Depending on your source Fairies can be helpful, malicious, mischievous, hidden, easy to find, spiritual, nymphean, cute, disturbing, big, little, male, female, androgynous, autonomous forces of good or the tools of devilry, and so on and so on. Suffice it to say, they don’t always look and act like Tinkerbell. Though ironically they’re probably all of those things, really. And there is certainly a mysterious and unknown allure about them. Interestingly, there is oftentimes a mysterious and unknown nature to many a Euro game, too. So as a design ponders and struggles with a generic setting with which to skin its mechanisms, why not these enigmatic creatures?
How To Play
In Fae, players are the eponymous mystical spirits collectively toying with and moving druids to various gatherings of ritualistic worship. Identified by color, your goal is to score more points by luring corresponding druids of your identity to the most worthy congregations. But mischievous as you are, everyone’s true nature is a secret!
The world of Fae consists of sixty territories divided into twelve regions of five apiece, delineated by either lakes or rivers. Territories come in one of four terrain types, and at least one is always represented in a region. There are also sixty druid pawns, twelve in five different colors. To set up a game, druids are randomly placed one per territory, as long as each region contains one representative of each color. There are also twelve ritual cards depicting blessed and cursed terrain in varying denominations from 1 to 5, and sorted accordingly. These determine how spaces are scored, as well as serve as the game’s clock.
A unique spirit card is secretly dealt to each player. These Fae are associated by color and match those of the druids on the board. Interestingly, while all five colors of druids are always in play, not every corresponding spirit is assigned a player. Even in a full 4-player session, one Fae card will be left out. Since it’s all hidden information, the table is unsure which Fae are missing. However, any spirit’s associated druids will still be moving about the board and scoring points, even if the particular card is not in play.
On their turns, each player simply moves all of the druids located in a territory to an adjacent space that contains one or more other pawns. Unless your selected starting point contains seven or more, in which case those druids cannot move. You may cross rivers, but not lakes. Furthermore, the selected destination cannot be empty.
If the result of a movement isolates one or more territories with a gathering of druids, they will initiate a ritual, aka score points. Well, usually. First you must determine whether or not that territory is disrupted, which can happen in two ways. One, if every color of druid is present at the ritual, then you first remove and discard those represented by only one of its type. Two, if the terrain is cursed, then actually all of the druids are removed and no score is resolved. Cursed terrain is indicated on the bottom of the current ritual card.
After resolving disruption, each druid type remaining will score points for its associated Fae equal to the aggregate gathering of pawns in that ritual. For example, if there are three orange, two purple and one blue, then those three colors score six points each. Blessed terrain awards bonus points as indicated on the top half of the current ritual card – which designates the terrain being blessed, and a bonus number from 1 to 5. The last ritual card actually counts all terrains as blessed with its five extra credit. Scores are tabulated on a track around the edge of the board.
If your move is the one that isolated one or more groups of druids to instigate a ritual, then you also keep the card(s) used for scoring. Each of these are worth a point to you personally at the end of the game. That happens when either the twelfth ritual card is scored or when there are no more legal moves to make. Players now reveal which Fae they are and add their bonus points from ritual cards to their spirit’s token on the score track. If you have the most, you win. Which also means you’re the most mischievous and manipulative…which is better than being the most victorious, any day!
Will this Fairy Dust Make You Fly or Sneeze?
A frequent criticism of the Euro game experience is lack of narrative appeal. Not from everyone, mind you. Many gamers care very little about a design’s theme, setting and captivating intangibles. For others however, the joke is about how so pointless the setting is that the designer could easily replace it with something completely different, and not change a single rule. Enter the latest Exhibit A in the Case of the Soulless Euro…Fae.
This Z-Man production is a remake of Clans, first published in 2002. The rules are exactly the same. The components and world are completely new. In either iteration the goal and strategies are identical. In the original version, players moved wooden huts about the land attempting to gather them into villages. Doing so scored epochs and were tracked by removing discs from preset locations on the board that served the same function as the cards in Fae.
Clans was released in a much different market when the hobby reflected very little of its current nature. I’m not sure how far up the rankings it ever reached, but it currently sits at #1,161. Not bad for a sixteen year old design among eleventy million titles of a database. More impressive, it sits at #87 in the abstract category. So I’m sure it did just fine. That said, there were a lot fewer games published each year “back in the day.” A number so low when compared now that it’s almost embarrassing…and I don’t mean for those earlier times! It was easier for designs to stand out. And while all had unique mechanisms and rules, still the most successful usually followed the same general principle. They needed to be clean, simple and brisk, casually competitive, while engaging players in smart planning without overtaxing them or allowing interaction and luck to hijack play. In short, they had to be accessible. In order to achieve those hallmarks, theme and setting, while not totally disregarded, nonetheless was of secondary consideration. A generic subject or world often gave skin to the rules’ skeletal structure – if for no other purpose than to avoid outright abstractness.
That’s Clans. And Fae. There’s a simple, yet nuanced strategy to this abstract design that rewards players for efficient long-term planning and opportunistic short-term moves. It’s also quick and doesn’t leave players sitting on their thumbs. There is no randomness, and player interaction is subtle, but still integral. And the world is as generic as primer. Clans talked about nomadic humans and first settlements and some nonsuch. The backstory of Fae conjures enigmatic spirits and brave druids and mystical rituals. Players are imagining none of that as they push pawns from space to space and count up points every now and then.
The old joke about the soulless Euro exists for a reason. This particular one is a curious choice to resurrect after all these years, given today’s market. Admittedly, Fae is a good design. It’s just that not every good design makes for a good time. The admirable qualities that once served it well may find it harder to reach a modern audience more attuned to designs with sophisticated narrative scope and thematic structure. Fae’s predominant shortcoming is its bland repetitiveness. Move some pawns. Move some pawns. Move some pawns. Yes, it’s casual and relaxing. But, yawn. Its roteness sparks no engagement.
But perhaps it will strike a chord with many?
If it does, it will be amongst an audience looking for extremely straight-forward rules with a surprisingly refined strategic bent. Simple, but not shallow. That makes it accessible to a broad range of ages and gaming experiences, which puts it squarely into “gateway” territory – those titles used to introduce the hobby to the uninitiated.
One of the descriptive clichés experienced gamers often roll their eyes at is, “easy to learn, hard to master.” But the overused adage legitimately applies to Fae. Or another way I like to phrase it, they are games that “make me feel stupid.” The goal is obvious. You want to lure as many of your druids to as many different rituals as possible, without including everyone in each separate gathering, so that your singles aren’t disinvited. Avoiding cursed terrain is important. Scoring blessed terrain would be nice.
Meanwhile you can send other colors off to disadvantaged locales, which indirectly aids your cause. That’s a sharp double-edge sword, however. Other players can mess with your druids just as much. And as they all start clumping up, it’s increasingly more difficult to guide them individually, because moving one takes along a number of others for the ride. Your task sounds simple, but creating the most fruitful rituals is trickier than it sounds.
The degree to which you can manipulate congregations also depends on player count. The general experience is a little more chaotic with four players, although using that word paints a wilder picture than it actually is. Still, it’s difficult to execute long-term plans when there are three Fae moving before your turn. Since every pawn and every group are free to move, your next idea is usually dependent upon the board’s situation next time around. Because more are contributing to its changing state. In those situations, analysis paralysis can pose an issue since you may have to re-evaluate the options. With two, the game is more Chess-like, which also enhances its abstract feel. That makes the competition more acute, since the board doesn’t change as radically in between turns and it’s more difficult to deduce which color your opponent is.
While the secret Fae identities are intriguing, ultimately it doesn’t feel very significant. You’re still concerned with the optimal positions of your own color, which consumes the majority of your moves. That tips your hand, and sooner rather than later. Even when maneuvering other colors into gatherings that will take a hit through disruptions, your opponents will quickly take note and deduce the state of affairs by process of elimination. Or nearly so.
What does aid the secret role element somewhat is that all druid colors are in play, even if their corresponding spirit card is not. Those types essentially offer a neutral puppet with which to toy and hopefully bluff other players. That’s more successful early on. However, the game is so quick that you shouldn’t over complicate things with fancy deceptions or long-game ploys. There is no long game! As with planning, Fae’s bluffing characteristic definitely depends on player compliment. It’s easier to be sneakier with less players. In the end, bluffing and deduction are certainly part of the strategic equation, but you’re mostly occupied with directly advancing your own agenda every turn.
As the latest oldie to receive Z-Man’s attention, Fae’s facelift has proven more extreme than previous revisions like Citadels or the Euro Classics series – including Samurai, Through the Desert and Ra. While those may have tweaked some original rules and/or added modern cosmetics, the complete overhaul in Fae only reinforces the Just Another Soulless Euro quip – same rules, different theme and setting. More significantly game play confirms that. The design is solid enough. It’s clean and easy to learn. It offers rudimentary, yet puzzling strategy in which your choices matter, and nothing depends on random whim. Most of all, it usually paces well (unless you have one of those players) and finishes in about 30 minutes or less. It’s a laid-back, casual experience and works well for non-gamers which makes it a good gateway game. Still, with its rote space-to-space movement, occasionally interrupted by a smatter of accounting, it’s just not a very exciting one.
Z-Man Games provided a copy of Fae for this review.
Of Another Era
Straightforward rules, thinky strategy
Typically quick overall
Ritual cards progressively build scoring
Can produce moments of analysis paralysis
The more players, the harder to plan/implement strategy
Secret identity not as impactful as it sounds