Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (a review of Bruges)

Lots of things are going wrong in the town of Bruges. Money is tight, even the king and queen are hiring their services out to wealthy merchants, and threats of plague, flooding, fire, and raid loom on the horizon.

There's no better time to be an entrepreneurial mover-and-shaker in Bruges. Now's your chance to build canals, bolster your reputation, and erect houses for your helpers, all while flaunting what little wealth you've got in a bid for prestige.

How It Works
Bruges is a hand and resource management game for two to four players set in the bustling Belgian town of Bruges. The player with the most prestige at the end of the game is the winner.

Bruges set up for four players.

Each player begins with five workers (one in each color), five guilders (coins), three majority markers (with gray side up), and ownership of one of the canal hubs on the board. The large deck of cards is shuffled well, divided in fifths, and one fifth per player in the game is taken to form the draw pile. The draw pile is divided in two, and each equal pile is placed in one of the provided card holders so that only the color of the top card is visible. Players choose a starting player, and the start player token rotates each round.

The game is played over a series of rounds, and each round has four phases: draw cards, roll the dice, play cards/perform actions, and verifying majorities.

The game includes helpful double-sided player aids so players can remember
the game flow, what each card can do, the bad things they need to avoid,
and the way points are scored for the end of the game.

When players draw, they refill their hands to five cards and may draw from either draw pile. They can know the color of drawn cards but may not look at their hand until all cards are drawn.

Once players have their cards, the start player rolls the five colored dice. For each die bearing a 5 or 6, players take a threat marker of matching color. (Having three threat markers of a color destroys coins, workers, points, buildings, or characters, depending on the color.) Players may then pay to move up the reputation track, paying one coin for every die bearing a 1 or 2.

The heart of the game is the card play phase. Each card in Bruges has a color, and each card may be played in one of six ways: 1) discard for two workers of its color; 2) discard for coins matching the number on its colored die; 3) discard to remove one threat marker of that color and gain a point; 4) pay worker of matching color to use card as a house; 5) discard card of matching color and pay cost to build next canal segment; 6) pay cost in coins on card to put the character on the front of the card into a house. Each character card has an ability that can be used once it is placed in a house.

In the majority phase, players determine if any one player holds the majority in either canals built, people in their district, or reputation gained on the reputation track. If any player holds the majority outright, that player flips up their majority marker (which is worth 4 points at the end of the game regardless of whether they retain this majority).

The majority markers.

Play continues until one draw pile is exhausted. That round is completed, and players tally their prestige points, earning points for houses, characters, canals, reputation, majority markers, and special victory conditions. Whichever player has the most points at the end of the game wins.

Belgian Waffles, or Brussels sprouts?
Some games give players a sense of abundance. Wealth, prestige, resources--these are at the players' disposal to do with as they will. Other games reflect a sense of desperation. Everything is so scarce that there is no way you can do what you want to do, and you are strapped the entire game, contending for scraps with other players wallowing in the mud.

Bruges is decidedly in this latter category.

But before you run off to play another round of Dominion: Prosperity, remember that Agricola is also in this "contending for scraps" camp, and Agricola is incredible. Bruges, while perhaps not quite as incredible as Agricola, is a great game in its own right.

Threats (like the plague) are around every corner. (Also, note
that the threat markers in Bruges are double-sided: one side
is more thematic, the other side is more useful.)
I like several things about Bruges, but I'll get the most obvious out of the way first: cards that do multiple things. It is no secret that I love games that use this mechanism. Why? Because every decision is immediately split into several, every decision matters, and every decision becomes a "might have been." Take Bruges. During a card action, I might think, Well, I need coins. I should discard a card for coins. But it's more than just about getting coins. I have to weigh which card to discard. Is this card better discarded for coins, or should I save it to play as a character? The yellow card might give me more coins, but I need to build a house this turn, and yellow is the only color I have with available workers. And so on. Each card phase involves playing four cards, which must be done, and only one card can be saved from round to round. This makes the decisions tense and excruciating. And also incredibly fun and rewarding.

Yet despite the ever-expanding decision tree presented by the "cards that do multiple things" aspect of the game, Bruges moves along at a surprisingly galloping pace. The first game I played (with three players) lasted only slightly over an hour, and that included the rules explanation and players fixing their lunches. Each subsequent game, all over my lunch hours, finished with time to properly put the game away (which surprised me). The game's rulebook is twelve pages, and it seemed pretty dense when I read it, but gameplay was refreshingly fluid and easy to explain when we sat down. The reason for this is just what I stated above: players must play four cards per card phase, and can only hold one card over. Despite the many decisions available to players, the thinking required is mostly fast. Once players decide which card they want to hold, the rest of the round is fairly straightforward as they plan their actions (or at least it starts that way). In other words, there is an initial moment when all the players will pause to plan, but once the plan is set in motion, the game moves quickly.

Every card in Bruges can be used in one of six ways. The card layout
is clear, and each card can be played as a house.
This stems from the fact that Bruges does not involve a lot of long-term planning. The colors players will have in their hands is completely dependent on the cards available when it's their turn to draw from the deck, and those colors determine the actions players can take. Only one card is saved from round to round, so it's entirely possible that a player might not draw the color they need to build their next canal segment, or get the color of workers they need to activate their characters' abilities, or combat the devastating threat about to be set in motion, or... Everything in Bruges is dependent on card draw and having the right colors at the right time.

But while players are at the mercy of card draws in Bruges, the real game here is in managing player hands and the resources available to maximum effect, which is within the players' control. It's playing characters and discarding cards, trying to develop combos that work even when the "right" color isn't drawn. It's trying to win whatever prestige that destiny places in your path. It's frustrating when you simply cannot draw a brown card to save your life (or, more accurately, the life of one of your characters: plague is upon us!), but the game is in managing your cards in other ways so that, while your Acrobat might be sacrificed to the brown disaster, you'll be ready to replace him with another character on your next turn. Bruges certainly favors tactics, but strategy is not absent from the game.

The reputation track: one of the opportunities to gain a majority.
Bruges sounds like it could be a solitary affair--"Plan your actions and execute accordingly!"--but it isn't, and the main reason for this is the majority markers, which reward players at the end of the game if they ever had the most of something. This isn't like the Longest Road war waged in Settlers of Catan: if you can ever win a majority, you get the points at the end. Four points, to be exact, and with a game that is often only in the 50-point range and that usually has close scores all around, these four points can make or break a strategy. So it makes sense to go for them.

And all the players do. It's kind of like professional cycling, where it's best to move in packs to benefit from another cyclist's draft. But since only once cyclist will win the prize, the cyclists have to break away at some point. Bruges plays exactly the same way with these majorities. It's best to keep up with the pack and bide your time until a fortuitous card draw, or a windfall of guilders, or whatever circumstances allow you to pull ahead. But because of this, it may be necessary to alter your strategy based on what the other players are doing. If I see another player building canals like mad, I might need to drop my house-and-character strategy and catch up in canals, either to deprive the other player of points or to gain them myself. I might not want to pay four guilders to move up the reputation track, but if that's what it takes to stay ahead, I'll do what is necessary, even if it drains my stores so I'm unable to play the character I want this round. This give-and-take aspect is fascinating. Twelve points is at stake, so it's worth it to change courses as fate and opportunity direct.

Everything in Bruges hinges on colors--card color, worker colors, dice colors.
The game is very much color coordinated, as you can see here.
The characters in Bruges have interesting effects that fall into four camps: one-off effects (happen when played), when-activated effects (triggered on players' card play turns with workers), perpetual effects (happen when a game situation triggers them), and scoring effects (grant points at the end of the game). These effects work well together, and they encourage players to carefully consider their cards. Again, the bummer is that players cannot always take advantage of the characters they want to use--four actions per card phase, which must be taken--but again, the game is in hand management. And it can be a bummer that another player draws an awesome character, but most character abilities are duplicated in other colors, and chances are you'll draw a character that's awesome at some point too. Player luck seems to even itself out enough in the game so that player skill in dealing with that luck is at the center. Players can't always take the move that is immediately beneficial; they must plan ahead (as far as such planning is possible). It can at times feel like Bruges is conspiring against you, but the game is won by players putting themselves in a position to make the awesome play when it falls into their laps.

Just in case you thought Stefan Feld couldn't use dice in another way,
here he goes again. This bit is brilliant.
Speaking of which, the game includes a brilliant use of dice. The dice are rolled at the beginning of each round, and they essentially determine the worth of colors for certain purposes during the round. But dice are rolled after the players draw cards. In other words, players can't plan their hands based on what is rolled; they have to build the most balanced hand they can based on the limited information available to them.

Back to the dice. Low numbers are good for advancing on the reputation track, but they also make money a scarcer commodity (meaning you might not want to). On the other hand, high numbers are bad (in that they hand out threat markers), but they also grant the prospect of a big pay day. Of course, if you succumb to the temptation of taking coins from the disaster-dealing dice every turn, those threats will pile up and potentially cause trouble in the long run. There is, after all, no guarantee you will draw the color card you need to combat a threat next round, or even the round after that. So there's almost an element of push-your-luck in Bruges: how much are you willing to risk using a color card one way against the possibility of that color not being available to you again? The dice add a brilliant extra layer to the considerations of how players should use their cards.

Canals: one of the many ways to score points in Bruges. Note that green
can build no more canals unless they draw a blue card. C'mon, blue!
The main criticism I have of Bruges is that the ways to score prestige points are not very interesting. Players receive points at the end of the game for their canals, their houses, their reputation, their characters. But really, it's just whatever stuff you've collected. (This is often referred to as a "point salad" approach.) However, this is another way in which Bruges follows Agricola. Agricola is much the same way: you get points for playing the game well, but the scoring itself is boring. During the game, you're focused on the tasks that you'd imagine make for good farming. The score isn't foremost in your mind; it's secondary, and it makes sense. The score is just a way to evaluate the game and choose a winner. I see the prestige in Bruges being the same way. The gameplay is interesting, but I'm more trying to find a cool combo or a clever way to triumph over randomness than to earn points. It makes sense that you'd be rewarded with prestige for the good things you do for the city, and while it's not immediately apparent the best way to do them, you know you'll receive some reward in the end. The scoring here is not as exciting as, say, in a Reiner Knizia game (where the way to score points is the game), but it makes sense, and the Interesting Decisions in the game make up for any lack in this area.

What you get in the box.
The components in Bruges are very well done. The cardstock is excellent, and the cards are large enough to be comfortable to play with. (They're the larger Euro-sized cards, as in Dominion.) Even with the larger cards, Bruges doesn't take up too much table space since the board is fairly small. The artwork is great, the tokens are thick, and the wooden components are nice to hold (though the workers are tiny--then again, in Bruges, they're really just another currency, so that's fine). It's very easy to tell which color is which, and the card layout is helpful, each card having reminders of what actions are available. Two double-sided player aid cards are included for each player, and there's even a game setup card, which reminds players what they receive at the start of the game. Ample bags are included, and there are completely superfluous card-pile holders that make the game extra cool to look at. The start player marker stands up (as in Stone Age's man in the chair). The one quibble I have is that it was not immediately apparent that cards use either the 3 guilder or 1 guilder symbol. Yes, it's clear if you look at them side by side, but if you hold only one type, you might not know what you've got. This isn't a huge deal; it's just something to be aware of (and even the rules address it).

These cardholders are superfluous, but I love them.
Bruges is a game I enjoy quite a bit. I like the tactical nature of it, the feeling of always being under the gun and at the mercy of chance, of persevering under trial and emerging victorious. This is definitely in the lighter camp of Stefan Feld games--think Speicherstadt and Rialto (and I like Bruges best of these)--but I don't think it's worse for that, especially since it fits well within a lunch hour. Some players will be disappointed by the random elements in Bruges, and it's true that they can be frustrating, but if players take them in stride, the game isn't overly punishing. Bruges is mechanically one of the more exciting games I've played this year, and it's one I'm eager to keep playing.

Game has lots of good decision points and nice tension
Utilizes the "cards with multiple uses" mechanism to great effect
Interesting player interactions
Surprisingly quick, given the options that players have
The look and components are top notch

Game has many random elements, which hampers long-term planning
Not always clear the best way to score points

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing us with a review copy of Bruges.


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  1. Thanks for the review. I'm looking to pick up my first Feld title, but I think I'll be going with Rialto.

    1. I like Rialto and Bruges both quite a bit. Rialto is simpler to learn, I think. In either case, enjoy!


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