Introducing Famiglia

Which game designer would come up with the idea of a game that looks like a cigar box?



And which game designer would include cards that feature personalities like BGG's very own Aldie and Derk? (note their last names Alden and Solko on the character cards pictured here!)



One final clue: which game designer has green hair, and is fond of games that start with the letter F? The answer of course is Friedemann Friese, and with his recent release Famiglia, Mr Friese has come up with a very novel two-player card game. Yes, there's humorous artwork and a wacky Mafia theme that's mostly pasted on, but behind it all is a very clever little card game. One that could even be considered a type of deck-building game, with elements of hand management and set-collection. Released at Essen 2010, but flying somewhat under the radar, this quirky yet clever two player game deserves a closer look.




COMPONENTS

Game box

Let's begin by admiring the game box.



It really does look like a cigar box, made out of wood, and had me fooled until I tried opening it! Some `staples' holding it together help confirm the illusion, but really it's just an ordinary game box, similar in size to the box used for most small card games.



The cover actually features the artwork on the most valuable card in the game, Alberto Negri, mafia leader and pink fluffy bunny collector. Quirky isn't it? And clever! I'm loving this game already, and I'm only as far as the box!

Component list

There's not a lot inside - just a set of rules, and a shrink-wrapped deck of 60 cards.



Rules

The rules consist of a double-sided sheet of paper that looks like this:



You can download a copy from the publisher here. The rules are actually fairly simple to explain - in fact you can see the designer himself explain them in under five minutes in this video. Due to the somewhat unusual nature of the game, it can take a bit to wrap your head around the game-play if you're figuring out the game on your own from the rule book. The easiest way to learn the game is first-hand, and you can easily teach the game to a new player in just a few minutes. Easy to learn, harder to master! Do be aware that there is a minor error in the rulebook that can cause some confusion about the use of Mercenaries as detailed here (a clarification about the flexibility in using Brutes as detailed here is also helpful to know).

Cards

The game comes with a deck of 60 different cards, all featuring individual artwork and different character names.



The cards are an unusual shape and size, although I find this to be a refreshing change from the norm, particularly when accompanied by bright and cartoony artwork. The artwork for the character cards won't appeal to everyone, in view of the mafia theme and much tattooed bodies of mafia tough guys, but it certainly is clever.

Mafia families

The cards represent mafia characters that are divided into four different families, each corresponding to a different colour: red = Famiglia, yellow = Brutes, green = Mercenaries, blue = Accountants. Here's the highest valued character for each family:



Each character card has a Value listed on the top of the card, and the Victory Points it earns is listed on the bottom of the card. The aim of the game is for players to collect the cards with highest amount of points.



The cards in each family range in value from 0 through 4.



But the distribution of these values is unusual: the 15 cards for each family make up a hierarchical pyramid structure, representing a mob family with a single king-pin that rules the rest: one 4, two 3s, three 2s, four 1s, and five 0s.



Players start the game with four 0s each, and will be able to use a pair of cards to collect a card that's one higher in value in the same colour (e.g. you can use two 0s to collect a 1 of that colour; or two 1s to collect a 2 of that colour, etc). The aim of the game is to collect higher valued characters, since at the end of the game you total the points of all your characters. The basic theme of the game is that players are recruiting gang members from the Street, trying to build up the most influential gang.

Polyptych artwork

It's worth noting that the artwork in the background of the characters forms a single image when the cards are placed together.



This phenomenon is known as a polyptych, and occurs in many other games - as documented in this pictorial geeklist. For example, the background artwork on three cards below features a bar called "Friedman's Bar 'N Mart". This is a creative and clever concept!



Inside jokes

You may already have noticed that the name `Friedman' in the artwork of the cards above is an obvious self-reference to the game's designer, Friedemann Friese. But that's just one of many `inside jokes' featured in the character names. We've already mentioned Aldie and Derk (whose names appear in the cards pictured at the start of this article), another `inside joke' is the inclusion of characters named after the Knizia games Medici & Strozzi:



You'll find more of the inside jokes described in this thread. I think this is a great touch, and love it when designers and publishers give attention to details like these!

GAME-PLAY

Set-up

At the start of a game each player gets four starting cards. For convenience, these are marked on the back with a 1 (for player 1) and a 2 (for player 2) to distinguish them from the other 52 cards in the deck.



The starting hand for both players consists of one character valued 0 from each of the four families. Here's the starting hand for player 1:



The deck is shuffled, and the six top cards placed in a face-up row to make the "Street". Here's the setup from an actual game:



Flow of Play

Basic Concept

To a large extent Famiglia is a kind of a deck-building and hand management type of game. You start with four 0s, but try to build up the cards in your hand by acquiring higher valued cards from the Street, which you'll in turn use to get even better cards. Players take turns to take a card from the Street into their hand. You can take a zero into your hand for free, but the usual way this works is that you need two cards of the same value and colour, in order to get the card of the next highest value in that colour. So for example, you'd need two yellow 2s in order to take a yellow 3 from the Street. To do this, you show the two yellow 2s to your opponent, take the yellow 3 from the Street into your hand, and play one of the yellow 2s into your play area in front of you.



In this way your hand size remains the same (the only way to increase it is by taking a 0 for free), but as the game proceeds you'll slowly end up with more cards being placed in your play area in front of you, as you see in the picture below. It's very simple once you see it in practice: show two cards of the same value and colour, place one into your player area and take the next highest valued card of that colour from the Street. What if you don't have the right cards in hand or if there's not one in the Street to take? You can always take a 0 for free, but if there's no 0, you may discard one of the cards from the Street and place that many new cards in the Street - e.g. you could discard a character with a value of 3 to draw three new characters (and you may repeat this process until you get a 0 that you can take).



Special Abilities

The basic concept of the game may seem rather simple, and it would indeed be boring if that's all that the game offered. But what really makes this game shine is that three of the four families have special abilities. The Famiglia (Red) have no special abilities and are worth extra victory points at the end of the game, but all the other families allow you to perform various effects to help you get the cards you want.



The Accountants (Blue): Before taking a card from the Street, you can play a blue card from your hand into your play area, and this lets you exchange cards from your play area with your hand. The value of the card is the amount of cards you can trade - e.g. if you play a blue 3, you can trade up to 3 cards. So let's say you earlier played a red 2 into your play area in order to get a red 3 from the Street, and now another red 3 becomes available in the Street - you could play a blue 1 to trade the red 3 in your hand with the red 2 in your play area, and now with the two red 2s in your hand you can claim the second red 3 from the Street!



The Brutes (Yellow): Before taking a card from the Street, you can play a yellow card from your hand into your play area, and this will decrease the value of the cards in the Street. The value they are decreased (for that turn only) corresponds to the value of the Brute. So let's say you play a yellow 2 into your play area, that would decrease a yellow 3 in the Street and make it the equivalent of a yellow 1, so you could claim it with two yellow 0s. Or alternatively, you could use it to reduce a Street card of value 2 to make it a value 0 and take it for free!



The Mercenaries (Green): These are wild cards and can be played together with cards of other colours. Their value as a wild card is any value less than their own - e.g. a green 3 can be played as a wild 0, 1 or 2 in any other colour. So let's say that you have green 3 in your hand, you could use it together with a red 2 to claim a red 3 from the Street.



All of the special abilities have their uses, and make some thematic sense as well. The Accountants let you get cards from your play area back into your hand; the Brutes make it easier to get cards from the Street by reducing their value, and the Mercenaries make it easier to get cards from the Street by pairing with other colours. Towards the end of the game you can combo these abilities together in fun and powerful ways to get the most valuable characters.

Example of Play

Let's illustrate how the special abilities can work together with an example. On the street is a red 4, the most valuable card in the game (it's worth 15 points at game end). Aside from 0s, the only red card you have is a red 1, but it's in your play area, as is a yellow 2. But you do have a blue 2 and a green 2 in your hand along with some other cards.



Here's how you would conspire to get yourself that valuable red 4 card:
- play the blue 2 (Accountant) to take the red 1 and yellow 2 from your play area and exchange them with two less useful cards from your hand (the 0s).
- play the yellow 2 (Brute) to reduce the value of the red 4 in the Street to a 2.
- show the red 1 in your hand and partner it with the green 2 (Mercenary) to claim the red 4 (considered a red 2 because of the Brute's ability) from the Street! So after you playing the red 1 or green 2 into your play area, you can take the red 4 into your hand.
Isn't that neat?! Pulling off these kinds of moves is what the game is all about. But you do have to be careful, because while Accountants and Brutes have their uses, they will make your hand size shrink each time you use their abilities, so you need to choose carefully when and how to use them. Mercenaries on the other hand can be used over and over again easily, so getting them early in the game can be very useful.

End of Game and Scoring

After you've gone through the deck once, you go through it a second time (although this time because there's no 0s, when you discard a card from the Street to draw new Street cards you place the discarded card face down under the deck, and you may only do this once a turn). Players score the victory points of the characters in their hand and in their play area, and the highest total wins.



CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

The artwork is unique. I love the idea behind the polyptych where the cards combine to form a single larger image, and the inside jokes with the character cards features a brand of humor that I really like. The colours and style of the artwork is attractive too. The only real downside for some gamers will be the theme, which I'll address next - but that aside, the quality and colours of the cards is very nice, and the graphic design and cartoony style is very attractive and appropriate for a game of this sort. The highlight, of course, is the cigar box lookalike game box!

The Mafia theme is going to get mixed reactions. The theme is mostly pasted on, because the game is really just about collecting the right numbers and using special abilities. That being said, Mr Friese has found a way to make the Mafia connection work, both in the pyramid hierarchy of the families, and even somewhat in how the special abilities of accountants, brutes, and mercenaries relate theme and mechanics. A variety of themes would have worked, and although I may be in the minority, I wish they'd opted for a theme that wasn't quite so in-your-face. The game's objective of recruiting the most powerful gang will appeal to some, but it is always going to be a tough sell with some people, and in some instances may even be a turn off. Too many people that I play with are just not going to be comfortable with a game that features cards with heavily tattooed mobsters - and that's a pity, because there's a clever little game here and it's a shame that the artwork and theme is going to be a barrier that keeps some people from enjoying what is otherwise a good game. A more family friendly theme might have made the game more likely to get mainstream success. That being said, there are many other games with a mafia theme, and for many people this won't present any issues, but it is something to be aware of before buying the game.

The main game mechanic is clever. It feels somewhat quirky initially, but the basic mechanic of using pairs to get cards of higher values is relatively simple, and when adding special abilities of the various families, there's definitely room for skillful play and setting up tactical combinations to help you get the cards you want. Do you opt to get Brutes which will cheapen the value of cards in the Street, or will you opt to get Mercenaries which will make it easier to make matching pairs? And how about a couple of Accountants - these are always good for letting you trade for good cards and re-use them, perhaps even multiple times! Or do you opt to aim for the higher point-scoring Famiglia which have no special abilities? There's a lot of fun to be had, especially in the latter part of the game, as you maximize the abilities of your more powerful gang members to recruit other powerful characters. Friedemann Friese has come up with a very clever design here, one that feels original and fresh, and which really works well, especially when you get familiar with the mechanics.

There's room for skilful play. There's some luck of the draw, as you'd expect from a card game, and that's not a bad thing because it makes the game different every time and enhances replay value. But for the most part you'll need to rely on good hand management to win. There are definitely right ways and wrong ways to play, and first-timers may make the mistake of using cards with special abilities too soon, thus leaving themselves with a very small hand and no options towards the end of the game. But this is no fault of the game, but is rather a result of inexperience. During the last half of the game, your hand will reduce in size as you use the special abilities of Accountants and Brutes, so you need to plan their use carefully, so as not to run stuck. In our first few games, we saw scores in the 40s and 50s, but as we learned how to maximize the potential combinations of the various abilities (for example, using Accountants to use powerful Brutes multiple times), we soon started racking up scores in the 60s and 70s, and eventually even in the 80s and 90s (total points available are 175). I'm not sure how it will stand up to repeated play, because you could find yourself opting for similar strategies (although this will depend on the cards available on the Street, and also on what kinds of cards your opponent is going for), but for now I've played over ten times and am still enjoying the game immensely.

The last part of the game is the most fun. The first part of the game can be somewhat boring, because you start with all 0s, and slowly try to build up your hand with more powerful cards that will let you use special abilities. The designer is quite frank about this when he states the following: "You start with almost no choices, but after a few turns the possibilities are "exploding" and it takes you some games to play to find out which of the choices are the best ones. And after you understood this, you can start to add timing to your strategy, it is possible to slow down (or speed up) the game." I think he's right (and so he should be - after all, he's the designer!). At the start of game you can't do much; later you get cards that let you do special actions, but as you use them, your hand will shrink, so you have to choose carefully when to use them and how to maximize them. So after the initial slow phase of building up, the game starts to snowball and accelerate, especially as you gain higher valued cards and take advantage of their more powerful abilities. But just before it gets out of hand the game will quickly screech to a halt. This is not a weakness, but simply how the game is designed, so if you feel that the going is slow in the early stages, just be patient, and you'll eventually get to enjoy the fast and thrilling ride that is inevitable in the final run.

It has a deck-building feel. Strictly speaking, Famiglia is not really a deck-building game, at least not to the degree of games like Dominion. But nonetheless it does have a deck-building feel, because you're gaining cards to increase the card pool of your hand and your play area, and you'll use these cards in turn to get more powerful ones. Success will require clever hand management and tactical choices. At times you'll also deliberately discard cards on the Street in order to remove a card that you know your opponent could take on his next turn, or to bring out new cards that you can take on your turn. If you managed to build up the right cards in your hand early in the game - e.g. a powerful accountant, brute, and mercenary - you can set yourself up to get the best point scoring cards in the game.

It plays quickly. Once you've got the hang of how the game works, you can finish an entire game in not much more than 20 minutes. That makes it very attractive for a two player game that's portable and yet challenging.



What do others think?

The criticism

So why might you not like this game? There are not that many critical comments about it, mainly because the game hasn't attracted a huge amount of attention thus far, and most people who've tried it either felt it was okay or quite good. Some of the critics remarked on the somewhat quirky rules, although in many cases this was based on a single play. I personally found the game very easy to teach in person - while figuring it out from the rulebook can be a a small challenge, it's dead easy to grasp when you see how the game works firsthand. Some have remarked that it's possible to screw up your hand or maneuver yourself into a dead end - this is a fair comment, although it should be chalked up to inexperience rather than a weakness of the game. Once you've figured out how the game works, you'll have to play more carefully to ensure that you don't put yourself into a situation where you have a useless hand, so this criticism is more the result of inferior play typical of beginners.

The praise

If you don't enjoy hand management or building a simple optimization/efficiency engine, you likely won't find Famiglia much fun, but for the most part people who have played the game found it intriguing and had positive remarks about it, as is evident from some of the following comments:
"Very clever mechanisms, another great one from Mr. Friese!" - Jens Möller
"Quick game of recruiting hoodlums to join your gang - essentially, using hand cards to pick up increasingly valuable cards. Moves along nicely." - Steve Kearon
"Simply one of the best two players games to come down the pike in a very long time. This game honors the very best that is the heritage established by the Kosmos two player line." - Dave Kudzma
"Clever two player deck building game." - Matthew Popielski
"New and very interesting approach on the deckbuilding-mechanic. Extremely well designed and tricky little filler. Easy to learn, hard to master." - Marc (Elektro)
"There is surprising depth. The game gets better as we start to figure it out." - Matt Feldman
"A cool little hand management game where the decisions are actually fairly difficult! For such a simple concept, the few special abilities in the game add just the right twists to make it a cool game." - Chad Krizan
"Nice surprise. A fast card collecting game using powers for the different cards." - Javi Santos
"Once the relatively simple, but quirky rule set is understood, this is really a nice game. This has been seeing a LOT of table time here since Essen." - Phil Sauer
"Nice little 2 player game. The differing powers of the 4 types of mobster work nicely." - Michael Longdin




Recommendation

So is Famiglia a game for you? This is a clever hand management card game that has deck-building and set collection elements, offering fresh mechanics, and in an attractive package. The theme and artwork won't please everyone, but those who aren't put off by this will find a clever little game inside the cigar box of Famiglia - the kind of two player game that rivals some of the best of the Kosmos two-player series. This is one of the best new two player card games I've played in a while.



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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Scott Minkoff
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Great review, thank you! But damn you, too, because now I have to buy this!
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Joe Simpson
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Never really heard of this game before but now that I've read your review looks like I'm going to have to get it! I love the art on the cards too. Thanks for another great review!
 
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Nick
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I've had this one on my wishlist but this review just rocketed it to the top. My wife and I play a lot of quick 2P games and this one looks perfect for us.

Thanks again for another great review.
 
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Patrick Riley
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Thanks for the great review. I can't believe this passed under my radar (though I don't generally do 2-player games). I find the comments about the theme quite odd. "The theme and artwork won't please everyone..." isn't that true of every game? Yes, it could have been given a more "family friendly" theme, but then you'd have people complaining it was too childish or boring.
 
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mateenyweeny
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Great review. Just picked this one up and see that it has some real strategy to uncover under the relatively simple mechanics.
 
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Stefano Castelli
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Wonderful, wonderful review as usual. You totally won me on this game.
 
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Andrei Zawadzki
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I really like this game - it's nice to finally see a really good review of it - great job.
 
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Nick Gray
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Whether I need an order filler or not, this will be on my next order because of this review.

I have to say I love that, in spite of the prevalence and popularity of video reviews (and there are some great series out there - Drakkenstrike and UFBRT in particular), the art of the written review advances.

My guess is that your reviews will be directly responsible for at least 25% of my (relatively few) purchases this year.

Even better, you have helped me avoid some games I was considering but became clear I would not enjoy only after reading your reviews. Keep up the great work!
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Just finished reading your review. Game put on wishlist.

I should really contact GW lawyers and ask them to write a "cease and desist" letter to mr. Ender Wiggins.
Every time he writes a review, I buy a game...shake
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Friedemann Friese
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Thank you!

It is good to read a review of somebody seeing the same things in this game as I do. This is the most enjoying part of my work, when I see that gamers like my games. (For the right reasons )

friedemann
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Nick
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nmadd wrote:
I've had this one on my wishlist but this review just rocketed it to the top. My wife and I play a lot of quick 2P games and this one looks perfect for us.

Thanks again for another great review.
Fine, I just bought this. My wife is learning to hate the statement, "but Ender said it's good."
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Jeremy Salinas
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Great Review Ender as always...enjoyable read all around.
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jan w
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I can only chime in with the praise here! You're reviews are always a pleasure to read. Well layed out and plenty of examples make me somewhat snobbish of non-Ender formatted reviews. You have spoiled us far too much!

Back to the game: I totally missed this at Essen this year, and only because I saw there was an Ender's review did I give it a glance. Concise and clear, you've completely won me over for this game! It's exactly what I'm always on the lookout for: small, portable, two player fun that allows some depth and creative play. On the wishlist she goes!

Keep up the good work Ender!
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Smurgsu- sama ; )
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Re: A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Friedemann Friese's deck-building pyramid scheme (featuring Aldie & Derk)
Not much of originality on my part, but:

great review!
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EXTRA AVOCADO! Sonderegger
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Re: A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Friedemann Friese's deck-building pyramid scheme (featuring Aldie & Derk)
Bought it. Loved it. More importantly, wife loves it.
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Bob Burns
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Wow! What a detailed review.
More games should be done this way.

I now have a thorough understanding of the game thanks to your overview.

Thanks

 
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Bob Burns
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That is the most important part.
Getting a game that the wife loves.

I have had some hits with that (Splendor, Jaipur, Paperback, Fugitive, Dead Man's Draw, Dozen Doubloons)
but have had some misses (Hive, Revolver, Avenue)
Luckily, I have had more hits than misses.

I will have to look further into this one.

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