Designer: Friedemann Friese
Artist: Harald Lieske
No one will argue that Friedemann Friese is a genius that takes risks with his board game designs. How do I know this? Well, his designs are so out of the box sometimes that it is can feel rough around the edges and ends up being a mixed bag. Regardless of whether you enjoy his games, there are always elements within each game that are bold and trailblazing. Witness the brutality of Fresh Fish (for which I still don’t know how to play well), the reusable Fable legacy system in Fabled Fruit, his Fast Forward play-as-you-go series of card games, the insane modularity of 504 and his early adoption of deckbuilding and worker placement in Copycat. His themes are also crazy unique and not touched by many: Funny Friends, Fearsome Floors, Feierabend, Fast Sloths, etc. Sure, he still churns out Power Grid derivatives and maps for his popular hit, but his overall design philosophy is really very courageous in a way: to innovate not knowing if the next game is a hit or miss. Love or hate his games, I am pretty sure that most gamers will still tell you they respect his vision and work.
In a way, I think Faiyum continues to reflect this gaming philosophy and ironically, Faiyum perfectly encapsulates how I feel about Friedeman Friese’s work: Right in the middle of the road, a mixed bag, so to speak. Again, there are beautiful elements in the game and also things that make me scratch my head. Faiyum is a game that I love and hate at the same time, a game that I just cannot decide if I want to keep or trade and one that I feel the urge to replay and avoid all at once. This is such a rare thing: I just cannot decide how I feel about it. In short, Faiyum is Friese to the core.
Faiyum is a card driven game where a card powers drive player actions. All players start with the same hand of cards but will quickly diverge as new cards are purchased. Individual deck customization is the main driver for game to game variation. However, unlike other card games of this type, there is also an extremely strong spatial element in Faiyum- perhaps more important than card play itself. I find that refreshing. The basic rules for Faiyum are simple: either play a card, buy a card or pick up your cards from the discard pile (known as administrative action). That’s it. Sounds like your regular deck builder, right? Well, not exactly. The innovation here is that cards purchased directly go to your hand and can be played on your very next turn. This is unlike other deck builders where a purchased card usually goes into the discard pile. In addition, when you pick up previously played cards from the discard pile during the administrative phase, only the top 3 cards will be free. The rest will cost one additional coin per card. In this way, you must decide which cards you need to pay to replay.This also means that cards at the bottom of the discard stack are less likely to be refreshed into your hand and care must be taken when deciding the order in which cards are played. As new cards are purchased, older cards are constantly pushed back to the pile and eventually phased out from the game as they becomes prohibitively expensive to pick up all the cards. This is likely the most innovative part of the game.
So, what can you do with these cards? Well, long story short, these cards allow you to perform very standard Euro-game like actions. The board starts as a crocodile infested swamp land in an area of the Nile. The map is overlaid by a hexagonal grid. Players play cards to place farmers on the hexagonal grids to clear the lands and harvest resources in the form of wheat or grapes. They can also mine quarries for stone. With the resources, players then build structures such as settlements, towns, roads, workshops, etc. Finally, Reputation points are earned when some of these cards are played and actions are triggered. Everything on the board is a shared resource and belongs to everyone and no one. Yellow could clear the land and harvest grapes while red would then play a card to build a settlement on the space. Later on, green would build a town on the same settlement before purple comes in and constructs a palace in the town. This is a key feature of Faiyum: that everything is shared makes the game more competitive. On paper, building on a common terrain facilitates player interactions as everyone is jostling to perform action on a limited resource. Hence, mastering the spatial element aspect of Faiyum is important for winning the game. Once all the cards and hence, actions, are exhausted, players will perform the administration and pull back any cards from the discard deck for replay. They will also have the option of removing up to two farmers on the main board, thus freeing up more space for actions. This administrative action will happen differently for all players as some folks may want to refresh often, while others will play every single card in their hand before refreshing. The frequency of triggering the administrative action is also a means to control the tempo of the game as the market to purchase cards gets reorganized every time an administrative action occurs.
The market to purchase cards is clearly inspired by the power plant market in Power Grid. Cards from the deck are arranged into current and future markets depending on their numerical value. Lower cards are weaker and shepherded into the current market while the higher numbered cards are placed in the future market when they come out. As cards are purchased by players, new cards come out into the market and the markets are rearranged based on their numerical value. Administrative actions also trigger removal of stagnant cards from the current market and also, introduces discounted items to the market. In short, the market is a huge source of inter-game variation because how the cards come out change how players interact with each other and with the board. In addition, it is also a timer to accelerate the pace of each game as the game comes to an end when the deck is depleted.
So why the love hate relationship? I love that Faiyum alters the traditional deck builder by making players decide the orders in which cards are played and how many to repurchase to the hand. This alone is a novel mechanism worthy of exploration. The game is structured for you to start phasing out weaker cards in favor of stronger versions of the card. This is done by making certain cards no longer useful because components have run out or placement of buildings or farmers on the map becomes impossible. In either case, cards can be rendered obsolete. All this requires some careful planning as players try to figure out the timing of when to play cards and the order in which the cards are played. As map elements and placements are limited and competitive, I enjoy the challenge of outdueling my opponent and staying one step ahead. This part of Faiyum, I enjoy quite a bit.
The interaction between card play and the competition for board elements is also challenging and fun. It’s not enough that you have a powerful card, you must also be able to play it. This can depend on multiple factors including whether there are adequate resources to play the card or if certain elements on the board are still available. A lot of cards are triggered when farmers are placed on certain structures. If those farmers are not removed or cleared from the location, the available spots to trigger the card actions might be extremely limited. So, fighting for those valuable territory is critical as is the timing for performing those actions. The game state changes dramatically depending on player decisions. For example, farmers can be removed from the board during the administrative action. There is an incentive to remove farmers because players will get a coin for each farmer removed. Since structures are shared, removal of farmers means it can also help your opponent. So, if all players decide against removing farmers, the game will become painful as many of your cards won’t be playable as there are no spot to place a farmer.
What I have mixed feelings about is the way cards are purchased, specifically your ability to make a purchase you want at the right moment. It can be a frustrating exercise and there is a fair bit of luck in play. When new cards are flipped, the markets are reshuffled to place the new card and there is a tiny window where you can time your purchase…. if you get lucky. If a card is good and appears in the current market, you are unlikely to see it as other players would snap it up quickly. The further away you sit from the person who flipped the card, the less likely you will get a shot of purchasing it. If the card lands in the future market, there is still no way you can predict when it will enter the current market. Basically, this greatly impacts the way you can build any engine. You may have a high-scoring engine, but no raw materials to feed the engine. Likewise, you may have loads of raw materials but no where to process them into points. Instead, what you are often left with is a partial engine where you piece together enough resources to power the card. It’s not optimal or efficient, but it will have to do. Perhaps I am too harsh, and that’s part of the game. However, a lucky break by someone will see a smoother implementation of their engines. This is the luck aspect of the game that will provide uneven benefits across the table. Because each card is so unique, there are certain cards that are very powerful. For example, there are a handful of end game cards that are scores a lot of points and without at least one of them, you will likely not be competitive. Again, luck is critical in getting cards that maximizes scoring based on the particular state of the game board. In another example, there are two late-stage cards that provide a boat load of income: Jester and Tax Collector. These two cards alone are a whopper and can give you a huge boost in income. Alone, they can win you the game. It is possible at low player counts, due to luck of the draw, that you are able to purchase both cards and essentially pay for your resources.
Faiyum also feels particularly fragile when it comes to timing the final round of administration action. As the draw deck is depleted, catastrophes will emerge from the deck and fill up the future market. Once the market is filled with four cards, the game enters its final round and no more administrative actions can be taken. Yes, people know the end game is coming and should plan accordingly, but your game plan can collapse entirely if someone triggers the end game and locks out any future administration action. So while your fellow player may have 15 actions in their hand. you may have only 3 left because you failed to do the administrative action before getting locked out. Because the points earned in the late rounds are huge, a mistake like this can throw you out of contention even though you might be competitive up to this point. This design feature feels very punitive and harsh and makes the game feel fragile. It basically reduces the importance of competition in the earlier rounds and makes the end game hinge solely on timing your administrative action. If the scores are tight toward the end, this will be the game breaker. I suspect for a 2 player game, the timing will be easier to anticipate. Imagine for 4 players, if the first 2 player triggers the administrative action, there is a lot of pressure for player 3 to do so and to then potentially lock out player 4. Since there is no way to tell if a player will perform an administrative action, they can do it in back to back turns if they wish, it is tough to gauge how much of a risk to take. Sure, I agree that this is a tactical part of playing Faiyum, but I still think the way huge points are scored late in the game makes this guessing game unappealing to me.
All told, I feel conflicted about Faiyum. As I mentioned at the start of this review, this game is hard for me to put my finger on. I love all the innovative parts about Faiyum and will continue to support Friese’s boldness in design. Yet, there are just other parts of the game that I cannot wrap my head around. Like every complex game, it is possible that if a group of 4 people play this game 100 times, the game will evolve into this amazing, transcendence experience that reveals the complexity and intricacy of each interaction. That is not going to happen. Based on what is possible and how I feel now, the game is good but with some caution thrown to the wind. It is not going to appeal to everyone, perhaps not even to all lifestyle Euro game lovers. This is one of those games that falls into the cliche of “try first before you purchase, unless that is, you love everything green”.
An extra word on the aesthetics of the game which I generally do not care. The game has these wonderful wooden bits and beautiful, simple artwork with muted colors that is a throwback to the good-old-days of Euro gaming. I do not find the icons on cards confusing, though I agree it could follow more commonly accepted conventions in gaming iconography. I think it is critical that the wooden pieces are simple geometric shapes with distinct colors because there are so many different types of them in the game. If you start getting fancy with your pieces, or if the art work is “modernized” with KS-style mentality, the game will be a confusing hot mess. Much of the game depends on getting a complete survey of the entire state of the game board, so the the publishers made the right choice here. Kudos to 2F Spiele for bucking the trend and keeping it simple, clean, uncluttered with modest packaging. Too bad you couldn’t reduce the size of the box to match Finstere Flure.