Faiyum (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer:  Friedemann Friese
  • Publisher:  2F-Spiele
  • Artist:  Harald Lieske
  • Players:  1 – 5
  • Ages:  12 and Up
  • Time:  120 Minutes
  • Plays: 3 (On Review Copy)

Faiyum, the latest game from Friedemann Friese and 2F-Spiele, is set in ancient Egypt, with players helping build a metropolis in a basin near the Nile River. Faiyum has been well received in the last few months in Europe, and it just released in the United States, where it is sold through the BoardGameGeek store.  

I’ve played Faiyum three times now, at three different player counts, and I’m impressed by the core mechanics.  This takes the card market from Power Grid and mixes it with a deckbuilding mechanic to create a game that is high on strategy and replayability.  If you’re a fan of Friedemann Friese or deckbuilders, this is worth checking out!

The Gameplay

Players begin the game with a deck of five cards, an amount of money depending on where they are in turn order, and an “administration overview” card.  

Mechanically, the game is very simple.  Players can do one of three actions on their turn: (1) play a card from their hand, (2) buy a card from the market, or (3) carry out administration.

Faiyum comes with 69 numbered playing cards beyond players’ starting hands, each showing an even number from 2 to 128.  Players are trying to buy these cards — which give them various abilities — to form their deck.  56 of the cards are blue bordered (the lower numbered cards), and 13 are yellow bordered (which are used for the end of the game).  Not all yellow bordered cards are in each game, depending on player count.

A player’s starting hand gives a nice overview of the actions they’ll frequently use.  

  • Players start with three farmers, and playing one let’s them place a worker on any undeveloped resource space adjacent to another worker.  The player then gets the resource (grape, stone, or wheat) of that space.  At the start of the game, the undeveloped wheat and grape spaces have crocodiles, and they get removed by this action, earning the player $1.  
  • Players can use the two roads card to connect two adjacent crocodile-free spaces.  Players earn points from doing so (3 plus 1 extra for connecting settlements and building sites) but must pay resources.
  • Players can use the settlement card — paying a wheat, grape, and stone — to place a settlement on any crocodile-free space.  They earn three points and $3.  

The cards open more and more different abilities and opportunities as the game advances.  For instance, the 2 card (gardener) lets a player place on a space adjacent to the river and earn a rose, which is a wild resource.  The 4 (revenue) simply gives $5.  The 6 (senior farmer) works like the farmer, but you get two resources instead of one.  The 8 (hermit) lets you place on an undeveloped space not near others and gain two points.  

I won’t go over all of the cards here, but I will note that they provide progressively more and more money and points, and they also start to chain with each other.  For instance, you can build out a vineyard (using card 46) and use it to get lots of grapes, and then you can later pair that with the vintner (using card 100) to pay 1 grape for 2 points and $5.  

You get the cards in a similar way to the power plants from Power Grid.  There are always 4 cards available for purchase (the current market) and then 4 cards that will be available in the future (the future market).  The cards in the market are ordered by number, with the lowest cards being in the current market.  The first card costs $3, the second $4, the third $5, and the fourth $7.  But they can have a discount of $1 depending on how long they have been there.  Buying a card takes the player’s entire turn.

The last thing a player can do is carry out administration.  They gain income of $3, losing $1 for each card remaining in their hand (though they don’t go negative).  They can then pull two workers back from the board, earning $1 each.  They take the top 3 cards from their played down deck for free.  And then, they can buy back more cards from the ones they’ve played down, picking them up in order, and paying $1 each.  Finally, cards in the market get replaced, with discounted cards going first, then the leftmost cards.  (Two cards get removed in 2-3 player games, and 1 card gets removed in 4-5 player games.)

The game end is triggered when four “natural disasters” — the yellow bordered high numbered cards — take up the future market.  At that point, players can no longer carry out administration, but they can keep playing and earning points.  Players can also drop out of the game at this point, and they earn victory points for doing so earlier than other players.  The player with the most points wins the game.  

My Thoughts on the Game

I’ve been impressed by Faiyum in recent days.  The deckbuilding mechanic is unique and fascinating, and the card market provides a powerful will-I-get-the-card-I-need tension.  Combine that with a fun theme that tells a cool story, and I can see why Faiyum has been so popular in recent months.  

Though it has been primarily praised for its deckbuilding, to me, the best part of Faiyum is the end-of-game mechanic.  When I reviewed Feierabend a few months ago, I noted that a couple of Friedemann Friese’s games are all about clever timing.  That is certainly the case with Faiyum: everybody can see the end of the game coming, but they still need to time it and be prepared for it, because a good portion of the available points can — and generally are — earned after the endgame is triggered.  

The result is that Faiyum tells a story of a basin on the Nile slowly becoming a metropolis.  When the game begins, the map is undeveloped (and crocodile infested!), and everybody has the same cards.  But as the game progresses, each player develops different and powerful combinations of abilities, using that to not only transform the landscape, but also earn money and victory points in increasing quantities.  But then the disasters arrive, and it becomes a test of who truly has built the best deck.  

The cards work together in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and there is a powerful in-game tension where players vie for the cards they need.  If your opponent is generating plenty of roses, for instance, you don’t want them to have the card that lets them score for those opportunities.  Many of the great scoring cards are higher in the deck, so they naturally appear in the future market, allowing players to jockey for the opportunity to purchase them.

I’ve played Faiyum at three different player counts — down to two players and up to five — and I think it works slightly better at higher player counts.  One of the joys of the game comes from the tension of the card market, but that isn’t as present in a two player game as it is in a four player game.  But I still enjoyed the game at two players, which becomes more about seizing the opportunities of the map.

There’s a lot to love here.  The randomized card market makes for a high degree of replayability.  There are practically endless combinations to explore in the game.  The theme is fun.  And this is the right amount of think-y: this game can be enjoyed by casual gamers and heavy gamers alike.  The game generally takes us about 75-90 minutes, so we’re coming in less than the 120 minutes displayed on the box.  

My only complaint about Faiyum is that — despite the intuitive core mechanic — it is a bit difficult to learn.  The rulebook is well written with clear examples, but the sheer number of different symbols makes it where this takes a full game to grasp.  (The various card combinations can also take a full game to grasp.)  That’s a minor complaint, and I actually feel like the symbols and graphics are well designed, but it is worth noting for groups that are symbol-averse.  

But overall, Faiyum is excellent, and I’m thrilled to have it in my collection.  Between this and Feierabend, Friedemann Friese continues to show off his ability to make innovative, engaging games that are fun for a wide segment of the gaming community.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y: (3 plays, on review copy provided by publisher) – Friedemann is one of the geniuses of the gaming industry.  He seems to be able to challenge himself constantly to push the boundaries of game design.  Some of his most audacious attempts are 504 and Copycat; though I’ll have to admit that I was more impressed with the design attempt than the end product in both of those cases.

Faiyum, as far as I know, didn’t stem from a challenge, but it is the game that I wanted Copycat to be.  Sure, it doesn’t try to pull ideas from ten different games, but you can see bits and pieces from other games pulled together here.  There is a little bit of deck building (i.e. Dominion or many others), the card play feels a little like Concordia, the card market is directly from Power Grid, the glut of components used only once as in Andor,  etc.  But in this game, the mashup of familiar mechanics work together to form a great result.

For me, the key component is taken from Power Grid, one of FF’s own games.  As Power Grid is one of my 5 all time favorite games, the way the market works feels so comfortable.  Here, it has the added importance that it decides the tempo of the game.  As in Power Grid, you always arrange to cards in numerical order.  However, depending on luck of the draw, you might have a market with the highest purchasable card being #20, while you might also have it be #88.

This can have a huge effect on the game because it can directly change what sorts of bits are available. In our first game, the ability to make a town piece didn’t come up until the last quarter of the game.  In the second game, that same card was in the initial market.  This obviously changes how each game will play out as well as altering the relative importance of the cards based on how often you’ll be able to use those cards because cards that scored towns were nearly worthless in the first game, but they were strongly fought over in the second.  For me, this is the perfect system for replayability – you don’t need new boards or convoluted setups; just let the game engine determine the changes for you.

As I play the game, I find that I’m trying to build an engine through the card combinations of my deck… But, again because of the market; I find that I am running an engine for a few turns, and then because of the way that the cards get gradually better and more efficient; I am going back to the market to refine my engine, perhaps getting a card that does the actions of two cards – which I will now try to play for the last time and then bury in my discard pile.

While there are a few cards which let you discard cards outright from your deck, the usual way that you shape your deck is to play unwanted cards directly after an administration action so that they get buried in your discard pile, never to be seen again.  Of course, sometimes it’s hard to know what you want to get rid of – if you play it too early, you might be forced to spend money to get a card back… if you play it too late, you’ll pick it back up, and then have to get rid of it on the next go-round, or it’ll cost you a dollar of income in the next Administration.

The tempo ebbs and flows; early on Administrations come quickly as players don’t have that many cards in their deck.  Then, in the midgame, it sometimes takes a while as players have a bunch of cards they try to play.  And, so far in my games, near the end, players play their most valuable combination of cards to score VPs, and then quickly Administrate in order to return those cards to their hand so they can play them again!  Always keep an eye out on what other people are doing; because with each Administration, two cards are removed from the market – and it’s super sad to have a card you were waiting for be trashed because you didn’t buy it in time!

The game is very tactical, you’re constantly watching the situation on the board, the situation in the card market and watching the discard piles of your opponents, trying to remember what cards they have left in their hand so you can predict what they are most likely going to do next.  There is competition both on the board (many cards require cleared off spaces or empty settlements/towns) as well as the card market.  And, of course, you can only do one thing each turn – so you have to try to prioritize the things you want to do, putting pieces on the board at the right time, buying cards at the right time/price, etc.  Is it too much to watch?  I don’t think so, but there’s definitely enough going on that you will be paying attention to the game the entire time… 

Timing at the end of the game is crucial.  Most of the scoring cards come up near the end of the game (based on their high card number and the way the market works) – and as a result, most of the final turns of the game can yield a bulk of the points. It is also crucial to manage the final Administration – it stinks to only have a few cards in your hand while everyone else has a full hand at the end…  Of course, there is the added tension from the tiered bonus cards taken at the end, and 10VP is decent compensation for not having as many cards to play in the endgame as others – but it’s nicer to be able to get the 10VP card and still have a few cards to play to generate more points!

For me, the artwork is typical 2F style, perfectly functional and unobtrusive.  Unlike Chris Wray, I found that my group understood the icons pretty easily.  It also probably helped that I downloaded the card summary file, printed it 4-up, and gave each player a small summary booklet for themselves.  We still explained each new card as it came available in the market – but then each player had their own reference that they could look at any time.

Initial games take about 90 minutes, but I think this could come closer to 60 with players that are familiar with the game and the card actions.  This is one of the best 2F games in recent memory, and one that definitely has a home in the shelves of the Gaming Basement. It takes a lot of ideas that feel familiar, and ties them all together in a compelling game.  

Brandon K – I was the player in that 2 player game that Chris mentions, and while I enjoyed the game, I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much as Chris did. That may end up being partially due to the fact that I have only played it once, and I have a feeling that Faiyum plays better the more familiar you become with it, at least to a point. The bear of the game is learning those symbols and what each card does as it comes out into the market. It can slow the game down to a crawl, luckily you really only have to worry about four cards at a time that are available, although, the market moves quick enough in two players with cards being discarded when folks do Admin. So I think that even with two players that market moves quickly enough to create a lot of, “I wonder what this card does” moments. Which to be fair, those moments would disappear with more plays. With that though comes the age old question though, will it be just as interesting the 7th time, as it was the 1st time and I don’t know if it will be. Yes, you are never going to have the same exact game twice, but just because things are mixed up, doesn’t really make it any different, we’re still seeing the same cards we saw the previous six plays. I do love the discarding mechanism, and how that helps create your hand of cards and almost becomes a way to cull cards you don’t want to use any longer, if you manage to plan that well. Faiyum is a game that I really would like to play again, especially with more than 2 players, but I’m not rushing out to buy a copy to make that happen any time soon. It’s a good solid game, but maybe just not a Brandon game.  

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris Wray, Alan How, Dale Y
  • I like it. Brandon K
  • Neutral. 
  • Not for me… 
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