Faiyum reminds me of Tigris & Euphrates. Not mechanically, or not entirely. Rather, in the way it captures a span of history almost entirely through systems. It’s the sort of game that seems entirely about the placement of pieces and the manipulation of cards. Yet it’s also a game about ancient progress, about struggling against the land to fashion something livable.
And it’s very nearly perfect.
Faiyum wasn’t always an oasis. Features of geography are often best measured in geologic timescales, and for millions of years it remained a recession in the earth near the canyon that would eventually fill with enough silt to become the Nile River. Human settlements sprouted around the floodplains of the Nile, taking advantage of its seasonal expansion and recession. When the flooding was intense, the spillover reached far enough to fill that basin and form a lake. At times this served as a reservoir, expanded by the pharaohs to capture a portion of the water that would otherwise flow past into the Mediterranean. Later, these expansions became extensive enough that a canal was dug from river to basin, unleashing the waters to form a wide marsh.
All that remained was to cultivate it.
This is the task of Friedemann Freise’s Faiyum, a game that draws upon the market systems of Power Grid and Funkenschlag before it. You’re an advisor to the pharaoh, currying favor by outdoing your fellows in taming and eventually urbanizing the oasis, though I confess that role was rarely foremost in my thoughts. The more tangible arc is one of pruning and settlement, networking and trade. For much of its duration — which I’m informed is long at two hours, although it passes in such a breeze that I hardly notice — the landscape’s dominant feature is its abundance of crocodiles. These aren’t dangerous, at least not to you, whether your vantage point is your kitchen table or the drafting tent of a pharaoh’s advisor. Instead, these fearsome creatures are the first and rawest obstacle to expansion. They will soon be removed, slowly at first but soon almost without effort, by the trickle of farmers deployed to cultivate patches of land for grain and grapes.
It’s impossible to speak about Faiyum without describing the card system, an elegant approach that’s only halfway connected to the setting but ultimately settles into the background where it lets you get on with the task of storing resources and expanding the pharaoh’s holdings. Every card permits an action. There are such a range of options that much of any first play will be spent with one’s nose in the card glossary. This menu is both comprehensive and easy to read, while also missing the opportunity to call it a Rosetta Stone. That is, after all, its function: to decode the symbols that permit nearly every interaction in the game. Early on, farmers step onto a space to remove its crocodile and bring home a single resource, while small settlements and tentative roads sprout along patches of cleared terrain.
Before long, serious advisors will contemplate purchasing new cards. The card market is a volatile place. At any given moment there are four to choose from, plus four on preview that may or may not become available soon. The volatility arises because these cards are always changing and their order is so thoroughly randomized that there’s no telling whether their offered actions will suit the current demands of the developing oasis.
I’ll give one example. There’s a structure called a workshop for swiftly refining a space’s resources. These are divided by type, so a farm turns a grape and a stone into lots of grain, a vineyard grinds grain and stone into grapes, and the quarry completes the final edge of the game’s triangle of resource conversions. There are also cards that make use of these workshops, deploying a worker to a specific spot. The vintner, for example, is placed upon a vineyard to transform a grape into points and money.
However, there’s no guarantee that these later cards will appear in their proper order. Rather than filing to the front in a tidy procession from the workshop to the laborers who will work there, it’s entirely possible for them to appear in reverse order, at the same time, or even not at all — or at least not until the game has progressed into its final stages. One critic has called this a flaw with the game. That’s akin to saying that opening a box to find a jumble of pieces is a flaw with a jigsaw puzzle. Faiyum excels in such moments. Not in spite of them, but because these doses of uncertainty are the entire point. Settling the oasis isn’t done by hitting upon a single profitable sequence of cards. It’s done by finding two or three workable avenues and putting them all to use.
This is only possible because ownership is a flexible concept. You own anything in your hand: cards, gathered resources, the crocodile tokens you’ve chosen to hold onto even though there’s no reason for it. Anything placed on the map becomes common property. This isn’t a new idea. Plenty of games deploy pieces that anybody can make use of. Given how it’s emphasized in the rules, I get the sense that players of Faiyum might come to the table under the impression that you only own what structures you’ve personally assembled.
But therein lies much of the game’s flexibility. Merchant pawns can be placed on any open settlement. Farmers can till any unoccupied field. Laborers can utilize a workshop no matter who built it. One card permits an “escort” to move between linked settlements, earning points for each destination. Another sees the pharaoh visiting the oasis and raking in points for every connecting city, settlement, and monument.
Between many individual interactions, Faiyum generates a sort of ecosystem, or at least a mutual interdependence between advisors. Someone earns points building farms; someone else earns points by expanding them; a third advisor hires the bakers who complete the sequence. It’s possible to see the rise of producers, makers, builders, refiners, even parasites who leap forward to take advantage of another’s infrastructure without contributing structures of their own. This interplay is beautiful to behold, its consequences written onto the table by the gradual spread of settlements and towns, roads and bridges. Every play soon adopts its own shape: huddling along one bank of the canal, clusters of inland settlements, a lakeside civilization, barely-touched wilderness in one spot or another. It requires a few plays before the value of each placement becomes apparent. But with that clarity comes an appreciation for how each adjustment marches the oasis along a fresh path of development.
I haven’t even described the way each individual hand functions. As cards are played, they enter a personal discard pile and become unavailable. Eventually, the only remaining option is to administrate, which covers a few bases at once. Income is accrued both from having as few remaining cards as possible and pulling a few workers from the map. Cards are replenished from your discard pile, although only the top three are free. And the market is adjusted, with the oldest card disappearing, discount tokens appearing on what remains, and new offerings sliding into play.
As I intimated before, this is Faiyum at its gamiest, whether you’re considering optimal discard sequences, playing a weak card to clear it from your hand, or purchasing one of the few options that will let you reorder your discard pile. Don’t mistake me — this is good gaming, with nuances aplenty, from the order your cards should be played to the miniature races it engenders between players. As the game progresses, it even becomes essential to selectively remove workers while continuing to clog up any spots desired by your rivals. But even a useful passed turn tends to feel like a passed turn. It’s in such moments that Faiyum’s duration rebounds like a snapped rubber band around one’s wrist, suddenly aware where before you’d forgotten its presence.
Fortunately, administration is an occasional tedium and can be delayed through smart play. Slightly less mitigatable is the endgame. Eventually the market’s overflow fills with four natural disasters, signaling the moment when administration becomes impossible and all that remains is to spend your remaining cards and resources until you can no longer continue. It’s an appropriate conclusion. Faiyum itself was abandoned with the nearest portion of the Nile faded, and players feel a similar pressure as the deck dwindles, hoping to administrate and regain their cards for one final sputter of scoring. When you miss the opportunity by a single card flip, well, that’s the nature of the encroaching desert. Less aphoristically, it sucks.
If these complaints seem flimsy, that’s because they are. Faiyum is solid enough that its weakest portions are cracks in the mortar, not outright defects. It resembles nothing so much as a fast-moving video of something under construction — a skyscraper, perhaps — but more organic, like a living thing stretching itself into its fullest position. That it sacrifices not an ounce of playability in the undertaking of such a feat is tremendous.