The Games of Stefan Feld, Part One

Over the last several years, designer Stefan Feld has made a rather impressive emergence onto the Eurogame scene. However, unlike many designers he doesn’t seem to have any specific patterns of design that make his games readily recognizable. Instead, I’d say the common feature that all of Feld’s games share is their uncommonness. Each one tends to have unique elements that really stand out from the crowd.

Thus, in appreciation of his games, I’ve decided to write about his several most popular games and what makes them unique. This week I’m going to cover his four games that were published from 2005 to 2007.

Feld Classic: 2005-2007

Roma (2005). Feld’s premiere game is a two-player die-rolling duel. Players array cards in slots numbered 1-6, then roll dice which are used to activate those cards (or, alternatively, to take cards or money). These cards are in turn used to generate VPs and hose your opponent.

Unique Elements. The central idea of using die rolls to active certain powers was more unique in 2005 than it is today — primarily due to the flood of dice games a few years ago, of which To Court the King (2006) and Kingsburg (2007) are the most similar in this aspect. (See my articles on dice games for more: part 1part 2part 3.) Nonetheless, I find it an appealing mechanism that generates real excitement, which is precisely what’s required to make dice games work.

Beyond that, I really enjoy Roma‘s least unique element: the face-to-face gameboard that’s used to similarly good effect by Lost Cities and many others.

Rum & Pirates (2006). If you’re primarily a multi-player gamer, your introduction to Feld was likely Rum & Pirates, and I certainly don’t think it stands up as his best game — but it does have some pretty innovative features. In the game, you and your opponents direct a wandering band of pirates about a city, each grabbing resources of a variety of sorts depending on where the band ends up.

Unique Elements. I find many of Feld’s games pretty hard to categorize, and that starts being true with Rum & Pirates. I think it comes closest to a worker-placement game of the sort introduced by Caylus (2005), but if so it’s a pretty weird one. Most notably, these worker-actions have a strong geographical basis: you can only take actions if the wandering pirates are close enough to what you want to do. In addition, there are two other unusual elements: the number of workers you have to spend varies rather than always being “1” and multiple players can take the same action (by looping back to the intersection where the action is).

If I had to guess I’d say that this game was likely designed before Caylus‘ publication, which would explain why it’s so different from what’s since become a design norm. In any case, I think it points toward some of the very exciting and different directions that worker placement can go — even if I find this particular game to have a offputting balance of length and chaos.

(See my alea article on Rum & Pirates for more of my thoughts on this game.)

Notre Dame (2007). In many ways, Notre Dame feels like the most normal of Feld’s games. It has some pretty normative elements, but blended together in some unique ways. Three times over the course of the game, you card draft through a complete set of nine action-selection cards. Each of those cards lets you gather different resources. Besides trying to balance a wide variety of resources, you also have to keep the rats in your portion of the city under control, lest everything else be in vain.

Unique Elements. Though the idea of an action/selection system is pretty normative, how it works isn’t. First, you have the card drafting that lets you select which precise actions you’ll be using each round. Fairy Tale (2005) and Midgard (2006) were two other games that came out around the same time featuring card drafting, but outside of CCGs it remains a vastly under-utilized mechanism. Second, you gain increasing power as you use the same cards multiple times, giving an important weight to specialization in action/selection. So, all told, while Notre Dame might be “just” action-selection, it adds so many unique adjuncts to that mechanism that it comes out feeling pretty innovative. The scarcity element of the rats was also pretty innovative in Notre Dame, but In the Year of the Dragon does the same and much more.

(See my alea article on Notre Dame for more of my thoughts on the game.)

In The Year of the Dragon (2007). One of the things that impresses me about Feld’s designs is that many of them reflect the trends of their publication year, but do so in a very innovative way. Thus Roma came out when dice games where heating up, Rum & Pirates appeared as worker-placement games appeared, Notre Dame debuted as part of a small group of card-drafting games, and both Notre Dame and In the Year of the Dragon premiered while scarcity games were appearing on the scene. In this game, you hire 13 specialists over the course of a year and try to manage their care, feeding, and usage while preparing for 10 disasters that strike.

Unique Elements. I think that In the Year of the Dragon may be Feld’s most unique game, because it practically defines a genre: the scarcity game. Augsburg 1540 (2006), which immediately preceded In the Year of the Dragon, was similarly tight in some elements (mainly, getting past the two roadblocks in the game), but In the Year of the Dragon expanded on that, making everything in the whole game feel tight and casting a negative light on (almost) every goal — offering up a new feeling of scarcity that you don’t see in games with more positive goals. I think Agricola (2007) knocked a similar category of gameplay out of the park in the same year, with the constant need to harvest and feed your family, but even that’s not quite as tight as the king of the field, In the Year of the Dragon.

(See my alea article on In the Year of the Dragon for more of my thoughts on the game.)

Around the Corner

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these early Feld games, and why you think they’re unique (or not). In my next article I’m going to cover some of his more recent releases, from 2008-2010.

If you keep an eye on my reviews, you should read my take on Age of Industry, which appeared at RPGnet last week.

Author’s Notes: Feld is certainly an innovative designer (and one of my favorites), but several years later I can more accurately define the core elements that make up a Feld game. They almost always include lots of different systems lightly strung together, creating the “point spaghetti” method of scoring. They also tend to use dice with players having options to control their luck. —SA, 12/28/15

2 thoughts on “The Games of Stefan Feld, Part One

  1. As an “anti-feldian” I don’t see Feld’s games unique at all, but yeah, I’m missing on the early ones (Roma in particular). From playing ItYotD, CoB, Strassbourg and Brugge I can easily pinpoint what makes Feld’s games Feld’s. It’s a notable “touch”, in the same way one can always tell Faidutti’s games apart from anybody else.

    For me his signature touch is: lack of restraint (let’s just cram another mechanism in there) and then turning whatever mechanism into an optimisation exercise.

    One of goals probably being creating a nice comfy competitive environment where no feelings are hurt and nothing actually happens in between the players, just through the game. I remember playing Strasbourg and going, hmm, I didn’t think somebody could take something as interactive as an auction and turn into a solo optimisation exercise (I won. By optimising bids.). And even In the Year of the Dragon. I decided to check it as I like punishing workerplacement like Agricola and Antiquity, relative to other WP game, and I found ItYotD tame and harmless in comparison and again focused on optimisation of very few options.

    I don’t see Feld as a versatile designer, quite the opposite, as one very much confined to a very specific type of games and just doing variations within the niche he carved and other designers followed. One of perfect clockwork machines of interlocking mechanisms that run smoothly and let the players cater to them and keep them running. It’s not like Kramer or Friese who can design heavy games and light games and party games, they count with me as versatile designers.

    I guess the question is one of scope – if one plays just a segment of boardgames, one can see a lot of variety within this segment, while I fail to see it, being used to broader boardgaming palette.

    • I came to the same conclusion about his standard style in my more-recent author’s note, saying that Feld games involve “lots of different systems lightly strung together”.

      However, I don’t agree that he can’t design both light and heavy games. I consider _Rum & Pirates_ light (but long), _Bruges_ fairly light (but looking a lot like his heavier designs), and _La Isla_ definitely light. Mind you, he’s 1 for 3 in those games: I love _Bruges_ and consider it a marked variant for him, but am not a fan of the others.

      Anyway, great thoughts!

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