I hardly know where to begin with Feudum. It has a fairy tale appearance, so maybe I should have just begun with Once Upon a Time… There’s so much to like about this game and there’s just as much to dislike. So let me just start with the components and the look of the game.
Designed by Mark K. Swanson with art by Justin Schulz, and published by Odd Bird, Feudum is a game that looks absolutely beautiful. There are lots of attractive components and when you set this game up it looks for all the world like a brightly coloured children’s illustrated story book. Set this game and you’ll have people champing at the bit to play.
Unfortunately, that’s where your problems begin. It’s not that Feudum is an especially heavy game; it’s what a friend of mine calls ‘a whole lot of simple’. Apply that description to a game like Alexander Pfister’s Mombasa and it ably sums up the mechanics. Here though it just gives a tiny insight into the workings of the game where there is such a lot – arguably too much – going on. No single action you take in Feudum is of itself very complicated but there are just so many possible actions and courses open to you, each with their own conglomeration of inter-related and overlapping rules, that the game is exceptionally hard for players to initially get their heads around.
Looks can be deceiving in Feudum
If you are tasked with teaching Feudum, you will struggle to explain all the rules and those you are teaching will struggle even more to maintain their attention over an introduction to seeming minutia that could easily take more than an hour. The cute eye-catching artwork and components give onlookers the appearance of a game that they ought to be able to pick up quickly. If you’re making it sound overly complicated then they will conclude that it must surely be your fault. You’re obviously making a hash of explaining how to play. How could a game with colourful cubes and figures that seem to have strolled out of a Maurice Sendak book possibly be that hard to grasp? You will have players pleading to get on with the game and learn as they play. That can be a very effective teaching and learning approach in many games but you will almost certain come a cropper if you try it with Feudum. I guarantee that you will be barely into the game before someone attempts an action for which you have to explain further rules, limitations and qualifications. “Why didn’t you warn us about this?” they demand. “I wouldn’t have done that if you’d explained that rule to us.”
Lots to learn and lots to keep track of
Twice bitten, thrice shy. Don’t expect this to be a summary of the rules. Feudum is an area control game where players take actions in accord with their individual decks of cards. The cards are language independent, which means that their meaning is conveyed by icons rather than text. That’s usually good news but here it does mean there’s a mass of quite confusing and unintuitive iconography to get to grips with. Expect a lot of scouring of the rulebook to decipher what each of the icons means, and more accusative complaints from players that they hadn’t realised that they could use a card to do what another player has just used there’s to do. Be warned too that there’s a lot to keep track of in this game. As actions change what’s on the board, you’ll have regularly to count up each player’s markers to make sure that you always have an accurate picture of who controls what.
Feudum is a ‘euro game’ in the sense that it’s a game where you are harvesting and making use of resources. Areas controlled on the map board, for example, can be upgraded on payment of the requisite resources. Ultimately, you’ll want to upgrade farms to towns and towns to feudums (fiefs). There are worthwhile benefits to doing this but there’s also a ongoing cost: you’ll be required to contribute soldiers to the king or you’ll suffer points penalties. Players’ military contributions can be against the monster that turns up to ravage the countryside but usually they require players to attack each other.
Feudum is very much a sandbox game in that you have very wide choices over what you do, how you play and accumulate points and what you set as your path through the game. There are guilds to join, control and exploit; and achieving mastery of a guild puts all the other players in hock to you for whatever it is that that guild controls. There are rules to bear in mind, however, for the different ways in which each guild interacts with its two neighbouring guilds. Once you fully understand how each of the guilds interacts with its neighbours, you’ll begin to appreciate the elegance of the design.
I mentioned cute components. These include dice-like cubes that represent players’ ‘pawns’. You select the side you want the pawn to represent and that will determine what powers and abilities the pawn will have when, for example, it is placed out in one of the six guilds. The map board looks delightful but, be warned, it contains lots of tiny symbols adding one or other condition, such as a cost to use a road. Don’t even think about playing this game in a room with poor lighting but even if you play under the full glare of spotlights you’ll still probably find at some point that one of the players has failed to notice and take proper account of a symbol on the board. At a more basic level, it can even be hard to distinguish between the sea and air routes on the board. Sea routes are signified by a line of faint white bubbles; air routes are shown as a line of faint white birds. Neither shows up well against the pale turquoise background of the sea.
Good in parts
There’s a famous 19th Century Punch cartoon by George du Maurier. A timid young curate is dining as the guest of his Bishop. The host observes that his guest has been served a bad egg. “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you!”, replies the curate. “Parts of it are excellent!” The cartoon is what has given rise to the expression in English of a “curate’s egg” as something that is “good in parts”. This modern usage of the term rather misses the point of the du Maurier’s original cartoon. An egg that has gone ‘partly bad’ would be entirely unpleasant. If I conclude therefore that Feudum is something of a curate’s egg, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether to interpret that in its original Punch cartoon meaning or in current idiom. This is a game that looks as though it ought to be great, and if you do finally manage to assimilate all the rules and get a group of other players to likewise properly learn the game, then Feudum returns the investment. It can be very enjoyable to play. Just beware those all important ifs and my warning of how hard this game is to teach.
Let me say, though, if you do get over the hurdles the rules lay ahead of you, then those who do see this game through will come to appreciate it and will want to play it again. And if you get completely hooked, there’s a bunch of expansions already available that add more cute models and, relatively speaking, not too many added elements of complexity. For me, it’s a keeper but I suspect it’s a game I won’t be playing that often because I won’t want to repeat the experience of having to introduce it afresh to new initially eager players whose interest has waned before the game actually gets underway. Given its complexity and foibles, I couldn’t rate Feudum higher than 5/10, but don’t read that as a condemnation. There’s a novel and interesting game here but my rating reflects the fact that Feudum is a game that has such an unexpectedly demanding rules overhead.
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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.