Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Visit to Bruxelles

I recently had a chance to try out a new board game from a new designer, Etienne Espreman's Bruxelles 1893. It's a truly strong entry from a first timer, a game that kept revealing new layers as play progressed. Players take the role of late 19th century architects, competing to create buildings in the Art Nouveau style. They do this in a worker placement structure set on a highly modular board.

It's the board that's the truly clever achievement of the game, a gift that keeps on giving. 25 spaces are arrayed in a 5x5 grid. There are five actions (each of a different color), and each row offers one instance of all five. But the rows are printed on separate, double-sided boards, allowing for a large number of random configurations.

Players place their workers onto the board to gather building materials, construct buildings, buy and sell works of art, and recruit associates to help their cause. But there's oh so much more going on on this board. First, the buildings the players create actually occupy spaces on the board. Whenever an opponent uses the space occupied by a building you've created, you get to "piggyback" on his action with a special action of your own. What you get depends on the type of action space it is.

Placement of workers matters too, beyond the actions being taken. Players must place each worker with an amount of money of their choice. At the end of each round, the player who has placed the most money in a column receives a special bonus card to give him a leg up in the game. And more, intersections matter too. If all four placement spaces around an intersection are occupied during a round, then the player with the most workers there (regardless of the amount of money spent) scores victory points.

In short, there are at least four ways in which the placement of your workers matters -- you getting the action you want to take being just one of them.

As is often the case in German board games, the "start player" of a round is a position you must jockey for. Here, it has even more significance, because players don't get to use the entirety of the 5x5 grid in every round. A series of cards, one per round, indicates two possible intersections on the board where an "outside corner" marker is placed by the start player. Only the actions within that placement are available in the round. Thus, some rounds offer more of one action than another, offer some players more opportunities to have their buildings used than others, and make the bonus cards in certain columns just plain ineligible to contend for.

If it sounds complex, well, frankly it was for the first round or two. But in truth your available options are not that hard to explain or understand. It's the ramifications of those options that leave you pondering. And although I only have one playthrough of the game under my belt so far, it was a truly fun one with a very encouraging finish. I snatched the win with an emphasis on building as much as I could, but the second place player was just a single point behind me and didn't build a single building all game long; her entirely different approach to the game revolved around buying and selling art.

With only one play, it's probably premature to praise the game too much. But the fact is, I can't wait to play again. And as of right now, I'd call the game an A- at least. It's deep strategy, but great fun, and I recommend it highly to German board game enthusiasts.

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