Thursday, December 06, 2012

Stefan Feld and Me

A long time ago I thought Stefan Feld was a completely disastrous game designer. Now I'm his groupie. Here's the story of what happened.

The first Feld game I played was In the Year of the Dragon in October 2008. I played this game with a cut-throat group, and it went long, i.e. about 3 hours. I had no idea what I was doing when I started, but managed to build up my holdings. Then came a series of random events which I couldn't quite deal with, resulting in my losing a lot of palaces. I fucking hate that. I hate games where you work your butt off to make progress and then it gets taken away from you. I like building games, not wrecking games. So Feld and I were not off to a good start. My BGG comment on ItYotD is: "I'd rather be sick than play this game. If this was the first board game I played, I'd be a stamp collector instead. Frustrating, boring, annoying waste of time."

A couple of months later I played The Name of the Rose. I liked the movie, I didn't like the book, but the game left no impression on me whatsoever and I had to look up whether I'd played it or not. As medieval murder mystery is one of my favourite themes, that's a pretty impressive amount of indifference. No love for Feld yet.

The next Fled game I played was finally at least OK - Notre Dame. It's another game where it's frustratingly hard to get stuff (like Dragon), but it least it doesn't all get stolen from you at once. I thought it was OK but would need to play it more to get how it went properly - I thought I'd been doing OK and was beaten very badly. I was in no rush to try it again.

The next game I encountered was It Happens... which is a dice game about anteaters. I played it because there was a very young lady willing to teach it to me, but I realised very soon that it wasn't working for me. At least it has the excuse of being a kids' game.

Months went by... The Speicherstadt appeared on I had an initially positive reaction, and started a bunch of games before I'd even finished my first play. That was when I discovered that I'd completely overestimated how interesting the game was. It feels to me that you build a points engine, and then the game finishes. So you should have been doing other stuff instead. I admit, the auction mechanism is kinda cool, but kinda cool in a technical way, not in an appeals-to-me kinda way. I stopped playing it. Feld seemed destined to forever produce games that were at best mediocre.

Then something terrible happened. I won the Big Cochabamba photo competition (blogged about previously). Oh yeah, sure, I got 9 of the hottest new games for free, but a lot of the SdJ kennerspiel nominees were by Stefan Feld. That mediocre guy, who designs games that take my stuff. WELL AT LEAST THEY'RE FREE. So I acquired Luna, Die Burgen von Burgund, and Strasbourg, with a sense of dread.

The first we played was Strasbourg. This is a very tight auction game with some other stuff tacked on as a consequence of the auction. I quite liked it, though it took me till round 3 of 5 to realise that I'd lose the game in round 1. It did feel like I could achieve stuff and get some points. But still, not a huge hit.

I was very intrigued by the theme of Luna, so while waiting for opponents I played a solitaire game. That was instructive, as I got the feeling for how the little dudes moved around. We then played a 4-player game, which was also interesting as the players' strategies evolved and conflicted with each other. After a couple more solitaire plays when the rules receded and I was able to focus on what I was trying to achieve, I decided I liked it. You can build shrines, you can get places in the temple, you can score majority points, and generally nobody takes things away from you. I liked that it was complex, I liked the theme, and I liked the bits. Hooray!

Then we played Die Burgen von Burgund, later called Castles of Burgundy (but it will always be Burgen Burgen Burgen Burgen to me). This is a cool game. I'm not a huge fan of its strategic depth as your plans will often be screwed by uncooperative dice, but it does have that Farmville thing going for it where there's always something to be doing, you're always making progress. I played this game with quite a few people, and eventually realised that it had become popular enough that there'd always be someone around with a copy, and I'd no longer need to suggest it, so I sold my copy. It's a very good game, but not something I need to keep exploring.

On the other hand, Stefan Feld was pretty much forgiven by now. The last three games had demonstrated to me that he was a designer of great diversity, capable of producing some systems worth investigating (particularly Luna), rather than being a cold-hearted miser who designed nasty games.

Consequently when Macao was suggested to me, I agreed to play. For the longest time I confused this game with Manila, in which have almost no interest. However Macao was interesting, mostly because, like Luna, there's a lot going on. I did notice for the first time, what I call the Stefan Feld Standard Design Pattern. This is a pattern for structuring the whole game - there's a mini-game for generating resources, then you use the resources to play a variety of min-games on the board involving set collection, map traversal, gathering bonuses, and so on. The games that fit this pattern are Notre Dame, Strasbourg, Macao and Trajan (and Bora Bora, it would seem). This pattern is not necessarily a bad thing, as it's a way of producing complex games that are not too hard to teach, but it is interesting to speculate on whether this is a conscious process or not.

Anyway, the most recent Feld game I've had the pleasure to play is Trajan. This is probably the most complex of the lot, with the mancala resource-generation game being quite a brain-burner even before considering the 6 or so effects of what happens on the board.

Okay Mr Feld, you're forgiven. I'm looking forward to whatever you produce next. But there is no way I'm ever again playing In the Year of the Dragon.


Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Most of Stefan Feld's games don't quite click with me, but I really like In the Year of the Dragon. I like Notre Dame, disliked The Spiecherstadt, and found Macao so-so - a little soulless. I like the forward planning required in Dragon and how punishing it can be if you do not plan properly. Often you have to pick the lesser of two evils. It's very much about surviving and containing disasters. I also like the constant competition in the initiative track.

Shingo said...

Too bad John.. I was about to suggest that we should play In the year of the Dragon next time we see each other, then I read your last sentence. iTYOTD is probably my favourite Feld game, and Hiew summarised it pretty well. I also do like that it's a complete open information game and how well you do really depends on how well you are able to achieve your goals. There are little luck in how the actions group together but if you were hoping for certain actions to be seperated in the next turn then you are probably not playing it well. Such a short game probably 60min minus the set up time which takes quite a bit.. and tough decisions from beginning to end. Works as excellent two player game.. I started to really really like it when I used to play it on Mabiweb and once strategy bit kind of made sense. I'm looking forward to the Bora Bora :)