Five Tribes (2014) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameFive Tribes: The Djinns of Naqala (2014)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium [2.84]
BGG Rank79 [7.77]
Player Count2-4
Designer(s)Bruno Cathala
Buy it!Amazon Link


  • 30/9/2017 – Adjusted the colour blindness section in light of feedback.

Version Reviewed

English (European) First Edition


We gushed a fair bit about how the greatness of Five Tribes – it’s great to the tune of four and a half stars which is as as high as we’ve gone on the blog to date. While it’s definitely not a game I’d recommend for everyone, it’s a game I’d enthusiastically advocate for the right group with the right temperament. However, if that temperament is tempered by accessibility needs then the situation becomes more complex. That’s why you’re here though – you want to know if Naqala is a land with anything to offer you. Is that your wish? Rub my lamp and we’ll see what happens.

Colour Blindness

Colour blindness might be a problem. Opinions on this have been varied, as they always are given the ranges of ways colour blindness might manifest. Colour is used extensively as the sole method of communicating key game information. For example, the turn markers:

Colour blind turn markers

The colours, like the shape, are distinctive

This particular example isn’t a critical problem – only the rarer kinds of colour blindness will suffer here. However, look at the meeples:

Colour blind meeple

Hard to tell the builders from the killers. And the Viziers from the killers. And the merchants from the killers. Basically, they’re probably all killers.

Certainly from the simulated images I would say every category of colour blindness is going to have a problem hereFor example, if we look at a small four tile neighbourhood with a varied range of tribes represented:

Meeple on tiles

Good luck plotting out your move

My own immediate conclusion here was that Five Tribes is basically unplayable for anyone with colour blindness but a discussion with jdavidh97 on Twitter threw some cold water on that analysis. It’s my view here that the perspective of someone with colour blindness should overrule my largely theorycrafted perspective so I’ll quote the relevant tweets. Spoiler alert here for the soon to be published teardown of Yamatai…

Alluvian over on Boardgamegeek also had some comments regarding Five Tribes and colour blindness, although as I mentioned in my reply to the comment there are question marks over how representative this particular manifestation of colour blindness might be. However, I’ve also had feedback from others saying that they have problems with the meeples, and more problems still with the camel tokens used to indicate ownership of tiles

Colour blind camels


Now, as James says there are disclaimers that have to go into this – different categories of colour blindness will have different issues, and there is a spectrum of severity even within categories. Environmental conditions, lighting conditions, and a whole range of other things come into play here. Given the feedback I’ve been given here, we’ll offer a tentative recommendation since there’s reason to believe the situation is not as grim as the images above may imply. Your mileage may vary, and I would very much welcome comments from people with colour blindness to give additional data points that could alter this recommendation upwards or downwards.

Visual Accessibility

Again, we don’t have a lot about which we can be positive. So much of the game state is bound up in that distribution of meeples. The speed at which the game state changes results in memorisation strategies being largely ineffective. However, there is an extent to which this churn is also helpful – it means that you don’t need to know how the board looks after each turn, just how it looks after the player before you has made their move. That’s a small comfort.

The colours of the meeples are vibrant, and for the most part they’re well contrasted against the tiles. Vizier meeples (yellow) are less so, but overall the problem isn’t one of identifying specific meeples but in assessing patterns at a distance. Five Tribes is largely a game of visually identifying promising clumps of colours and mapping out a safe path between them.

The board of Five Tribes

Every bit of this matters, all of the time.

The problem here is that tiles begin quite busy and will sometimes become very busy depending on what’s happening in the rest of the game. They might have camels, and palaces (or trees) as well as a bunch of different meeple along with the point score and the special action. That’s all information you need to know, and it’s all going to have subtle impact. You can’t just pick up a handful of meeples and lay them down carelessly if you don’t want to give up scoring opportunities to your opponents. In assessing the game state you’re asking yourself ‘where do I want to go?’ and ‘where can I start that gets me there?’ and ‘what meeple are available in both locations?’ and ‘in what order should I drop them?’. Close inspection of the board can help here, but I don’t think it’s likely to help enough given how often you’ll need to reassess how it’s evolving. The dropping of a single meeple on a tile can be the difference between it being hugely valuable or being completely useless.

The nature of grouping tribes too will mean that if visual acuity is low they’ll often merge together into something difficult to count – the visual difference between two and three of the same tribe on a tile isn’t great if the meeples are neatly arranged, and assessing allocation of meeples to tiles isn’t easy if they’re more scattered.

Coinage too is a problem – it only comes in two denominations, but both of them are identical except for the number and colour on the front. That’s so that you can hide the sum of your wealth from other players, but it’s still inherently inaccessible.


Still, better than paper money

On a more positive note, the resource cards are visually distinctive. They share a background colour for the most part though that means close inspection will sometimes be necessary. At most you’ll be choosing between six of these, and that depends on which market square you’ve landed upon. Most of the time you’ll be picking the first N of these based on how many merchants you’ve just collected. Fakir cards have a different coloured background, and it would have been a useful visual aid (for everyone) for different sets to adopt that convention more rigorously.

Genie cards

What is your bidding, my master?

Genie cards are well structured, with the art on the leftmost two thirds of the card, the victory point value prominently displayed in the top right, and the impact of the card in the remaining space. The font makes the names of the genies a little difficult to read sometimes, but each player is given access to a reference card that outlines the range of genies and their powers in written English. There will only be three of these to choose from at a time.

But still – we can’t get away from the amount of visual information that needs parsed, and parsed constantly. You can’t play Five Tribes and focus on a smaller subsection of the game state. You need to have an appreciation of the whole board before you can make reasonably competent moves. While you don’t need to find the optimal move to play well, you do need to find good moves and those will only reveal themselves as a result of assessing the full state of the game.

We’d strongly recommend you avoid Five Tribes if visual impairment must be taken into account.

Cognitive Accessibility

Oof. It’s often the case that the games I like the most get the most critical teardowns but it never ceases to be a disappointment. Five Tribes, as I’m sure was probably obvious from the review, is not a game that is going to lend itself to cognitive accessibility. Even assuming everyone at the table is prepared to make moves that are as much intuition as they are calculation, there’s just too much to take into account.

First of all, the level of numeracy required here is significant. It involves counting at the basic level, arithmetic at the next level, and more complex propositions of value on top of that. Everything from bidding on turn order to the purchase of a genie is an inherently arithmetic act. For example, you spend two elders (or an elder and a fakir) to purchase a genie if you land on a sacred place. Elders are worth two victory points each at the end game, so you will need to spend as many of four of your victory points to buy a genie. Some of those genies in turn will impact on the value of future actions or previous accomplishments. If you buy Jafaar for example, he gives you six victory point but also triples the value of each of your viziers. Whether that’s going to be worthwhile depends on an algebraic equation taking into account current and future likely viziers, versus the inherent and modified cost of your elders, versus how much it impacts on relative scoring at the end. You might also want to take a genie just to deprive someone of the option later. Is it worth doing that? What about set collection – what’s the probability you’ll get enough from that as opposed to claiming a tile with some builders on it? The numeracy required to even come up with a ball park estimate of the worth of an action is considerable, and that needs weighed up against the ballpark estimate of your other options.

Then there’s the extent to which game flow is malleable, and how important that is to accomplishing the more clever combinations of actions that might be undertaken. Your position in the turn order is determined by bidding, and you’re not necessarily looking to go first. You’re looking to go when it’s likely to be most advantageous to you. You might bid to go last in one turn in the hope you can bid high enough to go first in the next. Those two uninterrupted actions would let you drop some meeple onto empty tiles just so you could claim the tiles in the next turn. You might trigger an assassin when claiming a tile, and kill a solitary meeple you placed earlier to claim that tile as well. A good two turn combo may claim you as many as four tiles if you line everything up, but that needs a great deal of forward planning, resource management, and engineering of the circumstances. Five Tribes tends to favour short-term tactics over strategy, but it does permit you to create the circumstances for strategic play if you understand how the rules synergise.

Scoring is done both in real time (in response to certain actions) and at the end – a numerate player will know approximately who is winning based on what has happened, and will have a reasonable idea of how they’re doing in relation to everyone else. That permits a degree of responsiveness in gameplay to allow yourself to adapt to a changing circumstance – stop chasing genies and go for big points, as an example. Players that know how to do this and how to adapt to the shifting context of play will absolutely benefit here.

There’s an extent too to which complexity trends upwards as the game goes on because genies add new abilities to players. Some of these abilities require their own internal currency system (spend elders and fakirs to achieve actions at particular times) and others offer a passive bonus that you get all the time. Some of those powers require some reasonably complex memory management too – for example, Marid gives you one or two coins every time someone drops a meeple on a tile you control. Part of observing the game then becomes a book-keeping exercise of noting when meeple are placed on tiles containing your camels, and who was responsible. Other genies are situational and the availability of their special powers is easy to forget.

Most of the game state is freely visible on the board so in that respect memory gets off relatively easily. However, the nature of play and the frequency of back-tracking means that making a move can be fraught with difficulties. The rules suggest that you play your meeples on their back to ease the administrative burden here, but it’s easy to forget to do that. The result is that when you find you can’t actually make a legal move you need to remember in what order you placed down meeples and collect them up so as to not impact on state. If you’re not paying close attention to this you may as well have randomised the board sections you passed through. As I say, rigorous adherence to the suggestion of playing meeples on their back is hugely helpful, but otherwise performing an ‘undo’ is a fragile act especially when moving larger numbers of tribespeople. As the game progresses, it even becomes possible to forget from which square you started. In the early stages of the game, you will have begun your move from one of the few empty squares. Before too much time has passed there will be several empty squares that could have been a legal origin for the move.

Overall, we have to strongly recommend players with fluid intelligence impairments avoid Five Tribes, although we’d tentatively recommend it for those with memory impairments alone. There are difficulties there, but not so severe that they can’t be overcome if the will is present.

Emotional Accessibility

There are an awful lot of scenarios in Five Tribes where other players will mess up your plans simply by innocently taking their own actions. However it’s very reminiscent of Takenoko – it’s rarely possible to be intentional here and as such it’s primarily accidental. Not always – it’ sometimes the case that a move you’ll make is so obvious that someone will actively block it, but it’s tremendously hard to do that given the churn of the board and the possibility space of play.

Competition in the game is primarily indirect with assassination of your collected meeples being the only real form of player versus player interaction. Even that is relatively mild because the cost is quite small – you lose a few victory points, or perhaps an elder. The benefits that come from choosing assassination for a player action are quite situational and as such it’s not the case it’ll be a constant irritation or even likely the difference between success and failure. The points disparities in Five Tribes can be considerable – as is usually the case, Mrs Meeple is better than I am at this game, but score differences have ranged from ten points (one where I won) and fifty (one of the many she won). A good player of Five Tribes is going to dominate, but it’s usually not particularly at anyone else’s expense. There’s contention over resources, but rarely direct competition. There are too many effective routes to victory for that to be a serious problem. In the end, if you do poorly you only have yourself to blame – that’s both good and bad in these sections, depending on the specific mindset of a player involved. Really the key thing here though is that you can be absolutely dominated in a game of Five Tribes, and it’ll be necessary to be emotionally prepared for it.

Linked to the idea of emotional preparation is the issue of analysis paralysis (URGH, HERE TOO? STOP IT, YOU HATE THE PHRASE, WE ALL DO. JUST SAY AP). Emotional conditions that require manageability or have issues with optimal gratification won’t thrive in this space. It’s a form of Fear of Missing Out that manifests itself as indecision when weighing up a range of uncertain options. More precisely, it’s a manifestation of a an idea popularised by Barry Schwartz – the paradox of choice where too many options lead to choice overload This is an issue in a lot of games, but it is an absolutely critical element here – there’s a reason I’m overcoming my hatred for the AP phrase. You can’t meaningfully discuss Five Tribes without bringing this up. The possibility space in this game is massive and only gets more massive before it eventually contracts. The game is full of good moves, but identifying the optimal move is almost certainly impossible given the number of moving parts and the shifting value associated with genies, oases and palaces. Everyone involved needs to be able to reach a point where they accept they’re going to make a ‘good enough’ move and commit to it. If that’s not possible, one single player can make the game almost unbearable to play.

We’ll tentatively recommend Five Tribes here however – there are important considerations before adopting it for a group, but as is often the case there are workarounds. The competitive model of the game too is interesting in that it permits the opportunity for people to gang up on others but manages to make it functionally infeasible. The real critical element is that players have to be willing to compromise on perfection.

Physical Accessibility

Here’s another section where we don’t have a lot positive we can say. The mancala mechanic at the core of Five Tribes is going to be difficult for anyone with fine-grained motor control impairments. You need to scoop up a set of meeple and them deposit them onto tiles in a particular order, ending with the correct meeple of the correct colour on the destination tile. It’s an action of considerable precision, especially if you want to make sure the orientation of meeples on the tiles is sufficient to permit back-tracking. There are other physical interactions too required, including card management, handling coinage, manipulating turn markers, and cashing in and collecting individual meeples as appropriate.

Verbalisation is possible, but the game doesn’t offer anything to make it easy. However, because you’re working with a standard grid layout of tiles it’s straightforward enough to create a co-ordinate system that allows for unambiguous referencing of tiles. Cardinal direction instructions would permit a player acting on someone else’s behalf to action an appropriate mancala distribution provided the start point is known. ‘Drop a red meeple north, then a green meeple east, then a yellow meeple north’. The rest of the game effects are easy to describe in simple terms provided co-ordinates are available. I’d advise using a chess-style notation for this, perhaps indicated with cards along the side and top of the grid. The game tends to take up a lot of table space already but there should be room for this without needing anything else to be moved around.

Overall then we’ll tentatively recommend Five Tribes in this category.


Nothing in the game requires formal communication, and once the symbolic language of the genies has been understood there isn’t an associated reading level required for play. However, there are a wide range of genies and it’ll take a while before this familiarity can be assumed.

We’ll recommend Five Tribes in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

It’s not really possible to discuss this particular section without referencing a long-standing controversy associated with Five Tribes. In earlier versions of the game, there were no fakir cards. Instead, there were slave cards that filled the same role – a currency that existed within certain contexts of the game. Bruno Cathala’s response to this topic was not ideal, somewhat dismissively saying that it was the fault of everyone else for not understanding Five Tribes was a work of fiction. ‘Here in France, it’s clear to everyone that we are in a fictional world, and introducing slaves in a game is not an endorsement of slavery’.

The publisher response too showed a striking lack of basic reasoning in their defense of the inclusion:

In modern times, even the mention of slavery causes very strong reactions, but glossing over the historical fact that there were slaves in Persia in the 10th century felt like we were ignoring the realities of the world that Five Tribes takes place in.

The version of the game we’ve looked at here uses the Fakir cards instead, and really the interesting thing is the impact is has on the game itself. It has zero impact on the game. Some have argued that it would be historically accurate to include slaves in a game like this, and sure that’s true. But it also costs nothing to not have them. The historical theme of Five Tribes is untarnished because it is not a historically accurate game. Seriously – genies don’t exist. Different tribes of people don’t move orthogonally in a mancala motion. Tribal migration follows an outward diffusion, not a pattern represented by the world’s most annoying airport shuttle bus. There is no such place as Naqala. Leaning on a defense based on historical or even fantastic conventions in a fictive property is fundamentally lazy. It dishonestly abrogates the responsibility of the designer and publisher for the decisions they have taken.

I repeat – this is not a game that can claim historical fact as a defense against its content. Whether the slave cards were unnecessarily offensive or not is irrelevant to the fact that this line of argument is logically and ethically incoherent. You can’t pick the elements you like from a historical or literary context and then declaim responsibility for the elements you chose to include or exclude. The act of choosing to include, exclude, or revise is an editorial decision for which it’s necessary to take ownership. In this respect, Bruno Cathala’s response is at least intellectually consistent. It is perhaps the attempt to claim the moral high-ground in the publisher response that rankles more.

Those in the boardgaming world that felt the palpable need to be able to buy and sell human lives as part of Five Tribes have sometimes engaged in a bit of ‘whatabouttery’ as a substitute for real debate. They say that this same argument applies to inclusion of assassination. They’re right too, but not for the reasons they might prefer. You could also replace assassination with a different thematic dressing with the same effect and nothing of value would be lost. The fact that this is the form the mechanic took is an active, conscious choice. Whether that is morally equivalent or not to the inclusion of slavery is again beside the point. For a game like this, nobody gets to claim they’re beholden to the integrity of a theme and we should stop even pretending that theme is a shield against criticism. There are a handful of games where I genuinely think that you couldn’t change thematic elements without deeply altering the game – Memoir ’44 as an example. Even they have conscious choices to make with regards to what they emphasise, or de-emphasise, in the mapping between external context and game mechanics.

Wow, that’s a fairly long digression for a problem that doesn’t even exist in my copy of the game. Fakirs are used instead of Slaves which is – well, let’s just say it’s better and not dwell too much farther on the topic.

Lady assassin

Hello boys

The box art too – hrm, I don’t know. The lady on the front is a typical representation in many exoticised depictions of women in the middle east, certainly those encompassing this time period. And for my part I think she is more ‘sexy’ as opposed to ‘sexualised’. After all, she’s an assassin and looks bad-ass. Beth Sobel is a wonderfully talented board-game artist and she has argued that the important element is that character representation should tell a story other than ‘this is a sexy man’ or ‘this is a sexy woman’. Here, I think that’s the case. Our assassin is probably manipulating the sexual appetites of men for the purposes of getting close enough to enact her grim work. The veil provides anonymity. The dagger, and its prominence, shows she’s not an unwilling target of male gaze, but a savvy beneficiary of its existence. Those that lust for her as a sexual object are simultaneously underestimating her danger and becoming victims of their own carnal desires. That tells a story to me, but I’d understand if others had a more pronounced objection to the portrayal. My view is that it’s probably broadly okay but I obviously don’t get to decide for anyone else. Thoughts on this would be welcome though because I’m not sure if this is likely to be off-putting or not. Art elements from other titles in the Five Tribes line are… less ambiguous in this respect.

Also you – you at the back. Yes you – the one muttering ‘She’s half naked because it’s hot in the desert, it’s thematic’. Do you notice the older gentleman beside her? Why isn’t he ‘tackle out’ if the art design is supposed to evoke the searing heat of the desert suns? ‘It’s thematic’ sometimes doesn’t make sense even within the very limited context of a board game’s own internal logic.

The manual doesn’t default to masculinity, instead using ‘she’ throughout. That’s interesting in a game that is otherwise so, uh, textured in this category. I prefer to see gender neutral terms here as a genuinely inclusive technique, but this at least adds a little balance to a seesaw that is weighted too heavily in the other direction.

Five Tribes is a game of high production values, and it comes with a price tag to match. It has an RRP of £47, and it only supports a maximum player count of four. It also tends to drag on at larger player counts which means that finding an appropriate group might be a challenge. Cost wise, as great as the game is, it’s a difficult one to justify.

Most of this section of the teardown is focused on a historical controversy rather than an existing one – modern printings of the game don’t use the slave card. However, given the high cost associated with the game and the strict circumstances under which it thrives our recommendation can still only be tentative.

Intersectional Accessibility

There aren’t many combinatory conditions here that aren’t already covered by individual categories. We already strongly advise people avoid the game if visual accessibility is an issue, or fluid intelligence impairments must be considered. Likewise if colour blindness is a problem and that compounds with an issue of visual accessibility, Five Tribes is (probably) best avoided. Those also tend to be the categories that intersect most significantly with others.

The only area where we might lower recommendations is in the intersection of physical and communication impairment, but even then the amount of communication required if a grid system is adopted is quite small. If necessary, it could be communicated via individual noises or gestures with someone moving up and down rows until one is selected, left and right along columns likewise, and then iterating over north, east, south and west. Cumbersome certainly, but possible.

Five Tribes isn’t an especially long game out of the box, but it can become much longer as people get lost in the rabbit hole of game state consideration. It also doesn’t give people a lot to do during downtime. You’re interested in the turn before yours, not anyone else’s because the game state will change too much for it to really matter. As such if attention or frustration with inactivity is an issue it might be a good idea to adopt a formal timer for play. Issues of memory may come into focus here too, because key to being able to perform a good move is knowing (and remembering) what you hoped to get out of it. The longer between turns, and the less focus someone has on the game, the more difficult that will be.

It’s not possible for players to gracefully drop out of a game of Five Tribes, but support for that can be house-ruled. There’s nothing that someone possesses that can’t be redistributed or shuffled back into the decks. Since the game scales down well to two players, all that’s needed to finish the game is really one other person. The two player variant of the game adopts slightly different conventions for play, but simply continuing on with two players as normal would be enough to get to a reasonably satisfying conclusion to an individual game.


We’ve seen worse in our teardowns, but we’ve also seen much better. Some of Five Tribes‘ largest problems relate to the gameplay conventions, but a few of them are straight up production blunders, and others would have been avoidable with a little care and attention.

Five Tribes, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
Colour BlindnessD
Visual AccessibilityE
Fluid IntelligenceE
Physical AccessibilityC
Emotional AccessibilityC
Socioeconomic AccessibilityC-

For such a pricey game too there are difficulties that come with even getting it to the table (URGH). The composition of a gaming group has a massive impact on the quality of any play experience, but Five Tribes is perhaps the most striking example of the differential of fun that might be expected. If one player has trouble deciding on their moves, it’ll seriously hinder the enjoyment of everyone. Few games have such a fragile dependency on the group.

We absolutely love Five Tribes – it’s easily one of the best games we’ve ever looked at on the blog. The setup time makes contemplating a session a little unpalatable, but it makes it worth your while if you invest the effort. Few games are so endlessly inventive in the play experience with such straightforward rules. We gave it four and a half stars, which is something we’ve done for very few games. It’s just a shame that so many people won’t be able to enjoy the experience that many of us can take for granted.



A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.