Bonfire is a complex euro game from popular designer Stefan Feld. It’s playable from 1-4 players, with a solo game coming in at round an hour. But with more players you’re probably looking at two hours plus. And the age range feels right at 12+. for me, this is one if the designer’s more complex titles. Bonfire falls into the heavy euro game category for me. As with most of his recent games, there are multiple ways to score points. But the way they interact here requires a lot of forward planning. While the actions of others can force you to pivot to new strategies. And in terms of luck, it is lower here than in his lighter titles.

The theme is high school stupid, if anything making it harder to follow. It is unashamedly pasted on. So why pick something as daft as gnomes, guardians and bonfires? It all feels almost wilfully redundant. That said, the art from Dennis Lohausen is up to his usual high standards and the graphic design is OK. The components are standard for a German euro and the game looks good on the table, if you enjoy your fantasy nonsense. In the box you’ll find the main board, two boards per player, 300+ (yup) cardboard chits, 100+ wooden pieces and about 50 small-sized cards.

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Teaching Bonfire

As mentioned, Bonfire is a complex euro game with a lot of overlapping parts. For me, the theme gets in the way rather than helping explain things. Never have I resorted to ‘the green action’ and ‘the round thing’ so quickly. Which is a shame, as a coherent theme would help the teach. However, even with it, it’s the kind of game you need to finish once to really get. And one that’s hard to summarise – but here goes.

Let’s start at the end. You’re going to score end game points for bonfires (personal tasks you can fulfil); guardians and portals if matched with bonfires (which can be claimed with actions) and common tasks. You’ll also get points for any leftover action, resource and fate tiles, essentially rewarding you for efficiency.

Half the main board is made up of islands, where you’ll sail your ship to then pick up guardians and tasks (which, when fulfilled, become bonfires). The other half is where you can pick up portals, as well as gnomes. These little critters come in two flavours: in-game bonuses or straight points. You can have up to six gnomes, so you can get a nice little bonuses engine going if you plan it well/get lucky.

Your player board is in the shape of a half circle. Guardians arrive on the left side and can move across it. While portals have to be filled in right to left. But you can choose where to place your bonfires. Those placed in the middle may get both a guardian and a portal, as you work your way across from both sides. Or you may choose to largely ignore one or other and stack bonfires more to one side or other. As with many Feld games, it’s here where the game is won or lost. You simply can’t do everything, so need to maximise what you can.

But how do you do all this? That’s where the fate tokens come in. Each has three of six action symbols on it, and will give you matching action tokens when placed on your player board. You’ll also get bonus actions for clever placement of these fate tokens, so that’s something else to think about. While you’ll have limited choice in which fate token to take each time – meaning even more things to think about.

The six actions allow you to move your ship, collect tasks, collect guardians, add path tiles (which let your guardians move across your player board), take portals and get gnomes. But to do these actions well, you’ll often need multiple action tokens. And resources. Oh yeah, resources. You mostly get them from the great bonfire. Eh? What do you mean I haven’t mentioned the great bonfire. No, it’s not the same as the other bonfires…

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Playing Bonfire solo

The solo variant acts (and sets up) as a two-player game, with you versus a very basic AI. The AI has a set of eight cards, which are shuffled and flipped one at a time (on their turn). These largely have two purposes: to clear out cards and items (so you don’t get complacent, while rubbish is hopefully cycled out) and to move the game towards a natural conclusion.

This works nicely. After one play the cards become clear (so the rulebook dives become minimal). And you start to plan a little around what you know may be coming up, which makes it feel like an opponent. There are very few choices to be made by you in terms of the AI, though. In one way this is good, as it’s smooth and fast. But on the other it doesn’t feel as if adds as much strategy as it perhaps could have.

I found I thrashed the base level AI on my second solo play. But when I went to see how to upgrade it, there’s simply a few lines explaining how you can handicap yourself by pretending you got less points. This feels like a pretty big cop out. However, it does ramp up the challenge of winning and playing against the AI is an enjoyable experience. So overall I’d give the solo mode of Bonfire a thumbs up, just.

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The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: As I think I’ve aptly proven, the Bonfire board game is a hard one to summarise. And the first play can be an absolute bear. But once it started to click and I could see the possibilities, my negative thoughts mostly flipped to positives. Things snap together in a satisfying way and you can play differently from game to game. After four or five games, I’ll have to reserve judgement on the balance of the bonfire task tiles. But overall, if it were my choice, it’s a game I’d enjoy exploring more.

  • The thinker: I very much enjoyed this one. Much like his other heavier games (Bora Bora, Aquasphere, Trajan), what to ignore is left to the player. You choose/plan which combination of actions to go for; then have to use them to score the best combination of points. Yes, there’s a little luck here and there. And other players can scupper you a little – often by accident. But a player flying on the seat of their pants is not going to overhaul a carefully planned and executed long-term strategy. This could become my favourite Feld.

  • The trasher: There’s very little in Bonfire for me. There can be some competition to grab tasks that gel well together, but you wouldn’t take one just to scupper an opponent. You’d potentially spoil their game, without really benefitting yourself. Finishing a public task first gives a great bonus. But you really have to work to get them, so it rarely feels competitive in a real sense. And you can still score them – you just miss a bonus. So no, I didn’t get much from the game at all.

  • The dabbler: It’s pretty! And by the end of my first play I knew what I probably should’ve done. Maybe? I just can’t see myself playing it often enough to get any good at it (like Tzolk’in and the like) – so why bother? I prefer a game with more immediacy and less brain burn. I’d rather play something lighter, or at least more thematic.

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Key observations

The theme. The theme the theme the theme the theme. It’s nonsense. And worse, it gets in the way of the game. Is there a theme that would’ve worked beautifully? I have no idea. It would certainly be a job to try and match all these intricacies into a cohesive one. But gnomes and guardians and bonfires? I’m at a total loss.

This is not going to convert a single Feld hater. In fact, it will probably make them madder. No theme (did I mention that?), point salad, multiplayer solitaire, loads of interlocking mechanisms all giving points willy-nilly. But hey, haters gonna hate. And who cares about those guys. Let them stick to their D20s and their random ‘thematic’ text paragraphs. Sadly, another Feld trait continues though – the luck factor. Getting this right seems to his design Achilles heel. If two players go for the same kind of task combo, they can really mess each other up. You can pivot, but it’s going to be hard. That’s going to piss some people off.

I can see Bonfire having a real ‘one-and-done’ issue, especially for those not used to this style of game. It has a learning cliff that’s hard to see the summit of. While you need to know all the rules at the start – so it can have a big old teach time. Especially as the theme doesn’t help you grasp at anything. If you score low on game one, as you struggle to see how everything connects, what’s going to draw you back? Especially if you get that ‘I did a tiny thing on my go while you did 10 massive things on yours’ feeling, which nobody likes.

Some say it feels like work, while lacking tension. I guess these are hard to argue with – but I also don’t think every game needs tension. And if work means setting yourself to a really tricky puzzle, then for me that’s enjoyable work. But the game will overwhelm some. I don’t think that is a criticism of the game: you just need the right game for the right group. But when a game is going to struggle to find an audience anyway, it needs something to give it a helping hand. And I don’t see anything in the box that’s doing that.

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Conclusion

Bonfire is a good heavy Stefan Feld euro game. Experienced players will know if that is what they want and should act accordingly. Others should fend it off with a 10-foot pole. I’ve very much enjoyed my plays, apart from the painful first one. But I don’t think it will stay in my collection. I already have, and love, Bora Bora. That game feels more thematically and mechanically cohesive. What I need to find out is, does the more freeform jazz style of Bonfire give more in terms of interesting/varied routes to victory?

A few more plays should tell me. But I don’t know where I’m going to get those from. To date, no one I’ve played with has finished and really wanted to play again. And that’s having played with several Feld fans. Let’s face it – the guy has made a lot of games. And while I’ve found this one interesting, it lacks an X factor. Whether it stays or goes, it is certainly another solid euro in the Feld cannon. But I’m just not sure how many shelves need that right now.

Originally posted at Punch Board Media