Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Fief: France 1429

A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the board is set up correct.
        -from "Manual of Setting Up the Game" by Academy Games

Frank Herbert's Dune is one of my favorite books. What I loved so much about it is how it portrayed great houses demonstrating feudal power struggles. All of the other elements: from the sand worms to the realization of a messiah to the long genetic manipulations of bloodlines are incredibly interesting and compelling. But it is that feudal political struggle between Houses that compels me and engrosses me so deeply into the story.

Avalon Hill's Dune is my favorite board game. The game is such an amazing rendition of the themes of the book. Each player's faction is completely unique and strong while at the same time resonating so well with how the book portrayed them. There is one faction who writes down a turn number and another faction. If they would win on that turn, they don't. The predicting faction wins instead by manipulating the game in their favor.

But more than that, the game is about political dealings, traitors, and backstabbing. I love negotiations in games. Games like Diplomacy get brandished as the top of this genre. However, I personally think that Diplomacy and Game of Thrones are poor examples of what this genre is about. You see, in those games, there can only ever be a single winner. So every negotiation is footnoted with the idea that everyone will be forced to backstab in the course of the game. In Dune, however, alliances can win together. This propels the negotiation game to a whole new and interesting level--someone may actually want to help you and not betray you.

So, why am I starting out my review of Academy Games' Fief: France 1429 with a three paragraph summation of my love for Dune?

Because Fief is the spiritual successor of Dune--moreso than the FFG reimplementation of the Dune mechanisms in Rex.

God created medieval France to train the faithful.
        -from "The Wisdom of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

In Fief, each player controls a dynastic feudal family vying for control of France's power. Power comes in the form of noble and Royal titles (from Baron, Count, and Duke to King), as well as Ecclesiastical titles (from Bishop to Cardinal to Pope). Noble and Royal titles give the possessor 1 VP, while most Ecclesiastical titles only give influence and power. The game is played to 3 VP, which would grant a single player victory. However, allied families combine their VP totals, but only win with 4 VP. Getting 3 VP isn't as easy as it sounds and a good portion of the game will be spent eyeing up your opponents to see which ones could best benefit you to get to 4 VP together.

The map is broken into eight fiefdoms. Fiefdoms contain two, three, or four villages in them. If you control all of the villages in a fiefdom, you can purchase the Lord title of the fiefdom (and the VP that goes with the title). Now, the board is also split into five Bishoprics, which spill over and encompass portions of multiple fiefs under their sway. Once all of the villages in a Bishopric are controlled (even if by different players), the title of Bishop is put up for vote. Being a Bishop doesn't offer any VP, but it does allow the person to eventually become a Cardinal, which has a bit more power, including the ability to cast votes in the election of the Pope--or to even become Pope themselves.

Right off the bat, this sets up different strategies in the game. Area control with military forces can be used to seize and control as many different fiefs as possible. However, Ecclesiastical titles have a lot of influence over the game even if most do not give any direct VPs.

   "Thierry! Thierry! Thierry!" goes the refrain. "A million deaths were not enough for Thierry!"
        -from "A Child's History of Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

Here is a very basic overview of how a round of Fief plays out:

Each round begins with the Hear Ye, Hear Ye Phase, where alliances and titles are determined. Players may announce marriages. A marriage is where a player's Lord or Lady marries another player's Lord or Lady of the opposite gender. This ties the two families together and they are now allied (and require a combined 4 VP to win). Alliances, however, are binding. The only way to end the alliance is to end the marriage, which can be done by petitioning the Pope to annul the marriage (though he may refuse) or by the death of one of the spouses (in which case, any titles possessed by the deceased would pass to the spouse). So alliances should not be entered into lightly. Afterward, the titles of Bishop, Pope, and King are voted upon if the position is available and there are eligible candidates.

Next, players draw cards that can give them new nobles to play into their family or Fortune cards which can be played to various benefits and effects from ensuring a good, profitable harvest to hiring an assassin to kill another player's noble. During this time, Disaster cards may appear, which will be resolved to negative effects throughout random Bishoprics.

Player then collect income for the villages and mills that they control and then they can spend their money on titles (if eligible), mills, more military forces, or defensible strongholds.

Next, players move their troops. Military forces cannot be moved without a Lord leading them and each Lord can move up to two villages away. This means that, while stationary Lord-less armies may defend a village or stronghold, only Lords may lead them into battle. This poses a risk because a lost battle could mean the death or capture and ransom of a Lord. Battles are not immediately resolved until everyone moves and a Lord may ask permission of another Lord in a village to pass through without combating them. Similarly, a player could control the roads through the village and halt any progress through them, forcing their opponents to try to rush their way past the troops, or to simply stop outside of the village, or to turn around and return home if they have enough movement left.

Combats are then resolved and units strength is determined to calculate how many dice to roll. The attacker and defender roll simultaneously and then remove casualties. Afterward, if there are survivors, the players can continue, or negotiate a truce to stop battling, or, if a stronghold is being attacked, dig in and set up a siege to help the next round's battle.

After all of this is finished, players calculate VPs to see if there is a winner. This means that the marriage that gave you and your partner 4 VPs at the start of the round doesn't mean anything if your titled lord was killed since then and you are down a VP now.

To attempt an understanding of Gauvin without understanding his mortal enemy, the Baron Henri, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.
        -from "Manual of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

Three victory points doesn't seem like a lot. But it is. Alliances and trusting other players soon becomes a very real part of the game. The problem becomes trying to determine who best to power with. Once any marriages are announced, the pair must sustain their 4 VP throughout the round.

Here is where planning and plotting becomes interesting in the game. If an allied pairing has 4 VPs, they will surely be a target throughout the round. The same is true if a single person is on the verge of gaining his third VP.

Perhaps you have two points and a player with one point assures you that they will gain and hold another point on their turn. Do you trust them? Perhaps they are simply trying to wed into your power because they realize how difficult it is to end a marriage. Or, worse yet, they want to marry your only female Lord who is titled. That would mean if they hold an assassination card, they could marry her, kill her, and then claim her title as the surviving spouse, breaking your alliance and leaving them with 2 VP and you with 1 VP. Maybe they could do it and gain their 3rd VP and secure a solo win.

Now, if this were Diplomacy or Game of Thrones, you would know that this was the case. However, with Fief, it may not be. They might be telling you the truth and together you could secure a victory.

But the intrigue goes well beyond just marriages for titles. Perhaps you can position yourself with enough Ecclesiastical power and influence to secure the role of Pope. However, the Cardinals also have a lot of influence on voting to crown a King. So, perhaps you don't have a lot of points yourself, but you have the power and influence to possibly name and control these powerful titles.

All negotiation in the game is open, but players may not freely trade cards or coins to one another. However, each player begins with three Diplomacy tokens. A player can take a card or up to three coins from a player (with their consent) if he spends one of his negotiation tokens. They can also spend a token to gain 3 minutes of private conversation with one other player. During that time, they may trade as much as they like with one another.

The Diplomacy tokens at first felt unnatural. It seemed strange that you could not simply have a large military and routinely ask for bribes not to attack people. But after play, I actually grew to like them. It means talk and plans at the table are important to gauge where people's allegiance lies, but when a player is willing to spend one-third of their resources to collect or deal, you suddenly know how important it is. Every negotiation at the table is mere words until someone plays a Diplomacy token. And being able to spend three minutes in private dealings with another player is devilishly brilliant.

Without the tokens, game play would be muddied. Rich players would throw around coin to get others to do their bidding with statements like, "I'll give you 2 deniers to attack him there" or "I'll give you 3 deniers to move out of this village."

Now those offers can still be made, but it must really serve the strategic purposes of the other player because it is they who must discard their Diplomacy marker to receive the payment. This simple addition limits some of the power of rich players from dictating too much on the board. It also speeds game play as negotiations and offers of coin could easily slow down every turn as people haggle over every action.

The AP sleeper must awaken. It's his turn now.
        -from " The Wisdom of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

There is a lot going on in Fief. A lot. It is something that can feel overwhelming in your first play. Once the rules are understood, the game flows like... well... it flows like Spice. However, it takes a bit of time to fully grasp those little intricacies that, if missed, can easily ruin a plan because someone didn't know a nuance of a rule and it spoiled their entire strategy.

Because of this, I highly suggest that people treat their first game as a learning game. In fact, if playing with new players, if time is not an issue, I would even suggest playing through an entire dummy round to get them to understand the flow before resetting and starting again. Try to do as many things as possible in this dummy round for living examples of play--stack Disaster cards, set up attacks to show how they work, etc.

One of the things that I respect Academy Games for is their attention to detail. However, I was surprised at a few things that I found lacking in the game. First of all, there are a lot of different Fortune Cards with different effects, from Secret Passages, to Taxation Cards, to Uprising Cards that have different uses depending on when they are played and by whom. However, there is no "cheat sheet" of cards and their usages included in the game. In fact, card descriptions aren't even in one place in the rule book for easy reference. Depending on when in the game the card can be played, they are in that section of the rulebook. This makes it difficult for new players unfamiliar with the cards (which are language neutral and do not even have names on them) to figure out what card they have, let alone what it does or where to find it in the rulebook.

Another surprising find for an Academy Games rulebook is the number of inconstancies in the rulebook. The game is a reprint of an older French game and with this reimplementation, Academy Games made some small tweaks to the rules. I happen to prefer all of their changes. However, the rulebook lists many of the old rules to the game still. It references that there is a blank face on the battle dice, even though in the Academy Games version there is no blank face on the dice. Also, relics are referred to in the rules as being placed face down, while the tiles in the game are double-sided. While ultimately none of the missed old references break the game, it can add to unnecessary confusion in an already complex game and I'm surprised to see errors like this in an Academy Games release.

The Kickstarter run offered some bonus upgraded pieces, but they aren't necessary (and in fact are sort of over produced). The standard components are perfectly fine and work for the game. The only real component issue that I have is the board is a little under polished. Some of the colors blend together too easily making fief borders difficult to determine and the artwork for features like bridges seem like D&D cartography program icons.

There are Round Overview Cards for each player in the game and they are useful, but even they are set up with some shorthand references that can be confusing for newer players. But, overall, they are useful to get players to understand the flow of the game.

There are a number of small modules that can be added to the game that add complexity and more rules and I would highly suggest avoiding them until your group has more of a command of the game. However, we played with the Noble Attribute cards from the Politics Expansion right from the start because it increases flavor, variety and usefulness of a player's nobles in the game without adding much in the way of complexity.

Thus spoke Alienor-of-the-Knife d'Arc: "The d'Arc must combine the seductive wiles of a courtesan with the untouchable majesty of a virgin goddess, holding these attributes in tension so long as the powers of her youth endure. For when youth and beauty have gone, she will find that the place-between, once occupied by tension, has become a wellspring of cunning and resourcefulness. And moving three spaces is really sweet."
        -from "Pope Gauvin, Family Commentaries" by the Duchess Blanche

There is a lot to take in with this game. I will not deny that. It may seem intimidating and overwhelming and you might see some hesitant shifting at the table when you suggest playing it and begin to describe how the game plays to them.

So don't.

You will not sell this game by trying to describe the mechanisms of the game like I have up until this point. They don't do the game justice. If you want to sell the game, you need to tell them what happens when you play.

Explain to them about the time we played and my wife was holding the d'Arc title card. It is based off of Joan of Arc and you can play it on an unmarried female lord and she becomes a military might to be reckoned with as she has 3 movement and an extra die in battle. However, she cannot marry. My wife had the strongest military title in her hand, but did not play it. She had two male lords and one female lord. If she gave the d'Arc title to her female lord, she would not be able to marry her off. She needed to save her female lord for possible alliance. She had the strongest military card in her hand, but needed to keep marriage options open for alliances. That is wonderfully evocative and amazing. It also gave me the ability to try to negotiate giving her a female noble card or for her to title one of my female lords.

Tell them about the time when a player in our group created a very powerful Ecclesiastical base of lords, but since they were all cardinals and bishops, they were unable to wed. He had to vie to be elected Pope so that he could excommunicate his own Lord so that he would lose his cardinalship and then be eligible to marry. However, in order to do this, he had to bargain and negotiate with the other cardinal in the game to secure his vote for Pope.

Tell them about the time when the King had married for an alliance, making the other player Queen. He was set to petition the Pope to annul the marriage so that he and the Pope could join forces and win, but then the Queen's player played a male noble--who immediately became the Crown Prince. This proved that the marriage was consummated and the Pope was not able to annul the marriage. Then a simple assassination on the King gave the Crown Prince (and the Queen's player) the title and all of the power her ally one had.

This is where the game shines. It creates political and courtly intrigue in wonderfully narrative arcs. There is a military and control aspect of the game. But typically, it tends to be more about stopping rise in power while trying to underhandedly position yourself to be more appealing to another player.

"You are transparent. I see many things. I see plans within plans."
        -Othon to the Padishah King Philippe, from "In My Father's House" by the Duchess Blanche

My wife was nervous about playing our first live game of this. She told me that she doesn't feel that she does well with negotiation in games and she always gets the worse end of any bargain.

I told her not to worry. Fief tends to produce two types of players. There are those who machinate from the very beginning and look at every action to better themselves in some way as they look at the board with Machiavellian glee.

There are also players who simply position themselves to be appealing. They might strive for 2 VPs and hold them solidly. They can sit back and let the other players woo them and shower them with promises and offers.

It turns out that my wife is very comfortable with the second way of playing. She quickly became the richest player and had massively strong armies securing her two fiefs. Players wooed her with promises of marrying her and making her Queen and offering her cards and gold in exchange for her possible favor later as I tried to offer her a female lord to lay the d'Arc title upon. She was belle of the ball surrounded by horny French suitors.

"What is in the box?"
"Pain. And some really awesome bonus components if you bought the Kickstarter upgrade."
        -from "Manual of Pope Gauvin" by the Duchess Blanche

So, I suppose I need to test Fief with the Gom Jabbar and determine whether or not it replaces Dune for me.

No, it does not. There is too much that I love about the Dune setting and the unique player powers and strategies that makes it the King of my collection.

However, Dune has long been out of print. Fantasy Flight Games obtained the license for the mechanisms of the game, but not the IP and they produced Rex. Rex is okay, but it feels so diminished in comparison to Dune. The game Dune fits the setting so perfectly while Rex tries really hard to bend and manipulate their setting to fit the game. Also, the rules changes aren't that great and the components are surprisingly mediocre for a FFG production.

So I would definitely recommend Fief over Rex. With Dune out of print, it seems as if Fief is the best negotiation and diplomatic game out there at this time. It succeeds because the negotiations follow a true narrative arc (something that Rex fails to accomplish). The stories being told feel real and that is so important to the experience.

If I can't be a floating fat man betraying my enemies as an oncoming sandstorm threatens to level the battlefield, then I'll happily be a French Baron trying to woo the Pope's vote to make another player King so that we can marry and I can become Queen and betray him with assassination after bearing the Prince and marry the Pope's sister.

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