|Meeple Like Us
A review copy of Nusfjord was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Uwe Rosenerg’s legacy as a game designer is remarkable. His curriculum vitae of releases shows outstanding versatility as well as a surety of touch that has a consistency that borders on supernatural. There are very few designers that show a range that can encompass Patchwork, Agricola and Bohnanza. He has no fewer than thirteen entries in the BGG Top 500, which means he is the designer for over 2.5% of the greatest games (according to BGG) that have ever been made. He hasn’t always had an easy ride here on Meeple Like Us but even our criticism is comes from a place of a deep respect.
And yet, looking at our index of reviews I see that somehow we’ve managed to reliably miss covering pretty much all his greatest hits even when we have them easily available on our shelves. We’ve sampled his catalogue erratically and, if we’re being honest, unfairly. As a result, my mental impression of his work is far more slanted towards his lighter fare – things like Patchwork, Cottage Garden, Second Chance and Caverna: Cave versus Cave. Nusfjord on the other hand certainly doesn’t rank amongst his most complicated games but it’s the first time we’ve really ventured into his more mechanically focused titles. And let me tell you – it’s been something of a treat.
Nusfjord is a blend of systems with which any regular reader of this site will be familiar. It’s got worker placement. It’s got engine building, sort of. It’s got placement bonuses. But it also has something deeper in the way it represents economical systems. Nusfjord is a cardboard parable that explores the tragedy of the commons as it is expressed through capitalism. It doesn’t have the explicit, monofocused obsession with purity of economic theory in that way that Chinatown does. It’s more structured than that. It’s more gamey.
Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way first. You and your fellow players each control a little plot of land, initially filled with little more than forest and future promise. Your land has room for the buying of ships, which increase your income (represented by fish), and presumably enough freehold cottages to house the various skilled elders you recruit to your cause. Each player has three workers that can be assigned duties. Most of these will be on the shared action board, but as time goes by they might also be assigned to elders so that they can work their skilled trades. Buildings will be constructed as time goes by, and these award points, immediate tangible rewards, and/or passive ‘power ups’ to other activities. The game plays for a certain number of rounds, with each player interleaving their worker actions until they’re all gone. Most points at the end wins.
So far, it’s boilerplate. But there are several systems woven into this straightforward setup that make it something a bit more special. Individually they’re cool but not particularly remarkable. Together, they tell an interesting story about supply, demand, and the power of patronage.
As part of operating your land, you have a certain number of shares that are available to mark investment in your organisation. You begin with two, issued directly to yourself. You also have three unissued shares that you can issue in exchange for cash. You can buy your issued shares back, if you are quick, but they can also be bought by any other player around the table. Essentially other players can choose to invest in your success. A rising tide lifts all boats and all that. Your opponents are major shareholders in potentia, and as such when you succeed so do they.
We’ll come back to that. But this shares system is cool. Not unique by any stretch of the imagination, but cool.
The next interesting system is gathering fish. Every round you pick up a number of fish determined by the fleet you have constructed. Different ships contribute different amounts of capacity to your haul, and that’s handled by placing one of the supply-limited vessels along your track. The uncovered number closest to the left hand edge dictates your income. It’s your cod futures. Your haddock portfolio.
These aren’t fish you keep though. Instead, at the start of each round they get distributed to your various responsibilities in a strict order.
First, you feed the elders you have recruited. Essentially within Nusfjord you don’t hire services, you exert patronage. In return for the right to exclusive access to the special abilities of an elder, you must keep them fed. This, by the way, is not the same thing as exercising the right to use their services. Every elder you recruit is a passive drain on your income. To do more with them – well, that’s an active drain on top of that.
The next thing to which you pay out fish is to shares, but you begin with shares in foreign possession. That includes shares in the marketplace, which as soon as they are issued begin to exert a drain on your income. The key thing here is a straightforward rule – your investors eat before you do. If you can’t pay yourself after you’ve paid your investors, well… that’s life, buddy.
And it’s here that we start to see the interesting texture these two systems lend to play. Everyone wants a company in which they have invested to succeed, but only to a point. Ideally I want you to have enough fish to pay me, but none left over to pay yourself.
Once you’ve dealt with investment, you issue out fish to shares you own in your own company. Then they go to your ‘reserve’, which is long term storage that requires an action to access. And then finally any leftover fish go back to the general supply – essentially released back to the ocean to keep the stocks healthy.
Once all the fish has been doled out, you then gather up the fish that have been placed on shares in your possession, and that’s your direct income.
It seems like a long winded way of handling resources, but what strikes me most here is in how cleverly this creates competing logistical tensions in supply and demand. If I own two shares in my own company, two of the fish I gather go directly to me in the most efficient way. If I own three, then three fish will optimally arrive in my pockets so I can spend them in the market. Selling a share gets me two gold coins,and money is otherwise difficult to come by. However, buying shares will cost me a gold piece each. What Nusfjord puts in front of its players in every round is a complex economic question… how much does efficiency matter to you right now?
To increase your haul, you buy ships. But high capacity isn’t inherently good because it’s all about making sure that you get the most impact from each of your limited actions. Getting eight fish delivered into my warehouse might sound great, but if I have to spend an action to release them then it becomes a question of how often I can afford to do that given I only have three actions per turn. Increasing my own efficiency is a risky proposition of releasing a share and then buying it back (two actions) assuming nobody buys it off of me in the interim. It’s much better in many cases to buy the efficiency off of your opponents, but that relies on them releasing shares at a time that works for you.
It’s an approachable way to model some complex first and second-order economical effects and it’s my favourite part of the design.
It’s when this combines with the elder system though that you see some of the most interesting implications begin to emerge.
One of the actions players can take from the shared board is to serve up fish in increasingly large plates. Every plate that is fully filled earns its benefactor a gold piece, and money isn’t particularly easy to come by in play. Those plates are the common good of the game. When a player chooses to make use of one of the elders to which they have pledged patronage, they pay an action from their own supply, and a fish from the shared banquet table. A fish that they may well not have served up. From a banquet table to which they may never have contributed.
That creates another interesting tension at the core of the game’s model of feudal economy. The smaller plates have a great conversion rate of fish to money, later plates offer less compelling incentive. Self interest is important here, but you are always enabling other players to pay their own elders. Someone may pay out a boatload of fish to the banquet table only to find over the course of a few rounds that everyone else benefits far in excess of their personal contribution. Fish need to be there for elders to be used, but there is no regulation to ensure that they are doled out fairly. The only thing that stops one player using up all the fish on the banquet table is the ignoble equalizer of bandwidth. They might have their snouts and front two trotters in the shared trough, but there’s only so much they can gobble down at a time. However, seeing one little piggy gorge themselves is often enough to have a few more nosing around to make sure they get a fair share before it’s all gone.
I love this system because of what it implies about the capitalist urges that govern Nusfjord. It is an explicit encoding of the Pareto principle represented as disproportionate collegialism. Sure, I get paid for providing fish but the only efficient reason to do it is to enable my own elders. Slanting the rewards to those providing food when the table is empty means that you’ll inevitably see a small number of players providing the greatest amount of commual good and never being appropriately rewarded for it.
But what really ties this up in a bow is the thing I mentioned earlier – the overwhelming need for efficiency.
Why would someone provide ten fish instead of four? If all they need to do is perform one elder action, why would they take the hit of diminishing returns to enrich their opponents?
They’ll do it because serving fish to a banquet is an action, and the real currency of Nusfjord isn’t fish, or wood, or money. It’s opportunity. You could place just enough fish to serve your needs in the banquet hall, and do it just before you need it every time. But that turns one action (use your elder) into two (place fish, use your elder). It adds an unbearable burden to your activities. And so, you’ll lay down enough fish so that the surplus can survive at least a couple of loops around the table so when you want to use your next elder there’s enough at the feast to cover the charge. Or, I guess you could wait for someone else to do it…
Opportunity backs every currency in Nusfjord because the game is incredibly stingy with how long you get to play. A two player game consists of seven rounds, each round of which has three actions per player. That’s twenty one actions to cover everything you need to do. If you go to the banquet table twice instead of once, that’s almost 10% of your actions as opposed to 5%. If you buy and issue a share, that’s nearly 10% of your pool of actions right there. Do it for all three of your own shares and you’ve spent almost 30% of your time doing nothing but building efficiency. That’s an eye-watering sum. So…
Maybe you don’t issue and buy back. Maybe you issue, and then you issue again, and then you buy back two shares at once? That’s three actions instead of four. If you press your luck and issue all three of your shares and buy them back once, that’s four actions instead of six. You are always facing the true cruel truth that Nusfjord encodes in its soul. You are always better buffering your activities, but in doing so you also tempt your opponents. Maybe they won’t jump on one share in the offering, for the same reason that efficiency drives all your decisions. They might jump on two. Almost certainly on three. And given you’re all seeking the same things, you may find that someone else sweetens the pot enough for a third player to gobble up that which you had mentally decided was yours. Everyone in Nusfjord is constantly mulling over a conservation of energy, where ideally they want your misfortune, up to a point, to be the thing that accelerates their own prospects. It all works very well.
There’s no individual part of Nusfjord that I’d point at and say ‘Exemplary’. It’s a game that exists in the intersection of its incentives. Some people say they can tell how a game plays based entirely on its manual, and I’ve always been skeptical. A game manual is like an forensic autopsy of a living thing. It’s dead mechanisms pinned into a glass case for observation in a museum. Nusfjord’s most compelling elements can only be observed in motion, and they make for a game that is well worth your time and attenion.
A review copy of Nusfjord was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.