From the vast, sprawling landscapes of Feudum, designer Mark Swanson has swung right to the opposite end of the open-spaces spectrum with Fled, a game about simultaneously building and escaping a prison. What initially looks like a light tile-laying game soon reveals itself to be a shrewd, interactive puzzle that a lot of people are really going to enjoy.
“Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak”
The game takes place around the time of the Irish potato famine. You play as young Irish prisoners, jailed for what was in many cases, trivial crimes, such as stealing food or milk to stay alive. The British warders are the bad guys of the piece, doing their best to detain you while you make your own bids for freedom. I’ll admit to being surprised that the theme was so prescribed. This could have been any fictional prison, from any period of time, but it isn’t. It’s a very specific time and place and is set in a very real prison on Spike Island. While I don’t think it does anything to turn it into a joke or to milk it for some kind of comedic value, the cutesy screen-printed meeples are maybe at odds with the setting.
During the game, you collect rectangular tiles, each with one or two spaces on them. As the game goes on you collectively create the prison you’re trying to escape as you add more and more tiles to the tabletop. The aim of the game is to get six squares away from the center of the prison, where you can lay outer forest tiles, and hopefully escape through too. You do this by collecting tools and contraband, trading contraband for more tools, and manipulating where the warders are at any given time. Keys let you move through locked doors, files through barred windows, and spoons through tunnels which act as teleporters around the map.
It seems like such a simple concept. Like the sort of game you might play with your Carcassonne-loving family. In truth though it’s a much tighter, thinky sort of game. It’s a game that demands careful planning and timing if you don’t want to end up shackled or in solitary confinement.
Get busy living, or get busy dying
In each of your turns, you get to add a tile to the prison, matching one of the spaces on the tile with an existing one, and making sure the doors and windows match up. After that, you get to use the tiles for other things. You can use them for their tools, shown on opposite corners of the tiles, to move from space to space. If you’re in the right spaces, you can also add tiles to your inventory as contraband, which you can later trade for tools to do something useful with. Being in the right spaces, however, is tricky. Each different piece of contraband can only be collected from a particular type of space, so you need to make sure you’re in that space and have the tiles in your hand that you want to stash for later. This is all while you’re trying to escape from prison.
You can also discard tiles with whistles on to move the warders from room to room, typically towards your opponents. If a warder ends up in a space with a prisoner, and that space isn’t the type expected by the warder (there’s a track to one side that shows where you need to be), you can end up shackled and thrown back in your bunk. It gives the game this desperate, almost panicked feeling which is something I don’t feel too often in games. In a game where end-of-game scoring awards you one VP for a piece of contraband in your possession, and two for a tool, the five VPs on offer for making it over the wall to freedom are huge.
Managing all of this is tricky. Planning where and what you’re going to build is one thing, but at the same time, you’re keeping track of how close to freedom the other players appear to be, as well as keeping an eye on the warders, making sure you’re in the right type of spaces to collect contraband, and having the right tools to move from tile to tile, and having the necessary tools in your inventory for the final escape. It’s not like it’s impossible, far from it, it’s just a step up from laying tiles in something like Kingdomino, for instance.
After the size and scale of Mark’s previous game, Feudum, my first thought on hearing about Fled was one of “Is this his filler game before the next big one?”. The truth, however, is a game whose depth exceeds the small size of the box. I didn’t want to go with the age-old axiom of ‘It’s a big game in a small box’ (too late), but it is. By the time you get toward the end of the game, the labyrinthine jail you’ve created is equal parts impressive and challenging. Navigating it needs planning, thought, and consideration.
It might not be for you if you’re after the weight and experience of Feudum, or if you want something chock-full of Euro game mechanisms, because it’s neither of those things. Instead, it’s a solid, medium-weight tile layer with plenty to think about. I found the rules tricky to pick up at first, but once you understand the core concepts and placement rules, it’s a very smooth experience. I found the icons on the corners of the tiles hard to read at times, but it’s worth remembering that I played with a prototype copy of Fled. A very polished prototype, but a prototype all the same.
I want to give a special mention to the artwork while I’ve got your attention. Klemens Franz is an artist whose name slips by the radar for most people, but you’ve all seen it, and you’ve all enjoyed games with his brushstrokes on, from Agricola through to Grand Austria Hotel, his style is unique and really lends itself to the game.
I found I enjoyed Fled more each time I played it. Once the concepts become second nature and the mechanisms become transparent, it’s a crafty, enjoyable puzzle that plays quickly, doesn’t take up much space, and looks gorgeous. If Fled sounds like your sort of game you can check it out or get notified of its release on Kickstarter by clicking this link.
Preview copy kindly provided by Odd Bird Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Designer: Mark Swanson
Publisher: Odd Bird Games
Art: Klemens Franz
Playing time: 45-80 mins