WizKids aren’t a publisher that I have patronised all that much previously – their game stable’s been heavy on games that aren’t as much my bag. With Zev Shlasinger (formerly the Z of Z-Man Games) heading up their expanded board games operations, it’s great to see them veering into new territories and signing on different sorts of games. One of their Essen releases from this year really grabbed me when I played it as a prototype in April, and I am loving the production copy even more. Onward and upward, into the Favelas.
As a game, this is straight up abstract. For the look of it, designer Chris Bryan went with the peculiar geometry that could be made out of the favelas in Brazil. Square and angled buildings nestling perfectly into each other, it provides an interesting approach to the spatial aspect of the game. I found myself caught unawares with regard to favelas, having a number of friends point out they are essentially shanty towns or slums in Brazil – perhaps a game about their gentrification was a little in bad taste. What I do like is that, even as an abstract game, there has been some preamble for players included in the rules. What this does is pits players – who are looking to beautify and enhance the area and make the favelas a place for artistic communities – against the council, who are fickle and must be fought to get funding approval. It’s an interesting way to frame the approach of the game, where there is little story in the play itself, so I liked its inclusion.
Gameplay as far as basic actions go is suuuuuper simple to pick up, which makes it really appealing to me right now – I always loving a game that I can bring to the table with all sorts of folks, regardless of their “gaming experience”. Dice are rolled and placed out corresponding to each tile colour. Starting with your base favelas, you’ll take a tile to place on your turn – a face up double tile, or a face down double or single tile. Place that on your board so it lays flat; if you cover a colour with the same colour, this will let you adjust the council dice values (aka points scored at the end of the round for those with a majority of a colour). Taking single tiles will fluctuate the value on a clear die, representing points players can gain by keeping all five colours present in their Favelas in a round – it can be tough to accomplish, but also a nice bonus. Play consists of three rounds, with a randomized round-ending tile “Year End” shuffled into the bottom few tiles (depending on player count). It’s a delight to teach, because there’s not a lot to overwhelm people with as far as choices to take on their turn.
Of course, things aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface. Sure, you’ll take a tile and you’ll place it. But now the decision-making begins. No no no, this is not just a happy little skip and hop through a neighbourhood, taking and placing tiles wherever they look pretty. Oh, no. This game is actually a sneaky, tricky puzzle and a cut throat battle to boot. While there is none of the direct attacking sort of player interaction, you’ve got to be constantly vigilant to see what other people are doing, and where the value on the dice sit. Have you worked toward a nice majority of green tiles just to have everyone else bump green’s value down? Perhaps there isn’t enough variety in the face up double tiles for you to make a decent tactical move for a majority or to manipulate dice values, so you take a risk on a face down tile instead. Juggling all of this over 3 short rounds is exhilarating, and in the last game I played there were quite a lot of exclamations of exasperation and wonder from people at how this little pretty game was messing with their minds.
I think were this game to play any longer than it really takes, it could be frustrating to have constantly changing board and scoring states – but it moves swiftly, even at all player counts thanks to it scaling well by amending the tile stacks for each year for 2, 3 and 4 player games. I found that more than trying to beat out someone for the majority in one colour, it could be better to at least tie with them, as you both get points. That way you’re not putting your eggs all in one basket in case the value of that colour tanks. Keeping your toe dipped in one of the low value colours at the start of the round and sort of nonchalantly building up a small majority and bumping the value slightly can be a boon, too. There’s all sorts of ways to approach this game with on-the-go thinking.
Overall I think my two favourite aspects of the gameplay are the dice manipulation, and the drawing unknown tiles. The dice manipulation is often quite out of your control, so you sort of need to go with the market flow, and switch up your Favelas’ look as certain values tank and others start to rise. What can be tough is when you’re placing something that will amend a value and you have to bump down from 6 – I suppose it’s better than wrapping around so you’d have to adjust to 1, though. All of this really keeps you on your toes and hoping to not be disappointed at year-end scoring. As far as drawing unknown tiles go, it’s not something I usually like to do in games because it throws a wrench in thinking ahead. As I’ve been much more reactive in my playing style with this, it’s quite good to surprise myself with something, especially if it’s a single tile I can pop in somewhere helpful. Got to be the best planner I can be!
I can’t finish up this review without mentioning the absolutely incredible job done on artwork by Kwanchai Moriya, and the super production value from WizKids. The styling and art for each of the tiles is bright and bold and absolutely suits the game, making it a joyful and colourful incredibly puzzly experience (and double coded with unique art for each colour to make it playable for colourblind folks). On top of that, the tiles are robust and feel great, plus the dice are beautiful – they don’t get rolled a lot, but they look great and their size makes constantly adjusting them much easier than a regular size of die. It looks great, it’s easy to learn, and I can certainly see coming back to it again and again thanks to its simplicity and beauty. Can’t wait to see what Chris Bryan is working on next – not to mention what WizKids will hit us with in the months to come.
Favelas is designed by Christopher Bryan, with art by Kwanchai Moriya and published by WizKids games. It plays 2 – 4 players in approximately 30 – 45 minutes.
Thanks so much for the review (and the generous work you do in board game media in general, particularly when it comes to inclusivity).
As someone who has not played the game or read the rules, I have to say that I’ve been turned off by the theme. I guess part of it has to do with what appears to be a romanticisation of poverty (perhaps more so when the producers come from the global north and the subject matter is located firmly on the periphery).
I did read the introductory paragraphs in the rules and while they do provide some interesting background, I’m not sure many players are going to get a good sense of what life in favelas is actually like (the good and the bad bits). I guess I’d like to see a bit more class analysis included when we talk about issues of representation and inclusivity in board games, along with the crucial discussions about matters of gender, race, etc.
Why choose this particular theme for an abstract game and then not engage with it in a deeper way that really grapples with all of the baggage that comes with it and would encourage players to do so, too? Seems like a missed opportunity.
There has been some very interesting debate about the theme of the game on Reddit with particularly insightful contributions from Brazilians:
I don’t mean to be difficult – just thought that this all raises some fascinating issues worth thinking about 😉
Thank you, Andreas! The discussion on Reddit is great to see. I had a little back and forth with Chris, the designer, and a couple of other folks on Twitter the other day which was good too (in the replies to this thread https://twitter.com/DWP_Blog/status/939154327620513792). I think there very much could be a game that would engage with this deeper, and should be – I just don’t think this game was going to do that and do it justice, with how abstract it is, if that makes sense? I’m glad that there are all sorts of people talking about it right now, because those discussions will only lead to positive things. Really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. -n