Love and Hate in the 15th Century

Fief: a Jane Austen romance set in the wrong country and century, by the look of things.

I’m a historical kind of guy. I like my women in hennins, the sleeves of my cote-hardie decorated most ostentatiously, and my games to reflect the harsh realities presented by merely getting dressed on any given morning in the 15th century.

With that in mind, Fief: France 1429 ought to be the greatest game I’ve ever played. Instead, I’m prepared to make two completely true statements:

1) I absolutely hate Fief.

2) I absolutely love Fief.

"This is France," he cries, daintily, as he tries to send the messenger down the well by toeing his shins.

Fief: Madness 1429.

To illustrate my consternation, let’s talk about how to win the damn thing.

Three points. That’s all it takes. Four if you’ve entered into an alliance through holy matrimony, though then you’ve got to share the glory with your arranged spouse. So probably three points. Which might not sound like much, until you realize how nigh-impossible it is to get points.

See, Fief is all about growing your noble family, squabbling for power, grubbing for any sort of advantage over your fellow noble houses. New members will appear over time, lords or ladies. They’ll be ensconced within your family tableau, surrounded by their titles, ecclesiastical offices, and declarations of marriage, captivity, complicity in crime. And they’ll also appear on the map, warmongering generals besieging some dolt’s castle and itinerant bishops on the prowl for Saint Whomever’s pinkie bone.

It’s compelling stuff, a system where every pawn on the board represents someone important to your family, from the idiot cousin who can’t seem to accomplish anything all the way up to a king encompassed by his loyal knights. Now and then you’ll see a lady, perhaps the super-powered d’Arc herself, humbling her lesser brethren with a willful grin and an unsheathed sword.

I can’t emphasize enough that this is cool stuff. Your family takes on unique dynamic each game. Sometimes you’ll become barons of the land, clawing out point-granting titles with tooth, claw, and a heaping of very direct threats. Other times you’ll become the Pope, threatening your opponents with excommunication and tithing their hard-earned cash. Or the King himself, always wary of assassins. And no matter which path you travel, you’ll earn every single one of those points, reveling in the firm guidance of your hand, the silver streak that runs through your tongue. You’ll earn those points.

Then you’ll watch in horror as your best nobles are chewed up like delicious medieval gristle. Au revoir, points.

Until the plague gets him, anyway. Better stuff your crown with rose petals, sir.

When you’ve got a King in the family, you’re doing alright.

And to be clear, I’m not complaining. At least not exactly, though it doesn’t help that Fief’s scattershot rulebook lacks an easy reference for its game-shattering event cards, because many are the plans that have come undone thanks to the fickle whims of the draw deck. Good weather may mean extra produce from your mills, but a spot of rain means your armies are trapped at home until the sun comes out. Uprisings may steal away control of your villages or murder isolated lords, and the plague… well, suffice it to say, the appearance of the plague card means it’s time to say the F-word.

Simply put, the randomness is going to be polarizing. Battles are determined by fistfuls of dice, events both good and ill are drawn, bonuses are drawn, lords and ladies are drawn, the appointment from bishop to cardinal is drawn, your odds of dying from the plague are handled by another roll. Whether this feels like riveting storytelling or plain sadism will probably depend on which side of the bed you rolled out of that morning.

In fact, the only thing that doesn’t seem random is the diplomacy. The France on display is divided into fiefdoms and bishoprics, always overlapping at inconvenient intersections. Because these are crucial, both from the valuable tithes imposed on bishoprics and the titles awarded to those who can claim an entire fief, there are bound to be border disputes approximately every four minutes. And the game wants you to remember how your so-called “best friend” stabbed you in the back last turn. It’s telling that every round opens with these enormously important negotiations, as though just to rile everyone up. Across one long round-opening phase, you’ll tally which players wield which voting power and figure out who the eligible runners are, then hash out with bribes, threats, flattery, and the occasional game of footsie who gets to claim the best offices. Kings, bishops, and popes are made and discarded on the cutting floor of your arguments.

It’s fantastic diplomacy. Mean, nuanced, full of import.

Then back into the morass you go, maneuvering troops in the mud, rolling dice and drawing cards, and hoping like hell that all your efforts aren’t undone by a single unlucky draw.

And a bit of mud the worst. Other than assassination, plague, justice, taxation, tithing, or having too many daughters in the family.

Good weather is just about the best thing that can happen to you.

The thing is, if you let yourself go with it, Fief weaves some of the most compelling (board game) stories this side of Chaucer. It’s freewheeling gameplay full of fun and disappointment; like the world’s best sandbox except somebody’s cat left some prizes for you. Now how are you going to react — get grossed out when your fingers accidentally wrap around one of those steamers, or chuck some scat at your friends?

In one game, I watched as a corrupt bishop forced tithe after tithe on an abused local lord. Eventually he used his victim’s holy donations as a bribe fund to get elected Pope, even tossing a couple deniers at his underling, all magnanimous with his double chin and silly hat. Then he excommunicated the poor noble, just because he could. But the joke was on him, because his victim spent every last moment getting even, eventually marching an army straight down that Pope’s chubby throat.

Or there was the time I was on the verge of winning because I’d managed to propel one of my lords to the kingship. Then my new Queen birthed a brat and had me assassinated, declaring her son the new King and winning the game about five seconds later. And this was on the cusp of a shared victory, so it was purely out of selfish malice that my so-called ally had acted.

Another time, I actually won thanks to a fortuitous marriage. Chatting about the game afterwards, we both realized how shocked we were that neither one of us had betrayed the other. We’d both provided plenty of openings — armies lingering near the rear, stockpiled cash, a distracting feud with another opponent dragging on. Instead, we somehow cooperated, and then we somehow won together.

It always pays to have an idiot cousin upon whom to pin your ill deeds.

The Pink House has blood on one set of hands and manacles on another.

Ultimately, whether or not you like Fief: France 1429 depends on what you’re looking for.

A big story? Tons of tense negotiations? A few almost-shouting matches? Reaching the cusp of victory, then watching as your king dies young and leaves all his authority to an iron-willed Queen Consort? If so, then yes, this is the game for you.

Victory to the shrewdest player? Machinations assembled from wheels within wheels within wheels? Carefully laid plans that actually pay off? Well… then no.

For me, Fief is full of lots of things I love and lots of things I hate, and in many cases they’re the exact same things. Much like the actual 15th century, maybe. Because I love medieval clothing, especially those silly hats, but I really could do without all that pooping yourself to death.

Next time, I’ll talk about how the game’s five current expansions only deepen the paradox at Fief’s core. Because I love them and hate them, etc.

Posted on February 25, 2015, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think what I like most about Fief is exactly the sort of thing you’re talking about here, the way the best laid plans are utterly wrecked by fate. It’s interesting watching all the ratings on BGG, where people are clearly divided over the luck factor. Though I can’t disagree that almost winning only to have a string of negative events kill my chances really pisses me off.

    • On the other hand, I fall onto the “hate” side of this spectrum. Chance is well and good, but this is theoretically a game about machination, and therefore would have benefited from a few extra ways to keep your lords alive. It’s possible to try and have multiple lords, spread the victory points around, and kill off the “idiot cousin” Dan mentions, but even then you might get screwed by how few lord cards there are.

      And hey, I’m not saying I don’t see the appeal. The negotiations have a sort of black humor to them because everybody is perpetually within minutes of shedding this mortal coil. As a chaos simulator, where your noble household is every bit as susceptible to plagues and famines as everyone else, I can see how it can be fun to barely survive. It’s just that it feels so _undirected_ to me.

      Mmm, I’m not explaining myself very well, I’m afraid.

      • Like Dan, I think I see both sides here. I’ve had good times with Fief, but also some of the most infuriating moments I can remember. I can’t wait to play it next, but I don’t anticipate liking it when I do. And most of all, I’m excited about the prospect of a negotiation game with so much to do, and dreading certain members of my gaming group bullying everyone at the table.

        Fief is just like that. A big wonderful mess of contradictions.

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