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Review: Fealty

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How many games start with the death of a king and end with one of the players being crowned the new king?  I’m not sure but Fealty stands out from the bunch by immediately dropping the premise in favor of solid gameplay.  You can still act the part of an aspiring lord and demand that everyone treat you with the respect you’re due but instead let’s get right into the game.

How It Works

Fealty is an abstract area-control game where players are attempting to spread their influence across the land in a quest to become the new king. Aiding you in this quest is a team of nine allies who will be placed on the board to help you assert your control of the land. The board itself is made up of randomly selected 6×6 sections called Duchies, using one more Duchy than the number of players. There are three types of terrain on the boards: Fields, Forests, and Mountains. Fields and Forests can be claimed for influence and may also contain roads and cities. Mountains on the other hand are completely blocked and may not be claimed for influence, interacted with, or moved through. The board begins empty, ripe for the players to claim the land for themselves.

All players have a deck of nine cards corresponding to their nine allies, each card also has an associated piece. There are two different sets of cards to choose from: the basic Missives and the more nuanced Suns. Every card has a number of characteristics that determine how they are placed, their ability to spread influence, and occasionally a special ability. One of the most important characteristics is speed which is used to determine the order in which pieces are placed and spread influence with lower values acting sooner. The cards also have a range to determine how large of an area they influence and a type of terrain which they can claim. We’ll come back to the special abilities later but they generally allow for various ways to manipulate the board. Cards with a higher speed (slower) will have a larger range and better special abilities.

Some of your allies with their corresponding cards and pieces

Since you don’t yet have the whole kingdom at your command you will start the game by drawing a hand of three cards from your deck of allies.  The drawn cards are the only ones available to be placed on the board at this moment. The round begins with all players selecting one of their three cards simultaneously and putting it face down. Once everyone has chosen the ally that they want to place they are all revealed and turn order is determined by the speed of the pieces from lowest to highest.

Now you get to send out your ally to start claiming land for yourself, players place the piece corresponding to the card they selected in turn order. There are very specific laws that determine where your allies can be placed which become more restrictive as the game goes on. These restrictions are broken down into two types of rules: Political and Natural.

A 2-player game set up and ready to play

Rules of Politics govern how pieces are placed onto the board. Your allies are not good at cooperating so when you place a piece you are not allowed to place in a row or column that already contains a piece that you control. Also, the faster players have first pick of which region that want to place in. The first player to place a piece can pick any Duchy and place their piece in that region. Each following player must then pick one of the remaining Duchies with the last player always having a choice of the two regions that are left.

Rules of Nature address the difficulties of placing your pieces and influence on an increasingly crowded board. They state first that only one thing may reside in each space. You may not place or move anything (a piece, influence, etc) onto a spot that already contains something. The second part is similar and states the obstacles block everything. An obstacle is either a mountain, conflict marker, or anything belonging to another player. You cannot move through, place on, or make a path through an obstacle for any reason.

The red player will find it hard to place any more pieces in this region

Some allies have a special power that triggers when they are placed such as the ability to move a piece, place influence or conflict tokens, or remove another piece entirely. They might also allow for ignoring placement restricts, or provides additional influence during scoring.

After all the pieces have been placed on the board whoever was the last to place their piece receives the title of Presumptive Heir (and receives a token to help them remember). This isn’t just an empty title either, it is used to resolve ties in the case that two or more players select a piece with the same speed. The order is then determined by the player closest to the Presumptive Heir.

Sweet sweet influence

Once you’re done another ally is sent to your aid, draw a card to replace the one that was placed. The game ends after eight full rounds and no cards are drawn going into the last round since the decks are exhausted at this point. The players will thus only have 2 cards available to choose from in the last round (with one of those remaining cards going unplayed).

Now that you have all your allies in place they will finally spread your influence to areas that they controll. Begin spreading influence with the fastest pieces, all those with the lowest number available attempt to claim spots of the proper terrain type within their range. Just like with movement, the ability to claim a spot is blocked by obstacles. A piece must be able to draw a line through unoccupied adjacent spaces in order to claim them. Any space that is uncontested by other pieces with the same speed have an influence marker placed on them of the owner’s color. Cities are extra valuable for spreading influence and get two markers instead of one when they are claimed. If two pieces attempt to claim the same space then whichever piece can reach it with a shorter path may claim it. If they can reach it in the exact same number of steps then the spot remains unclaimed. Repeat the process of placing influence by going through the pieces by speed intervals from lowest to highest until they have all had a chance.

Two Generals square off and leave some spaces empty of influence

Each player adds up the number of influence that they have on the board and whoever has the most becomes the new king! The rules suggest that the victorious player may attempt to claim a throne close by or simply settle for the symbolic gesture of winning instead.

Fit For A King or An Empty Throne?

Fealty is an abstract game that tries ever so slightly to inject a setting and purpose behind your actions in the game. In theory I could enjoy a themeless abstract but something about adding in a little bit of flavor, be it through graphics or story, goes a long way to making the game enjoyable for me. I want all the benefits of an abstract strategy game’s simple ruleset without the cold calculated appearance of no theme. Theme-light abstracts are a great way to remove some of the barrier that would otherwise make their themeless counterparts hard to pull out with a variety of gamers. Fealty is certainly dry but it has some nice touches with a general setting and named pieces that have powers that suit their role.

However, I’ll gladly say that I enjoy the simplistic and information-first nature of the graphical design. This is a clean and excellent design that puts gameplay front and center. The board has easily recognizable terrains that have well defined contrast between the various types. The pieces are designed to clearly present both their speed and control (range and terrain type) making even a crowded board easy to scan. Being able to visualize the current state of the board is absolutely critical in Fealty and the design is in place to support this.

I found that this concept, more than any other, is pivotal to being able to fully enjoy Fealty. It is a game that relies heavily on the player’s ability to look at the pieces on the board and be able to assess how the end game, placing influence, will play out. Since control of any given space is in a constant state of flux and pieces not only claim spaces at various speeds but also in different ways, it would be cumbersome to try and visually indicate who has control during the game. Thus it is reserved for the end of the game and requires players to do this mental visualization on their own during play. This is a highly spatial game and players who can’t manipulate the visual state of the game in their head may find it hard to enjoy. It may also prove challenging for players that succumb to AP as each possible placement can drastically alter control of the board so finding an optimal placement can be a daunting task.

The blue player is able to claim some forest spaces first with his Warden (35) along with a Conflict Market this blocks yellow’s slower General (80) from placing some influence

As a contrast to the importance of analyzing the board and finding optimal placement, having the ability to manipulate the board through placement makes it nearly impossible to precisely control your influence. Your early placements will likely get challenged if they are placed in optimal spots so it isn’t always smart to make the “best” plays. The placement rules also encourage players to make less optimal placements to allow for better flexibility in the future or restrict opponents. It can be better to play most of the game on a pretty tactical level, having a general idea of how the pieces interact with each other rather than stressing out about who currently controls each individual space. Another benefit of the placements rules is that as the game becomes more complicated the players have fewer options and won’t be as bogged down with possibilities. This very naturally counteracts the increasing complexity of the game as it progresses.

The flow of the game further encourages players not to get hung up on all the details. You only have three of your pieces available at any given point and you don’t know the order that the rest will show up until the final turns so you have to be adaptable. This is true not only for the order that you place your pieces but also in reacting to the order in which your opponents play theirs. The hidden nature of which pieces are available to each player and which one they choose to play really lightens the burden of information overload and prevents pre-planned strategies. There’s an element of bluffing and unpredictability present that encourages tactical play and adaptability. The balance of speed and power of each piece really allows this system to shine. It becomes increasingly important to act first as the placement restrictions become more rigid and key spots get contested. But pieces with a lower speed value are also less useful so you’ll find it’s challenging to get your powerful pieces into good positions. You’ll generally either place them too early and have them get blocked or place them late and face heavy restrictions on where they end up.

Slower allies have a larger range

Increasing the number of players does cause the game to become more chaotic and even more difficult to visualize. Being able to negotiate, bluff, and appear to be in a weak position are all much more important as you have to deal with more players contesting your control. It’s possible to get completely blocked out if you are overly ambitious with your early placement so the importance of your later plays is greatly enhanced. I far prefer the amount of control that you get with just 2 players but it comes down to a matter of preference as to what you’re looking for.

Having additional sets of pieces is perhaps one of my favorite features of Fealty. Not only does it provide additional variety but it challenges players to adapt the way they play based on the strengths and weakness of their set and the ones they are facing. In the case where players are using different sets it creates asymmetric positions balanced by the critical speed stat. If you play the more powerful and nuanced Suns then you’ll be placing and claiming influence slower. This is an intriguing concept for expandability and has been balanced incredibly well in the case of the two sets that currently exist.  I’ll continue to patiently wait for them to revisit this game and release some more sets already.  Please?

The two sets: Missives in yellow (10-90) and Suns in Blue (15-95)

Fealty is a simple and quick playing abstract game that has an incredible amount of depth. Even though it requires spatial skills to enjoy it doesn’t get bogged down with complexity due to the hidden nature of card selection and restrictive placement rules. The unique balance between speed and power on pieces creates an intriguing struggle for control where players have to face restrictions to place their most powerful pieces. The big reveal at the end of the game as players watch their influence stack up is a very exciting moment that makes careful placement very worthwhile.

Summary

  • Rating 8.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Simple ruleset with quick play
  • Great graphical design that makes board visualization easy
  • Placement restrictions counteract increasing complexity
  • Clever balance of power versus timing
  • Variable setup and multiple sets allow for nice variety

Cons:

  • Very light on theme
  • Spatial visualization may prove too demanding for some
  • Becomes chaotic with more players
8.5 Very Good

I love optimization and engine games with tableau builders and card driven ones being my favorite. This usually means medium-heavy euros and medium-light card games.

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