Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
Copycat by Friedemann Friese
Rio Grande Games, 2012
Rio Grande Games
Although cheeky, it was well-stolen. If you’re going to steal, steal only from the best, that’s my motto too.
—Walter Moers, The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, 2011
Is it possible to create a game out of pieces of the best board games in the world? In the words of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, “The crucial thing is what comes out at the end.”
Why do you read this text anyway? The beautiful picture up there should be sufficient to convince you to want this game—it is all about appearance, not content.
It is all about politics, important politics. So, not about fiscal crises, foreign policy operations, or social problems, but about your political career to the top.
That is not good enough for you? You want to know what the game is all about?
Well, in a nutshell: It is the most outstanding game of all time, which helps you not only to get successful, handsome and wealthy, but also rewards you with a doctorate and an awesome political post.
In return, you do not need to exert yourself too much. What are friends, relative and subordinates, with all their talents, for? Nowadays, you call that networking.
I, Friedemann Friese, did it exactly this way. Simply taking the best out of successful games. A part of Agricola, another part from Dominion, and parts from Through the Ages are also in this mix. As you will see, you do not need your own ideas to create something huge.
In case you hadn’t guessed it, all of the words above were borrowed (I won’t say stolen) from Friedemann Friese, designer of Copycat. Why expend the mental perspiration to describe the game when he’s done it so well already?
That would make this a very short review. You can believe Friese when he says it is “the most outstanding game of all time” (until his next one). After all, he is the designer. He knows games. He has the best games. And Copycat has had tremendous success. It’s just that the FAKE GAME MEDIA doesn’t want you to know about it. Those reports that the game is “broken”? Fake news. Those people are just jealous of Friese’s tremendous success. He says so himself:
Warning dear player: Of course, you can get the most points if you buy the card with 10 victory points and even double that card. But you might not win with this combination. Maybe the opponent wins with all these coins and his really expensive doctorate. Or the player wins who collects victory points from the beginning and who uses all his cheap cards far more often during the game, as he bought them much earlier. There are a lot of things to discover than at first glance.
And, again, you can trust Friese. There are a lot of things to discover. He’s the designer. Why would he lie?
I wanted to review Copycat this month for a couple of reasons. One, I purchased it only recently, after four years of waffling induced by the previously cited fake reviews. Two, Friese is an eccentric, idiosyncratic designer whose oddball efforts have always fascinated me. Three, while the game debuted when Obama was still up for a second term, its lessons—that success can be bought, that it’s all about connections, and that personality trumps experience—seem particularly salient in the current political climate.
But this won’t be a political post. I won’t mention how Melania Trump’s speech at the Republical National Convention plagiarized then-First Lady Michelle Obama. I won’t talk about how the seven “Fatherly Friend” cards in each player’s starting deck, which picture an elderly gentleman handing off a fistful of $1000 bills, mirror President Trump’s statements that he started out with nothing but “a small loan of a million dollars” from his own father. And I certainly won’t mention how the page of achievements, with titles like “Simply Winning,” “Glorious Winning,” “Perfect Knowledge,” and “Never Happened Before,” are eerily reminiscent of the self-congratulatory tweets issued from the Oval Office celebrating the President’s own trumped-up achievements, many of which can be debunked with just a few minutes’ fact-checking.
This won’t be a political post. We’ll stick to just the facts about Friese and Copycat. Of course, what you make of it is your business.
Friese is no stranger to the cult of personality. Here’s his BoardGameGeek bio, which really speaks for itself:
Friedemann Friese (born June 5, 1970 [Friday the Fifth] in Stadthagen, Lower-Saxony, Germany) is a German board game designer who is known for pairing interesting gameplay with quirky themes. He is notorious for liking the color green, to the point which he includes the color on the cover of all of his designs, and has dyed his hair green. He also likes to begin every word in his titles with the letter ‘F,’ though this trait is sometimes lost in the English versions of his titles. He designs for his own game publishing company, 2F-Spiele.
Friese’s first major success was the heavy strategy game Funkenschlag in 2001 (which, unfortunately, lost the F in its English translation, Power Grid). Power Grid remains his most serious and successful design and has spawned a host of expansions and spinoffs, including the Stone Age Power Grid: The First Sparks (Die ersten Funken) and Power Grid: Factory Manager (Fabrikmanager).
The full force of Friese’s F-Obsession comes through in his FFF-Saga, which comprises Fische Fluppen Frikadellen, Fearsome Floors (Finstere Flure), and Formidable Foes (Fürchterliche Feinde). Though released six years apart and following drastically different gameplay formulas, the three games’ descriptions combine to form an alliterative allegory:
What a fuss. The frightfully fearsome feudal lord Fieso has held the fascinating fairy Fabula in captivity since the famous February festivities. In order to free the fairy, you must redeem her from the Fieso’s fetid and fusty feculent fetter. Frustrated, you flee into the Finnish fjords in order to fetch a few of the fascinating fetishes so highly favored by the foul prince. Frantically, you begin bartering with the local folks: a few Florins will get you some Fish which can be traded for Flowers, which again can be traded for Fur, Fruits, Flutes, Fettuccine, Furniture, Fuel, Fiddles or maybe even a fridge. When your finances allow you to obtain 3 different fetishes, you have won the game.
That’s the description of Fische Fluppen Frikadellen, which itself comes in three separate boxes that can be combined to form a 15-player game across three tables. The story continues in Fearsome Floors, a cat-and-mouse game of programmed movement in which players attempt to hide from patrolling monsters:
It was fabulous! Fearlessly, you found the three fetishes in the Finnish fjord. With lightfooted and foxy feints you ferry the fetishes to prince Fieso in France to free the fascinating faerie Fabula. But Fieso is not fond of foreigners; what a fiasco! You land freezing and foolishly find yourself trapped in a frightful fortress with fearsome floors. Now you must flee Fieso’s trap. Furunkulus, the monster, is a frightening freak, especially fond of foolish foreigners. He will feed on you if he is able. So you want to fool Furunkulus and flee to freedom.
The conclusion, Formidable Foes, is a traditional dungeon crawl, with players competing to collect treasures by exploring a dungeon and fighting monsters:
Once again, our unfortunate friends find themselves foreigners trapped within the frightful Fortress Furor of the fanged Prince Fieso who would, with felicity, see them flounder and faint. These fine fighters could feasibly face their finish in this forbidding fortification, whose fearsome floors even now flow frighteningly from beneath their feet as the famished Furunkulus forages the fringes, fixing to feast on the foreigners’ flesh. Forthwith must our fighters fashion their flight from this foulest of fates! But what’s this? By the light of their fallow and flickering flares, our friends find the depths fraught with the most furious of fiends and the fiercest of freaks! With fleet feet, the fearless foreigners follow these ferocious fellows through the fortress, with its multifarious footpaths and their frustrating forks, forging fervently forward toward freedom and fame. Our fighters must not falter from whatever feud or fracas would foil their function: to finally furnish the forlorn Faerie Fabula her freedom from feckless Fieso’s fists!
In 2010, Friese released Black Friday, the first game in his Freitag-Projekt, which he describes thus:
Freitag (Friday) is a game project started on Friday 24th of October in Essen. I, Friedemann Friese, will work on that project for the next Five years on every Friday. I will work Five, Fifteen, … minutes (In German twenty-five, thirty-five, … starts with an F, too) up to Fifteen hours on that project, but only Fridays.
The game will be published in Five years on the Friday of Spiel ’13 in Essen. It will not be shown on Wednesday or Thursday.
Black Friday, a stock market game, was only a little successful, but the next release spawned by the Freitag-Projekt was 2011’s Friday, one of the only solitaire-exclusive games to be released by a major publisher, which I covered in my 12 Days of Gaming feature. Friday was my introduction to Friese and remains one of the best and most popular solitaire games to be released, so he had my attention when he announced Fremde Federn, the next game in the Freitag-Projekt, released in English as Copycat.
The Friese tropes are all here. The color green features prominently in the box and board art and is also the color of success (it’s a happy coincidence that Dominion, from which Copycat borrows its card-driven action economy, also uses green to distinguish its victory-point cards). The letter F has been erased from the title in the English release, but it can still be found in the aforementioned “Fatherly Friend” cards that kickstart the player’s economy. And, most egregiously, Friese’s face is all over the project. Literally: the box art, which riffs on Obama’s 2008 campaign poster, is repeated (one might say copied) everywhere on the cards, so you can’t go a minute without seeing Friese wearing board gaming’s most shit-eating grin.
So, how does one play Friedemann Friese’s flagrant Frankengame? (I borrowed that phrase, by the way, from a BGG reviewer, Kyle Woods.)
Copycat simulates a political race, and its designer describes the gameplay as a race, too: the player pieces, painted in the colors of the US Olympic team (red, white, blue and gold) and shaped to resemble a hand flashing the “V for Victory” (whether the hand is Churchill’s or Nixon’s is left to the player), race along the victory point track that loops around the board, with the finish line at 95 points. The metaphor is purely visual, however; the true winner is whoever has the most points at the end of the round in which one of the three game-ending conditions is triggered, with the VP-threshold being only one of them.
Each player begins her political career with basically nothing: just seven lucrative “Fatherly Friends” and three local advertising deals. A pittance, in other words.
In 2008, Donald X. Vaccarino released Dominion, widely recognized as the progenitor of the deckbuilding genre. Here’s how he describes it:
The concept was a game where you built a deck. I decided to take this to extremes: everything would be in the deck. Resources, actions, victory points, all in the deck. I didn’t do this for any special virtues it had, beyond sounding cool. Obviously having victory points in your deck meant that your deck would get worse as you got points, and that was nice, but I didn’t do it because of that, I did it just for the aesthetic joy of putting everything in the deck.
How should money work? There are a bunch of options. A key thing was that I wanted money in your deck, but didn’t want you to trivially get a tiny deck by playing all of your money. So money is really income; you play a treasure and get some coins and then at end of turn it’s in your discard pile ready to be reshuffled back in.
You draw 5 cards a turn. This was so that you’d see your whole deck during the game…. If you just drew one card a turn you wouldn’t so much be playing the deck you were building, unless the game lasted forever. So, draw 5 each turn, discard everything you didn’t play. Let’s churn through some cards. This meant lots of shuffling and well there was no-one to tell me how crazy that was.
It’s hard to shuffle a tiny deck. I felt the minimum I could ask was about 10 cards, and at the same time I liked getting two turns before the first shuffle, so 10 it is. I didn’t want your initial cards to really be your deck, to feel like they were key players; the cards you bought were supposed to do that. So you start with junk.
From the blasé way he describes it, you’d be safe in assuming that Vaccarino’s little experiment—”a game where you built a deck”—was a failure, but that’s far from the truth. I’ve written elsewhere about the narrative of progression captured by deckbuilding mechanics. It has the granularity and relentless forward progress of post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania; it’s honestly one of the most satisfying things in gaming. In the lingo, Dominion was fire, and it’s still ablaze: there are now ten expansions for the game, which got a second edition last year. The deckbuilding inferno quickly spread to other games, and while a few people have been burned in the nine years since its introduction, when Friese was designing Copycat, it was still hot stuff. So he stole it.
In everything but name, the players’ starting assets in Copycat mimic those in Dominion: seven money cards worth one coin each and three victory point cards worth one point each. Like Dominion, you draw five cards at a time—let’s churn through some cards—and use the money cards in your hand as income to buy new cards, which go into your discard pile to be played later. Except here, the new cards you buy represent connections, not landholdings. You can buy new “friends” in the industrial sector or the banks, who will front you even more capital; you can buy positive coverage in the national media, earning more victory points; and you can buy PR campaigns to get more volunteer campaign workers. Along the way, you might be forced to pick up an education, which is nothing but trouble; but if you play your cards right and make the right friends, you can buy a nice doctorate at the end, transforming all your liquid assets into Ivy League prestige without cracking a single textbook.
The big change from Dominion is that those victory point cards, starting or otherwise, aren’t “junk”—they’re working for you throughout the game. Every time you play one, you move forward on the VP track; the corollary being that if you don’t manage to play them, they do nothing.
A year before Dominion, German designer Uwe Rosenberg released Agricola, the charming game of subsistence farming in the 17th century (the tagline is “The 17th Century: Not an Easy Time for Farming”). If Dominion‘s modus operandi was “everything in the deck,” Agricola‘s is “everything with workers.” It’s a worker placement game, and in the 17th century, your workers are your family. So Agricola consists of sending each of your family members to the action spaces printed on the main board, one worker per space, and taking the associated action—or, more often, cursing at your neighbors because they grabbed all the wood again and you have no materials to build new enclosures, stables or rooms. Once things get going, you can make a “Wish for Children” and expand your family, thereby increasing your labor pool, but every harvest, the family must be fed, and more mouths means you’ll be butchering more of your precious sheep.
Agricola didn’t invent worker placement, but it did find a neat way to keep it interesting: the game lasts 14 rounds, or seasons, and each round, a new action space card is revealed, expanding the pool of available actions. The order of cards is semi-random, so you know that “Wish for Children” comes out in the fifth, sixth, or seventh round, but you’re not sure exactly when. This is the part that Copycat steals, whittling the game length down to 11 rounds to match the pace of the surrounding game. Every round, before buying cards, you’ll send out your three campaign workers to take actions in the various offices of the Federal Department. These actions are indelibly linked to the card play: the Subsidy Allocation Offices allow you to draw additional cards, Recycling & Disposal lets you “shred” unwanted cards (like those pesky diplomas) for coins, and in fact, you can’t buy a card without occupying the appropriate Solicitation Office. Meanwhile, cards like PR Campaign grant you additional campaign workers to use during the round, and unlike Agricola, you don’t have to pay them—these are interns, not people.
Other action spaces grant coins (the Fiscal Department) or victory points (the Editing Offices for Tax Relief) directly. By far the most important office space, however, is the Allocation Office for Major Projects. Here, you can “double” the use of a card, which is consistently powerful even early in the game—imagine turning one extra campaign worker into two, or using “Sauna with Colleagues” to draw not two cards but four—but, when combined with the Press Secretary card, which creates a virtual copy of another card in play (a move straight outta Magic: The Gathering), and the high-VP cards like Largest Nationwide Newspaper, can be used to score forty points in one fell swoop.
Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, released in 2006 by Czech designer Vlaada Chvátil, spent the early part of this decade duking it out with Agricola for the #2 spot in the BoardGameGeek Top 10, eventually falling to #17 only to rise again in the form of the 2015 edition, A New Story of Civilization. Translating the depth (and length) of Sid Meier’s series of electronic strategy games into a card-drafting experience, Through the Ages is an achievement for the ages, but its impact on Copycat is much less dramatic. Basically, what Friese borrows is the manner in which new cards become available: a shifting “card row” in which the leftmost five cards cost one action to claim, the next four cost two actions, and the final four cost three actions. Leaders like Napoleon or new technologies like Coal, not to mention new systems of government, are typically in high demand, but grabbing them before anyone else can carries the cost of reduced efficiency.
Again, Friese pared the system down to fit his game’s scope and changed the action costs to money (so the first four spaces cost the printed amount, the next three are at +1 cost, and the last three are at +2). Frankly, this doesn’t work as well as it does in Through the Ages; money is more readily available here than actions are in that game, and most rounds you only get one buy, anyway, so spending six or seven doesn’t make an enormous difference. Copycat also borrows the concept of separating its deck into four “Ages” (here called “sections”) so that better cards will always appear gradually as the game progresses. (Like TtA, the appearance of Age IV/Section V triggers the game end and introduces some final scoring opportunities, represented here by the Doctorates.)
Although not mentioned explicitly in the rules, Friese “borrows” minor elements from many other games, a few of which are important enough to mention here. The first, which may have a bigger impact than TtA‘s card row, is the end-of-round “sweetening” of unused action spaces, a concept lifted from Puerto Rico (2004, sometimes called the “whitewashing slavery game” due to its euphemistic reference to the plantation workers arriving each round on ships from “Europe” as “colonists”). In Puerto Rico, the unused actions accumulate doubloons at the end of each round they don’t see play; in Copycat, it’s victory points. This actually becomes a major element of the game, particularly with the Section III card “Campaign Trail,” which doubles the victory point chips you’ve accumulated during the round (remember that Campaign Trail can itself be duplicated by the Allocation Office for Major Projects).
Finally, Friese borrows from himself. As seen in Power Grid, each card in Copycat has a unique number from 1 to 61. In Power Grid, these numbers are used to determine the order in which new power plants become eligible for auction, but they’re also the tiebreaker to determine turn order each round. In Copycat, this translates into a blind bid for turn order at the start of each round, with the player(s) who chose the highest-numbered card from their hands going earlier. The twist is that the card used for your bid is essentially untouchable for the rest of the round, so if you want to claim an early spot—for instance, to secure the double-buy Solicitation Office or the Largest Nationwide Newspaper—you’ll need to give up a powerful action for the privilege.
Mr. Goldman began his public-facing career simply enough: sending the boy down to the Administrative Solicitation Office, he called in a few favors from some old, dear friends to finance a small PR campaign. Meanwhile, his chief political rival, Mr. Whiteman, ran ads in the local television and newspaper promising tax relief for entrepeneurs.
Soon, things began heating up. Mr. Goldman made use of his connections to get priority access to the Federal Department offices. Sending the boy to the Urban Subsidy Allocation Office, he began to see returns on his PR efforts in the form of a fresh-faced intern. Mr. Goldman gave the new kid a somewhat regrettable job (but someone has to do it): go to Recycling & Disposal and erase all records of ties with an old family friend who had, unfortunately, fallen out of public favor. Then, with a few choice donations, Mr. Goldman made several new friends in the industry. For his part, Mr. Whiteman spent his campaign funds on a lavish charity event for his much-younger wife and a spot on a nationwide radio broadcast.
Mr. Whiteman’s wife’s charity event earned him no shortage of prestige, and he used the opportunity to double down on his radio presence. Mr. Goldman, meanwhile, secured an election campaign office to further his grassroots efforts.
And so it continued. Mr. Whiteman made friends at the banks and collected campaign donations while Mr. Goldman discussed strategy at the sauna with his colleagues. Mr. Goldman got a spot on nationwide TV while Mr. Whiteman threw a state dinner. Mr. Whiteman set out on the campaign trail while Mr. Goldman stopped by the National Subsidy Allocation Office and hired a press secretary. With the press secretary’s help and his old friends in the industry, he got a spot in the largest nationwide newspaper. Monopolizing the Allocation Offices, the press secretary wrote an editorial for said largest nationwide newspaper extolling Mr. Goldman’s many virtues, which his colleagues in the sauna agreed were really wonderful, the best virtues, surely deserving of a Doctor of Political Science.
Seeing this, Mr. Whiteman fired his entire staff and took a long holiday.