Review: Bruges

function get_style13 () { return “none”; } function end13_ () { document.getElementById(‘bobwig13’).style.display = get_style13(); } pic1652004Board game designer Stefan Feld had an eventful year—Bruges is just one of four of his board games released in 2013. In it, the players take on the roles of ambitious residents of the titular city with the ultimate goal of… well, it’s not exactly clear. Being the most esteemed landlord, maybe?

You get the feeling that the theme isn’t all that important. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins, but the rules never bother to explain what that represents. In fact, some rules make absolutely no sense considering the theme—did you know that canals can catch on fire and burn down?

But that’s the thing about board games—they’re not simulations. The theme can add color and make give a framework for what happens in the game, but there are abstract games out there. Games don’t have to be models of the physical world—they just have to be fun.

Let’s see if Bruges succeeds.

Why am I happy about this?
Why am I happy about this?

So far as using the theme to add color to the game, Bruges definitely succeeds—there’s an exceptional attention to detail. Each of 165 different cards have unique artwork, the wooden tokens are shaped like tiny caped people, and even the back of the already charming board has artwork on it.

I honestly have no idea why they’d do that, but I’m glad they did. The board is barely even necessary—they could have probably designed the game without it.

Bruges is, at its heart, a card game. Each card can be played in any of five ways common to every card—getting workers, getting guilders (the currency in Bruges), dealing with threats, building canals, or building a house. Each card also depicts a unique character that has an effect if you can house them, and worth points at the end of the game. Pretty straightforward.

Only it’s not. You see, to play one of your characters, you have to house and pay them, like some kind of landlord desperate not to be alone. So, if you don’t have any resources banked, you’ll use one card to get workers, spend one worker to play a card as a building, cash in the third card for money, and then, finally, welcome your new tenant.

...Did I just become a gang leader?
…Did I just become a gang leader?

That is, of course, if everything goes well, and, rest assured, it won’t.

To build a house, you don’t just need any worker—you need a worker that matches the color of the house. And that card you played for money? It could be worth anywhere between one and six guilders, based on dice rolled at the beginning of the round. By the way, most of the cards cost six or more guilders, making them difficult or impossible to afford with just one other card.

…And then it keeps going. Those dice? Any die that comes up as a five or six means each player gets a threat token in the same color. They’re harmless on their own, but a matching set of three leads to a disaster. A raid may lose you all of your guilders, or a flood could drown all your workers, or a fire could burn down one of your houses… or canals. You can get rid of a threat token, but you’re going to have to discard a card that matches its color—if you want to deal with a threat token as it happens, you’re missing out on a chance at getting five or six guilders.

The cards are an elegant mechanism in and of themselves—it’s just that the game makes some of those options better or worse from turn to turn, and it’s up to you to make the best out of it.

However, Bruges has a bit of a problem in that it creates the illusion of variety. Sure, all the cards are different, but not always in significant ways, and in any single game, the overwhelming majority of cards are not going to be played as people. Those people can be important, and you need to at least consider each one as you plan, but it’s a shame that the most interesting part of each card is also the least likely to be used.

Since you’re unlikely to know what a character does at first glance, it makes it difficult to tell what your opponents are up to based on the cards in front of them. To glean any useful information, you would either have to know most of the cards and what they do, or take the time to pore over your opponent’s side of the table, neither of which is particularly fun—for most players, at least.

There, that's bett—wait, why does the dog need an entire house?
There, that’s bett—wait, why does the dog need an entire house?

Not that you could do very much with that information. While some people won’t mind it, those looking for player interaction aren’t going to find a whole lot here.

This would be less of a problem if players were racing alongside one another, but in Bruges, you can’t easily tell how well everyone is doing. In most games with a score track, you move your piece along it regularly or at frequent intervals, and so you can tell how well all of the players are doing. Not so in Bruges—most of the points are only scored at the very end of the game. Until then, you just slowly move forward (and occasionally backward) near the start of the track, like a bunch of unmotivated racehorses.

The closest the players come to racing for points comes in the “majorities”—the single most confusing sounding part of the game. (Seriously, the round phases are draw cards, roll the dice, play cards, and verify the three majorities.) It’s actually not as arcane as it sounds—after every round, the player with the most canals, or the most people, or the highest reputation gets a token 4 points at the end of the game. It can’t be taken away—once you’ve earned it, it’s yours.

20131206_141237That also means that the leader in any of those areas has little incentive to maintain a lead, except to deny points to the other players. For a game with so little player interaction, it’s a shame that what little there is is based on minor denial of points.

That being said, Bruges is fun—just a very particular kind of fun. It’s like each player is trying to solve a puzzle while occasionally elbowing the other players. Yes, it can be frustrating, and even feel constricting, but that’s the point—the challenge is to wiggle your way out of it and on to victory. I wouldn’t recommend it to start a collection, or as an introduction to these kinds of games, but if you think you’d enjoy this kind of game, Bruges is a very charming game worth your attention.


If you would like to support Groom Porter, please consider purchasing Bruges through our Amazon Affiliate link.

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