There’s a problem with the chickens.
Oh yeah? What’s wrong?
They’re … uh… backed up. I think someone has been feeding them beads.
Why would anyone do that?!
I’m not sure, but on the upside our harvest has never yielded so much salt! I knew starting this salt farm in the middle of the forest was a good idea!
How to Play
There’s no getting around it, Feudum is a complicated game. It took me a couple of days of studying the rulebook, watching videos, running through practice games, and perusing the rules forums on BGG before I felt comfortable enough to teach the game. The individual rules weren’t hard to understand; there are just so many of them. Rather than rehash them here, a broad overview should suffice. You have been exiled from your home and find yourself in a new land with strange little trees. In order to ingratiate yourself to the Queen, you can get involved with the local guilds, tend the land, or feed monastic beads to chickens, amongst other things. The winner is the player who becomes the most venerated in all the land, which, as the rulebook states, is just another way to say the player with the most victory points wins.
Each player has 11 action cards and will select 4 of them to be played each round. On your turn, you select one of your chosen cards and carry out the associated action. These actions include adding your pawns to the map, moving them to different locations, influencing those locations, improving said locations, attacking, and interacting with the 6 guilds laid out around the board. The board state will dictate the players’ standing with each guild. If you have a farmer pawn and rule a farm, for example, you will have 2 influence in the farmers guild. Whoever has the most influence in a specific guild is the guild master, with other players taking lesser roles in descending influence order.
When taking the guild action, you can trade with any guild, which usually means paying money for something in return. You can buy goods from the merchant guild, royal seals from the noble guild, and so forth. If you happen to have some influence in a guild, you can instead move resources between the guilds with victory points as a reward. Higher positions in the guilds allow you push or pull resources to or from other guilds to gain victory points.
Once all actions have been taken, the board is checked to see if it is time to move to the next epoch (phase). If so, victory points are awarded depending on the number of regions you occupy and your position in the guilds. After reaching the final epoch, additional points are awarded for your position on the epic journey track, money, locations you rule, and any bonus cards you may have completed. Whoever has the most points is the
winner most venerated in all the land!
Feuding with Feudum
Feudum is a physically sprawling game. The box is large and the quad-fold board will span any decently sized table. There are tokens and chits, wooden cubes and dice, cards, and even a haversack! Okay, it’s just a pouch, but isn’t it fun to say haversack? It’s a lavish production with incredible artwork. When Feudum is laid out, it’s impressive. My wife said it’s the prettiest game I have, and I struggled to come up with another game to rival it. It certainly makes a strong impression based on presentation alone, but in practice there are some major usability issues. The different regions of the board are not clearly defined, sometimes making it difficult to see where the badlands end and the where the mountains begin. The landscapes blend into each other to create a wonderful vista, but clarity suffers for it. Likewise, the paths on which your pawns travel can be hard to discern, making it difficult to see which points are connected or, more frustratingly, which mode of transportation is required. There are vessels in the game that allow you to travel on specific routes. Flying machines travel the air on routes depicted by a flock of birds. Submersible routes are depicted with bubbles and ship routes with waves. Sometimes they overlap, making it hard to see the other. Then there are rivers which don’t need either? Don’t worry, someone online has made a nice little chart to make it easy to decipher. Kind of. Also, some of the locations are designated as starting locations with a pink circle, but they are covered by building tokens which can obfuscate where they are during actual play. And the resource costs in the merchant guild are covered by the very goods they refer to. The only way to know how much a resource costs is to lift the resource itself, unless you’ve committed the prices to heart. Yes, really.
I could go on, but I don’t intend to nitpick the game to death. Instead I mean to illustrate a point. Individually, each of these issues is forgivable and could be overlooked. But as problems after problems layer upon themselves, it becomes really hard to move past. Every trouble point in the artwork and graphic design becomes a hurdle that requires mental effort to decipher. Yes, it’s pleasant to look at, but how much of my (very limited) mental capacity should I be expected to allocate to simply reading the board? Every time I have to lift a resource to check a price or trace a path with my finger, it introduces friction into the experience and slows the flow of play. Most frustrating is the fact that these are problems that could have been fixed, but it is as if the designer was so committed to a specific look that he was unwilling to compromise for the sake of clarity. It’s commendable to a degree, but the game suffers for its commitment to artistic vision, and that’s a theme that runs throughout the game.
Once you’ve finished ogling the board, strap right in for the rules experience of your life. Feudum is a complicated game with lots of rules, lots of edge cases, and lots to keep straight. To give you an idea of what you’re in for, you might want to check out the official rules video, which runs about 30 minutes. Unless you are as well rehearsed and organized as the video, expect to spend at least 45 minutes teaching the game. What I’m saying is that Feudum demands a commitment to play. I like a challenge and I’m willing to invest the time and effort to play a grand game, but for the all effort I put in, I expect something special on the other end, and Feudum doesn’t quite reach those heights.
Don’t get me wrong, Feudum does have a some good ideas and clever systems. The guild economy in particular stands out. The 6 guilds work in a circular symbiosis. The you can sell goods to the farmer guild who can send those goods to the merchant guild, which offers them up for sale to the players. The merchant guild can send goods to the alchemist guild to construct vessels for travel or send the resources further along to the knight guild. The knight guild turns the resources into influence markers, which are used to control locations on the board, or send them to the noble guild, which are converted to king’s seals. And the seals can be sent to the monk guild, which are then converted into beads, which can be sent to the chickens back in the farmer guild, which, for some reason, allows them to store more resources. And so the circle of life is complete.
It’s really satisfying seeing the goods make the rounds about the board. It’s all player driven, which brings some satisfaction, but also comes with a downside. The fluidity of the economy is reliant on the leaders of the guilds participating and pulling their weight. Those with influence in a guild can push and pull the resources from guild to guild, playing a mini-game to complete rows and columns with the resources in exchange for victory points. The problem is, if your guild has no resources, you have to wait for another guild to put them there. If you want to push resources into a guild that is full, you have to wait until that guild empties their stash room. And sometimes, the guild you are pushing goods into is empty, and it makes little sense to push goods into it since it will be difficult to complete a row or column. Why wouldn’t the other players just pitch in and participate? Because there is so much other stuff to do!
They may be busy building a submersible to get to a far off island, or maybe they’re improving their locations to improve their standing in another guild, or maybe they’re gathering their pawns for an attack, or maybe they’re climbing distant mountains to find inner peace. These stalls in the circular economy bring the most enticing part of the game to a halt. There are a few ways to clear the logjams. You could simply take over the guild and get things moving on your own, or you can move your pawn to the same location as your opponent and throw a feast. But neither of these two options is particularly nimble. Wrestling away control of a guild is a multi-step, multi-turn affair complicated by the fact that there is no way to keep track of how much influence players have in each of the guilds. Instead you have to take a count of the board every time it’s relevant. And throwing a feast requires you having set aside some wine (made from delicious sulfur, by the way) and making your way toward their pawn on the map. It takes a good amount of effort, and that’s amongst all the other distractions that the game offers.
Feudum suffers from “wouldn’t it be cool” syndrome. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could feed your people with wine, but then they’ll get drunk? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could recruit monsters into your army? Wouldn’t it be cool if there were pathways that open and close? Wouldn’t it be cool if each action card had a special ability tied to the different pawns? And so on and so forth. It’s ambitious, audacious, and admirable … to a point. Just remember that each of these new ideas introduces more rules overhead and, while none of them are hard to understand on their own, in congregate it requires allocating mental resources just to keeping rules straight instead of playing the game. But as daunting as the rules may seem, I will say that after half a play I was getting a decent grip on them, and after even just one game or two, I was downright comfortable. It wasn’t easy getting there, but I got there. And I can’t say it was worth the effort.
In an effort to provide breadth, Feudum didn’t manage to hook me with something great. Even the interesting guild system, while intriguing, is a simple exercise in making columns and rows. There’s no escalation. The same columns and rows you make on the first turn of the game are the same columns and rows you’ll make on the last. I even liked the way Feudum handles varying levels of power. Having the second most influence at a location or guild gives you slightly different advantages that are sometime preferable to being in complete control. But the rest of the game, which is a whole lot of game, just didn’t hold my interest. Gaining control in different regions is just a simple area control affair. Yes, you have to plan your moves, take influence actions, and occasionally be directly confrontational, but at the end of the day you are just moving and dropping influence, moving and dropping influence. Taking an epic voyage just means moving twice in a single round to move up on a track. Sure, it encourages movement on the map, but it’s not exactly exciting. Combat lacks tension and proceeds with a certain inevitability. Occasionally, an attacker will have reveal a weapon card or a defender will reveal a defend card, but there’s not much more to it. All are distractions from the star of the show.
Feudum mistakes quantity for depth. That’s not to say it is a shallow game, but in a effort to add depth, it just bolts on more and more systems. A complex stew can take hours to develop and is made up of many ingredients, but there’s a reason you don’t throw the entire pantry into the pot. The good flavors get lost amongst the mediocre ones.
It’s impressive that so many systems upon systems were able to be amalgamated by a first-time designer. By the same token, it doesn’t surprise me that such a game comes from a first-time designer. It has all the markings of a game that could have been better with an editor, someone to cut away the chaff, to trim the overgrowth, and to show off its strengths. The guild system is where it’s at. The circular, interdependent economy is something bold and fresh (though it could stand to be more fleshed out). And there is room in my collection for imperfect games that do something strange and unique. Ordinarily, Feudum would fit that mold, especially coupled with it’s beautiful presentation. But these are games that come out only a few times a year, which inevitably means relearning and reteaching rules. Teaching Feudum wasn’t enjoyable the first time, and I can’t ever see myself doing it in the future.
Review copy provided by Odd Bird Games.