|Interaction||Components & Design|
Stefan Feld is performing his favourite balancing act once more: finding the perfect balance between luck and strategy in his games. I can’t think of any other game designer for whom games that involve luck but are still won by strategy are this much of a theme. This time, Stefan has spanned his tightrope across quaint, picturesque Bruges. That’s in Belgium, if you hadn’t heard of it – in which case I also have a movie recommendation for you.
So, Bruges, Belgium, medieval city that received its city charter in 1128, featured in a movie, very beautiful, especially the canals. That’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t tell us much about the game Bruges yet. What did Stefan Feld do with it? He created a game about building the beautiful canals, political advancements and, and that’s the main part of the game, knowing the right people. People are represented by cards in five different colours, but the cards are not the only lucky bit in Bruges, dice in the same five colours are also present, and those two things work together very well to mess up your game.
The dice mess with you by rolling fives or sixes at the beginning of a round: both numbers give a Threat Marker of the same colour as the dice to each player. That is definitely a bad thing as three Threat Markers of the same colour explode violently and do bad things to you. Or even very bad things. Or sometimes even things that are so bad they cost you the game, like losing all your accumulated money that you were going to spend for a big bunch of points. So high numbers are bad, right? Well, so are low numbers, because the more ones and twos there are, the more expensive political advancement is, a scale in front of the town hall where you push your player meeple forward each round you can afford to, for a plain, old victory point reward. And maybe big numbers are not so bad after all, because the first use of the cards (of which there are six (uses, not cards, there are more cards (I’m using too many brackets, the editor is going to dock my pay (oh wait, I’m the editor)))) is to play them for money, taking as many guilders as the value of the die in the card’s colour. So maybe high numbers are good, after all. And already you’re in the middle of a Stefan Feld game: you can’t even decide which dice rolls to be happy about.
And it doesn’t get better with the cards, you’ll positively agonize over them. Yes, in a Feld game agonizing is positive, it means you’re forced to make interesting decisions. It starts with drawing the cards already: a card’s colour is visible on the back, and you have some choice which colours you draw. Drawing happens before the dice roll, so you might want an even spread through all colours to improve your chances to take lots of money. On the other hand, however, you sometimes need the right colour for some of the other actions. When you play the cards – taking turns until each player played four cards in every round of the game – your decisions get harder. Like I said above, you have six options for each card, five of which are always similar. Taking money was one of them. Taking two minples in the card’s colour is another. Minple is short for minion meeple – the German word could be translated as helper or assistant as well, but where’s the fun in that or simply calling them workers? Third, you can play a card to discard a Threat Marker of the same colour, averting the very bad things mentioned earlier. Self-defense is nice, but spending one of your four actions to discard one marker is a painful decision. Fourth, you can build a segment of the famous, beautiful canals for one card and a price between one and five guilders. The canals are another way to score points: for three segments you earn three points, for five segments you win a statue worth more points the earlier you get it. The first one for seven points is a nice boost, the last one with two – well, you might just have wasted a bunch of guilders on that canal. And fifth, you can place a card in your play area face down as a house. That does make perfect sense, the back of the card shows a house, after all.
Once you have a house, you can take the really interesting sixth option with a card: play it as a Person. Each Person needs his or her own house, flat sharing is not an option, but each person has a special ability – and a really nice, unique portrait, too – that will make you glad they’re living in your house. Or not, some abilities sound good on paper but are hard to gain a profit from. Most of these abilities are activated abilities: once per round, you may spend a minple of the right colour to gain it’s benefit. Other cards have an “every time” ability, doing something every time the right die shows a five or six, or every time you build a canal. And there are cards that have an effect the moment you play them and cards that win extra victory points for special conditions at the end of the game.
But the cards are where Bruges falls apart for me, at least a bit. Their power varies widely, from mostly useless to situational to amazing. But that’s not my complaint, their price varies as well, so it makes sense. Spending a whole game without seeing any of the powerful cards is frustrating, but it’s much worse to have one or two of the many cards that need other cards for best benefits, and then never seeing any of those. A good part of the cards lets you take money or victory points based on the number of other cards from one category that you have – noblemen and -women, for example, or artists, craftsmen… a total of eleven different groups of people. Of course the one group you’re looking for is not going to show up in your hand again. And if it does, then the effect of that card has a good chance to be useless to you, so you’re playing it only for the value to the other card. It’s very hard to create synergies between your cards, you’ll be playing most of them only for their base point value. It does get better after some games when you know which cards exist, but you can never expect to find a card you’re waiting for, so planning for anything is hard. You’re playing cards, and if they happen to align in your favour, you pretty much got lucky.
The luck required to find cards that go together is especially unfortunate since cards make up the biggest part of your final score. Political advancement can get you up to twelve points, the three majority markers are worth another twelve if you manage to snag them all, and building all your canals is at most worth 19, if you are quick enough to get the first two statues. Getting, for example, the Poet and two Knowledge cards by round three – perfectly doable if the card gods smile upon you – the Poet alone can give you 10-12 points by the end of the game. Plus the base value of the cards, plus the special abilities of the other cards. You shouldn’t neglect the town hall or the canals, but Bruges is generally won by cards. The only direct player interaction also goes through some, few, cards, and it’s all negative: stealing, destroying, arson and jaywalking. Considering those factors, the cards involve too much luck for my taste, the balancing act did not work out as well as usual.
I don’t want to talk only about the downsides, though. Bruges plays faster and with less waiting time than most of Stefan’s games, and is also lighter in the rules, making it more suitable as a family game. Those things stand out especially in contrast with Bora Bora, another 2013 Feld game that is long and complex, but also more strategic than Bruges. While Bruges is still a solid game and I will keep playing it, it’s not my personal favourite game by Stefan – that honour still goes to Macao – and I would much prefer if the Kennerspiel des Jahres situation was reversed: Bruges on the recommendation list, Bora Bora nominated. For a Kennerspiel, there’s too much praying to Fortuna and not enough to really chew on.