Matt: Dinner time! I hope you’re hungry, I’ve prepared quite the feast.
Anna: Are you not going to cook it?
Matt: I don’t understand. Which bit would you like?
Time: 30-120 mins
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
Artist: Dennis Lohausen
Publisher: Feuerland Spiele, Cranio Creations, Devir, Filosofia Éditions, Game Harbor, Hobby World, Lacerta, Mandala Jogos, テンデイズゲームズ (Ten Days Games), White Goblin Games, Z-Man Games
Odin is a very hungry boy, but perhaps A Feast for Odin will be able to sate him. It is, in every conceivable way, a feast, a celebration of board gaming, a temple to excess. It is a worker placement game of epic, even outlandish, proportions. It is a game sunk so deep in its Viking setting that it comes with a comprehensive almanac detailing the history of its numerous elements, even while it masquerades as a dry euro game. A Feast for Odin is in so many ways Uwe Rosenberg’s magnum opus, bringing together the tile laying puzzles of Patchwork and Cottage Garden, with his classic worker placement designs of Agricola and Caverna. It is, without doubt, a masterpiece.
Writing a review of A Feast for Odin feels as overwhelming as your first game. Where does one even begin? The involved player board puzzle? The selection and variety of worker placement spots that puts LinkedIn to shame? My word, it comes with more punch boards than I ever want to see again and somehow you need to find a way to start.
I suggest its namesake: the feasting. Each round you must feed your Viking tribe in a grand banquet of fish, and peas, and mead, and chocolate coins.
Or other food stuffs. There is, of course, plenty to choose from. But all of these food stuffs are tiles that you place to fill the space along the pictured track. Some food will be larger and fill more space, others will be square so that placing multiple of the same is not disadvantageous (you can only place the one of each type horizontally) and the space to fill will expand as you take a worker from the row at the start of each round. The tile laying you see here is wonderfully intuitive and understandable. A long slab of meat is better than a mug of mead. Yes, as your village grows you’ll need more food. Of course, sending men off to colonise new lands will permanently fill space in that row, you no longer need to feed them, and to illustrate this you cover the space with the ship tile you sent them off in.
A Feast for Odin, for all its multitudinous parts, is a stunningly comprehensible game. This feeding mechanic is a simple introduction to the game’s central puzzle: filling your player board. Vikings were famously the magpies of the dark ages, collecting and hoarding stuff in the fields around their village. You will be doing everything you can to collect the various green and blue goods tiles that will look just right taking up space, because doing so gets you both income and covers up those nasty negative point penalties covering most of the board. It’s got to be an Uwe Rosenberg game when your starting score is -86 points.
But again, the brilliance of this game is how simple this puzzle is to understand. I need to cover up as much of the board as possible. Arranging tiles on the board is a satisfying, tactile experience that always gives you something to do during your down time. The subtleties, like not placing green next to green encourage you to pursue those hard to obtain blues, the need to surround the income spaces ensures you try to collect a mix of smaller and larger shaped pieces. You’re pushed to try many things. But the rest of the game is not spent figuring out how, as pretty much everything you do helps, but choosing what approach interests you.
As you might be getting used, you have rather a lot of options to chose from there. I am not going to run through all of them; God knows I’ve done that enough when teaching the damn game. It’s quite the task. Let’s pick out some highlights. At the top of the great worker placement boards are spaces where you can spend wood and stone (resources you’ll gather from the mountain boards) to build outhouses, offering points and more storage spaces to fill, and boats which open up all sorts of options.
Little whaling boats can go whaling for big chunky whale meat rewards, the Knarr offers opportunities for trade, the discovery of entire new lands (with lots of resources and -1s to fill, just like the colonial discoveries of old), and the chance to send people off to emigrate. The longships do all that and more, armed to the teeth they can go pillaging to bring back those valuable blue tiles and even the English Crown! Other spaces are about gathering food and other resources, raising sheep and cattle, upgrading your tiles to turn food into items you can actually use to fill your boards. But as you juggle all these options, don’t forget that while lots of things will cover negative points, only a few things will actually gain you positive points!
There is something more interesting about this worker placement board though, than just the actions you get out of it. The multitude of spaces are arranged in columns, with the left hand actions requiring a single worker, up to the right most actions demanding a hefty 4 workers to perform. But then, these expensive spots are big exciting actions that you want to be performing! And A Feast for Odin is a rare worker placement game that gives you a lot of workers to play with: 6 to start with, increasing up to 12 by game end. This gives you the flexibility to take some big actions or to focus on the little actions. It creates a natural arc to the game where you are more likely to take bigger actions in later rounds. These moves feel great, the whole system is incredibly freeing, and it also gives you a little more to ponder as you approach your turn.
Speaking of things to ponder… (Oh God there’s more!? How can there be more!?) you have little worker cards. Hundreds of the bloody things, adding little buffs or one shot powers, scoring you some points, and giving you the opportunity to leaf through the great appendix of doom. It’s… Pretty big.
And you know what? That’s fine. Ultimately you will get a hang of the explanations on the cards as you play and you won’t see too many in the course of a game. While there are certain spaces that let you draw or play these cards, typically your interaction with them occurs when you take those big, tempting, three or four worker spots. A Viking threesome immediately produces a new card, the four spots let you play one. The degree to which you worry about the timing and use of these cards is entirely up to you. Maybe you draw well and produce some great combo that would be rude to ignore. Perhaps you never bother playing a single card. They can guide you at the start or you can choose to explore the game as you like, though that does leave me with the nagging feeling I’m doing something wrong.
These cards seem like the game’s one weak link. Though calling anything in a game this good “weak” is like a monk at Lindisfarne criticising the Vikings’ choice of sail colour. It is a source of randomness and you can get lucky and draw into good combos. My gamer instincts leave me expecting the creation of good combos to be the entire point of the card system but there is such a huge breadth of card mechanics and you tend to end up with so few of them (and they take so much effort to play) that this simply can’t be the case. Instead they are nice bonuses to exploit if you can, and to ignore if you can’t. Ultimately the structure of the action selection and even how the game works means you always end up doing a variety of different things. So having one bonus for two things is probably as good as two bonuses for one thing. But such comments on balance are probably better left to more experienced players.
One final facet of the game that needs to be espoused is the solo mode. Maybe solo gaming isn’t your thing but if you do get hold of A Feast for Odin you should at least try it out once because if any game is going to convince you that solo gaming can be interesting, it’s this one. It gives you the full game experience with only the smallest tweak. You have two sets of Viking meeples, and you alternate playing them round by round. But, and here’s the clever bit, you leave the meeples from this round out on the board for the next round. Therefore each action you take will only get in your way next time. It is brilliant. A Feast for Odin is hardly the most interactive game, it is always about solving your own puzzle in whatever way you fancy trying, and the solo game simply doubles down on that personal challenge. You need not feel alone either; Board Game Geek has an active solo gamer community that have come up with dozens of special scenarios you can try out solo and discuss with other players! If you enjoy solo gaming, then A Feast for Odin is an absolute must buy, if you can afford the appropriately intimidating price.
But what about for the rest of us? Well a £100 game (available for ~£80 from some retailers) is probably going to make you think twice, if anything does. I can certainly say you get your money’s worth in terms of raw components. This is an excellent quality Euro game, that actually fills it’s extravagant box, and they even include extremely good plastic trays for you to store the multitude of cardboard tokens that eventually make their way on to your tile laying puzzle. I swear, if this game only had bags I would weep.
Look at gameplay alone though and A Feast For Odin becomes absolutely must play, if not must have, material. It is about as good as a theme-light euro game can get. While I love the attention to detail in the setting – this is a nearly comprehensive exploration of Viking life – that doesn’t translate into the mechanical tasks you perform over the game. But those tasks, the filling of your player boards coupled to a uniquely freeing worker placement system, are so satisfying. While the breadth of options may be intimidating to learn (and teach) the actual process of playing is incredibly smooth and accessible. There is no game like it. And if that doesn’t count as a recommendation, I don’t know what does.
*Ok, Cnut was a Dane, fine.