the cards; sort them into those groups and create preset hands for each new player. In later games, you may also use the leaf icons to create different preset hand groups.
If you don’t want to do that, you can also try drafting hands. Give each player 5 blue cards, have them take one, set it aside, and pass the rest along until each player only has one blue card remaining. Discard that card. Do the same for the red cards, but start with 9 red cards. You can have some players use preset hands and others draft; simply skip the present players when drafting.
Either way, every player should finish with 12 cards in hand and choose 3 of them to play face-up as their starting cards.
The rules change a bit for two players. You’ll start with 18 cards (12 red and six blue), so either draw 2 blue cards and 4 red cards if you’re playing with preset hands or draw the cards and then draft the other parts of your hand normally (if you’re playing with drafting). You then reveal 5 cards, instead of 3.
Shuffle the red and blue cards that aren’t used into their own decks and you should be ready to start!
In Ecos: First Continent, players exist as primordial forces shaping the first continent and the life that emerges on it at the dawn of time, ish. You’ll do this by fulfilling the element requirements of your cards, allowing you to add, remove, or change tile; add animal tokens to the world you’re building; and score points. Hitting 60 or 80 points (short or regular game) causes the game to end, and the player with the most points wins!
Turns are played roughly simultaneously, starting with one player who has the role of Harbinger. They draw an element from the bag, announce it to all players, and then set it aside. Players may do one of two things in response:
- Add an element cube to a card of their choice on the corresponding space. If you don’t have any more element cubes available, you may remove one from a different card at any time, for free.
- Rotate their dial clockwise one space. You may return it to start to gain the bonus on the side of your dial that’s currently up, once you’ve rotated it two or three times. You may gain that benefit at any time once the dial has been rotated to that position.
At two players, you instead draw two elements per turn.
Once you’ve filled out all the elements on a card, say “Eco” to indicate that you’ve done so. You now activate all the effects on the card starting from the top of the card and moving down. If multiple players activate a card at the same time, the player closest to the Harbinger starts and activations proceed clockwise. Cards will generally allow you to place tiles, place tokens, score points, gain elements, or change the landscape in some way. There are various restrictions:
- Forests cannot be placed on deserts unless a Mountain is present.
- Generally, only one Forest may be placed per tile. Mountains boost the Forest Limit of all tiles by 1, though.
- Animals cannot share tiles unless otherwise stated.
- Land Animals may only move on land, and Water Animals may only move on water.
- If you gain elements during this phase, you may still rotate your dial instead of taking them.
- If you gain a card, either draw two cards from a stack and keep one, or choose any card from the cards that were discarded by previous card gain effects. Note that cards that have been played to their limit are instead removed from the game.
All cards have a limited number of uses (but generally more than 1!), and this is indicated by leaves on each side of the card. Generally, the top of the card will have 4 leaves, 3 leaves, 2 leaves, or 1 leaf, and that’s how many times the card can be used before it’s exhausted. When a card is exhausted, it’s removed from the game, not discard. You should turn the card clockwise after each use to indicate how many more uses it has left.
If the Harbinger draws the Wild Element, the round ends after element cubes are placed and card effects are resolved. Pass the bag to the next player clockwise; they become the new Harbinger. If any player has gone over the point threshold (60 or 80), the game ends immediately after that and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Eh, I understand that it’s got simultaneous play, but I probably wouldn’t play this at 4+ players just due to the downtime during certain Eco activations. It happens sequentially, and I get that, but that’s going to happen a lot at 6 players, and that’s going to take a particularly long time. That’s honestly okay, though, because that’s not going to bother other people as much as it bothers me, I figure, and I still actually really like the game at two and three, so, I’ll usually stick around there. At two, I will say, you’re passing the element bag a lot for one player to be the Harbinger and that can feel like a bit of a waste, especially if you have a “bad” draw and draw the wild element token straight out of the gate. Just remember that there are a couple structural differences at two players:
- You start with more cards in hand.
- You also have more cards in play.
- You draw 2 element tokens at a time instead of 1.
For the full numbers, see above, but I think that still makes it pretty interesting at two. Just make sure you check the rulebook for recommended two-player matchups, if you’re playing with preset hands. Either way, like I said, I’m a huge fan of this game with 2 and 3 players.
- Try to synergize. I think this is most of the game, right? You’re trying to take cards that, when activated, generate resources or cards so that you can activate additional cards so that you can get additional cards or place animals or tiles to further your ongoing strategy. The preset hands help a lot with making that strategy appear more straightforward, but they’re not going to do all the work for you! You need to come up with a direction and a pattern of activation if you want to end up winning.
- Also note that your cards will run out. Try to make the most of your cards while you can, because once they’ve expired, they’re out of the game for good. You don’t want to build up a whole engine around a couple single-use cards only for them to each earn you 5 points and then disappear for the rest of the game; you’ll basically leave yourself in the lurch.
- Keep an eye on the end of the game. It can sneak up on you quicker than anticipated, especially if you’ve got a player with a card that can earn them 10 or more points when properly activated. I’ve seen upwards of 15 in a single move, and that can be dangerous! I once had a card that ended up giving me 8 or 10 wild energy when it was activated, which meant that I could basically activate two other cards of my choice if I activated that one card. That’s a super dangerous combo if you don’t see it coming.
- You know what cards your opponents can use; try to make sure that if they do use them, they won’t get many points. You can engage in blocking behavior; if your opponent gets wild energy for the smallest group of water tiles, try placing a random water tile somewhere far away from the only group on the map. If they get points for different groups of land tiles, try to connect the land tiles into one mass to drive down their score. You’re being a bit of a jerk, but indirectly, so it’s probably okay?
- Try to have a variety of different element requirements on your cards. This is one that I mess up pretty frequently. If all your cards require the same elements, you’re going to be taking a lot of tile turns when the many elements that are in the set disjoint with what you need come up. Spreading out your cards’ requirements is a very simple way to make sure you can always capitalize on opportunities as they emerge.
- At some point you need to convert your engine from building up the map to scoring points. This is why the blue cards exist, as they’re more focused on earning points than constructing the map. Just make sure you don’t go for them too early, or you’ll peak before the finish line. Similarly, going after them too late will mean that you end up starting behind other players who will be able to finish ahead of you, which is also not great.
- Managing your element cubes is a key part of the game. This is another common pitfall for me; I usually struggle to make sure that I can play all the elements I get, but I then overindex a bit and try to get too many element cubes that I end up not using. You pay a pretty heavy opportunity cost for those (usually foregoing three element tokens to do so), so make sure that you’re actually getting the ones you need, not just hoarding them just in case.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This is the first game I’ve owned that has manatee tokens. They’re one of my favorite animals. Delighted.
- I really like the element tokens. They’re a bit esoteric, sure, but they have a nice design and a super nice feel to them, and drawing them out of the bag is a lot of fun as well. Definitely like that they went this route instead of just giving me cardboard or something.
- I also like that the land tiles are thicker than the water tiles, so it gives a nice 3D effect to the landscape. That, I think, is really cool, since especially at higher player counts you’re going to likely see a much more expansive map, with mountain ranges and forests and sprawling lakes and rivers. It really does end up making its own continent, and that kind of rules.
- The Mountains come in different shapes, too, which makes for a really cool landscape. It’s a tiny tweak, but it does a lot to make the land feel really vibrant, and I appreciate it. As I said, pairing that with the tile thickness changes makes for a super nice end-to-end experience.
- The generative aspect of the game (acquiring lands, building a map) really appeals to me. I’m generally a big fan of games that do this, to be fair. I like that certain games have a sense of accomplishment, even at the end, and this and Megacity: Oceania do a great job in my mind of letting players mutually contribute to a sprawling map. It just makes me feel like I was successful in building my part of it, even if I ended up not scoring enough points.
- I always love when a game has short rules. Makes it easier to learn and a quick play is always gratifying for me. You may see some slight issues with engines since this game’s fairly about combo potential, so ending the game at a lower score threshold might mean that some engines haven’t fully gotten moving yet. But, everyone knows that going in, so, that’s more of a “them” problem and less of a “you” problem, hopefully.
- There are so many pre-set starting hands! Lots of initial options for how to get the game started, which is nice. For a decently complex game, this allows players to at least avoid one really tough decision (and avoid the draft, which is always better for new players).
- Expansions for this seem both very possible and very interesting. I would love to see more biomes emerge. Like, snow and tropics would be fun, but I imagine you’d have to restrict them somehow (maybe they can only be placed adjacent to the starting group?). Either way, I’d be interested in seeing a follow-up, given how much I’ve enjoyed this game.
- It comes with its own storage for its various components! It’s not perfect, but it holds all the tokens without requiring me to re-sort them every game, which I really appreciate.
- Each card having 1 – 4 uses is also pretty cool. I hesitate to call them multi-use cards (although some definitely are), but they allow you to plan out some longer-term combos or use cards together to combo off of each other, which is really cool to me.
- Even after four plays, I feel like I have yet to fully scratch the surface of the cards’ configurability and possible synergy options. Every card is unique, which helps make this a bit more salient; how could someone fully understand how every card pairs with every other card? They couldn’t. But it’s fun to try and see new routes emerge every time I play!
- On one hand, there’s multiple different ways to play. On the other hand, the way that your preset cards may recommend playing might not jive with your playstyle. This hit me really hard, one game. I think I just prefer focusing on map-building and scoring that way to focusing on animals and the management of tokens moving around the map. The nice thing, though, is that just means I’ll probably skip that preset if I play again, or I can just draft. There are a lot of different ways to play.
- Same thing with unique cards. On one hand, discovering synergies and having unique cards is awesome. On the other, it really does make everything take a bit longer. It’s just a lot to read and take in, especially at the beginning. One reason this is only a Meh and not a Con, though, is that the game takes specific steps to address that. It tells you which cards to play first (though it doesn’t deal with the extras in a 2P game), which is a really nice way to reduce that initial overhead for new players, and I appreciate that.
- Harbinger doesn’t totally matter too much in a two-player game. You just pass the bag a lot, which can be mildly annoying. It might be better to just have one person do all the drawing and have a token to indicate who goes first for Eco activations.
- No insert whatsoever. Not a huge problem, because it came with a bunch of bags, but it’s difficult to figure out the tile situation all that well. I just kind of threw them into the bag.
- The box is kind of flimsy, meaning it’s likely going to get damaged if you try to transport it without good support. Mine’s taken a beating even from a short trip, which is a huge bummer. I didn’t realize it would be that pliable. Maybe I just got a weird box?
- I do hate square cards. This is largely a personal gripe. They make sense in the context of the game; the information on them is easy to read, not that dense, and informative; and I think having two different types of cards is good. They’re also big enough that they’re less of a pain to shuffle, too, which is good. I’m just generally pissy about them.
- Watch out for bad starter matchups, especially in two-player. I got rolled once because I wasn’t really paying attention to our initial hands interacted (we didn’t use one of the Recommended Matchups in the rulebook). I ended up feeding her tiles and animals that she could use for huge combos and lost like, 70 – 30. It was a crushing defeat, even in the short game.
- It’s possible to effectively lose the game during the draft. I think this happens a bit more at lower player counts, but you need to make sure you’re not letting your opponent get a better combo set than you have, even if that means occasionally taking some cards you don’t want. I won one game pretty handily due to this, but I also think that the players didn’t realize that they could block one of my combos and so, nobody did. I’d say this is more of a note on strategy than a full complaint about the game, but this might lead to a negative experience for your players if it happens.
Overall: 9 / 10
Overall, I think Ecos: First Continent is pretty superb! I generally shy away from games in this time range (especially with that high of a player count limit), but there are so many things going on in this game that I genuinely like that I tried it against my better judgement. And how wrong I was! I really, really thought this game was a lot of fun. I think I’m pretty much always a sucker for dynamic maps; that’s sort of a given at this point. Cartographers really broke that for me this year, and I’ve been stuck in this space ever since. Add in a variety of unique cards, tokens, and animals (I barely even mentioned the Manatee tokens!) and you’ve got a game that’s got a broad appeal to a lot of players. One thing I always appreciate is that one of my friends came by when we were playing it, watched us play, and then asked to play it immediately after just from watching it. That’s about how much fun I think the game is; it remains exciting even if you’re not fully involved when the game starts. Naturally, the risk of unique cards is present and very real; I would not recommend doing what we did and just dealing each player random starting hands. Use the preset hands, instead, so that players have a bit of a gentle runway into the game itself. The only real complaint I would make is that I wish the box had a better insert than it currently does (though the token storage solutions help a lot). If you’re looking for a strategic game of map construction and animal management, though, I think Ecos: First Continent has a lot of cool stuff going for it, and I can’t wait to play it again!