The Games of Stefan Feld, Part Two

In my last column, The Games of Stefan Feld, Part One, I talked about the originality underlying Stefan Feld’s designs, highlighting four of his publications from 2005-2007. This time around I’m going to look at his more recent fare, from 2008-2010, and again discuss what I think makes them really stand out as innovative and original designs.

Though I’m discussing Stefan’s four most prominent designs from the period, if you’d like to talk about a game that I left out from 2008-2010, I invite you to make use of the comments, below.

New Feld: 2008-2010

The Name of the Rose (2008). Because of Feld’s amazing record with alea, every time I play one of his games from another publisher, I wonder, “Was this originally intended for alea?” This one certainly has the right depth, and there aren’t any alea games like it, so who knows. In any case, in The Name of The Rose, you’re trying to catch a murderer. Actions you take over the course of the game increase or decrease the evidence against one of the monks. The trick is, you’re secretly one of the monks. At the end of the game, everyone tries to guess who everyone is. Correct guesses increase evidence and then the the secret player of the monk with the least evidence against them wins.

It’s a little convoluted, so let me say, whew!

Unique Elements. There are two types of deduction in The Name of The Rose. The first is who-dunnit?, but the mechanism that’s used is what I actually call “anti-deduction” (induction?). As in Android(2008) and Tobago (2009), the guilty party isn’t selected at the start of the game but is rather decided by the actions of the players. So, it’s not really deduction at all, but it is an interesting and new sort of gameplay — and as seems typical for Feld, he published this game just as others of the same type were appearing. The real deduction in The Name of the Rose is figuring out who each player is. That really comes down to Clans (2002)-type gameplay, and isn’t that unique.

I think The Name of the Rose might not have gotten a lot of attention because the core unique element of “anti-deduction” isn’t as amazing as the stuff in some of Feld’s other games, but that may just be me.

Macao (2009). Feld’s newest alea game and his newest dice-rolling game is different from the ones he’s done before. Here you’ve got a pretty standard formulaic resource-management game, but your resources come from die rolls and must be stored away from future use. There are also elements of trade and connectivity to keep you thinking in lots of different directions.

Unique Elements. Much like Notre Dame (2007), in Macao, I feel like Feld took a pretty staid category of game — resource management and formulaic resource usage — and turned it on its head in approaching it in really different ways. The die-rolling is the most obvious difference, but it’s really the way that resource availability differs over time that makes it original. You’re literally creating a chronological supply chain and because resources don’t carry from turn to turn, you’re trying your best to keep complementary supplies together in the same timeframe. Rarely for Feld, this game has a distant predecessor from another designer — Neuland (2004) — but it still stands out as quite innovative.

The Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel (2009). I was surprised to see Feld’s name on this licensed game related to a game by another designer. It didn’t seem like the type of work he usually does, and indeed I don’t feel like it stands out as well as his other works. This is a two-player resource-management and building game where the main action is controlled by cards that the players claim.

Unique Elements. The most unique element of the game is the duel. When players choose their action cards, they do it in such a way that there must be one card of overlap. The players then “duel” over it. I love the idea of enforced conflict in a two-player game, and think that’s an innovation worthy of Feld. On the other hand I find the way that it’s managed here very artificial: players basically have to select lines of cards from a 3×3 grid that overlap. The actual duel doesn’t warm my cockles either. You flip two-sided tokens in the air, revealing values. Definitely an innovation, but IMO not a particularly worthwhile one. (Feld offers up a variant where you instead use resources to get to the better side of a token, which is probably an improvement.) Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good game, it just doesn’t stand out for me like the rest of Feld’s work.

The Speicherstadt (2010). Feld’s newest game just hit the stores in the US a few weeks ago, and is what got me thinking about Feld’s game enough to write this article. In some ways it’s a formulaic resource-management game, just like Macao, but here you’re putting together specified sets of resources to win VPs at the end of the game. You purchase goods, VP formulae, and other elements through an auction, where you first place markers to determine bidding order then give those players the opportunity to buy those items in that order, but with costs being higher for the earlier players (based on how many players they have in line behind them).

Unique Elements. I love the idea of Dutch Auctions, but they’re pretty hard to pull off in board games. Reiner Knizia’s Merchants of Amsterdam (2000) offers them straight up and always strikes me as a disaster waiting to happen, as players wildly lunge for the auction clock. Faidutti & Cathala’s Queen’s Necklace (2003) offers a calmer approach, where prices dropping from turn to turn, but the “auction” is set up in such a way that each player usually has one option to buy each thing. (I’ve written a whole article on the topic.)

Conversely, The Speicherstadt is super clever and, yes, innovative. Effectively what happens is that players create a stack of Dutch Auction costs, then unwind that stack to see who will actually pay. If one marker is down, that player gets it at “1”. If two markers are down, the first one gets it at “2” or the second can at “1”. Etc. Not even The Speicherstadt acts quite like a Dutch Auction “really” does, but I think it’s a really neat and innovative approach to the issue.

The Commonalities

When I kicked off this topic in my last column, one of my basic theses was that Feld’s games don’t really have any commonality. I largely stand by that, but after walking through eight of them, I can start to see some common design elements. First, he seems to enjoy chaos more than most designers, whether that be dice-rolling, the movement of a joint resource, or the very important drawing of cards. Second, he seems to enjoy forcing interactions upon players. I think that’s the most obvious in his two-player games, but The Speicherstadt fairly naturally does the same thing, while there’s explicit (die-rolling) conflict in Rum & Pirates, implicit fighting for position in The Name of the Rose, and somewhat more subtle forced interactions in most other games.

As has been the case for the last few years, I look forward to seeing what Stefan Feld will do next.

Author’s Note: Looking back, I don’t feel like this was Feld’s strongest time period. I feel like Macao has held up well and remains an innovative and unique game for Feld, but the others have entirely disappeared from the gaming table. Clearly I should follow this article up with what he did next, because he was on the verge of some real hits. —SA, 2/2/16

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