Felinia is a family/gateway board game with a very odd cat/trading in the Mediterranean theme (seriously).
But if you can get past that you’ll find an enjoyable mix of bidding, set collection and area influence mechanisms (plus basic exploring in the basic game) that plays in about 90-120 minutes.
Inside the box you’ll find a lovely double-sided board, each side of which displays a port on one side and an unexplored island on the other, divided by the sea. There’s also an array of wooden markers, player boards, goods chits and cards – plus a very nice dice bag and four snazzy snap together cardboard ships.
We learnt the rules from the rulebook without incident and with no need to sneak off to a website for any clarifications. This is helped by the there being an easier version of the game (hence the two-sided board) which served as a nice introduction to the main rules. If you’re used to strategy games you could probably skip this completely, but it’s still pretty engaging and would certainly be good for younger folk. I won’t go into it further here though as it’s not different enough to justify a lengthy description.
Teaching the game is made incredibly easy by dint of it very much being a game of two halves: in the first part of each turn you bid for and then buy goods tiles, which will in turn give you access to sail your traders off on ships.
Then you’ll all sail off to the island to stake your claim on various parts of it, scoring points and bonuses in the process.
The biggest barrier to entry at this stage is in fact the terrible choice of colours used for the goods. These are printed very small on the boats themselves and helpfully include light brown, dark brown and grey – all of which fade into each other, even for those with good eyesight. But a bit of leaning over the board and squinting never hurt anyone, right?
Money is in very small denominations (you can never have more than 6 coins), while you’re unlikely to have more than three or four goods at once – plus maybe a few of each of several card types. The island only has four or five types of scoring marker in the basic game, while the advanced version adds some individual bonus tiles and a few more cards.
Nothing is really hidden (except a couple of simple cards in the advanced game), so it’s easy to help along a player who is finding things a bit tricky to pick up. And the game is played over probably 10 rounds or so, which means everyone gets the hang of things after a few rounds. I’d certainly put Felinia firmly in the gateway game category.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: I would never have considered this for purchase if it hadn’t been less than £10 in a sale. The cat art seems woefully out of place and while the bits in the box are solid (are rarely bother with the theme at all), the description doesn’t set the heart racing. But while the game isn’t big or clever, bringing nothing new to the party for experienced gamers, it does offer up a satisfying if lightweight mix of familiar, proven mechanics. I’ve actually found myself reaching for this over Ticket to Ride a couple of times, which has surprised me no end.
- The thinker: If I’m in the mood for a lighter game, I’d certainly choose Felinia over a game such as Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. For one it offers a slight progression in strategy after a few games, as you start to see the true benefits of the bonus tiles. And there’s plenty to keep an eye on: what resources are available, which ship will sail next, where will my traders be best placed to score me points on the island? But there’s no escaping the game is very light, with each of your decisions being so open to luck (or lack thereof) that your plans can be scuppered at any moment. If it played in 60 minutes as the box suggests, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue.
- The trasher: Oddly, I don’t hate this game. Then again, I certainly wouldn’t request it either. On the plus side it offers a good mix of strategy and tactics; you can set yourself a long-term goal but the random elements of the ship and goods tile draws mean you have to think on your feet. And then there are decisions to be made in the market and ion the island; do I go for personal gain, or block what looks like a killer move for an opponent? There’s more player interaction at this meta level than you’d give it credit for on first look, which keeps the game afloat.
- The dabbler: Felinia isn’t an exciting game, but it is a pretty satisfying one. It’s simple to pick up and once everyone works out the bidding for store placement rules, you can get some poker-faced fun out of it. Choosing where to go on the islands is a nice little puzzle too, while not being massively taxing – and if you’re not on a ship that’s sailing that round you can kick back and chat. Sure, you need to keep a bit of an eye on spaces you wanted to go to, but it’s all laid out in front of you clearly so it’s no big deal if you miss something.
Michael Schacht is a designer with a lot of games under his belt, so he’s clearly pretty popular with publishers. But he only has 2000’s Web of Power in the top 250 on BGG, so what’s all the fuss about? The answer is clearly the evergreen family range of ‘etto’ games (Coloretto, Zooloretto etc), which have shifted a ton of units – and rightly so.
Looking at his more popular slightly heavier games, such as China, Valdora and Hansa, its clear theme is very much an afterthought for Schacht. This is of course fine, and pretty common in European design – but does highlight the problem that if you drop the ball on your pasted-on theme, you can bury a solid game before it even gets to the shelves. For example, if he’d swapped China or Hansa with Felinia in terms of theme, would their popularity have reversed?
I think the poor theme also hints at a larger problem, which is that overall you get the feeling with Felinia that nobody involved in the finished product really cared. I know this is a pretty unpleasant accusation to level at a publisher and designer, but look at the facts:
- Theme: Terrible, but worse still unfulfilled. If they’d gone for it, it might’ve worked – but it’s as if they realised it was going to be crap so gave up. Ships, player boards, goods, cards – there are even man-shaped meeples – none have a hint of catness.
- Flavour: This is taken from the ‘game idea’: “In the city of Katzburg… The mayor, Henry-Cat… precious goods (rare books, fine wine, refined glassware)… Each player represents a family of merchants…” So many missed opportunities, so lazy.
- Colour use: You’d have to go quite a way to find a game that has worse choices for its components. I have great eyesight and really struggle with Felinia – I can’t imagine what someone who is colour blind would do (probably just give up).
- The player ‘aid’: Depending on your place in player order, you get certain goods at the start of the game. Quiz time! Would you care to tell me who gets what, based on the Felinia player aid pictured above (and no, the colours of the cats bear no resemblance to any colours used in the game)?
With any of these examples, you’d think one person could simply have put their hand up and said, “hang on – this is terrible but pretty cheap and easy to fix”. That no one did, or that they weren’t listened to, is pretty sad.
But despite all this I’m going with a 7/10 for Felinia, just a fraction above its BoardGameGeek average score. And that is no reflection of the cheap price I paid for the game.
Sure, I wouldn’t have chosen to pay £30-40 for it, but I don’t think about what I personally paid for a game when giving it a rating.
I’ve found it enjoyable with two, three and four and there are interesting decisions to be made in the advanced game. At the same time, the basic game is a good way to learn the basics and should be suitable for younger players (or those not really into board games). Overall, it’s a solid family/gateway game and definitely worth the low price you can currently find it at in The Works in the UK.
Finally, while I’ve had-at the theme, I don’t see it being a barrier to enjoyment. In fact the crappy box art and pasted-on nature of the cat idea is a nice comedy ice-breaker before play – and once people see the nice board and ship pieces any reservations about the theme (which is only really on the box) soon disappear.
NOTE: For UK readers, this game is still £10.99 from The Works at time of posting.