An interesting area control game by a small publisher (Asmadi Games) is Fealty.
Fealty, at it's core, is a very simple game. The (full) game consists of eight rounds, in which players each place a single piece. Specifically, each player starts with three cards in his hand. Each player selects one of his three cards and all of the players reveal them at the same time. Whoever placed the lowest numbered card places first, followed by the other players in ascending order. Finally, each player draws back up to three cards. There are a couple of rules to note when playing pieces (your cards each correspond to one of your pieces), though. First, you cannot place on the same "duchy" (one of the boards that makes up the playing area) as another player in a single round. Also, you cannot place in the same row or column that you have placed a figure in earlier. Finally, you can't place on top of "obstacles" - mountains (apparently there are no dwarves in Fealty), other pieces, etc. At the end of eight rounds, you add up influence - again, starting with the lowest numbers claiming tiles, and continuing until all of the pieces have claimed everything that they can. Whoever has the most influence is the winner.
The first thing that I like about Fealty is it's simplicity. Essentially, the designers have been able to distill area control to it's core; and what is left is the game of Fealty. Everything you need for a quality area control game is included, but there is really very little excess. This allows you to have a game with depth, yet it can be played in around 30 minutes. You are able to have a give and take interaction with other players where you can block them from claiming influence (of course they'll do the same to you), or you can peacefully each try to claim as much as possible (well... at least theoretically you can do this - I've not seen it. Of course, I'm normally the one doing the underhanded blocking of my opponents, so maybe I'm the wannabe warmonger in this scenario.) Due to the nature of the scoring, it is entirely possible to remove most of the value of your opponent's early placed piece by placing a piece of your own (with a slightly lower number) which will claim several of the squares around your opponent - thus cutting off his access to other tiles.
The next thing that I like about Fealty is it's replayability. The game comes with double-sided terrain, and also comes with two different sets of pieces. You can play the game where all nine of your cards are available to you from the beginning, or you can play where you draw three at a time. You could even play where you get to pick cards from each of the two sets, if you really wanted to. These fairly minor inclusions add quite a bit of replayability. I could play it repeatedly (which is really the definition of replayability - which Blogger keeps telling me isn't even a word; stupid Blogger, it should play more board games) and not feel like I always know where the best placement of my figures should be on the board (since the board will be different every time).
The third thing that I will mention is the collapsing options throughout the game. I thought this part was very interesting. Since you can't place in the same row or column that you have previously used, the number of options you have throughout the game will decrease (and the importance of some of the pieces' powers that allow you to move will increase). This adds quite a bit to the strategy (though I'm far from having mastered it). You have to decide whether you want to use your large pieces, which can claim a lot of territory, in the middle of the board early (while you can still legally place there); thus opening yourself up to having your opponents block most of your scoring, or if you want to wait until the end to place that large piece. You have to decide if you should leave an open spot somewhere in the middle for your piece(s) to be placed towards the end of the game - and hope that your opponents don't take it from you. As the game progresses, your options become more and more limited as you eliminate a row and column each round, and if you're not the first person to place, your opponents will even be eliminating entire duchies! By the end of the game, you may only have about 5-10 legal placements. And these placements may be horrible if you don't plan ahead (author's note: this is from experience; my final placements in Fealty are often horrible).
However, I did have some cons with Fealty. First, I felt that the rules were unclear on some points. Fortunately, there were examples, so I was able to figure out what I think the correct rules are, but I'm still not entirely sure. I wish that they had addressed some of my issues more directly. Specifically, (I will admit that I may have missed these things in the rules) I never saw the rules explain what a "conflict marker" does (we assumed it was an obstacle). I also never saw it clearly tell me if an opponent's influence marker counts as an obstacle to prevent you from drawing a path through them to claim tiles on the other side. (An example suggests that opposing influence do count as obstacles, so we played it that way).
The other con that I have is harder to explain. Because of how the scoring works in the game (and that the person influencing any given tile might change from one round to the next until final scoring), the first game or two will be very hard to see how well each player is doing. Until the end when you place all the influence markers, you won't know if you are doing winning or getting obliterated. However, once you get past this initial blindness, you run directly into "Analysis Paralysis" (taking a long time to decide what to do on a turn because of too much information or too many choices). Since the influence is not immediately visible, you will have to continually look around the board to determine what positions might be valid. And, inevitably, once you finally find the correct position it is illegal because of your previously placed pieces (there's an alliteration for you), and so you have to start looking all over again! This is almost begging for a computerized version of the game that allows you to highlight where each person is successfully influencing (and where you can legally place).
Overall, I give Fealty an 8.0/10. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised with the game. It's not something that I'm going to yearn to play repeatedly, but I thought that it was very intuitive and really a very solid title. This is now the second game I've played by Asmadi Games (Innovation being the first), and I am pretty impressed with this small publisher!
If you like Fealty, you might also read about Princes of Florence, Smallworld, and Alien Frontiers.
I would like to thank Asmadi Games for providing me with a review copy of Fealty via Game Salute.