True, this doesn't seem like the sort of thing I normally agree to play and write about. But my all-time favorite novel prominently features fairies, so I have a soft spot.

Every so often we encounter a game with objectives that feel totally disconnected from its play. Finicky victory checks, unexpected scoring criteria, weird tiebreakers — more an exercise in deciphering a designer’s intentions than sitting down to compete against some friends.

Glenn Cotter’s Fickle is the polar opposite. Your goals are always crystal clear. More than that, everybody else’s goals are clear, too. The trick is keeping your cards in place long enough to attain them. Talk about appropriate titles!

I prefer to call them parliaments. That seems like the sort of thing a fairy would agree to join.

An alliance of fairy families.

Since we opened by talking about goals, let’s start at the end and work backward.

Fickle sees you assembling a parliament of fairies. Each play features five “families.” Think suits and you’ll have the right idea. Every family has its own power, its own color and illustration, and a value between one and five. When you acquire a fairy — and I’ll be saying a lot more about how this happens in a moment — it goes onto the table in front of you. There’s a good chance it won’t stay there. Lots of Fickle’s fairy powers revolve around, well, fickleness. Stealing fairies, giving fairies, swapping fairies, discarding fairies, substituting affected fairies for other fairies. If there’s a way to disrupt a grouping of fairies, Glenn Cotter has likely found a way to slip it into the wording of Fickle’s twenty-two fairy families.

That matters, because the strength of those families is always a pressing concern. When the game ends, each player tallies up the value of the families they’ve assembled. A family of one scores that fairy’s value. So you want high cards. Easy. Except that isn’t always the case. Two fairies scores zero. Ouch. Guess they’re fickle in more ways than one. Three or four fairies, and the highest value fairy in that family is worth negative points. Double ouch. Maybe even a triple ouch. Good thing fairies are also fickle in reverse: assemble five of the same family and their values are all summed together. Of course, this is far harder than it sounds. For one thing, a large cluster of fairies acts like a neon bullseye on your back. If it looks like you’re about to pull off Fickle’s equivalent of a great train robbery, expect everyone at the table to come gunning for a way to break up your strongest family.

But there’s another matter to consider: the mind game at the core of every round, which also happens to be the way you pick up new cards.

Never mind. I agreed to play this one because cleavage. You caught me.

Each game consists of only five short rounds. Make them count.

It goes like this. At the start of the game, everyone is dealt three cards. From these, you’ll pick two to keep. This is your starting alliance. Every round thereafter — there are five — everyone is dealt a further three cards. This time, though, you don’t choose what to keep. Instead, you stack those three cards in any order you like and pass the resulting (tiny) deck to your neighbor. One at a time, everyone examines the top card of the deck they were just passed. You can keep this card. If you do, the two beneath it are discarded blindly. If you decide to look at the next card, the one you’re holding is lost. And so it goes until you’ve selected a card, whether by choice or because you ran out of cards to draw.

As far as drafts go, it’s dead simple. It’s also loaded with dread and deception. As a recipient, because there’s an inbuilt tension to needing a particular card and not knowing whether you’ll peel it off your deck. Or worse, whether the thinking mind that arranged that deck has laid a trap beneath the surface. But there’s also no small measure of stress on the other side of the equation, for those building and passing their decks. Sometimes you hope to conceal something good by littering the ground above it with tempting morsels. Other times you’re trying to entice your neighbor to dive a little too deeply, maybe on the off-chance that you’ll ruin one of their families. Or maybe, if you’re truly galaxy-brained, you’ll pass a fairy you hope gets claimed because it will allow your neighbor to disrupt somebody else’s plans.

Because everybody’s alliance is visible at all times, you can see what everyone is going for, at least approximately. This turns each round into its own ticking time bomb. You’re loading one spurious package, being handed another, and then using those acquisitions to blow up the entire table — and by extension, everyone’s final score. It definitely lives up to its namesake, for better and for worse.

This isn't the easiest game to get good pics of.

Another alliance.

To be clear, Fickle cuts both ways. Tricking a neighbor into claiming a weak card or triggering a fairy’s power to dismantle somebody’s alliance make for great moments, but they’re also moments stamped return to sender as often as not. Even testier, the setup can be as capricious as its winged cast. More than once we’ve played with a combination of cards that left one family useless, or saw a single suit favored above all others, or simply didn’t jive. Normally these would be hiccups rather than serious interruptions. Fickle only lasts fifteen minutes, after all. But much of that time is spent on shuffles, bookended by the setup of picking families and the breakdown of sorting them back into their proper piles. Without the mechanical process of sorting, shuffling, and dealing cards, a full play could be finished in as few as five minutes.

This is a note of caution, not a dealbreaker. All in all, Fickle is an unexpected surprise, although one that’s as liable to scratch as it is to cuddle up. Like a kitten. A ferocious kitten.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on January 22, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Reminds me of Fox and the Forest from your description.

  2. Ok now I’m dying to know what your “all-time favorite novel is.” I’m always looking for book recommends.

    Of course if it’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” I’m out of luck because I’ve already read that one.

  3. Thanks for putting my eyes on this. It seems exactly like the sort of game I’d wish to play with friends at conventions interspersed between longer gaming sessions, but alas that won’t be happening soon. I shall keep it on my radar, though.

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