Every so often a board game comes along which looks absolutely fantastic but where the game itself is at best mediocre. Let me state up front that that is not an accusation that can be levelled at Fae, a new(ish) game designed by Leo Colvini and published by Z-Man Games.
Deja Vu all over again
Let’s get the ‘newish’ out of the way first. Fae is essentially a repackaged, ever so slightly rethemed version of an older game: Clans. Clans was first published in 2002, also by Z-Man Games. It was very well received and was one of the runners-up for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2003, when it was pipped to the post by Dirk Henn’s Alhambra (published by Queen Games). Clans used little round huts to mark territory whereas Fae has little plastic druid figurines but, in pretty much every other respect, Fae and Clans are the very same game.
And the game itself is a good one. The theme of either version, such as it is, is largely an irrelevance. There’s some mumbo jumbo in the rules about ‘rituals’ and curses but all that is just flavour text to describe the scoring. You really need to think of Fae as an abstract area control game.
The board is divided into 60 territories which, if you look hard enough, you can see is made up of 12 regions each of which groups together five territories. There are also 60 markers (plastic druid figurines) in five different colours. These are placed out randomly across the 60 territories of the board but with the proviso that each of the five territory regions must contain one druid of each colour.
Once play begins, players take turns to empty druids from one territory to a neighbouring territory. They can move druids of any colour but if they move druids from a territory with more than one druid present, then they must move all the druids en masse. Druids are only rooted in place so that they cannot be moved further when there are at least seven in the same territory, and even then more druids can still be moved in to add to the seven. Territories are scored only when they are isolated (ie: when they are surrounded by only unoccupied territories). In that case, points are scored for each colour of druid that is represented. The number of points scored depends on the total number of druids there, although each colour scores only once. So, for example, an isolated territory with two yellow, one red and one blue druid will score 4 points each for yellow, red and blue: the second yellow druid in this case benefits red and blue as much as it does yellow.
Speedy play and subtle scoring
That’s the basics of Fae, although there is a little more subtlety to the scoring, which of course means more subtlety to play. If all five colours are represented on an isolated territory, all ‘lone druids’ (singletons) are removed before the territory is scored. Scoring is also modified by the ‘ritual card’ taken each time scoring occurs. These cards award bonus points for ‘blessed territory’ (ie: where the territory being scored matches that on the card) and negates any scoring at all where the territory is ‘cursed’ (matches the negative area of the card). There will be 12 scoring events in each game. The player who triggers a scoring also takes the scoring ‘ritual card’ to be treated as an end-game bonus point.
The trick in this game is that all five colours are always counted along the score track but the information about who actually ‘owns’ each colour is hidden. Colour ‘spirit’ cards are dealt out face down at the start of each game so that you know your own colour but you do not know the colours of the other players. The game takes up to four players so there will always be at least one colour that none of the players own. Fae is at its best, however, as a two player game where three of the five colours are unowned and players will inevitably be bluffing during the course of play to try to convince their opponent that the colour they are appearing to root for is other than the one they actually own and want to see scored. Success or failure may depend on how early in the game you correctly deduce the colour that your opponent is really seeking to push through to victory.
The rules in Fae are simple and that makes this game very easy to learn and remarkably quick to play, even for players who like to plan a few moves ahead. The set up can be a bit fiddly, checking that all five colours are represented in each region, but once you’ve got that out of the way, you can expect to complete a game in less than 30 minutes.
Like Azul, this year’s big hit game from Next Move and Plan B, players probably won’t perceive the subtlety of the scoring in this game until after their first play, but, because Fae plays so quickly, you’ll more often than not find players hankering to have a second shot at the game once they fully appreciate exactly how the scoring works and how clever moves, misdirection and skilful deduction can enable players to manipulate the scoring to their best advantage.
So should I buy Fae?
This all sounds very positive. Is there a ‘but’?
Actually, yes, there is, and it’s a big one. I began this review by referring to games that look great but are ‘meh’ when you actually play them. Though Fae is a good game, I could never describe it as a game that looks good. Given that it’s a reskin of an earlier successful game, you might have expected Z-Man Games to have improved on the design of the original. Sadly, they haven’t. I’m not particularly concerned here about the choice of druids over huts. Though I personally found the huts in the original version of the game rather appealing, I daresay some people will prefer the Fae plastic druids to the little huts from Clans. Druids vs huts is much of a muchness, however; I’m not at all worried about the choice of markers. What spoils this game are the unfortunate design choices that have been made in creating the map board.
There’s no kind way of saying this: the map board for Fae is a migraine attack waiting to happen. The territories and their river boundaries are not easily distinguishable even before you place out the druid markers.
That isn’t merely an aesthetic criticism, it seriously affects play. This is game where you should be able to view and readily take in at a glance the board and the relative positions of the markers on it. The design and colour choices made for the map hugely hinder rather than help in this. In that regard, the map board seems notably inferior to the board that was originally supplied with the game’s earlier incarnation.
Fae is still at heart a worthwhile game. It can be played as a light game – even as a filler – or, with just two players, it can be played as a highly competitive head to head contest. The game lends itself to planning two or three ‘moves’ ahead, yet it achieves this, in the main, without tempting players to bog themselves down in analysis paralysis. And yet… And yet, this game would be orders of magnitude better with a better designed map board. As it is, I can’t bring myself to give Fae a score of more than 5/10. To give you some idea of how significant I think the board defect is, however, I would have rated the game a very creditable 7/10 if it had had a better board.
If you like abstract games and if the ‘hidden identity’ aspect appeals, then do take a look at Fae. Maybe, for you, the map board won’t seem quite the objectionable barrier that it has proved to be with my local games group.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.