I am in love with a Frenchman named Bruno.
You see, some people have a favorite film director. Some people have a favorite band. Or maybe a favorite dessert. Yeah, I’ve got those things, but I’ve also got a favorite board game designer. Yeah, I know. You wish you were as cool as me. But if you’re reading this column, you’ve got at the very least, a passing interest in board games, so if you’re not familiar with Mr. Bruno Faidutti, allow me to make introductions.
Bruno Faidutti was born in 1961 and is a sociologist and historian. He lists Blade Runner among his favorite films and Gogol Bordello as one of his favorite bands. Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman and James Joyce are but a few of his favorite authors. He prefers Jerzebiak brand vodka. He wrote his thesis for his History PhD on unicorns! In fact, you can download it directly from his fabulous website… provided you’re willing to read it in French, that is. Said fabulous website (www.Faidutti.com) also includes his “Ideal Game Library” which is a comprehensive list of every game Mr. Faidutti thinks should be in the distinguishing board gamer’s collection. (For any of you out there who are fans of horned mythical beasts, but are not francophones, allow me to instead recommend Chris Lavers’ enlightening book The Natural History of Unicorns. No, it’s got nothing to do with gaming. Screw you, it’s my column! Just read the damn book.)
At any rate, Mr. Bruno Faidutti also designs board games. And in my opinion, Bruno Faidutti designs excellent board games. Many designers have a design signature that is apparent in most of their work, and Faidutti is no exception. Social games are his trademark, and his games tend to highlight bluffing or even intimidation over raw tactical thought. Being able to out-maneuver your opponents is rarely as valuable as being able to out-guess them. Faidutti’s games are not usually the sort of affairs where one can analyze every possible outcome to maximize your position; too much is left to the whim of your opponent. Figuring out the odds means nothing when your opponent can find success by making the most ridiculous move possible just to screw with you. Knowing exactly how any turn is going to play out is an impossibility.
Nowhere is this design strategy in better evidence than in Faidutti’s best selling game, CITADELS. First printed in 2000 and later published in no less than 16 different languages, this was the game that introduced me to Bruno Faidutti, and it might just be my favorite game of all time. It’s certainly my favorite in its weight class.
In a nutshell, the game is played like this: you’re playing cards from your hand to the table in front of you, the cards representing districts in a medieval city. You can only play one card per turn, and you must pay the gold value of the card to add it to your city. Once a player has eight districts in front of him, the current round is played out and then game ends, the player with the most valuable city winning the game. That’s basically it. The trick is that each round, every player secretly picks a character from a shared deck of eight special character cards. The character that you choose determines not only when in the game round you get to play, but gives you one special ability that enables you to somehow manipulate the cards, the other players, or your income. Not all the characters are always available, but because the remaining character cards are passed to the player on your left after you choose yours, you will always have a few good hunches as to which characters the players before you have chosen. This last tidbit is the heart of the game. Can you guess which player has chosen which character? Are you certain that Jeff has chosen to be the King again this round, or has the rat bastard picked the Thief, thinking to rob you of your lawfully gotten gold? (My apologies to Jeff for using his name as an example once again. Play enough games with me over the years and that’s what happens. That, and I write a ludicrously lengthy Shadowrun campaign which culminates with your beloved character having a mental breakdown and effectively choosing to kill himself. What? Oh, right. Board Games. *ahem*)
I have introduced CITADELS to countless people over the years, gamer and non-gamer alike, and it’s always a crowd pleaser (crowd indeed: it plays well with up to eight!) Within the gaming realm, for me there’s nothing quite as satisfying as successfully pegging which character a CITADELS opponent has chosen so that you can get the desired result. Whether it’s assassinating the King to keep him from gaining the Noble district gold bonus and winning the game, or stealing from the Architect because man, you just knew that guy was gonna pick the Architect ‘cause he had that big old pile of gold sitting in front of him.
Over the years, Mr. Faidutti has implemented the basic idea of choosing special characters (each with a special power) into a number of different variations for different games. Designed with Michael Schacht (he of Zooloretto fame), FIST OF DRAGONSTONES, though now criminally out of print and unavailable, was the follow up to CITADELS, and combined the “special power” mechanic with a blind bidding system and a rotating cast of special characters. There are no hands of cards to be managed, just some lovely wooden coins and glass “Dragon Stones”. It’s a much faster and more confrontational game. Deciphering the “group think” is more important here than in CITADELS, as one must attempt to predict how the entire group will respond to any given character’s availability. Adding to the tension is the fact that a player’s resources are hidden behind a cardboard screen.
In the same broad family is the more recent MISSION: RED PLANET, which Faidutti designed with Bruno Cathala (CYCLADES). The same core mechanic of character cards, each with a special power is utilized here, but every player has their own deck, and there’s an actual board used in this game, bringing a simple area control mechanic into the fold. It’s almost like what would happen if CITADELS and EL GRANDE had an illegitimate love child that was raised on Jules Verne novels. It’s got rocket ships; mining accidents on the surface of Mars; secret agents in space; off world bombing… but really, all you need to know about this game is: steampunk-themed board game. The market is starting to see quite a few games with this theme, but Red Planet remains the best. Why this game never took off I can’t understand. (Took off? Ha! Get it? Took… off? Rockets? Never mind.) Easy to learn, and with a short playing time, it’s become a favorite of a few of my gaming groups. MISSION: RED PLANET is also out of print, but there are still quite a few copies floating out there in the distribution channels as of this writing, so it should be available from most shops.
Finally, one could argue that MYSTERY OF THE ABBEY (designed with Serge Laget) is part of the same board game family tree, but instead of special character cards, the special abilities come from the locations that you occupy on the board. One part The Name of the Rose and one part CLUE for adults, MYSTERY OF THE ABBEY takes the whodunit idea of CLUE and makes it a much more social affair, requiring you to ask very carefully worded questions of your opponents. By the midway point of the game, one is forced to make three and four step deductions based off not only your opponent’s answers, but the kinds of questions they themselves are asking. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me! A few event cards thrown into the mix keeps every game fresh and can even add some party game style silliness.
Something else you may have noticed is that Bruno Faidutti really likes to collaborate with other designers. I find that this keeps his works fresh while still maintaining that certain Je ne sais Bruno. (Mr. Faidutti himself would probably be appalled at my attempt at French humor. What can I say? After taking four years of the language in High School all those many years ago, I find myself in my thirties and more capable of speaking Indonesian. I’m not joking. My cousin can speak Russian fluently. In fact, he once traveled to Russia to study for a semester but decided half way through to quit and take a train across Mongolia instead. He returned home only to move to Los Angeles. None of which has any bearing on anything, really.)
Among his other designs are INCAN GOLD (designed with Alan R. Moon of TICKET TO RIDE fame) a press-your-luck style mining themed game; the recent BUGS & CO, a fantastically manic real time set collection game that plays in about 90 seconds for up to eight players (designed with Tom and Yako, the crew behind JUNGLE SPEED); RED NOVEMBER (designed together with Jef Gontier) a cooperative game of drunken Russian gnomes aboard a doomed submarine (revised edition due out soon!); and DOUBLE AGENT, a two player spy-themed game which only came out a couple weeks ago. It reminds me of Richard Garfield’s underappreciated PECKING ORDER, but with an extra layer of bluffing.
Finally, I would like to shine a light on some of Bruno’s releases from the last couple years that didn’t quite get the attention they deserved.
PONY EXPRESS, on which Faidutti shares design credits with Antoine Bauza, is silly fun in a box. Players race to be the first to reach Sacramento while being forced to deal with hostile Indians and gunfights with the other players. Utilizing poker dice (familiar to anyone who’s played DICE TOWN) players move their pawns based not on the poker hand that they roll on the dice, but the poker hand that they claim to have rolled on the dice, provided no other player calls their bluff. If that weren’t enough, when dueling with other players or fighting off injuns, players literally throw the dice at the pawns on the board in an attempt to hit their targets. But be careful not to shoot any innocent bystanders or you’ll go to jail. A silly, silly game which hides a surprising amount of depth. Even better with some adult beverages thrown into the mix, especially considering there’s a Saloon mechanic that would facilitate said beverages nicely. This is now on my short list of favorite party games. Alas, it too has gone the way of the dodo bird, and it is getting rather hard to find. If you manage to find a second-hand copy of this riding around somewhere, I would highly recommend scooping it up. Is it basically poker-fied LIAR’S DICE but with a board game racing element thrown in? Sure, but it’s got a lot more character. (What’s LIAR’S DICE you say? “So any crew member can be challenged?” “Aye, anyone.” “I challenge Davey Jones!”)
LETTER OF MARQUE, from 2009, is taught in a couple of minutes and played in half an hour or less. It’s a quick little time filler of a game wherein Bruno’s trademark bluffing and guessing style is at the forefront. In fact, bluffing and guessing is about all there is to this simple game. Well, that and cute little brightly colored sailing ships. A player sends merchant ships out to sea, each of varying treasure value, but must secretly decide if you’ll utilize one of only two available cannons to arm the ship. Of course, like most things Bruno has his hand in, all is not as it seems. At first play, one might even be prepared to dismiss this game as too lightweight or even for children, but it quickly becomes apparent that there are multiple layers of bluffing to delve into. Do you defend the most valuable merchant ships? The ones of mid-worth? Or do you arm the lowest value ones, which should be the easy targets? With only three attacks possible per player, and limited options each turn, it is easy to lose track of which ships are unguarded, particularly in a five player game (which is where this title really shines.) Specific information about your opponent’s game has already been revealed, but in the chaos, you’ve forgotten the details.
Lastly is ISLA DORADA, which was released last year through an arrangement between Fantasy Flight Games and Fun Forge. This game actually has a really strange history, having originally been designed as an expansion board for Alan Moon’s ELFENROADS, but morphing into something much bigger over the course of the decade. Faidutti himself does a much better job of covering the history himself, so I won’t attempt to do so here. (But you can click here to check it out. Yes, it’s in French, scroll down for English.)
The game has absolutely gorgeous art, and manages to feel rather unlike anything else, despite being based on previous game designs. A crashed airship on a tropical island leads to the survivors arguing over directions as they bicker over hidden treasures and curses. In fact, all the players share a single pawn and there is a heated struggle each turn over where to move it. The trick is to get your opponents to move the thing where you want it to go, but make them spend the resources to do so. Don’t let its simplicity fool you, once your gaming group gets a session or two under your belts, the wacky randomness will give way to some serious bluffing and maneuvering.
Bruno Faidutti’s designs manage to split the difference between raw strategy and the social mechanics more common to party games or poker, and I find that his games manage to appeal to hardcore strategists and more casual gamers alike. It was no surprise to me that Nexus Games picked Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget to launch their Nexus Design Series with AD ASTRA, one of my favorite games released in 2009, which I discussed briefly in the Best Of list I compiled for that year.
With most of Faidutti’s designs, your brain will burn as you try your best to outwit your opponents, but you’ll be laughing the entire time. It’s this lovely dichotomy that makes Bruno Faidutti my favorite game designer, and every new release bearing his name becomes a priority for me to investigate. With CITADELS alone, he would have left his mark on the gaming world, but lucky for us, he continues to be amazingly prolific.
What’s next for him? Be on the lookout for THE DWARF KING from Iello, coming soon. It’s a new spin on the classic French trick-taking game BARBU, and I will be buying it without knowing much else about it. It’s a Faidutti design. I am at the point where I just blindly buy anything with his name on it.
Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes Board Game Night every Tuesday at 6pm. [CARD.BOARD.BOX.] is his semi-regular gaming column. Prior to 2008, Paul had never lost a game of Citadels. These days, he loses all the time.