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Game Overview: Faiyum, or Trying to Please Pharaoh One Action at a Time

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Faiyum
Friedemann Friese's Faiyum — self-published through his own 2F-Spiele in late 2020 — is a tough game to describe if I'm trying to convey the details of exactly what you can do on a turn, so let's step back and take a broader look at the game.

The setting is ancient Egypt, and you are an advisor during the reign of Amenemhet III. You can order certain things to happen — Farm here! Establishment a settlement there! — and if you have the raw materials and funds in hand required for such actions, then those things will happen and as a result you'll gain raw materials, funds, or (most important of all) reputation in the eyes of Pharaoh.

The cards in your hand represent the actions available to you, and everyone starts with the same selection of actions and a bit of money. On a turn, you can (a) play one of those cards, (b) gain access to a new action by buying a card in the marketplace, or (c) carry out administration, which might earn you funds while returning your most recently played cards to your hand.

This last sentence is the crux of the game, the hook that drives much of what you do: You want to play all the cards from your hand before you undergo administration because you'll earn more money when you do — but you recover only the three most recently played cards for free. If you want more cards, you need to pay $1 for each additional card, drawing them from the top of your personal discard pile, or else administrate again on your next turn (even though you'll earn no income since your hand will have too many cards in it).

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Try as you might, you might never get rid of all the crocodiles

So maybe you don't want to play all your cards before you administrate, but if you don't, then you're likely to have little cash on hand, which will make it tougher to acquire new cards and gain new actions.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is something I'm still figuring out.

I've played Faiyum three times on a review copy from BGG — as BGG is serving as the U.S. distributor of the game due to a lack of licensing partners for 2F-Spiele in 2020 — with me losing the game once each with two, three, and four players. My instinct is to purchase more cards and have more options for what to do, but that's probably not the right approach given my 0-3 record.

Instead what you want to do is acquire just enough new actions that work synergistically so that you can cycle through those cards repeatedly — play, then pick up, play, then pick up — with you hammering away at whatever system is working for you until someone else figures out how to make it stop working or something better comes along or you're forced to stop due to a lack of materials. (Workshops, settlements, roads, towns, and other material placed on the board is limited, so you cannot take the same actions forever.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Endstate in my 2p game; note that my white token should be on 100, not 50, as I didn't lose that badly!

The first few times you play, you'll have no clue as to what's in the deck and what you might want to plan for. The next few times, you'll know what's in the deck, but you'll still have a hard time planning because the card market in Faiyum works similar to the one in Friese's Power Grid, with only the four lowest-numbered visible cards being available for purchase. The other four cards show you what might be coming onto the market for purchase, but when a removed card is replaced, something numbered even lower might come out, stranding those other cards in an off-limits zone.

Maybe not, though. Maybe a high-numbered, high-powered card does make it onto the market, and you happen to have enough money to buy it. Is that a good idea? The answer is almost always: It depends.

As I mentioned, everyone starts with the same set of cards, and everything that you place on the game board belongs to Pharaoh, not to you, so you can't lock off certain areas of play for yourself. If you build a settlement, everyone has the chance to send a supplier or marketer to that settlement to gain raw materials. Everyone has the chance to further develop that settlement into a town — assuming that they acquire one of the two cards that allows that action and that they have the resources to make it happen. (In one of my games, the two town cards were discarded from the market, so the higher-numbered cards that relied on towns were worthless. Will this ever happen in one of my games again? No clue — and that variety is a plus in my eyes.)

You can't go into Faiyum planning to be the town-builder, for example, because someone else might buy those cards first. You have to constantly adapt to the changing state of the board, the card market, your resources, and your money to figure out what you can do in the next few turns to maximize what you have — but if something better comes along, you have to be prepared to grab it. Or possibly ignore it. Maybe it's not better, after all.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and count the reputation points earned

Another tricky part about Faiyum is that near the end of the game you need to anticipate the arrival of four disaster cards from a second, smaller deck that you dip into once the main deck runs out. Once the fourth disaster arrives, you can no longer take the administration action, which means that you can use only the cards already in hand and whatever you buy — and if you have not planned for this phase of the game, you will have little to do, gain few reputation points compared to others, and find yourself cursing the time you spent until that point.

In some ways Faiyum is a swimming endurance race that suddenly transforms into a free-diving event, and you need to swell your lungs at the right time or else finish with only two-thirds of the reputation that you could have had. The rules warn you about this situation, and I'm doing so here, but you can still easily miss out should you not be paying attention or the disaster cards flip out more quickly than you had anticipated — and even though it's your own fault for missing out, I would at the same time understand your frustration.

In the video below, I discuss the game in more detail, giving examples of just a few of the dozens of different cards, and make extended analogies of how similar Faiyum is to Carl Chudyk's Innovation — no, really!

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