[As one of today's leading game designers, Michael Schacht games have often appeared in Gamers Alliance Report. This is the  13th time that a game designed (or co-designed) by Schacht has been reviewed - and review number 693 for me. - Herb Levy]

FELINIA (Matagot, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 60-90 minutes; $49.99)

   Michael Schacht must love cats. How else to explain the theme of his new game where players are leaders of trading families in the city of Katzburg competing to set up trading posts on an island of cats which gives the game its name: Felinia.


   Felinia comes with a double-sided board (the side in play dependant on whether basic or advanced rules are used). Each player begins with 10 merchants (wooden meeples), three bid tokens, a money marker and a player board in their chosen color. The player board is where players keep their merchandise tiles (all beginning with two specific tiles depending on the number of players) and chart their cash flow. (The money marker begins at 2 to indicate a starting bankroll of 2 silver coins and may not exceed 6.) There are 20 ship tiles. (Five of these are "blue-backed and go on the bottom of the stack. The rest are shuffled and are placed, face down, on top of them.)


   The game board (regardless of side chosen) depicts the city of Katzburg and, across the water, the island of Felinia. Felinia is divided into five "territories" of different colors. Four ships are docked at the harbors of Katzburg, prepared to make the sea voyage from Katzburg to Felinia.


   The ships are a nice piece of two part construction. In the first place, the ships are three-dimensional - made of sturdy cardboard that easily folds into position. Secondly, the top ship tile from the stack is randomly placed on the ship to complete it. It is this tile that gives each ship its color-coded destination and displays room for one or more merchants. It also shows which merchandise tiles must be exchanged in order for a merchant to board. Getting those necessary merchandise tiles is one of the key challenges players face.


   There are up to five markets in the city of Katzburg (less with fewer players). At the start of play, each market is randomly sown with two merchandise tiles. In turn, players will place one of their bid tokens on the market. Subsequent tokens are placed on top of those already there and you may place more than one token at a market. There are also two other areas where bidding tokens can go: the Merchant's Guild and on that player's board (to earn 1, 2 or 3 silver coins). After all bid tokens are placed, players pay the required amount to claim merchandise tiles.


   The cost of a tile is based on how many bidding tokens are at the market. For example, if three tokens have been placed, the player owning the top token may purchase one merchandise tile at the market for 3 coins. The player whose token is next on the stack has the option of purchasing a tile there for 2 coins and so on. Payment at the Merchant's Guild follows the same procedure but, rather than collecting merchandise tiles, a player may either exchange a merchandise tile for one of another type (and receive one Spice from supply as a bonus) OR turn in one Gold and one Spice to pick up one of the Bonus chips that may still be available there. (Bonus chips increase scoring possibilities.) Once all of these actions are resolved, ships are boarded.


   In turn, each player may turn in the appropriate merchandise tiles (as required by a ship) and place one of his 10 merchants on the ship. (Sometimes a silver coin rather than merchandise tiles alone is needed to fulfill the requirements.) If all spaces on a ship are occupied (or, if none are filled, then the ship with the earliest "departure time"), that ship or ships set sail for Felinia. At Felinia, a new set of challenges await.


   The island of Felinia is seeded with 30 tokens in the basic game (in the advanced game 38 tokens - 8 of which are "specials"). They are placed face down (in the advanced game, face up). Upon landing, a merchant may advance three spaces onto the island after first revealing any two tokens in the area. Players have a dual purpose: to collect tokens of the same kind (which multiply in Victory Point value based on how many you have) and claim areas on the island, linking them if at all possible, to create a chain of trading posts worth VPs at the end of the game. If stopping to pick up a token (thereby establishing a trading post), that piece stays there for the remainder of the game. (If unable to create a trading post, that piece returns to that player's holdings for future use.) As players move, they may cross certain spaces on the island which will bestow upon them Spice or Gold or extra silver coins to help them in their quest for success. Once done, players are allowed to keep up to three merchandise tiles (or four if they're willing to pay 2 silver coins for that privilege) on their player cards for future use. Now bid tokens are returned to their respective players, any sailed ships return to port (and are "refitted" with ship tiles), the markets are refilled (so that there are now 3 merchandise tiles available at each open market) and we do this again.


   The game ends when either one player has placed all 10 of his merchants on Felinia (in which case scoring occurs immediately) or not enough ship tiles are left to fill all the boats for the next round in which case, all ships, filled or not, sail and explore the island for one last time. Then, scoring occurs).


   The major source for Victory Points come from collected trade tiles and merchant groupings. Trade tiles claimed on the island carry values of 1-4 or 1-3. For the 1-4 tiles, this means that 1 tile of that type will score 1 point, 2 of them score 2 points EACH, 3 of them score 3 points EACH and 4 or more will deliver a whopping 4 points EACH! The 1-3 tokens operate similarly with 1 scoring 1 point, 2 scoring 2 points EACH and 3 or more scoring 3 points EACH. This pattern is followed with merchant groupings. Merchants grouped together, whether in the same or adjacent territories on the island, are counted with a solo merchant worth 1 point, two linked together worth 2 points EACH and groups of 3 or more worth 3 points EACH. Bonus tiles that players may have picked up at the Exchange add to the VP totals of specific tiles. Finally, players also get VPs for gold (1 VP each), spices (1 VP for each 2), undelivered merchandise tiles (1 each). The player with the highest total score wins! (Tie? Then the player with the most silver gets the edge.)


   The Advanced game plays essentially the same but introduces "food" (which allows a merchant to move additional spaces on the island), "mysterious places" (cards kept if you have a matching merchandise tile to "pay" for it and worth VPs at the end of the game) and eight special trade tiles (awarding VPs for food which otherwise have no VP value, allowing a merchant all alone to score 2 VPs instead of 1, earning additional gold when entering a gold space on the island etc.)


   Graphic quality is a mixed blessing. The 3-D boats are pleasing to the eye and work well. (Those ship tiles fit in snugly.) The board is large and colorful. It is a nice touch to have a large cotton bag included to hold the merchandise tiles and a good idea to include icons on the tiles to help differentiate them. But the color choices used for the tiles are questionable. The darker tokens are much too dark making them much too hard to distinguish particularly in regard to which tiles are needed for which ship as the colors on the ships imperfectly match the tile colors. (We've considered adding stickers to the tiles and ships to make things easier.) This unwanted confusion undermines the strength of the design. The game is challenging enough without having to fight a "color war" while playing it. (Perhaps a second printing will correct these color problems. In the meantime, make sure you have the best possible lighting in the gaming area to help.)


   Felinia is the third piece in Schacht's "Gold Trilogy" consisting of Valdora (Fall 2009 GA Report) and The Golden City, adding exploration to a game of trade. The placement of merchants on the island (the exploration phase of the game) is handled very well. The color-coded ships will only land in the matching island area and movement restrictions (in the basic game) prevent you from crossing into adjacent areas. This forces players to make sure they board other colored ships so that they can build a "trading post empire" of three or more areas for, to do so, you need to cross area boundaries. This, of course, affects placement by your opponents who may sometimes have to delay forming their own group to insert their presence among your merchants to break up a potentially large score by the competition. (The additions presented by the Advanced game expand the game by offering more potential Victory Point streams. Food, by allowing merchants to increase their movement making territory border crossing easier, adds another bit of strategy to play. By introducing 8 special tiles, a certain degree of chaos is introduced but this randomness is mitigated to a certain extent because all 38 island tiles are placed face up. You know what is out there and where it is and can adjust your moves accordingly. "Mysterious places" are a purely luck driven addition. It is essentially a blind draw and, for some reason, only some of the cards require a merchandise tile, a curious design decision. And speaking of design decisions, what about those cats anyway? They have absolutely nothing to do with the gameplay. The game could just as easily have been about trading between the mainland and an island situated anywhere - off the coast of Europe, in a fantasy kingdom, somewhere in outer space.


   Ironically, the most innovative concept in the game - the use of bid tokens to determine the sliding cost of goods - is one simultaneously and independently developed by Stefan Feld and used by Feld first in his The Speicherstadt game (Spring 2010 GA Report). Although the concept works here too, it loses some of its impact because of its familiarity to those of us who have played the earlier game.  


   Felinia has good player interaction, lots of choices and things to do and multiple viable paths to victory. If you can overcome the color problems with the game, you will discover that this game is solid Schacht - and that is high praise indeed.  - - - - - - - - - - - - - Herb Levy