Hands Up: A Review of Famiglia

I am often struck by the diversity of the output of many of the foremost designers of board and card games. There’s not overtly much that ties, say, the behemoth of resource conversion, Ora et Labora, to the gender-stereotype party game, The Difference Between Women and Men, but yet they share Uwe Rosenberg as a designer. The same figure who concocted the phenomenally hefty fantasy game Mage Knight, Vlaada Chvátil, also came up with the very, very throw-away rabbit-impersonation game, Bunny Bunny Moose Moose.

It’s great, of course, if designers feel they can follow through with ideas of any flavour: long may board game culture be one with celebrates (or at leasts permits) this.

Nevertheless, there is a flipside. Imagine, say, becoming keen on a band on the back of a first album of raw garage rock, only to learn for their next they’ll be trying out polished electro-pop. One might admire the boldness, one may well be interested in hearing the results, but one would also have the right to be suspicious: the two styles are rather different to master, and the assumption that the same group would have a command of both would be a dubious one.

The world of board games is one in which many designers are this eclectic (or more). Therefore, it’s not realistic to suppose that because I’ve enjoyed one or two games by a given designer I’ll necessarily be likely to like other games he or she has created. I cannot just look at the name on the box: I have to go beyond it.

Of course, this said, some of game design’s more versatile figures do have recognizable strands within their work. Rosenberg might have a range of party games and family card games to his name, but his big box ‘harvest’ games – particularly Agricola, Le Havre and Ora et Labora – share a great many common features.

And then there’s Friedemann Friese. For the taxonomist, his work is incredibly diverse: whether classifying by weight, by mechanisms, or by game length, the spectrum of his work is broad.

Nevertheless, there is a certain comprehensibility to his games as a body of work. Partly, this is cosmetic: his lengthy partnership with artist Maura Kalusky helps to make his games recognisable, while his fondness for the letter ‘F’ and the colour green also serves to tie the strands of his work together.

Another, less superficial, feature of much of Friese’s work is the employment of wobbly, crooked systems the rigidity of which players cannot help but test in the course of playing his games. Network-building game Power Grid and its numerous expansions all offer maps with unequal concentrations of cities: there’s a game of chicken within the wider game, in which a player’s courage is tested – will he or she boldly try to hustle it out in more immediately desirable areas, or will he or she be more cautious and try to build up a network in an isolated area and hope this means little competition. The game is imbalanced if its players allow it to be – if a player beelines for an area with lots of cheap connections, he or she must be stopped by other players, because the game will not do that work for them (though the turn-order system does limit the value of an early lead).

Fast Flowing Forest Fellers, a chaotic racing game, works somewhat similarly with respect to the skew-whiff courses it challenges players to race along: there are ostensibly better and worse routes to the finishing line, but taking the better route dares other players to obstruct you.

Famiglia, on the face of it, is different. A two player card game from 2010 about recruiting mafiosi, it is in some respects more structurally symmetrical than those other games. Each player starts with a functionally identical hand of cards – one of the lowest value of each of the game’s four colours (though there is flavour in the fact that the characters on each card have a different name and portrait). Furthermore, each colour in the game is built as a pyramid: there are five cards at level 0, four at level 1, three at level 2, up to one at level 4.

Starting cards in Famiglia

Starting cards.  The numbers at the top represent the level of the card, the number at the bottom is its value in points at the end of the game. Cards for the red family, La Famiglia, are all worth more victory points than others of the same level

Nevertheless, the Friese feeling is here. Famiglia is a twist removed from many other small box card games. Card collection, the crux of the game, is built upon a slightly peculiar process: cards from a central pool, called the street, can be collected (contributing victory points) if a player reveals two cards of the desired colour from his or her hand, each one level below the card to be collected (the exception being level 0 cards, which can be taken without the presentation of any cards). For instance, to claim a level 2 red card, a player should reveal two level 1 red cards. The collected card is added to the players hand, and one of the revealed cards is also returned to it. The other revealed card is placed on the table, in a personal play area. That card cannot then be used to collect new cards.

This strangeness does affect the feeling of playing the game. In that fewer and fewer cards are available at each level of the pyramid, and in that one card is removed from a player’s hand each time another card is collected, progress is stuttering. The rhythm of the game is the juddering one of a more complex Friese machine, like that of Power Grid or Factory Manager.

Initial street in Famiglia

The street at the beginning of a game. For the first few rounds, players can do nothing but claim level 0 cards

Indeed, the central engine of Famiglia is so clunky as to require an extrinsic injection of energy to keep functioning: given that a player must remove a card from his or her hand each time he or she claims one, help is necessary to climb the game’s pyramids.  This comes through the special powers assigned to three of the game’s suits. The green cards, the Mercinaries, can act as wild cards, used to represent any colour, and can also be used as if they were of a lower level. So, a player could claim a level 2 blue card, say, using one blue card of level 1, and a green card of level 2 or above. A yellow card (a Brute), can reduce the value of a card in the street. Blue cards (the Accountants), can be used to exchange hand cards with those in a player’s own play area.

This is enough to keep card collection from sputtering out. Most rounds of Famiglia go the distance (the game ends when almost all of the cards from the street have been collected), rather than terminating earlier through both players hitting dead ends.

These special powers do also generate some reasonably satisfying conundrums. If a level 4 card, with a high number of victory points attached to it, appears, say, midway through the game, it might be possible to collect it – using, perhaps, a combination of yellow and green special powers to facilitate its collection. But the cost of doing so (in expelling important cards from a hand) can make future card collection more troublesome, potentially ceding momentum later on.

Mid-game street and play area in Famiglia

Mid-game street and play area

Each suit, to a moderate degree, also has a stage of the game at which it is more useful – meaning there is room for a degree of strategic thinking. The green mercenaries are helpful to have early on, since just one of them at level 1 or above can make any level 0 odd-or-sod part of a pair. On the other hand, yellow brutes come into their own later, when collecting high value cards becomes more urgent.

But, given how welded on so much of Famiglia feels, it’s hard to escape a sensation of imminent malfunction: the hand a player crafts never really feels like something to glory in, but rather a collection of uncohesive bits and pieces. I know that I should aim to collect the 15-point red level 4 card (the Brando-alike Alberto Negri), but I never quite want to do so because it leaves my hand much diminished in its effectiveness. This is, by the way, a much more pronounced feeling than I have in in playing Dominion (where victory cards tend to be functionless), because then I’m mildly compromising a deck of some size, rather than polluting a hand of perhaps four or five cards.

This unweildiness is reproduced in the game’s demand for table space: as more and more cards are added to each player’s play area, each becomes more sprawling and awkward (the rules are not explicit on this point, but it feels that all play area cards ought to be visible to both players). It’s portable, but doesn’t necessarily make a great travel game.

There’s pleasure to exploring the idiosyncratic, and Famiglia, like other of Friese’s mixed-up oeuvre, provides that. But becoming acquainted with it is like taking on a job as a maintenance worker at the Large Hadron Collider, and finding that it’s all held together by ad hoc welding and improvised electronics: you’re not learning to manage the system, but the fixes to it. From one perspective, that might not be important: if a game works, perhaps it need not matter how. But where the player-provided balancing of many of Friese’s multi-player games generates negotiation and emotion, playing the suit-power sustained Famiglia means the players have no choice but to reproduce the sticky fixes of an absent party, with the disillusionment provoked by conspiring in inefficiency and iffiness. It’s nobody’s fantasy to sustain some half-botched repair job, and because of this, Famiglia is ultimately not fantastic.

One thought on “Hands Up: A Review of Famiglia

  1. Interesting review! I’m now very curious about this game because it sounds like it has a similar theme but also similar problems and issues to a game I’m working on about bank and train robberies: I can’t find a way to make the players hand something they feel they’ve crafted to a purpose. Hmmm!

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