The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Fast Feld Franchise

Among the fifteen-ish new games I tried at the Gathering, four of them were Stefan Feld’s:

Feld’s formula — take a good (possibly great) idea and then bury it in 8 layers of crap.

The eight layers of crap is the typical Euro — “You have lots of ways to score points.” Because there isn’t an auction (in any of the games I’ve seen) the ways to score points must be reasonably balanced. Not necessarily per point, but in general effort. One path gets steady points, another gets lower points until you hit a threshold, then higher, one is a set collection game, one manipulates turn order as well.

It’s all technically well done. One local has been saying I’d like Castles of Burgundy, and he’s right. It’s a good game. I also like Brugge. (I’m not sure on Trajan, yet).

And all Feld’s games do have a clever idea:

  • Bora Bora’s dice worker placement, where the value determines how good an action you get, but all future plays must have a lower value. Brilliant (But I still dislike the game). (Avoid)
  • Brugge’s card as action systems is the least clever, but workable. (Indifferent)
  • Castle of Burgundy’s little dice game is fine. (Indifferent plus, may rise)
  • Trajan’s ‘Mancala with bonuses for getting bead patterns’ is a great idea. (I have no idea. I should play it again).

But none of those ideas can carry a Euro. So…. eight layers of crap. In my mind, that keeps Feld’s games from earning the JASE label. Even if I don’t like any of his games, he’s certainly worth watching. (And I do like some of them, but not enough to buy).

Compare this with one of my favorite new games from last week — Love Letter. Love letter has 16 cards, a round takes 2-3 minutes, and you play until someone wins 3-5 rounds (a bit more by published rules).

Love Letter is a ‘pure’ game. It does exactly one thing to near perfection.  Now, whether you like a pure game depends on whether you like its “one thing,” but the elegance is admirable, like a clever mathematical proof.

Of course, none of Feld’s games are pure. The shortest Euros are still 20-30 minutes, and those ideas are too abstract to even carry out that weight (Trajan could maybe do it).

The problem with these games isn’t that they are built from the “Idea + 8 layers of scoring” formula. The problem is that Euros are built from a “60-90 minutes with no runaway leader” formula.

People love or hate McDonalds (or love to hate), but you pull into any Mickey D’s in the country and you know what you are getting. You buy consistency, and you also buy a meal that is ready to go in 2-3 minutes. Making a few thousand restaurants, each with untrained chefs following a three-ringed-binder turn out a consistent package quickly and cheaply is no mean feat.

But small wonder that they don’t make the tastiest hamburgers around.

Say what you will grammatically;  food modifies fast in this case.

I like fast food (a bit too much), and people can have detailed arguments about which fast food burger chain is best (everyone who doesn’t say Whataburger is wrong, at least for the chains that exist in Texas. I am willing to stipulate that better exists I haven’t tried). And, of course, some people want pizza or chicken or tacos or burritos or whatever.

There’s room for debate in fast food.

But, in gaming, I’d much rather try the pure game. The game that takes 60 minutes because that’s how long it takes to play; not the game stretched or compressed to 60 minutes because that’s what the market demands. I’d like Eclipse more if it took an hour less, but you can’t compress fun.

I played Seven Ages on Saturday, which is a monstrous game with few decisions a turn. It’s too slack (IMO), and has it’s own “8 layers of crap” problem. (I had very little to do for the five hours or so we played, which was fine because I was zoning for most of it). It’s ripe for a redesign, but honestly the new game would still take at least a day. It’s not going to be 90 minutes.

In fact, I think I’m becoming wary of games that list their time of 60-90 minutes. I’ve seen that logo around a lot recently; I’m tired of gaming’s fast food cookie-cut fun.


Written by taogaming

April 22, 2013 at 6:08 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Macao is clearly my favorite of Feld’s designs, in no small part because I think it has the most clever central idea. Bora Bora is my least favorite, as the central idea lead to a high likelihood of exceptionally slow play, and there are very few actions in the game (one of my big game-killers; Automobile suffered strongly from the same issue). I’m not so wedded to the “pure” game, so I’m more fond of Feld’s designs in general. (And I definitely do enjoy pure games – on the whole, probably more than the non-pure games, though my favorites are an odd mix of both.)

    I do prefer In & Out (though they’re in the wrong part of the state for you) to Whataburger, and Five Guys is comparable. But any of the three are miles above most fast food, at least for me.

    Joe Huber

    April 22, 2013 at 7:36 pm

  2. If I could get In-n-Out’s burgers with Five Guys’ fries, that’d be perfect.

    As for Feld, I completely agree with you, Brian. I love the Mancala element in Trajan, but it’s buried by a game that feels like a Chinese takeout meal. “I’ll take an order of area majority, an order of set collection (breadth + depth, please) and a resource conversion dish.” I want a game that does for the Mancala mechanic what Get the Goods did for Freight Train’s drafting. Other than, you know, Mancala.

    The best Feld game for me is Notre Dame, which doesn’t feel at all like the rest of his ouvre. I suppose you could dissect it into a few subsystems, but they all hang together tightly around the core drafting mechanic.

    The pendulum has swung far away from Reiner Knizia’s “pure” approach. It’ll swing back again away from Feld.


    April 23, 2013 at 12:00 am

    • I hadn’t looked up Feld’s ludography. When I saw your comment I thought “Obviously Notre Dame” but Roma / Arena are also great games. Roma, in particular, feels pure. Much more so than Notre Dame, which still has a neat key idea or two, but then other things mixed in. So it’s my favorite “Feldian” game he’s done.

      I’m not partial to Five Guy’s fries, and the fact that when I go in and order a burger and fries I get a double burger and a pound of fries that is too much food for *me* to eat makes me think they are a conspiracy to kill all burger eaters. But, as ways to go it’s pretty awesome.


      April 26, 2013 at 8:03 am

  3. Great post! I agree with you completely on just about everything. It’s nice to hear another dissenting voice among the current Feld fanaticism.

    I never eat fast food anymore, but when I did, it was Whataburger for sure.


    April 23, 2013 at 8:39 am

  4. I’m a Feld fanboi (and that’s *Stefan* Feld, Brian–clearly the cold is affecting you), but that’s not too surprising, as I LIKE the concept of a clever central idea surrounded by 8 layers of supporting detail (obviously, it doesn’t feel like crap to me). Even though I admire elegance in game design, I’m usually not a fan of “pure” games, as I prefer more internal complexity. But that’s just a matter of taste.

    I also like games with very limited actions, as long as they’re well implemented. Princes of Florence and Automobile are among my favorites and Bora Bora scores for me as well in this regard.

    Love Letter, OTOH, had a disastrous first impression with my group. Three of the four players deliberately tried to lose, just so that we could stop playing. It just felt so random to me and is one of the few titles that seems to match the Geek’s “defies description of a game”. I’m sure there’s more to it than we experienced, but my interest in exploring it further is pretty low. Coup, a similarly light game, seems infinitely better.

    As for fast food, I live in the home state of Five Guys, but am not a fan. What’s the point of providing a “premium” burger, but then insist on serving it well done? I’d much rather pay a little more and go to Foster’s Grille (which I realize is in few states)–at least you can get them to cook it medium. If it must be fast food, I’d rather have Burger King or Wendy’s than Five Guys, with Mickey D’s ranking at the bottom. However, I’ve never tried Whataburger or In-n-Out, both of which have many proponents.

    Hope you feel better, Brian. Thankfully, I avoided the Gathering crud, but I know plenty of people who came down with something similar to your malody.


    April 23, 2013 at 11:10 am

  5. My ratings for Feld games I’ve played:

    8 Notre Dame (a high 8)
    8 In the Year of the Dragon (a/k/a Interesting Times)
    6 Macao (a high 6)
    6 The Speicherstadt (a low 6)
    4 Roma
    4 The Castles of Burgundy (a low 4)
    3 Trajan

    The correlation between my rating and the BGG average for these 7 games is -0.29. It’s not surprising that it’s negative, but -0.29 is an unusually large negative number for a correlation of this nature. It may be partly because I’m cult of the old and BGG is cult of the new (though Roma is an exception, since it’s the oldest game in the list.)

    There aren’t many designers for which my ratings are so spread out.

    I’m hoping to play Luna soon. Claire picked it up for me on the Prize table Saturday.

    Of course, I suspect Larry rates all these games as 7’s. 😎

    Eric Brosius

    April 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    • “Of course, I suspect Larry rates all these games as 7′s.”

      Wrong, negative-correlation breath! My natural tendency towards 7’s is overruled in this case by my vast love of all things Feld (well, most things–I hated Rum & Pirates). Most of those games get an 8 rating, and the rest get the much desired “high 7”. 🙂


      April 24, 2013 at 10:22 pm

  6. 8 Roma
    8 Macao
    7 Bora Bora
    7 Notre Dame
    7 Burgundy
    6 Brugge
    6 Rialto
    6 Trajan
    5 In the Year of the Dragon
    4 Speicherstadt
    2 Rum and Pirates

    Feld never makes my favorites, but I like several of his designs. Bora Bora’s an odd one, as I think the basic idea is actually interesting but there’s so much unnecessary complication in the presentation that the play appears messier than it is. Rialto might end up being my favorite of the recently released Feld, but my one play with somewhat wrong rules means I need to try it again.


    April 24, 2013 at 10:44 am

  7. This article is spot on with my own personal feelings for most Feld games. With a handful of exceptions, I always end up feeling Feld had a great idea and botched it by adding a bunch of crap. He needs to give his finished designs to Knizia, I think. And then we’d get the best games ever made.

    I give him a huge pass tho because In the Year of the Dragon is so amazing. (And I also like Notre Dame and Strassburg)


    April 25, 2013 at 8:24 am

    • Knizia? Really? You do realize this is 2013 and not 2000!


      April 25, 2013 at 9:04 am

      • Sure! Knizia’s designs are always clean. He just seems out of good ideas. Feld has those good ideas and not the clean design.


        April 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      • I totally agree. Knizia’s games are often accused of being dry, but they are Ameritrash compared to the scorched desert of a Feld game.

        Iain Cheyne (@Icheyne)

        April 29, 2013 at 8:06 am

  8. I am also I big fan of Feld’s designs. I enjoy the mechanics he develops and the puzzle aspect of how to leverage that mechanic to it’s fullest potential. Year of the Dragon doesn’t have that one mechanic but it does give multiple options and has probably the most player interaction of his designs that I’ve played (Notre Dame’s drafting has some).

    I do understand how the “paths to victory / 8 layers of crap” can be frustrating for some but they add the options to pursue in the game that allow the mechanics to shine. Trajan rewards hitting the same mancala space, Macao rewards planning ahead and allows for risk taking/aversion tactics, Notre Dame rewards drafting the same actions, etc.. Without these options the mechanic wouldn’t leave interesting decisions for the players. I do agree that the games are dry and the theme is light (or non-existent) but I tend to side with Larry on Feld’s designs.

    Macao 9
    Year of the Dragon 7
    Trajan 7
    Notre Dame 6
    Burgundy 6

    Michael Hall

    April 29, 2013 at 9:04 am

    • Since I didn’t enter my ratings, for comparison:

      Macao – 9
      Trajan – 8
      In the Year of the Dragon – 8
      Die Burgen von Burgund – 8
      Brügge – 7
      Roma – 6
      Arena – Roma II – 6
      Notre Dame – 6
      Der Name der Rose – 5
      Strasbourg – 5
      Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel – 5
      The Speicherstadt – 3
      Luna – 3
      Bora Bora – 2

      I haven’t played Rum & Pirates or Rialto; I’d be willing to play either, but I’m not particularly optimistic.

      Joe Huber

      May 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm

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