When we first saw Mark Swanson’s Feudum, we were mesmerized. Not just due to the truly unique aesthetic, as provided by artist Justin Schultz, though it assuredly is a striking game to look upon. Rather, what was immediately clear was that Feudum was something which looked and felt new – the Feudum Kickstarter introduces itself as ‘articulate and inventive’ (words which we now think can be applied to this sandbox-style game with at least a 50% success rate, but let’s not skip ahead too much). From the field of territories waiting to be explored, to the oddly adorable monsters which presumably would terrorize the countryside, to the six guildmasters, whose shared economy would act as a massive interconnected engine, Feudum looked somehow both deep and engaging, approachable but also intimidating.
To unpack Feudum in brief, to somehow try to encapsulate its mechanisms in a quick turn of phrase, seems impossible. A succinct rules summary (my least favorite part of composing any review, incidentally) goes something like this: in Feudum, your goal is to end the game with the most points. In that pursuit you’ll do a lot of things.
Ok, that wasn’t particularly useful. Let’s define this game by way of major mechanical summary instead. Here goes.
Feudum is a game of area control, where players will vie for ownership over valuable territories in order to earn points. Wait, it’s actually a Euro-style resource management game, where players must carefully gather and spend supplies to further their goals and upgrade their holdings. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, but maybe it’s a subtle war game, where combat is extremely minimal but can have far-reaching consequences. Hmm, scratch all that, it’s a sort of economic engine-building game, where interlocking production systems demand players work together to avoid system-wide stagnation, while also needing to make sure they always come out ahead. Could it also be an exploration game, where players march boldly across the uncharted wilderness, establishing strongholds and fending off rivals? Action selection? Mild bluffing elements? Programmatic gameplay? Hand management?
All of that. Mostly. Kinda.
Feudum is not a complex game. Ok, that’s not true, Feudum is definitely complex. What I mean here is that Feudum’s defining characteristic isn’t its complexity; instead, what Feudum is, is complicated. And before my fellow grammarphiles erupt in an eloquently-articulated chorus of protests due to my abuse of the synonymous (not to mention the whole ‘is, is’ thing I just did), the distinction I draw here is that a complex game is one with many moving parts, intricately connected, and deep in its nuance. Feudum may be those things. But where Feudum strays from the laudable goal of complexity towards the insufferable yoke of complication is that for all you do during a game of Feudum, one often feels like they’re accomplishing surprisingly little.
Feudum is a game defined, paradoxically, by exceptions. For all the actions which a player may take on their turn (11!), each of them can be modified by different board states, what pawns you may already have on the board, and what resources you have at your disposal.
Some of these actions are straightforward enough – playing the “Migrate” action will let you place a new pawn on the board; so long as you have food to spend, you can set that pawn to any of the guild faces and place it in a location where you already have a pawn. Unless, of course, you already have an Alchemist pawn on the board, which allows you to place new pawns at any of the six starting locations whether you have a piece there or not. Oh, or you can withdraw a pawn from the board instead, in case that’s ever to your advantage.
Other actions are far, far more complicated. The “Move” action, which instinctively feels like it should require fairly little explanation, takes an entire page to describe, covering vehicles (which need to be used for specific terrain types and can only be accessed if they are first purchased from the Alchemist guild), ferries (which are only available if the Alchemist guild has no vehicles for sale), and cases where a player manages to move twice in the same round (triggering an ‘Epic Journey’. And, of course, what happens if the player happens to have a Monk pawn in play.
If you “Influence”, you can add one marker to each location containing one of your pawns. But a location can only hold 3 influence markers belonging to at most 2 players, and the first player to influence a spot becomes its ruler, and the second the serf, and each of those roles interact with other actions in extremely different ways. The ruling player might add a vassal to shore up their position. The serf player might add another serf, which overthrows the ruler, replacing them. But remember that only serfs can actually work the land, so if you become ruler, you suddenly can’t gather resources from that spot anymore. And it should go without saying that if you have a Merchant pawn, that changes everything.
Each action is a honeycomb of possibilities, which is a microcosmic rumination on Feudum’s entire design philosophy. Rules lead to rules that lead to rules. However, the question we kept coming to was why? To continue picking on the “Move” action for a moment, what did we gain, either in theme or in interesting gameplay decisions, from having to manage multiple types of movement restrictions? Who cares that there are boats and submarines and ferries? Was it ever interesting to stare at the board and track a path of bubbles (indicating passage via submarine) instead of tracing a line of cresting waves for our boats instead? And why don’t the airships outperform the lot of them? What does any of it add?
Standing huge over the Feudum board are the six guilds, whose interlinked economic engine theoretically power this entire gameplay experience. The Farmers gather resources that they supply to the Merchants, whose wares can be used by the Alchemists to craft travel options, as well as krud barrels (gunpowder, apparently) for the Knights. The Knights, in turn, serve to command the monsters on the board (what?) as well as deliver king’s seals to the Nobles. The Nobles sell these seals, as well as peddle influence over the Monks, who turn rosary beads into chickens for the Farmers.
See, I keep wanting to summarize Feudum, but it generates paragraphs like that.
Each guild has a unique effect any player can activate (with the Guild action), as well as an effect restricted to the guild master and another for the guild journeyman. Master/journeyman status is determined by who has the most influence over that guild at any given moment, a function which must be constantly calculated and recalculated every time a player makes any significant change to the board state. And each guild can only act if it has the appropriate resources, which it can only obtain from the guild which precedes it in the chain of commerce.
At best, when this part of Feudum is working, its a snarl of interconnected concerns which demands that players constantly assess if activating the guilds they control will profit them enough to justify the inevitable movement of resources into guilds their opponents control, which could in turn allow them to generate points and resources as well.
But all too often, a player can simply choose, either for tactical reasons or because there are so many other things to focus on each round, to simply ignore their guilds in favor of exploring the board, or establishing more board influence, or gathering resources. That often drags the game’s economy to a dead standstill, choking the life out of the aspect of Feudum which is by far the most interesting and, crucially, adding nothing to the overall experience.
If I had to sum up Feudum in a word, it certainly wouldn’t be ‘articulate’, nor would it even be ‘inventive’. Feudum is ambitious. The scope of what Mark Swanson has accomplished here is impressive, though it pales in comparison to what I believe he was trying to build, and to say otherwise is to deny a tremendous effort in game design. However, instead of a mountain, Feudum feels more like a cavern – vast in its scale, but ultimately hollow.
For all its rules, for all its actions and art and fantastic visual presentation and resources, Feudum comes off as infinitely more broad than it feels deep. It’s like stepping into a lake, only to find that, despite its huge, mirrored surface, the water never rises above your ankles. There were a lot of choices (say goodbye to your analysis-paralysis prone friends, you’ll die of starvation at the start of every round as they sift through their 11 possible actions for the 4 they will commit to that round), but those choices almost never lead to that ‘ahah’ moment, where the plan came together, the tumblers spun in perfect succession, and a feeling of success was achieved.
Instead, we stared at our cards, plotting a dozen potential actions at every given moment, only to find our avenues closed off with each player’s turn; so often an action you were counting on taking (remember, you can only commit to 4 of those 11 options at the top of each round) was undone or blocked by another player’s actions. Think you’ll take advantage of being a guild master this round with the Guild action? Well, if someone else manages to gain influence over that guild before your turn, all of a sudden you’re a journeyman instead (at best), and your Guild action doesn’t work at all the same way anymore. Hoping to buy some supplies? Well, the Farmer guild master decided not to push goods into the Merchant’s guild, so you’ve got nothing to buy.
You must plan for everything, but you must also plan on doing nothing of significance.
In short, Feudum is a game that paradoxically sells itself as being a vast experience where lots of options are at your fingertips, but seems to fall apart unless it’s played in a very particular way. There are many games which reveal themselves after repeated plays; whether Feudum is one of those games or not is immaterial, because there is little about it which would compel us to return to it with the kind of frequency which might unearth whatever strategic depth may be hidden beneath the murky surface of its execution.
Now, as a reviewer, I am acutely aware of a fundamental truth that sticks like a splinter in my brain as I add words to this already-too-long article – I’m criticizing something I couldn’t hope to build myself. But that said, Feudum feels like it needed some drastic editing, and I find myself wondering if it would not have been a different and better game if it had gone through a major publisher rather than crowd-funded (and damn was it ever well-funded, make no mistake). It’s 10 too many ideas packed into the box. We didn’t need the monsters, they only exist to give the knights something extra to do. Stow the vehicles. Forget the ruler/vassal/serf restrictions. Hell, maybe throw away the whole center of the board, and let us focus instead on that interlocking economy the guilds represent. Feudum feels like its trying to be too many things at once, a precocious child whose brain is working far faster than its mouth, and amidst the deluge, whatever genius might have been is drowned in the torrent of ideas.
As Count Orsini-Rosenberg suggested and the Emperor confirmed, there are just too many notes. (Obscure reference is obscure. Points for anyone who catches it)
To be clear, our complaint isn’t that Feudum is heavy, or that it took hours to learn and then twice as many hours to play our first time through. It isn’t that we don’t like strategic gameplay or nuanced decision-making. It’s that Feudum never really let us feel like we were doing anything, and that was infinitely exacerbated by the length of the game and the endless contortions of its rules.
But above all else, Feudum is, clearly but also shockingly, a talented designer’s first published game. There is an audacity to what has been built here which deserves respect; that our opinion of Feudum is ultimately negative does not constitute a dismissal of the work which went into it. On the contrary, we’ve spent literally hours discussing this title because, in our heart of hearts, we all wanted to experience in it the potential we all intuited might have been be present in its design, and it took us a long time to accept that we didn’t like it more than we did.
And while we can’t recommend Feudum for anyone who shares our tastes, we’re dead certain there will be adherents to Swanson’s game, people who may dismiss our opinion as being invalid because they love precisely what we hate about Feudum. There will be those who feel like we don’t ‘get it’, didn’t invest enough time or reflection. And that’s fine with us – we’re glad that some people will be able to appreciate Feudum for what it is, rather than lament what it isn’t.
But for all our appreciation of the work which clearly went into it, both these things are 100% true: Feudum did nothing for us, and we’re sincerely looking forward to Mark Swanson’s next game.
(Gameosity received a review copy of this game. We were not otherwise compensated.)