One Sentence Synopsis: Hide your serfs, hide your lords, cause they tithing ‘ehbody out here.
I have a soft spot for area-control strategy games. I grew up on Risk, Axis & Allies, Stratego, and even got to dabble with Vinci which some of you may recognize as the precursor to Days of Wonders’s wildly successful Small World series. As we’ve entered what some are calling the “Golden Age of Board Games,” the offerings in the genre have greatly expanded and, in my opinion, have far-surpassed many of the classics; I won’t even consider tabling a base copy of Risk when there’s something like Shogun/Wallenstein, 1775, Twilight Struggle, or any other number of strategy games available. Now you might say, “Yeah those all have some area control, but they’re also all completely different,” and that’s exactly the point I’d like to start this review with. We’re spoiled for choice as fans of modern area-control strategy games, and for a title to stand out in the field at this point it has to do some things very right.
The newest addition to our strategy gaming repetoire is Fief: France 1429. Originally a French-language game, Academy Games picked Fief up and Kickstarted a new, expanded English-language edition last year. I Went all-in on this one because the campaign was well-run and the game itself looked very promising; I backed the full game which includes 6 expansions, and also got the miniature buildings pack and metal coins. That’s a lot of cash to drop on a game site-unseen(though certainly not the most I’ve spent on one), but given Academy Games’s reputation I was fairly certain they could pull it off and I wouldn’t be sorry. So, having received the game and gotten to play it a few times, am I sorry? Let’s get down to business…
Fief pits 3-6 players against each other as 15th century noble families vying for control of the Kingdom of France. Victory is achieved by holding 3 victory points individually at the end of a round, or 4 victory points as a formal Alliance which may be formed between 2 players. Victory points are acquired in two main ways: getting one of your nobles voted into the highest noble or ecclesiastic office in the land(King or Pope), and (Gasp!)controlling fiefdoms. Players accomplish those goals by expanding their armies to fight or coerce other nobles, controlling villages, building infrastructure, and advancing their family members to key positions in the Church and noble heirarchy.
The game plays in roughly 2 hours, though you should count on an extra 30-45 minutes your first time in order to learn the setup and rules. After one playthrough you’ll find the game runs very smoothly and doesn’t feel complicated at all, but the first time really necessitates a careful reading of the book to come to grips with elements like the voting mechanisms, and the effects of various cards which can be difficult to keep track of since they lack any explanatory text. The game luckily includes quick-reference sheets that have a detailed explanation of the turn-order, and on the back reiterate each turn’s voting sequence and each position’s benefits.
I won’t go into detailed specifics of the rules here because they are lengthy and include a number of subtleties, but I do want to at least give an overview. The board is placed in the center of the table, with the noble and fortune/devastation draw decks, and D’Arc and Cardinal cards placed in their respective areas. The board itself has areas divided in two different ways: by background color, which denotes a unique fief, and by colored dotted lines, which indicate a bishopric. The markers for each individual fief lord are placed in their respective fief areas, and the 5 Bishop staves are placed around the outside of the board for each of the Bishoprics. After this players are given their family card, one stronghold to place on any village which then becomes their starting city, and they each receive a random noble, 3 men at arms, 1 knight, and 5 deniers(coins) to start the game.
Each turn begins with a “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!” phase during which marriages are proposed to form an official alliance between two players, and votes are held to elect Bishops in any bishopric where the villages are all controlled(not necessarily by the same person), as well as to elect the Pope and King if the prerequisites are met. Players receive votes to assign differently depending on the office in contention, and it’s usually the case that players must engage in informal agreements in order to get one of their family members elected. Since the top offices give the holding player a victory point and some snazzy abilities, the control of lower offices is integral to exercising power and influence over those elections.
During the second phase players may draw to 2 cards from the fortune/disaster deck, or in place of one of those draws may take a card from the nobles deck. The nobles deck allows players to gain family members(up to a max of 4), or potentially get one of the 3 Cardinal cards to anoint one of their Bishops a Cardinal. Fortune cards allow players to complete various actions including tithing to gain additional money, and ambushing an enemy leader at the start of a battle. The fortune deck is also populated with black disaster cards which get laid off to the side once they’re drawn, and are resolved after everyone has completed their phase 2. Disasters affect entire areas with effects like famine or bad weather which can impede movement or income, or even spawn plague which ends up halving the armies in whichever area it appears in, and possibly killing nobles there.
The third/fourth phase involve players gaining income for the villages they control(with bonus income for each mill), and purchasing armies, buildings, and fief lord titles if they control all the villages in a fief and have built a Stronghold there.
During the fifth phase, players proceed in-turn to move their units around the map. Each noble can move 2 spaces, and can pick up and move army units with them. If two players end up with armies in the same village at the end of this phase they can either choose to call a truce, in which case both armies stay in that area(though only 1 is actually said to “control” the village), or they can initiate a battle.
Players resolve battles during the sixth phase, which involves rolling dice depending on the strength of units in each player’s stack; men at arms are worth 1, and knights worth 3. 1-6 total strength gives one dice, 7-12 two, and 13+ three. Defending a stronghold or fortified city removes dice from the attacker unless they’ve chosen to initiate a siege during a previous turn, in which case the siege engine they get reduces that penalty by either half or fully depending on how many turns the village has been sieged. Each dice has a value from 1-3 and are rolled simultaneously, and the amount rolled equals the number of strength the opposing player must lose.
The final phase simply wraps up the game round, with the first player marker passing and players checking for victory conditions.
I’ve really enjoyed my time with Fief so far, and I’m glad to have backed the campaign. The game flows smoothly after you get one runthrough under your belt, and although the main mechanism for victory is really simple area-control Fief adds an additional layer of strategy by splitting that area-control between fiefdoms, which are what you’d normally consider territories to give VP, and bishoprics, which don’t provide VP outright but give power to influence elections and can result in Victory Points or some other nice abilities for controlling higher offices. Ignoring one will invariably affect your ability to excel at the other, so players must strike a balance between gaining straight-up territory and victory points, and gaining pull with other players.
The inclusion of disaster cards adds welcomed randomization to the game, and makes players adapt to more than just the movement of each other’s armies; we’ve had games won or lost due to bad weather(stops movement into/out of an area) and the opportunistic use of a card that negates that effect for one noble’s army. During other games, large masses of troops were devastated by plague which totally changed the various power dynamics at play. While random, negative events can sometimes feel cheap, Fief manages to implement them in a way that fits well thematically and doesn’t provoke cries of “bullshit” from around the table when they crop up. Bad things happen, and they can happen to anyone(and usually multiple people at the same time), and having to deal with the wrenches those disasters throw into people’s plans somehow makes the game feel more alive, or more real and true to period.
What I’ve enjoyed most about Fief: France 1429 is the way it promotes diplomatic interaction between players. Put simply, I doubt any player will have a chance at winning without conducting negotiations with other players. Be they informal talks for border truces, joint-operations, or discussing an exchange of votes to manipulate various elections in their favor, players have to scheme with each other. In cases of 4+ people, players can even form formal alliances by marrying their families, and are then able to win by having 4 combined victory points in addition to implementing special rules about succession of their offices. Each player is also given 3 diplomacy tokens to use during the game, which each either allow 2 players to have a 3-minute private conversation, or to exchange a minimal amount of cash or cards. This keeps the exchange of material help between players to a minimum, but makes the option available for small doses.
Although I think the player interaction in Fief: France 1429 is its strongest asset, I also think for other players it is the game’s biggest weakness. Backstabbing is an integral part of Fief, so if you don’t like getting betrayed this is probably not the game for you. Players can and will turn on each other at a whim. Not even formal alliances are safe, and a player can either assassinate their beloved or ask the player who is Pope for an annulment. There’s nothing stopping players from initiating devious acts of treachery, from violating their carefully-negotiated truce, or from voting a different way than they may have expressed during negotiations. It’s a free-for-all of tricksiness as players try and read their fellow players and the game’s current situation to discern what their best course of action may be. I absolutely love that dynamic, but I know people who will hate it.
I also think the game plays better with 3, 4, or 6 players than it does with 5. This is mainly due to the inclusion of formal alliances which allow for team-wins, which I feel upsets games with 5 players. Formal alliances aren’t used in a 3 player game, so even though informal negotiations may take place it’s still every noble for his/herself. In games with more than 3 players, however, the use of marriages to cement an alliance seems common. In a 5 player game that usually means 1 person is left out in the cold. That doesn’t necessarily mean that person is going to lose, but it does put them at a decidedly large disadvantage that will take some pretty extraordinary negotiating skills and positioning to not get utterly obliterated. Even though 3 player games work, I’d much prefer to always play with 4 or 6.
As far as components go, Fief does a decent job overall. The cardboard components are all of a good thickness and punched out well for me with no tears, and I really like the art on all of the army tiles and the board itself. The board is quite large, which is a good thing, but it also means it is sectioned into 6 pieces that are all attached at one end in order to fold up. After only a few plays my board already has some tearing along one of the inner edges from the sides of the board rubbing together, which is a development I’m not overly happy about. The player sheets are also just made from a heavy cardstock, and while it doesn’t affect gameplay I much prefer cardboard player-boards along the lines of Caverna.
The Kickstarter edition includes 6 expansions which I will review at a later date, but the reason I mention them here is that the Kickstarter edition’s box insert is meant to be able to hold all the added content. I have no doubt that it does considering all the empty spaces that are left after unpacking the base game, but your guess is as good as mine as to exactly where each component is supposed to go for everything to fit properly. In lieu of a diagram I’d normally end up just throwing them wherever they’ll fit, but since I also bought the 3D buildings pack that isn’t possible; if I want to fit them in the box, everything must be in its proper place to even stand a chance of not having to cart around a second(rather flimsy) box full of buildings.
Speaking of the add-ons, I am quite happy with the buildings. The details on them are good, and everything is colored well right out of the box. I had considered painting them all, but for the stone buildings there’s really not much to paint, and I’m afraid some of the detail worker might get lost after I base-coat them. I’ve read some people think the buildings make the board cluttered, but I really think they add a nice element to the game, and the unit tiles still stack well on top of the strongholds. I’m also mostly pleased with the coins; the detailing on them is excellent, and the only criticisms I have are that the single deniers are a little small, and the 2 largest units don’t have the weight you’d think they would compared to the others just by looking at them.
COG Takeaway: Fief is an excellent, team-based take on area-control strategy games that actually plays lighter than it initially looks. The Renaissance theme is integrated well with the familial progression and disaster mechanics, and the inclusion of player voting along with the division of the area-control between fiefs and bishoprics encourages lots of informal negotiations and double-dealing. The game is strongest with 4 or 6 players, but I’ve found 3 players enjoyable as well even though the dynamic is somewhat different. I’d strongly advise against buying Fief if your group dislikes games that encourage backstabbing, is easily offended by player versus player conflict, doesn’t enjoy negotiation, or hates the possibility of random, negative events that are outside of anyone’s control. On the flip-side, if you like being a deceitful cur and aren’t afraid of your friends seeking retribution for your acts of betrayal in future games then you should really give Fief: France 1429 a shot!