Fief: France 1429
- Designer: Philippe Mouchebeuf
- Publisher: Asynchron/Academy Games
- Players: 3-6
- Ages: 14+
- Time: ~2-3 hours
- Times played: 2, with review copy provided by Academy Games
Fief: France 1429 was one of those games that was on my Essen watchlist a few years ago, but due to lack of luggage space, lack of game availability and length of game playing time – never managed to make it back home… Having once been a European History major in college, games set in Medieval Europe have always interested me, and thus I was glad to see that this game has found US distribution through Uwe Eickert’s Academy Games.
I ran into Uwe at Origins ’15, and he was quite excited to show me his new game. In Fief, players control the fate of noble families – trying to maneuver their family members into both political and church titles – hopefully culminating in the French throne or the Papacy. Life in 15th century France was much simpler than it is today, and the scoring systems of their games are similarly simplified when compared to 20th Century point salad games. The game is won by any player who holds 3 Victory points at the end of any round. The game can also be won jointly by two players in a marriage-sealed alliance if their two families jointly hold 4 Victory points at the end of each round. More details on how to score points in a bit.
The map is a nicely drawn affair with two different division systems on the map. There are 8 Fiefs on the board – these are color-coded. The area contained in these 8 Fiefs is also divided into 5 Bishoprics. There are thick dashed lines that also split the board into these 5 areas; these 5 Bishoprics contain portions of multiple Fiefs. Scattered on the landscape are Villages which can be controlled by the different families.
Players start the game with counters representing their Knights and Men-at-Arms. At the start of the game, each player chooses their home city and places a Stronghold marker on it. Each player is given a Lord card at random from the Lord Card deck (could be male or female), and the matching figurine is placed on the home city. The city also gets 1 Knight chit and 3 Men-at-Arms chits on it. Finally, the player takes 5 Deniers into his bank. Once each player has chosen their home city and stocked it, the game begins.
The game continues in a series of rounds and ends when one of the two victory conditions is met at the END of any round. There are 7 Phases to each Round.
1) Marriages and Elections. (NB: I start here because this is the first phase in the round, but if this doesn’t make sense – skip this phase, read the rest and then come back here)
If there are two families with eligible members: i.e. an unmarried Female on one side AND an unmarried male who is not a clergymember (not a Bishop, Cardinal or Pope) – if they can agree to marry, they announce this and their families are now in an alliance together. This marriage can only be broken if one of the spouses dies (thru battle or Assassination) or if the Pope grants an annulment to the marriage.
Bishops are elected first. Available Bishoprics (those that have no bishop elected AND have every village occupied) are identified, and players can nominate any of their eligible Male (unmarried) lords for the spot. Votes are given to the players who control villages in the Bishopric and for existing Bishops/Cardinals/Popes. The candidate with the highest vote wins and becomes Bishop for life (or excommunication… whichever comes first). If there is a tie, no one wins. All Bishoprics are evaluated to see if an election should be held.
Cardinals are then “elected”. There are 4 Cardinals in the game. 3 of them are found on cards in the Lord deck. If you draw a Cardinal card, you may give this card to any Bishop in the game to elevate him to Cardinal. There is also one Cardinal position (in a truly historical Catholic tradition) that is available for 5 Deniers. If you can pay for it, you can bestow this Cardinalship on any existing Bishop – but this happens in Phase #4.
If any Cardinal or Bishop dies later in the game, their marker of office is returned to the board and can be elected/purchased again in this phase of the game.
Then, if there are at least 2 free Cardinals in play, and at least one Bishop or Cardinal that is a candidate, then there is an Election for Pope. Only uncaptured Cardinals can vote for Pope. If there is one candidate who receives more votes than all others – he becomes Pope for life.
Finally, the King of France is elected. This election happens every round as long as there is not a King. Each Titled Lord gets one vote. However, the winner of the election cannot become King unless he receives at least 3 votes AND at least (2 votes of Bishops OR 1 Cardinal Vote OR 1 Pope vote). If the King has a wife, she becomes Queen.
These offices are pretty important – because other than Fief lordships, they are really the only way to score points in the game. Each Fief Lord is worth 1VP (see Phase 4). The Pope is worth 1 VP, and being the King is worth 1VP. However, though you get all of these titles in Phase #1 – you have to have control of enough of them at the end of Phase #7 in order to win…
2) Discard, Draw and Play Cards
There are 2 decks of cards in the game – the orange Lords deck and the Fortune/Disaster deck which has both light grey Fortune cards as well as black Disaster cards. Players may discards any number of cards at the start of this phase. Then they may draw up to 2 cards, but may not draw more than 1 Lord card. If there is a black Disaster card on the top of the Disaster/Fortune deck, any Disaster cards are moved facedown onto one of the three spots next to the deck. Only Fortune cards are collected into a player’s hand. All players get the chance to draw up to 2 cards. Then, the disaster cards are resolved. Each of these will affect a single Bishopric – the identity of the afflicted Bishopric is determined by a d6 roll. Then, all players get a chance to play Lord cards or perhaps some Fortune cards to mitigate the newly distributed Disasters or the Taxation Fortune card which allows a Lord to generate tax income from his Fief or Bishopric. (There are other Fortune cards that will be played at other times in the round – but these cards are only played when their action can be resolved.)
3) Income – now each player gains 1 Denier for each village he controls, 2 Deniers for each Mill on a village he controls, as well as any Tallage (tax on a Fief) or Tithe (tax on a Bishopric) as determined by cards played in the previous round. If there is a Queen in the game, she earns 2 Deniers.
4) Ransom captured family members and Buy Troops
First, if you have any captured family members, you must first pay their ransoms if you can afford to do so. The cost is 2 Deniers for the person + 2 Deniers for each title held by that person.
You could use your remaining money to buy troops – Men-at-Arms cost 1 Denier and Knights cost 3 Deniers. You could buy a Stronghold to fortify a village; these cost 10 Deniers. Additionally, don’t forget that you need one of these to become eligible to be a Fief Lord. Mills can be placed on Villages for 3 Deniers. A village can have up to 2 Mills. If it is available, a Cardinal’s office could be bought for 5 Deniers. You must have both the money and an available Bishop to do this.
Finally, a Fief title could now be purchased. Unlike all the other offices in the game, the Fief title can only be bought if a player occupies every village in the Fief and has at least one Stronghold in that Fief. If so, he can collect the crown marker for the Fief Lordship. The cost for this is 2 Deniers for every village in the Fief. However, if there is a King in play – the King could choose to grant the Fief lordship to the eligible player for free. When this happens, to mark the governed-ness of the Fief, the stronghold marker is flipped over to show the Fortified City side. Now, if another player is able to take over control of this Fortified City, that player would become the new Fief Lord for that Fief.
Players now take turns to move their Lords on the board. Most Lords can move up to 2 spaces (i.e. villages connected by roads), and when they move, they can take regular units with them – this is how Knights and Men-at-Arms move across the board. The first Lord to be in a town “controls” it. Other Lords may move through a controlled village with permission of the controller. Opposing troops might choose to occupy a village controlled by another player – these units are placed just outside the village so that it is clear who is the controller and who is the “attacker”. There are special Cavalcade rules that are used when trying to move through occupied Villages or breaking through a siege of a city (too complicated to go over in this overview).
Now, at every village where there are Lords/Troops of opposing sides, there could be a battle. If the two sides cannot agree to both be in the same space, they will likely fight. However, you must have a Lord present in order to initiate a fight, and there must also be Troops present to fight. A city with two unaccompanied Lords does not have a fight. In a fight, players calculate their strength: 1 point per Man-at-Arms, 3 points per Knight, 1 point per male Lord, 1 point per titled Female Lord. These points are then tallied to determine how many battle dice are rolled: 1-6 points = 1 battle die; 7-12 points = 2 battle dice, 13+ points = 3 battle dice. Finally, once the number of dice are calculated, this number can then be modified for the attacker if he has to overcome a stronghold (minus one die) or a Fortified City (minus two dice). If you have the Secret Passage Fortune card, this can be played to negate all dice losing modifiers. Siege Engines (or Double Siege Engines) – which you will learn about shortly – negate 1 or 2 lost dice as well.
Then, each side rolls how ever many dice they have and each side takes all the casualties they can. 1 hit for a Man-at-Arms, 3 hits for a Knight, and 1 hit for a Lord – though the Lord can only be hit if all his troops have been defeated. If the Lord is hit, he does not die but is taken captive. This captive could then be ransomed by the original owner in the next Buying phase. The only way you could kill the captive is by playing the Assassination Fortune card – were you lucky enough to draw it earlier.
Battles continue until one side is completely destroyed OR when both sides agree to stop fighting OR if three rounds go by without any losses OR if the player who is attacking a fortified city or stronghold decides to stop (in this case, the attacker is allowed to place a Siege engine outside that defensive structure, and this engine will nullify a one die penalty in the next round).
7) End of Round
If after all this, a single unallied player has 3 VP, he wins. If there is a tie, the player with the best title wins: King > Pope > Queen Regent > most Fiefs. If there is no solo winner, then check to see if there is a winning Alliance. Any Alliance with 4VP wins. Ties are broken in the same manner. If there is no winner, go back to Phase 1 and repeat.
My thoughts on the game
Fief is a supremely complex game, and I fully realize that in my first two playings of the game that I have only begun to scratch the surface of the strategies in the game. That being said – the rules are fairly well laid out, so I do feel like I understand the mechanics of the game. There is an interesting combination of battle might, diplomacy and good-old-fashioned luck of the draw going on here.
There are not many VPs available in the game – only 10 total – so garnering any of them is a big deal. The fiefs range in size from 2-4 Villages, so it takes a fair amount of effort to occupy all the cities in them and then it also takes a lot of money to then buy the Fief Lord position. Once gained, it seems fairly easy to keep a hold of because you gain a Fortified city when you take on the Fief Lordship, and this gives some pretty strong defensive bonuses with it. Of course, you are vulnerable to a Secret Passage card, but as the French say, c’est la vie.
The elections are the other way to gain points, and I will say that after two games, I would counsel Fief players to always keep an eye on the situation on the board because the elections can sneak up on you. If you are not ready (i.e. do not have an available Lord) when an Election comes up, you’re going to be left out in the cold. As you gain higher offices (i.e. Pope or King), you get VPs as well as also getting some other benefits – such as more voting power or the ability to grant Fief Lordships for free – so it’s definitely worthwhile to be prepared for those elections as they come up.
But, like most games that we play, you simply don’t have enough time nor actions to be ready for everything at once. So, you have to keep a close eye on the game to figure out when you’re going to try to expand on the board or when you’re going to try to get more Lords into your family… or when you’re going to try to turn the tables quickly by drawing Fortune cards that will hopefully help you when the time is right.
As you cannot be ready for all things, it is unlikely that everything is going to go your way. This is where the diplomacy comes into play. Once you gain a foothold, you should always be looking at your opponents to see who might match up well with you in the quest for 4 VP.
I very much liked the complexity and multiple levels of strategy offered by the game. But, not everything was rosy with the game. From what I’ve seen, a lot of the game hinges on the vagaries of Lady Luck. A successful Fief player will be the one who is able to best draw random cards out of the Fortune deck to assist him when he most needs it. It will also be extremely helpful to be able to get the right sex for your new Lord – i.e. if there is a juicy marriage to be had with another family, you need to have an available Lord of the correct sex in order to seal the deal. Also, make sure that you are able to avoid the fairly punishing Disasters that come around each turn. Though you could be lucky enough to hold the right Fortune card to avert a disaster, in the end, you have to hope that the die roll does not go against you here.
I’m generally all for luck in games, but for a 120-180 minute affair, the variance level of the event cards and the die rolls for the disasters is too much for my taste. One of my games was essentially decided when a disaster roll mired a Bishopric in a heavy rain – when this happens there is no movement nor battles in that region for the entire turn – and a weakly defended Fortified City was therefore spared an attack, and the game was decided by that VP being kept. In my other game, the game went on for an extra hour because an alliance that was in a very strong position had its King killed by the Plague. This was due to two unlucky rolls because first the Plague had a d6 roll to get into the King’s Bishopric, and then the King failed a 50/50 roll to stay alive. Sure, it was funny at the time (well, not funny when we realized that it meant that the game was going to drag out for a bit) – but this is past my comfort level for luck variance.
The artwork is well done, and I especially like the individual art for each of the Lords in the game. The board looks a bit busy at first with the double set of markings to delineate the Fiefs and the Bishoprics, but as you continue through your first game, the markings are actually quite helpful and easy to follow. The rules are written in typical (well what I think of typical) wargame fashion with a lot of 1, 1.1, 1.2, 1.2.1, 1.3 format – but all the information is available there. Each player also gets a nice summary card that outlines each round as well as summarizing the prerequisites for each sort of election. Though the game was long, we never felt confused as to what we were to do in each phase of the game.
I enjoyed both of my games of Fief, though the combination of the game length and the amount of luck in the game both were outside of my comfort range. Despite that, I’d probably play it again if asked, and that says a lot for me when considering 3+ hour long games.