Fairy Tile Review

Fairy Tile
Tile Laying
Matthew Dunstan, Brett J. Gilbert
Miguel Coimbra

Fairy Tile is a gorgeous game with some unique ideas and mechanisms to go along with its fantastic presentation.  However, the specters of luck and randomness loom large over this little game, casting some doubt as to who its really meant for, and the possibility of unwinnable board conditions make it difficult to recommend.

I’ll be honest – the cover of Fairy Tile sold me on it instantly.  I don’t normally fall victim to the admittedly-powerful effects of great cover art, but when I saw the mosaic of Miguel Coimbra’s art on this relatively small box, I immediately wanted to know more.

In Fairy Tile, each player is trying to build the narrative beats of the collective fantasy story that the game represents – it’s a tale as old as time: Dragon gets mad and steals princess, knight goes out to rescue princess, princess escapes while dragon and knight fight.  Classic.

But maybe too classic?  Based on the cover, I was sorta hoping for a subversion of those tropes – the princess and the dragon seem perfectly friendly on the cover, and yet there’s no turn towards that in the fable.  Instead, the story is pretty boiler plate, for better or worse – Princess runs, Dragon kidnaps, Knight defeats, there’s a wedding.

Quibbles over narrative beats aside, gameplay in Fairy Tile is indeed unique.  Instead of players controlling the princess, the knight, or the dragon individually, each player is free to manipulate any of the characters, as well as add ties to the ever-expanding tableau of the kingdom.

Each of the three characters move in a different way:  The princess can only move one space at a time, but she can move in any direction and can consider any 2 castle spaces adjacent (benefiting from some royal Lyft service or something).  The knight, unable to keep still, must move 2 spaces when activated.  Finally, the dragon, badly in need of some new brakes, moves in the straight line of your choice as far as it is able whenever it moves.

Players will add tiles and move characters in order to meet the criteria of the Page cards they hold – if, at the end of a turn, the board conditions meet those described on that player’s current Page, they add that page to their score pile and draw a new one (players can cycle their current Page card instead of adding tiles or moving characters, returning it to the bottom of their deck and drawing a fresh one).  The winner of the game is the one who manages to work through all their pages, effectively making Fairy Tile something of a race.

Andrew: The good things about Fairy Tile, its presentation (which is genuinely lovely) and its turn-by-turn puzzle, earned it a place on my table.  But what became clear as we explored Fairy Tile was that there were some concerns that meant that it would never earn a place in my collection.

First and foremost, the game is hugely driven by luck.  Each player is only ever working on a single Page card at a time, meaning that all their efforts will be to craft the board state as defined by that card.  This could mean that the next card they draw might be something entirely contrary to what they have spent their time building, or conversely something that they can immediately score.  And since people’s Page cards are secret, it is possible for you to accidentally set up your opponents to score, with no ability for you to plan around or prevent it.

Expanding on this last point, with fewer players the randomness is lessened somewhat (at 4, there’s little point trying to plan anything until it actually gets to your turn), but at any player count, it is entirely possible, and often likely, that you’ll find yourself with Page cards that mean you and another player are trying to do different things with the same piece – i.e. the dragon is in the mountains vs the dragon is in the forest.

It doesn’t matter who put the knight in this large forest – if he’s there and you’re holding this card, you get to score it.

And because of this, there is nothing preventing you from simply going back and forth with an opponent, undoing each other’s turns until one of you passes out from boredom.  This is particularly aggravated as players come down to their last few Page cards, when it becomes impossible for them to just cycle their card and work on something else for a while.

When read in sequence (which you’re supposed to do at the end of every game), cards create a story narrative.

But by far the most damning thing about Fairy Tile is the fact that, through no fault or choice of any player at the table, the game can become completely unwinnable for a player partway through and they may or may not even realize it.  The fact is that there are Page cards that either involve the dragon’s placement or the arrangement of terrain features that, under the wrong circumstances, can become literally impossible to meet.

Take this Page, which requires the Princess to end her movement in a ‘large plain’:

Incidentally, I prefer my princesses to get bold in the face of danger, but whatever.

And now look at this totally feasible end-game board state, baring in mind that you and your opponents build the board as the game progresses, with no foreknowledge of what future Pages might be:

There is no ‘large plain’, no set of 3 plains spaces adjacent to each other, making that goal impossible to achieve.  And since the game only ends when one player makes it through their entire Page deck, it means that a player might become completely unable to win no matter what they do – and they may not even know it until they cycle through their Page cards!

Andrew: That’s pretty unforgivable – especially for a game that describes itself as being an 8+, family-level game.  It’s bad enough at 2 players, when it simply means a loss for the player who has an impossible card.  At 3 or 4 players, I guess it means that player is eliminated from the game?  I’ve got no idea though, as the rules don’t cover anything about what happens in these cases.

How statistically likely is this to happen?  I’m honestly not sure.  But what I can say is that it happened in our very first game, and then again in our third.  Bad luck?  Yeah, but there’s absolutely nothing in the mechanics which protect players from it happening, and that sucks.

Here’s another potentially unwinnable board state – the dragon will never be able to stop on a castle space, so if a player has that Page card, they lose.

Fairy Tile had tremendous potential.  The mechanisms at work here are unique and engaging, and the concept and presentation are truly top notch.  Unfortunately, a handful of frustrations with the rules themselves means that, instead of a beautiful family-level game that I wanted to love, what I’m left with is the unsatisfying reality of something that could have been truly special, but which failed to hold its place on my shelf.

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Recommendations based on Fairy Tile

Despite the fact that Fairy Tile didn’t work for us, there are other games that either share its spirit, mechanisms, or aesthetic which we found much easier to engage:

  • For a unique twist on tile laying: Cacao – This Z-Man Games title provides a really neat mashup of tile laying and worker placement mechanics, and works really well at every player count.  This one’s a personal favorite!
  • For a great game with striking visuals: Abyss – Designed by veterans Bruno Cathala & Charles Chevallier, Abyss is a unique blend of auctions, hand management, and push your luck gameplay that we really love, set in one of the most visually unique game worlds we’ve ever seen.
  • For a fantastic family-level game: Queendomino – The sister-sequel of the critically acclaimed Kingdomino, Queendomino is an excellent kingdom building game for the whole family.

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