Fief: France 1492 Review
on May 11, 2015
Fief is the most vindictive, spiteful lover you've ever fallen for. It's that special someone with a mean streak that all your friends tell you is no good and harming your welfare. But damn, when you're together and it's clicking the outside world stops and the hair on the back of your neck is electric as everything is perfect, until it's not. Just like a Tiger Woods polygraph, the highs and lows are separated by a gulf as wide as the horizon.
At a surface level this is a bog-standard area control game where players expand across medieval France with armies of varying size seizing land and adding to their wealth. When you control every village in a Fief, you become a titled Lord and receive one of the three victory points needed for success. What separates this game from its brethren is this emphasis on gaining ground in the noble hierarchy. In addition to the acquiring of titles through land acquisition you can progress through the ecclesiastical ranks of Bishop, Cardinal and Pope.
One particularly interesting aspect of the design is the multi-layered board, geographically segregated by Fiefdom and broken apart into different Bishoprics overseen by the Church. Once all of the territories are controlled within a Bishopric, the following turn a Bishop must be elected if eligible. Voting occurs in a social manner around the table with number of votes determined by religious titles as well as land holders in the region. Elevating a Bishop to Cardinal is a random affair as you must draw one of three Cardinal cards from the noble deck that you draw a single card from each turn. The Pope is elected once two Cardinals have been established and votes are only totaled by Cardinals in play. Achieving the vaunted rank of Pope not only grants free reign for drunken Catholic trash-talking but also grants one precious VP.
The final path towards victory is being elected King, which requires a male, titled Lord candidate as well as key votes from church officials. This mixing of secular and church authority in combination with the textured region definitions provide the grist for negotiation, power brokering and dynamic social indulgence that propel the game into another realm. This pushes the same envelope as the Game of Thrones board game adding a dimension which isn't typically seen in a title of this type and provides for new avenues of engagement. A player can focus on several different approaches to victory, ignoring the church almost entirely in one play and then ascending to Pope in the next.
Working together with this strong-fisted barter dynamic is the very interesting marriage system which allows each player to engage one of their Lords in marriage to another player. When betrothed the players enter into an alliance which they can only break if one of the entrants passes away, most likely through an assassination. Yes, if assassinating royal family members to send an alliance skittering over the cliff gets your blood flowing then Fief is where it's at. The drama invoked by player engaged marriages and cutthroat political maneuvering brings a palpable tension and excitement to the table adding to the whole.
Taking great pains to pay a substantial bribe to set up a marriage, securing votes for your Bishop via future promises and throwing your warriors into a bloody border war to squeeze the French soil tighter are all accomplishments that breed great passion and triumph. Everything is almost too perfect when the plague hits due to a random card draw, offing three-fourths of your noble family and knocking half of your entire army off the board leaving your flank exposed, your precious mills at the mercy of the lucky fool sitting next to you. These disaster cards are the most capricious and vengeful swings of fate I've ever seen in a game. As long as they're hitting the next guy and not yourself everything is Luke Jackson cool but that heathen will eventually swing your way and you'll wince in pain as if you've just been kicked in the groin with a steel toe.
One of the most difficult aspects of this game is how ingrained these wide swings of catastrophic proportions are in the design. Removing these events takes out a degree of historical charm while neutering the absolutely magnificent narrative. Fief effortlessly bleeds interesting story due to the political machinations and the random bouts of fortune and disaster. There's substantial strategic meat on the bone but the narrative spice keeps you clawing back for more of the kill. You'll have moments where the game's approximation of Joan of Arc charges forth to lead a cavalry charge out of a stronghold into the besiegers, breaking their surrounding wall and saving the day. Other times you'll reap a large swathe of bubonic plague and destroyed crops where your family digs its way out of the muck and fights to regain respectability. It's utterly fantastic and breeds gaming stories you'll be recounting over a pint for years to come.
There is a plethora of things to love about Fief that are at constant war with those you will despise. Some will never find traction with this release and will want to move on long before their people are gaining boils and their land is covered in swamp. Some will align with my regards and love Fief for its beautiful and seductive side, overlooking its seething black widow nature broiling beneath the surface. Many of the best things in life require pain and agony on the road thereto.