The more I play designer board games, the more I think about the person that designs them. When first getting into the hobby, I said my favorite designer was Friedmann Friese, because he designed what was my favorite game for quite some time, Power Grid.I then moved on to Uwe Rosenburg, because my favorite mechanic is worker placement, and the king of worker placement games in my mind is still Agricola. Now though, I have a new favorite designer and it’s Stefan Feld.
Every Stefan Feld game I have played is different, but, on the other hand, every Feld game is the same. Let us focus on what is the same first. All Stefan Feld games are games with a variety of different ways to score victory points and the player has to optimize how to score points with a random element in order to win the game. I have played the following Feld games: Castles of Burgundy (10+ plays), Macao (about 10 plays), Bruges (just received, about 10 plays), Trajan (just received, 5 or 6 plays), and Notre Dame (1 play). Of the four games I have played multiple times there are similarities between them; let’s delve into them.
Castles of Burgundy is Feld’s highest ranked game on Board Game Geek. The game revolves around players placing tiles on a personal hexagonal board comprised of hexagon spaces. The area the players place on is a area of town that is comprised of 6 different sections, all which help them score points in different ways. In addition to placing tiles on the board, points can also be acquired through a shipping action. So points can be scored different ways through placement, shipping goods, and by getting bonuses.
In the game Trajan, the exact same thing happens. Each turn, the player is able to take 1 of 6 possible actions, all of which score points in either direct or indirect ways. Figuring out which way is best is based upon the random factor (mostly) of what tiles come out when. Of the four Feld games being compared, Trajan has the least amount of luck, and thus is the most bean counter in its nature.
In Macao, there are three main ways to score points: good delivery, cards, and endgame scoring. The ways to score are more limited in Macao than the other Feld games, but the game still works because of the whole cube system.
In Bruges, there are many ways to score victory points as well. People who dislike Feld’s designs complain that his games are what they call “Victory Point Salad,” but people who love his designs are huge fans of this method. The framework for Feld is to figure out a lot of different ways to score victory points, and then the second key is to have a randomness factor that makes it so there is not one optimal strategy.
Looking at Bruges, the randomness comes from two places. First, there is a deck of cards and the cards are in different colors which means they do different things. Every card can be played in 6 different ways, and those ways score different points in different ways. There are also 5 dice that are rolled every round, and high dice rolls make money easier to get while causing a number of negative effects, while low rolls make money harder to get but with fewer negative effects.
Macao uses dice like Bruges does, but the tradeoff is different. In Macao, players decide either to get more actions in a turn further in the future or fewer, sooner actions. What is really neat about both games is that there is major dice luck in how the games play out, but all players use the exact same dice rolls, so they have no excuse; the dice weren’t bad to them, since all players use the same rolls.
Castles of Burgundy has each player roll his own pair of 6-sided dice, so players can feel as if they’re “screwed by the dice roll.” What Feld does to alleviate this is allow for players to get workers which can change dice to other numbers. Dice used to be thought of as something that does not belong in a Eurogame, but Feld does dice in a Eurogame way, in that he uses dice more as just a randomizer while trying the mitigate the luck factor. When you combine the multiple ways to score points with the random element, there is a very high replay element.
Notice I did not mention Trajan when talking about dice, because Trajan does not have any. What Feld does is build games around interesting mechanics. In Trajan, the game is basically entirely built on the Mancala-like wheel that the player manipulates in order to take the actions he wants to take. To introduce dice in Trajan would make the player feel as if he had no control. There is enough of a luck factor itself in the tiles placed on the board that replay value is not sacrificed.
It should not surprise anyone that the Feld games lack theme based upon the discussion thus far. What makes a Feld game great is not the theme, but clearly the mechanics. Some gamers want the theme of the game to be strong, and I do as well, but only if the mechanics are very, very strong. Frankly, I think this is a near-impossible thing to do. Feld is the master of mechanics, and with a great formula and a new twist each time, a fun new experience is to be had. I can’t wait for the next one.