05 September 2018
A feast of fantasy fun that’s a little hard to digest
Forget the whimsical, Adventure Timey vibe given off by Feudum’s cover artwork, panoramic map and Jim Henson-like creatures: this is a game doing a lot of heavy lifting beneath its light dressing, like pulling the head off a Big Bird costume to find The Rock inside.
It is, essentially, a complex medieval sandbox simulation set in a fantasy world. Each turn, players choose four of 11 action cards and execute them one at a time, in whatever order they want. Like its looks, it seems simple on the surface, but the cards quickly give way to a staggering number of options.
At the centre of the action are six guilds, Feudum’s lifeblood. Players earn status with each guild depending on their actions on the map and deploying their three pawns that are, if you like, enrolled rather than rolled: you might choose one to be a monk to please the religious faction of the land, or nominate another to be a farmer, satisfying the rural contingent. Any player can trade with a guild freely, but the most venerated player (guild master) and second-in-command (journeyman) can perform more advanced actions that ‘push’ and ‘pull’ resources between adjacent guilds, creating a lifelike flow of goods and services – so the farmers’ harvest can become goods for sale from the merchants, which can then be used by the alchemists to help invent water and air vehicles. Meanwhile, guild members take a cut of any shillings traded with their respective factions, with a portion also crossing the board to be held as charity until that too can be swept up by guild members. The numerous interlocking systems can be fiddly and a lot to keep up with at first, but once they click it all feels astonishingly natural and just makes sense in the world that creator Mark Swanson has created.
The open nature of Feudum presents plenty of opportunity for entertaining hijinks. Players can throw their rivals a feast to get them drunk and temporarily borrow their mastery of a guild, for instance, while wine can also be used instead of food to keep pawns going on the board – but they’ll be worse in battles while sustained by little more than alcohol. If you purchase a vehicle, you can abandon it once you’re back on land – but that means that a rival might come along and pinch it for a ride.
layers can exert their influence over locations to become the ruler, or a serf if there’s already a ruler in place, and benefit from the land, but can also choose to bribe their way to the top and displace the current ruler. Or you could always starve the people to instantly – but dishonourably – deal with a rival subject or serf.
Feudum’s greatest strength is its biggest challenge, too. The sheer range of things it’s possible to do make for an often overwhelming number of rules to remember and execute, which aren’t always recapped as well as they could be by the flavour-over-function visuals and reference materials, which too often lack reminders of the small but important steps linked to each event. The game’s lack of obvious direction and semi-randomised way of advancing each epoch also means it can stretch on, with having to operate the machinery taking precedence over the joy of being able to watch it in motion. Which is a shame, as when it does tick along without grinding to a halt, it’s an astonishing experience.
Feudum doesn’t quite sink completely under the weight of its ambitions, but its impressive portrayal of a believable world – behemoths and sea serpents aside – stumbles in its execution. There’s enough here for those who invest the significant time and effort needed to enjoy for years to come – we just wish it was a little easier to fall completely into its world.
Feudum’s complex world is an amazing creation that’s a delight to explore and play around in – once you manage to get to grips with its fiddlier aspects. If only it was as easy and fun to play as it is to watch.
Designer: Mark Swanson
Artist: Justin Schultz
Time: 80-180 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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