Where are the dinosaurs?! Ecos is a game about the creation/shifting of earth on a geological scale, and while I’m no expert, that seems like something that happened a long time ago. The animals in this distinctly pre-human setting are all normal animals. Like antelopes, or storks. At the risk of angering the powerful antelope lobby, I’m just going to say it: they’re dull animals. Give me dinosaurs! Or go back even further and let me play with amoebas or those proto-crab things.
But, antelopes and non-specific fish are what we’re stuck with as we try to manipulate the earth and its creatures in our roles as nebulous earth-shaping beings. The earth begins plain and animal-less. Then the person taking on the hilariously-named “harbinger” role draws a tile from the bag. Everyone shifts a cube quietly. The harbinger draws another tile. More quiet cube-shifting. Eventually something will happen, I promise.
Ecos has a strange cadence. It looks like a tableau builder (and it sort of is), but it plays sort of like Bingo, where getting Bingo lets you briefly play a more interesting game. Every card in your tableau requires a certain combination of elements to trigger, and every round of the game a new element will be drawn. Slowly you plod along, adding cubes to your cards, until one finally gets that last persnickety element. Then, bam! You get to do whatever the card says–maybe place some animals, or new land tiles, or get other, more rare elements to trigger more powerful cards–after which you rotate the card to signify that it’s used up one of its uses.
Ecos, more than anything, is about anticipation. If you set up your tableau cleverly a single trigger can cause a cascade of effects. Such moments are the highlight of Ecos, though they’ll happen only a handful of times. Most of the time you’ll be trying to set up those situations and waiting–waiting for the fates to go your way.
Tension and anticipation are so important to gaming, but the execution matters. Random elements can spice up a game, or make decisions meaningless. Downtime can be dull, or full of internalized strategic agony. Ecos contains a large amount of downtime compared to active decision-making time, but that downtime is wasted because you’ll usually spend that time just…waiting.
There are two primary ways games avoid this problem. Most commonly, time between your turns can be spent planning for your next decision point, making larger plans, and engaging with the rich mental exercise of the game. Such opportunities are quickly used up in a game as simple as Ecos, and you don’t exactly know when your next decision point will be because it’s pseudo-randomly determined.
A game could also make your opponent’s turns interesting, allowing them to disrupt your plans or trigger something that gives you an opportunity to play. Or, perhaps there’s room to negotiate or become involved in the metagame. Ecos creates very few opportunities to do anything when other people are having fun. Maybe they’ll interrupt your plans, and because the tableaus are open information it is possible to specifically target someone’s strategy, but except in the two player game that’s typically not going to be strategically advantageous and any meddling will likely be incidental. Instead, when other people are playing, you’ll likely be twiddling your thumbs.
The fact that the game can mostly be played simultaneously alleviates this issue, in theory, though at higher player counts there’s still a lot of drawing tiles, waiting, making sure everyone’s ready for the next tile, and repeating the process all over again. The game may be technically simultaneous, but the time spent resolving card effects is often not. Even though I was excited to see that it plays up to six, I doubt I’ll ever play with more than four ever again.
Still, I can’t deny that at lower player counts, when the game moves along at a reasonable clip, I love watching my combos go off. Watching card after card play into each other like gears in a well-designed machine is wholly satisfying and worth experiencing.
The pleasant production from AEG doesn’t hurt matters either. I love how the land tiles are just a hair thicker than the water tiles, providing an almost imperceptible 3d effect. The cardboard holders for all of the animal bits and cubes are perfectly designed and make what would otherwise be an annoying aspect of set up nothing at all. I love the clean lines of the tree and mountain pieces, how placing them fundamentally changes the look of the landscape without cluttering it. On the other hand, the animal pieces themselves are visually cluttered and distinguishing between some of the player colors on the score track was frustrating. I can’t imagine how annoying that would be for someone who is colorblind.
If you really wanted to dig into the cards, I think you could get a good amount of depth out of Ecos. The first time I played I used the recommended starting hands and I was surprised how little synergy they contained. Every other time I’ve drafted, and while that’s certainly the best way to play, the inter-card interactions are surprisingly subtle, bordering on too independent of each other. You want to generate engines, but Ecos makes you work for it, digging through card draws to find the pieces you need. It makes the early games somewhat frustrating, as one card never seems particularly better than another given your current tableau and the board state. But give it some time and you’ll begin to tease out interactions you hadn’t seen before.
At the end of the day I don’t feel particularly compelled to dedicate much of my time to finding what depth Ecos may have. Even the most well executed strategy will feel a bit lifeless. The growth curve in terms of victory points is relatively flat for an engine game, and it’s not interactive enough to house compelling interpersonal, multilayered narratives. Every time I wonder why the game can’t move along more quickly through its resource generation phases.
Still, there are joyous moments when plans come together and you can send your sharks chomping through the water, eating everything in their path, or have herds of antelopes clear the way for a lone rhinoceros to get the privacy it deserves, scoring you a dozen points in the process. Glimpses of narrative intrigue and falling domino combos can’t fully save an awkwardly paced experience, however.
Also, there are no dinosaurs. Some sins cannot be forgiven.