Taking Exception with Feudum
In a lot of ways, the list of features for Mark Swanson’s Feudum reads like a parody of an over-enthusiastic, under-developed Kickstarter product. What if I told you there was a sandbox game — not just any sandbox game, but a Euro sandbox game — that features area control, action card selection, multiple avenues of improving your holdings, various forms of feudal warfare, roving monsters, a guild system to manipulate and constantly update, a complex market to bully, movement puzzles, peasant uprisings, noble pilgrimages, and persnickety rules exceptions to all of the above?
If you had even a single ounce of sense in your head, hopefully you’d save yourself eighty dollars by running the other direction.
I’ll put this right up front: Feudum’s problem isn’t that it’s complex. Rather, it’s that all this complexity doesn’t result in much of a payoff. It’s sprawling, messy, and occasionally downright brilliant, but brilliant in the way a very young person is often brilliant. As in, it has some smart ideas, really wants you to know it, but hasn’t yet learned how to edit. Ask it for an elevator pitch and it’ll tell you every detail about the novel it’s writing that’s this and that and, well, it’s really about America.
Let’s begin at Feudum’s smallest point, with the pawns and action cards.
Your six-sided pawns are your gateway into the world of Feudum. Think of them as your personal agents, the folks who’ll cross mountains and ford rivers and occasionally stab someone in the back in order to fulfill your bidding. Each face shows a different profession — farmer, knight, alchemist, you get the idea. Each profession comes with its own advantage, tied to a particular action card. A monk, for example, can travel a bit farther when you play the move card, while a noble is really good at starving peasants out of their house and home. Every profession also awards some influence in their corresponding guild. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Where pawns are the way you’ll touch the board, the action cards are the way you’ll push them around. Of the eleven available actions, most initially appear as standard fare. There’s a move card for getting from one place to another, migrate to get new pawns onto the table, and influence to place influence markers to claim the outposts, farms, and towns that dot the landscape. There’s conquer and defend to conquer or defend, and even a repeat card that will allow you to reuse something you’ve already played.
However, the way you use these action cards is the first indication that Feudum might be a little too busy for its own good. Each round only lets you play four, which seems sensible enough. But rather than picking your actions as you go, everybody is forced to select their four cards in advance. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue. Early on, your goals are simple: migrate a new pawn onto the table, move to desirable territories, claim some new holdings, and then take advantage of what you’ve gained. Perhaps you’ll tax your cities, harvest your farms, or improve a lowly outpost into something better. But then somebody will claim a spot before you, rendering that taxation or harvest card entirely worthless. Like that, a quarter of your actions are no better than skips.
To be clear, this is a nitpick. If anything, careful planning ought to be rewarded. That your cards might prove worthless — and often incidentally rather than owing to malicious intent — is part of the game’s charm.
What’s less charming is that we’re already nudging into rules-exception territory. Even the simplest of actions tend to unravel into a heap of situational effects. Harvesting, for instance, doesn’t merely place some random resource cubes at your farm. It places some at your farm and some in your hand, but only if you decide to take them, and then you’ll lose any rosary beads you were holding because taking resources from your own farm is apparently a cardinal sin, and these resources are picked blindly, but if you have a farmer pawn on the table then your picks will be less-blind…
And but and and but. The usual procession of conditions necessary to parse an action in Feudum.
The most egregious offender is the guild card, which provides not two actions, not five actions, not even ten actions, but eighteen possible actions.
Let’s get into that. While most of the game’s action takes place on the map, quite a few of its most prominent scoring opportunities are relegated to the six guilds situated in the wings. As players accumulate influence, they can claim a guild’s grand master, journeyman, and apprentice slots. Influence initially comes from having the right pawn on the table, but towns, farms, and outposts sometimes count, and the big earner is eventually the right feudum — a fully-upgraded location. More on those dang things in a moment.
There are some compelling reasons to hold a position within a guild. The first is the possibility of filthy lucre, earned whenever someone purchases something from a market. Whether you’re selling resources, flying machines, royal seals, influence markers, or rosary beads, some of that cash will find its way into your purse. Far more important, though, are the points that a ranking guild leader can earn, both at regular intervals and whenever a leader uses their guild’s special action. This is where the guilds reveal themselves as the stuttering heart of Feudum, establishing a sprawling system of traded resources and tokens.
I’ll give you a quick example. The grand master of the merchant’s guild has a bunch of resources for sale. Rather than leaving them on the shelves, he decides to push them over to the alchemist’s shop. Sulfur, saltpeter, iron, wood — for every stockpile he fills up, he’ll earn additional points. Then, on her turn, the alchemist grand master spends those resources on inventions. Dirigibles and submersibles, sure, but also barrels of gunpowder, which in turn provide influence markers for the knight’s guild to sell. As is the case with each guild, the more inventions she hammers together, the more points she earns.
These swaps between neighboring guilds trace a wide oval around the table, heaping points on anyone who takes advantage of them — though only if you’re fortunate enough to have the proper resources at the proper time. Problematically, this whole interlocking economy is blighted by a cloud of dysfunction. Rather than running smoothly, it operates like a network of conveyor belts that have all been plugged into the same wobbly circuit breaker. At times everyone will be pushing resources around the circle, earning points and competing for guild leadership slots. Other times, you’ll go pretty much the whole game without any opportunity to buy influence markers.
Naturally, you could take command of a troublesome guild and resolve the kink in the production line yourself. But this is easier said than done, and not only because it’s a huge pain in the butt to constantly reevaluate who owns which guild whenever somebody upgrades a farm or kills off a pawn. For one thing, guild leadership isn’t easily displaced. To solidly seize control of a guild, you’ll often need to establish a feudum, which opens up a whole new world of trouble. And even if you do finagle a position of leadership over a guild, well, good luck. Remember, everything I’ve written over the last six paragraphs has been the sole domain of the guild card. Because you’ll only be able to play it at most twice per turn — courtesy of the repeat card — your actions are probably too bottlenecked to make much of a dent.
Most damning is the fact that Feudum seems to understand exactly how wonky its guilds are. Rather than relying on its players and guilds to self-regulate its markets, it offers a mid-game infusion of resources and tokens, effectively resetting its economy to a functional baseline. When even the game doesn’t trust you to keep the spice flowing, it’s hard to believe that the problem is the players.
And, well, there you have it. The eighteen actions of the guild card.
This is the recurring tumor lodged in Feudum’s pancreas. Whenever you try to do one thing, you’re whisked away to confront an exception or some other rule that didn’t matter until this moment. And as I stated before, it isn’t that these rules are complicated; it’s that they don’t make much sense, failing to gel with the game’s peculiar internal logic.
Consider movement. Whenever you play the move card, you aren’t just trundling your pawns from one place to another. You’re also locked out of entire regions that might require a vessel purchased from the alchemist’s guild. Flying machines move you along bird migrations, ships along waves, and submersibles along bubbles. These pathways are difficult to make out among the board’s jumble of information, but there they are, transforming your journey into a sort of ongoing puzzle.
Fair enough. But in addition to these roads and birds and waves and bubbles are ferry stops, where you can pay some shillings to move by another route. Fantastic! I’ll just pop over there to—
Except you can’t. Not always. Ferries are only open for business when there aren’t any vessels for sale in the alchemist guild. Because that’s how ferriers maintain their livelihood in this particular fantasy kingdom.
This sense of anti-logic contaminates nearly every aspect of the design. In the market, prices are covered up by the resources for sale. The game’s much-touted monsters are strangely acquired and require additional paragraphs of rules, but basically function as weaker pawns. Speaking of pawns, each round requires that you feed them, either with food or wine. Wine is better, except for the niggling detail that it must be prepared by storing sulfur in a barrel rather than just spending it from your rucksack.
Even the game’s titular feudums are handled so clumsily that they only rarely feel worth the effort. Situated at the top of the development food chain, they’re your best bet for securing leadership over a guild. The downsides, however, are more than marginal. Unlike every other type of location, feudums can be attacked by rival pawns, and are knocked back down to lowly outpost status if inadequately defended. Worse, holding a feudum but failing to wage war against other players means you’ll periodically lose points. Lots of points. Better to lay claim to some guild positions and ensure you’re playing that guild card as often as possible.
More’s the pity, because there are quite a few fantastic ideas rattling around Feudum’s skull.
One of my favorite bits is how it handles control. Each area can only accommodate three influence markers. Whoever gets there first is that location’s ruler, and if you slap down a second influence marker — a hefty investment, considering how limited those markers can be — then you now have a “subject” who will prop up your rule.
It’s when you add an influence marker to somebody else’s location that things get interesting. These “serfs” can propel you to eventual rule of that location, whether by launching an uprising or simply outnumbering the guy in charge, but there are benefits to retaining your status as a peasant. Only as a serf can you tend the landscape, adding little orchards, archery ranges, or mines that generate food, influence, and coins. These can be pillaged, but most of the time they create a mutual relationship of aid between ruler and serf, with both sides of the power dynamic invested in keeping their territory safe and prosperous. Within a few rounds, the map is populated with interdependent ruler/serf pairings, isolated domains, and hot spots of conflict. It’s in these moments that Feudum most fully embraces its sandbox roots and feels truly player-driven.
Other details are similarly nifty. Having your pawns become drunk and defenseless when you feed them wine is cool, as are the movement puzzles that regulate where you can travel. Even the guilds can be interesting once everybody’s using them to their fullest effect.
It’s just a shame that all these great ideas are too often lost beneath the clutter.
Then again, that’s the trouble with Feudum. Many of its systems are a joy to interact with, but only when they’re at their simplest. In those moments, the spotlight falls onto the players and how they’ve elected to interact. A battle here, a market conflict there; guild leadership being systematically eroded by an up-and-coming rival; two players trading serfdoms in order to catch up to a dominant enemy. Then some exception crops up, or you expend a staggering amount of effort for a meager payout, or someone realizes that a particular guild changed leadership three actions ago, or the game drags far beyond the limit of what all these problems warrant. More than fiddly, Feudum behaves like a neurotic groundskeeper, unwilling to prune away the excess ivy so that its stoutest masonry can shine through.
In short, Feudum is a smart one. It’s a pity that it creates too many exceptions to its own cleverness.
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