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 1, part 2, part 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