A Fistful of Meeples game: A four-sided review

The Fistful of Meeples game is a mancala-style family game for two-to-four players. It plays in around 30 minutes and should be suitable for gamers aged 8+.

Mancala games can be traced to Africa and the Middle East in the second century AD. They have a ‘board’ of holes/pits containing beads/stones, with players removing all the stones from one pit and spreading them evenly into adjacent ones, usually trying to claim opponent pieces.

Here, the pits are buildings in a Western-themed town and the stones a variety of coloured meeples. The theme holds up surprisingly well despite it being a largely abstract game. And the art and components are nicely done. In the box you’ll find a small board, 100+ wooden pieces, 36 cardboard chits, two dice and a cloth bag. The only shortfall are the crappy plastic dice. But they’re cheaply and easily replaceable for the aesthetically challenged.

Teaching A fistful of Meeples game

the game sticks to the basic mancala principle. Take everything from one pot and distribute what you take evenly between the next X spaces (with X being the number of meeples picked up. But it cleverly changes things up enough to make it into a light and fast playing euro game.

Meeples come in five colours, each having an ability. These invariably involve taking cubes from a bag, If the space they’re placed in meets their requirement. A (red) robber meeple will get two bag picks for every miner in its building. A (blue) deputy sends any robbers in the building to jail, getting two picks per villain for his trouble. The (purple) madame gets one pick for every builder – and sends them all off to the saloon. If their location has no meeples of the right colour, they don’t give you any advantage.

These cubes you’re picking from the bag are either gold or stone. Once you’ve got a few, the builders can step up. Simply have a builder go into an unclaimed building, have the right three cubes in front of you, and it’s yours for life (you place a little marquee (signpost) marker on it). Later when a miner gores into that building, you’ll get picks from the bag. And these will be your picks, even if the miner goes in on someone else’s turn.

The good, the bad and the meeple

As well as the 14 available buildings, you’ll find gunfight spaces at each end of the street. If a gunfight space is empty in the row of spaces you’re placing into, you must put a meeple on it (and mark it with your player colour). Once both ends have a meeple, its high noon. The losing meeple goes to the graveyard, the winner to the saloon. And the controlling player gets picks from the bag (1-4) based on how tough the loser was.

There are four more locations not on the main (mancala) street: the graveyard (with room for six gunfight victims), saloon, jail and bank. A player can take all the meeples from either of these locations and play their turn as usual, except they get to choose a building on the mancala to start their placement from. However if they bust the robbers out of jail, they use one of the three dynamite cubes to do so – which is placed in the gold/stone bag. If you draw a dynamite cube, boom! The dynamite is removed from the game, but you lose half your iron.

At the end of your turn, if you have enough gold you must trade it in for a gold bar from the bank. You have to do this, but why would you mind? You only trade in 6-8 gold for a bar worth 10 victory points (the earlier you do it, the better the value). Once either six gold bars are taken, three dynamite has been pulled from the bag, or the graveyard is full of gunfight victims, the game’s over. Most points wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I’m impressed, if not in love with, A Fistful of Meeples. I think the mancala is strangely underused in modern gaming. And this shows how a sprinkling of modern mechanisms can enliven a classic game. Everything slots together nicely, it all makes sense, and is fun and fast to play. So why am I not quite feeling it? For me, it’s just lacking that special sauce; that ‘X’ factor. But a good game all the same.
  • The thinker: While In can admire the craft here, there isn’t enough strategy on offer for me to pick this off the shelf. Feld’s Trajan did a great job of taking the essence of the mancala and introducing it to a complex game. Here, it still relies on the fully tactical play of the original concept. I guess you can try to group your buildings, or not. But your luck-picked mix of gold and iron largely dictate your ‘decisions’, so you’re at the whim of the dice bag gods. Not for me.
  • The trasher: I quite enjoy the A Fistful of Meeples board game. Sure, there’s no direct conflict – even the gunfights have a winner and a not-winner, rather than a loser. But you do have to think about what you’re setting up for the next player. Put too many of the same meeple in one building and boom, big points are on the horizon. This can be a big issue in the classic ‘rubbish player to my right meant I won’ way. But you just need to manage that, being the good Samaritan and ‘reminding; your fellow players the move they’re about to make is going to leave the next player open to a big score. Unless that next player is you, of course…
  • The dabbler: Love it! It oozes western theme, especially for such a small box game. Who doesn’t love cute little cowboy meeples? And the nice artwork/simple graphic design don’t get in the way of keeping the game easy to learn. The rules are simple, with a nice reminder on the back page of the rulebook (although there are some annoying typos). While you don’t have to think between turns, meaning you can keep things light and airy while you play. It’s also accessible with a theme and style I can sell to non-gamers. All of which has seen A Fistful of Meeples rise into my top 20 games already.

Key observations

A typical negative reaction to A Fistful of Meeples is that it’s too tactical, with a small decision space. While these are true, they’re not really a criticism – it’s a small box filler tactical game. So, if that’s not going to be your bag you best look elsewhere.

A fairer criticism is that games seem to end up mechanically close each time, as things are a little scripted. You must buy gold bars, for example, while the perils of dynamite discourage iron hoarding. There is no alternate path to victory. Again, this is a short tactical filler game so you shouldn’t expect a smorgasbord of choices. But it can feel a little prescriptive at times.

Due to its tactical nature, player count is also a recurring theme in criticisms. I have found a better reaction to the game when played with two, and four does seem a little too many in terms of downtime. There really is nothing to do between turns. Unless, you know, you maybe talk to each other…?

And finally, the choice to use identically shaped brown and red meeples can be very problematic for the colour blind. It’s amazing we’re still having to have this discussion, although it is a small and relatively new publisher. But a little extra thought would go an awfully long way.

Conclusion: A Fistful of Meeples game

I enjoy A Fistful of Meeples and my better half really likes it. As a filler it ticks a lot of boxes. The game is light and airy but with a good bit of thought being needed to make the best decision each turn. Is it a little on rails? Yes. And it could’ve benefited greatly from an alternative set of buildings with some more interesting and game-breaking special abilities. But as an opener or closer, and simple to pack travel game, it will be staying in my collection for the foreseeable future.

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