Monday, 12 August 2013

Felinia, Part 2: Gameplay & Verdict

So in our previous entry we examined the box content of Michael Schacht's little-known Felinia, a 2-4 player game from Matagot.  Now we're going to run through the gameplay and give our thoughts on the ups and downs of it as a product in general.
In Part 1 we mentioned that the board is double-sided, for basic or advanced gameplay.  For our review we're going to just be looking at the basic gameplay.  To start with each player must squabble amongst themselves over which colour of cat-trading family they wish to control, and then assume possession of the appropriate player card, Bid Counters, Money Counter, and Merchant Tokens.  The Money Counter for each player keeps track of their current wealth, and at the start of the game is placed on the number '2' along the upper edge of their player card.  Each player is then given 2 Merchandise Tiles, which are dictated by the rulebook based on the number of players (there is a quick-reference card to prevent players from having to keep the rulebook out at all times).
The Auction Houses on the left of the board then need to receive their initial stock for your merchant-cats to place their bids on.  As you can see, each auction house has 3 square spaces; these are the free slots for Merchandise Tiles, and at the beginning of the game each auction house received 2 tiles randomly chosen from the merchandise bag.

Then the right hand side of the board needs to be prepared, with the five nations of Felinia.  The Trade Tokens are each placed face-down on a space containing a trade symbol, in a province matching the colour of the token.
Once all of the tokens are placed, the final items in the initial setup are the galleons.  These are lined up next to the auction houses, and the Ship Tiles are shuffled to form a deck.  The top four cards are placed into the galleons, and then the setup is complete!  Your merchant-cats are now ready to start trading and building their empire!
This may sound like a lot of setup time, but in reality it takes less than 5 minutes to prepare the board for a game of Felinia.  It's a small price to pay for what will prove to be an interesting hour of cut-throat business management.
As we've mentioned, the game features auction houses and Bid Tokens, so obviously bidding is the way to acquire the merchandise needed to sail to Felinia, so let's look at how that works.
Each player starts the turn with 3 Bid Tokens, and each of these can be used to increase their coins for the turn or to place a bid.  To place a bid, the players simply place their tokens next to the appropriate auction houses.  Once all tokens have been placed by all players the bidding ends, and deals can start to be made.
The bids at the two auction houses above have finished with very different outcomes.  The auction house on the left is resolved first, starting with the topmost Bid Counter.  As there is only 1 bid counter, the yellow player just has to spend 1 coin to buy a single Merchandise Tile of their choice.  Next, the auction house on the right is resolved with greater complication. The topmost counter is red, so the red player gets first pick of the Merchandise Tiles.  Seeing as there are 3 counters at this auction house, the red player must spend 3 coins to purchase a Merchandise Tile.  Once they've made their choice, the red counter is removed and the blue player can make their choice, but as there are now only 2 counters left their purchase will only cost them 2 coins.  After their counter is removed the green player is left with the one remaining tile, but even though they probably will no longer be getting the tile they were after, at least it's now only costing them 1 coin.
This is an excellent bidding system, and each turn will leave the players mulling over the awkward choice between buying more lower-cost Merchandise Tiles, or paying through the nose for the one they really need.  But how do you decide which tile you really need to buy?  Let us show you...

At the port of Katzburg the galleons are waiting to ferry the players' Merchant Tokens off to the continent of Felinia.  To board a galleon the player must have just completed a deal at an auction house and be in possession of the correct goods (shown at the back of the ship).  In this case the upper ship requires 2 grey tiles and 1 purple, and the lower ship requires 2 purple tiles and one green.  Once a player has met these requirements they discard their tiles into the bag and place a merchant onto to foremost vacant space on the galleon.  When the galleon is full to capacity it sets sail at the end of the next round of auctions, and the second phase of the game begins.

Once the galleon reaches the appropriate nation of Felinia, the merchants disembark one by one.  They are then able to turn over 2 Trade Tokens, and then move 2 spaces to end in a province containing one of these tokens.  This token then goes to the merchant's controlling player, counting towards their final score.  As well as gaining Trade Tokens, the placement of the Merchant Tokens themselves is another strategic factor.  A lone merchant is worth 1 point at the end of the game, but 2 merchants in adjacent provinces are worth 2 points each, 3 adjacent merchants are worth 3 points each, and so on.  This doesn't just push the players to try and keep their trading outposts close together, but also can lead to players deliberately setting up their outposts to interrupt a line of their opponent's merchants before their score can rack up too high.
When all merchants have disembarked the galleons return to the port, their Ship Tile is discarded and replaced with a new one from the top of the deck.  The auction houses are all fully replenished, the first turn card passes clockwise to the next player, and a new round begins.  There are two ways the game can end; the first player places his final Merchant Token on a ship, or the final Ship Tile is placed from the deck onto a galleon.  In either case all ships set sail (regardless of whether they're full to capacity), and once the merchants have established their outposts the game is over.  Points are tallied and the winner can be declared.

Felinia is admittedly quite a slow game to begin with.  It tends to take 2-3 turns before the first ship sets sail, but once that happens and the trading outposts begin to get established, the game quickly accelerates and becomes quite busy and compelling.  It does feel very much as though it's divided into two halves; bidding and exploration, with bidding being the greater aspect of the game, but these two halves do mesh extremely well, leaving a smooth, cleanly-running game system.
As we've mentioned a couple of times, Felinia is a very strategic game, with many ways to foil your opponents.  If it's obvious that your opponent is after one particular Merchandise Tile, you can make it your mission to outbid them at all costs, even if it's not an item of merchandise you particularly need.  If they're establishing a number of outposts in close succession then you can damage their final score by landing your merchant right in the middle of their territory.  If they're collecting a high number of purple Trade Tokens you can try to sneak in and grab a few of your own to prevent them from getting the maximum score out of their own.
As you can tell, we were very impressed with Felinia overall.  It's simple to pick up, tough to master, and if played with some strategically-minded people it can prove to be a very competitive (and slightly back-stabbing) game.  Set-up and put-away time are both mercifully short, and the game itself tends to clock in at around the hour mark, making it a good game to get involved in without kissing goodbye to your entire evening.
Another interesting point to note with Felinia is the way it plays with 2, 3 or 4 players.  Most specialist games we've reviewed at Games & Tea don't work quite so well with just 2 players, but with this one it's a little different.  With just 2 players there doesn't tend to be much by the way of cut-throat outbidding, or back-stabbing merchant placement.  There's enough room on the board for both players to operate without clashing too often, and the game will often end with a pair of large, well-established trading outposts operating on the continent, with one player scraping a victory by the narrowest of margins.  With 3 or 4 players then space on Felinia becomes a more valuable commodity, and ruthless tactics will start to come into effect.  The game usually ends with much smaller, fragmented empires being established, leaving each player with a significantly lower score, but still a close-run fight to the finish.  Having played games with all numbers of players, we have to say that these two styles of play are very different, but neither is particularly less enjoyable than the other.
The main negative point about Felinia is not a fault of the game itself, but more about the genre.  trading/auction games are a particular niche in the specialist game market, and not one that appeals to all gamers.  This was our first taste of such a game at Games & Tea, and if others run on a similar mechanic then we'd certainly be willing to give them a shot.  However, those who are not fans of trading games will be unlikely to find anything here to surprise and hook them, and would probably walk away from a game of Felinia without a feeling of satisfaction.
So let's give this bizarre and intriguing merchant-cat game a breakdown, and a final score out of 10...
The Good Points
  • Whilst intimidating at first glance, Felinia is quick to pick up, and a whole board of new players will be comfortable with their actions before the end of their first game.
  • The auction system is well thought out, and captures the feeling that players are properly bidding for their first choice in merchandise.
  • The scoring system with the Merchant Tokens and Trade Tokens is very strategic, and rewards players for planning ahead with their bids.
  • It's a game about Elizabethan cats (with opposable thumbs) building spice empires in a far-off land!  Even if for nothing else, everyone should play Felinia once for that reason!
The Bad Points
  • As an auction/trading game, Felinia will only appeal to a certain audience of specialist gamer.  If you're not a trading fan, then this game will be unlikely to do anything for you.
  • The wooden Merchant Tokens are a bit disappointing - in a game about merchant-cats, you'd expect the playing pieces to at least represent these feline entrepreneurs.
Recommended Number of Players: 4
Whilst it does play very differently, Felinia works well with any number of players from 2-4.  If we had to choose a number of players though, we'd have to choose 4.  As long as you're playing with a group who aren't going to take things too seriously and throw a tantrum, the sneaky and competitive nature of a large-scale game can be a lot of fun for all involved.
Average Game Time: 60 minutes
An average run of Felinia will take roughly an hour.  The first few rounds tend to run very slowly, but once ships start to set sail and the Trade Tokens pile up, the pace quickens rapidly and the final turn of the game can sneak up unnervingly soon.
Replay Value: High
As with any game where strategy is the key to victory, the replay value of Felinia is high.  Every defeat is a lesson in how to adjust your tactics, and every victory vindicates your style of play.  The addition of the advanced board allows the game to refresh itself once you've mastered the basics, adding new rules such as food cards, which can be discarded to make your merchants travel further after disembarking from their ships.
The Future: Go Backwards
Unfortunately the future of Felinia is a bleak one.  There have been no expansions for it, nor are the likely to be any, so if you've finally reached the stage where repeat playthroughs of the game hold no appeal then there's not much that can be done to refresh the game.  However, Felinia is actually the third game in Michael Schacht's Gold Trilogy, following on from The Golden City and Valdora respectively.  Whilst we have yet to track down and test out either of these games, the odds are that if you're looking for something in the same vain then these will be a good place to start.
Price: £30
Felinia will set you back around the £30 mark, and for a nice little game like this one it's well worth the money.  Unfortunately the fact that it looks like some kind of crazy cat-people game will probably not endear gamers to pay the full price for it, which is a shame because inside the box is a well thought out game which would be an excellent addition to a collection.  We picked it up from a UK discount store called The Works for just £10, having bought it with the expectation that it was going to be average at best, but amusing for the cat aspect.
As mentioned at the beginning of the review, Felinia is not one of the more mainstream specialist games, and availability could be an issue.  If your local store can get it in then that's fantastic, but you're more than likely to be left hunting for it on the internet.  If any of our UK readers are interested in the game, then we'd strongly recommend checking out your local branch of The Works to try and grab a copy before they're gone!
Starting with Felinia, all of Games & Tea's scored will now be given out of 10, to give a better impression of our opinion.
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