Tuesday, December 13, 2016

An Overstuffed Feast

With Agricola, Uwe Rosenberg cemented himself in the highest tier of board games. He's a designer whose name sells games, whose every release attracts attention from board game enthusiasts. His newest effort, A Feast for Odin, is his biggest yet -- a massive box so loaded with boards and wooden pieces that it retails at $100.

Players each manage a group of Vikings, hunting for food, expanding to new lands, building ships, raiding enemies, and developing a powerful infrastructure. The mechanics are something like a mashup of Caverna and Le Havre with other bits mixed in, and are sufficiently involved to defy any easy summary here. And that's potentially a problem. Uwe Rosenberg has done a few lighter games over his career, but he's mostly leaned into his reputation for depth and complexity, releasing ever more involved games. A Feast for Odin might be a step too far.

First, it's a worker placement game. Players all work with a shared action board, placing from 1 to 4 of their workers on different spaces to take an action. There are dozens and dozens of actions (around 50, I think), and while the board groups similar ideas together, the fact is that each individual action is different. It's Agricola multiplied by 4 or 5 -- a lot to take in.

Second, there are a lot of goods in this game. Rosenberg revisits an idea he used in Le Havre, where basic goods were printed on one side of a token, and advanced goods on the other. (Wheat being baked into bread, for example.) A Feast for Odin ups the ante to four stages of goods (two sides of two chips; you swap chips as you move from stage 2 to 3). Unlike Le Havre, where each good had its own color, color here refers to the stage of advancement of a good. But the colors don't follow a typical rainbow progression, making it tough to remember what it going to turn into what.

Third, all those goods come in various "Tetris shapes," geometric configurations of squares, which are then deployed onto each player's personal land board to cover spaces in strategic ways. This part reminded me a bit of The Princes of Florence (not a Rosenberg game), but again, with the dial turned up to maximum. The Princes of Florence used a 7x7 grid. A Feast for Odin uses boards around 15 x 15 (and you can acquire new land masses during the game, each with weird layouts of their own).

It's typical of these complex board games (for people who enjoy them) that at some point during your first playthrough, you have an "aha!" moment where all the rules lock into place and you understand how it all works. Often, this comes with the realization that you've made poor strategic choices and really ought to play again... but you at least see how the pieces of the contraption fit together. I got there very, very late in the game with this one. And many of the people I played with never got there, being generally miserable throughout the experience.

And what a long experience that was. It took over an hour to deliver the rules explanation for the game, and over three hours to play. Plus, it ended with half the players never wanting to touch the thing again. As for myself? Well... I'd consider it, but with great skepticism. Consider all the other games I've name-checked in describing this one. A Feast for Odin feels like it's trying to be the Frankenstein hybrid of three or four other games. And while the whole does arguably present something more than the sum of the parts, I just don't know that I need a game that makes me play parts of four other games at once. I feel like I'd more happily play Agricola, or Le Havre, or The Princes of Florence -- any of which would take less time -- than take time on the sprawling beast that is A Feast for Odin again.

But that said... yes, I probably would try it. So I think I'd peg the game at something like a C+ overall. I think only a Uwe Rosenberg completist needs to own it.

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