29th May2024

‘Faiyum’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

One of many Friedemann Friese games to begin with the letter “F” is 2020’s lesser-known Faiyum – a game that centres on the titular region of Faiyum. This region lies adjacent to the Bahr Yussef channel and according to Faiyum was an uninhabited swampland 4,000 years ago. Over several decades and under the instruction of successive Pharaohs, the people of Egypt toiled to reclaim the land and develop a controlled flood plain – which anyone with even a passing interest in ancient Egypt will now know as the key driver for their economic success and powerful empire.

With this kind of fact-based historical setting, my interest is already piqued, but I’ve struggled with most of Friedemann Friese’s games in the past. I really do enjoy Power Grid: Recharged, but I’ve struggled with others like Futuropia. I was concerned going into Faiyum that being an “F” game, it might be more the latter than the former – and thankfully I was quite wrong. Whilst the production quality of this Rio Grande Games edition of Faiyum isn’t perfect (with very thin, flimsy cards and the same fairly basic Harald Lieske artwork of the 2020 original), the game itself is very strong, with interesting mechanics and a simple rule set.

Each player begins the game with a small hand of basic cards – including three farmer cards, one to build roads and one to build a stronghold. On the board, a single road is placed during setup (on the bridge across the Nile) and a single stronghold, whilst every swampland space receives a single crocodile meeple to show that it is still undeveloped. On the left-hand side of the board, the players will draw eight cards and place them in numerical value order. One of the most interesting features of Faiyum is that as new cards enter the market, they will enter between other cards – this mechanism is copied from Power Grid and it remains a simple but effective way to balance what players can do in the early and late game.

On a normal turn, a player simply plays one card and does what it shows. When the farmer card is played, for example, the player simply takes a single worker meeple (from a shared supply) and places it down next to any other meeple (if there is one.) The player then takes the resource of the kind shown on the space where the farmer is – either wheat, grapes or stone. If the farmer was placed on a space with a crocodile, the croc token is removed and the player takes one money token – this represents the Pharoah’s thanks for developing the land. That player then ends their turn and the next player will (usually) play a card of their own.

I keep saying that you’ll usually play a card, and that’s because at some point, you’ll need to “Administrate.” When a player administrates, they first take three money minus one money for each card they still have in their hand, and then they draw back three of their already played cards – in order. Yes, I may not have mentioned it before, but in Faiyum, it’s essential to keep your discard pile in the order that you played it. After drawing three cards back, a player can then draw more – but must pay one money for each of them, meaning that Faiyum demands that players be efficient both when playing cards (to try use their whole hand) and in terms of the order that cards are played in. As the final part of administration, you’ll also bring two workers back from the board – opening their spaces up for reuse, or development.

Another action that players can do instead of playing cards is to buy a card from the market. When they do this, they’ll choose one of the cards from the bottom four in the display, pay the money (between two and five) and then place that card in their hand. Again, as I described earlier, a new card will be added to the market – but it will slide in at whatever its numerical value is. This will sometimes go directly into the available market of four cards (if it’s a low number) but it may also appear in the future market of four cards, pushing one of the cards that has been in the future market for a while down into the current market.

Ultimately, the winner of Faiyum will be the player who scores the most prestige at the point where the game end has been triggered and everyone has chosen one of the pass cards that will eventually clog up the future market. Prestige is gained by playing cards that develop the Faiyum basin. Strongholds are worth points, roads are worth points (and bonuses when you connect two existing places), as are workshops, monuments and a few other specific things that are unique to certain cards. One card, for example, allows a player to operate a military convoy between two strongholds for points -thematically demonstrating the power and presence of the Pharoah.

Aside from its low-key looks and slightly low-rent components, Faiyum is an excellent game. I often say that my favourite games are those which have simple mechanics mated to deep strategy, and that’s exactly what we have here. A turn can be over and done with in seconds, but like Chess or any of the classic games, that turn might be part of a much bigger plan. Other players can affect those plans though, and as your experience with Faiyum grows, so too does your understanding of what is going on – you know what actions other players have, how they can score, what they’ve already played.

Seeing three or four turns into the future is one thing, but hoping that your opponents fail to see what you’re doing is another. A lot of Faiyum is based on the fact that everything on the board is shared – from workers to roads and strongholds. If your plan involves connecting two locations over a couple of turns, then you need to be aware that someone else could do that just as easily – and so timing your move to coincide with a moment where they have used their road card (and therefore need to take an Administration action to get it back) can be crucial. Failure to plan around your own hand, your opponent’s available actions and the space on the board can be hugely reductive to your score.

With lots of potential for me to grow into it as I gain more experience, but with a clear and obvious path to “how you win” I think Faiyum is a keeper for me. It’s a very clever game with a theme that I am personally interested in, and a proper sense of progression from one round to the next. I may not be a huge fan of the components in v, but they are completely functional and it’s only really the cards and the art I take issue with – the wooden pieces are actually fine. Faiyum may not have the mass appeal of Power Grid, but it is nonetheless cut from the same cloth and is a worthy addition to any collection.

**** 4/5

A copy of Faiyum was supplied by Asmodee UK for review
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