Part of the allure of gaming is in how it allows you not only to be someone else for a little while, but to have interesting experiences with that someone else. King of Tokyo lets you be a rampaging monster. Merchant of Venus has you spanning the galaxy seeking your fortune. Magic: The Gathering puts you in the role of a dueling wizard. Last night was something else entirely though. In the course of one evening, I got married twice, became a bishop and a cardinal, accidentally got a pope elected, and died from the plague. That’s a full night by any standard, and it was all in one game.
Fief: France 1429: At first glance, the title looks more like something you’d see at the beginning of some historical documentary or something, but it’s actually meant to differentiate it from several earlier versions of the game. Fief first saw life way back in 1981, saw an updated version in 1989, and still another version in 2011. But these were all French, which, while not an insurmountable obstacle to an enterprising gamer, made the game a little difficult to find here. Thanks to a recent Kickstarter campaign though, the game has come to our shores with an English edition that does some streamlining and tweaking from its French predecessor.
In Fief, the players represent a noble family vying for control of the French countryside. Cards are played representing lords and ladies who can gain titles, and, in the finest medieval tradition, your male lords can become bishops, cardinals, king and even pope (ladies, you can become queen, but only if you marry the king; it says 1429 on the box for a reason). But those positions are all voted on by your fellow players, so you have to play the negotiation game, trading a vote here for a favor there, forming alliances via marriage of your nobles, and controlling areas of the board so you have more votes when the time comes. You also have cards that represent events, either good things like nice weather or a bountiful harvest, or not so good things like, oh, famine and the Black Death. This game doesn’t mess around. There’s also a military aspect, as your nobles can lead soldiers into battle, taking land away from your opponents or defending your lands from invasion. The game ends when one player has 3 victory points (gained by become lord of a fief, becoming king or becoming pope) or an alliance has 4 victory points, with a solo win trumping a shared one. There’s diplomacy, backstabbing, secret deals, shattered alliances, and a whole lot of stress over just what they’re all whispering about when they talk in private.
What struck me most about this game, and it may have been a function of our newness to it, was that never once did it feel like a win was inevitable until the very end, when everyone put their endgames into effect. Because once someone gets close to that third or fourth victory point, they might as well hang a huge target on themselves. And the random events that occur can change the game drastically. On three separate occasions, an alliance that seemed headed for victory was undone by an untimely plague, throwing the game wide open again. You can see your mills grind to halt at the wrong time, depriving you of the income you need. You can have the peasants rise up and kill your carefully procured soldiers. You can even get assassinated or excommunicated. Nothing is ever set in stone.
As it turned out, my first alliance dissolved when my noble lady, who’d earned the exclusive D’Arc title, making her a military powerhouse, got offed by the plague, right as we were about to launch a gambit to take the win. My second marriage lasted, but went down in defeat as we lost control of one of our fiefs at the very end and couldn’t take it back. This was helped by me accidentally casting a no vote on a papal candidate that allowed the eventual winner to become pope. I need to look at my tokens more carefully before I put them down, apparently.
The neat thing though is that all those random events really did feel like a story. Noble houses rose and fell, alliances were tested, men gained power, and women … stood by and watched it happen. Okay, sure, it’s historically accurate to its time period, so if you’re looking for gender equality, this probably isn’t your cup of tea. But if you want to spend a few hours telling a story of intrigue and conquest, you could do a lot worse than bringing Fief to the table. Just don’t get too attached to your husband or wife. Those rats are mean.