Three Ring Circus: Bruges

 Board and Card Games, Reviews  Comments Off on Three Ring Circus: Bruges
Oct 182016
 

Three Ring Circus: Bruges

Bruges is a card game from ace Euro game designer Stefan Feld. It will keep 2 to 4 players occupied for around an hour by placing you at the heart of 15th Century Bruges, in a battle for victory points.  This is done through various types of building; houses, canals, reputations and employment of the widest range of people ever seen in a game*

I think I visited Bruges as a child, clearly, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. For me Belgium was all about two things; my dad driving our Chrysler Avenger on the Spa race track, (the straight is a public road), and eating frites with mayonnaise at the roadside.  Any country that serves quality chips from the verge is tilting at greatness and I salute them for it.

Bruges

Also tilting at greatness is this game. It has all the hallmarks of a good European strategy game:

  • Colourful board, delightfully depicting a city in forced perspective.
  • Cardboard tokens for money and resources.
  • Wooden meeples in two sizes!
  • Cards.
  • Edge of the board scoring track.
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Bruges at the end of a fine game.

The only thing lacking is wooden cubes, but I still give this 5/6 on the Euro-conformity(™) scale with a bonus point for including two deck shoes. Overall the quality of the components is excellent.  My only quibble is with the colour choices. The games uses five colours; blue, red, brown, yellow and purple. In low light I find the brown and yellow, red and purple hard to distinguish. Knowing what the colours are is essential to this game and I would think this is a serious impediment if you are colour blind.

Setup

Getting everything organised is a little bit involved and falls into the sort of time range that allows a friend to make you a cup of tea, and possibly bring a slice of cake too.  There are money, threat, canal and fountain tokens to deal with, as well as some meeples.  We’ve speeded the process up by separately bagging up everything that each player needs.  Finally the huge stack of 165 cards is sorted into 5 stacks. Stacks equal to the number of players are used and divided equally between the two deck shoes.  

The play is the thing.

On the face of it, playing Bruges is straightforward enough.  The turns go like this:

  • Draw cards from the two decks until you have five.
  • The start player rolls the dice.
  • Everyone plays a card from their hand in turn.  This continues until each player has played four cards.
  • Check for majorities on reputation, canals and people employed.
  • Start player token moves clockwise and back to the card draw.
  • Carry on until one of the card stacks are depleted.  This is the final round.

So far so good, but the devil is in the detail.  This game immediately throws two hurdles at you, “What do I do?” and “What is the smart thing to do?”.  

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The decisions start early and easy. Drawing face down cards split between two shoes. There are five different colours of cards and at the early stages the colours aren’t too important. As the game goes on you will have formed a plan and those colours become more important. Ultimately you will be silently cursing the deck for not coughing up a yellow when you need it most.

The dice roll is simple enough: 1 & 2s are summed and this is the cost of moving up the reputation track.  5 & 6s rolled, generate threat markers matching the dice colour ,and are distributed. Get three threat markers of the same sort and you suffer the various consequences.

The real decisions come in your hand of 5 cards. Each card has a unique power when hired and housed, but they also can be used in 5 other ways:

Building a canal.

Exchanging for money.

Exchanging for workers.

Building a house.

Removing a threat token.

These actions are all colour coded too. For example, discarding a card for money ,gains you the cash amount equal to the pips showing on the dice that matches your card colou1gbr, while building a canal needs a card matching that stretch.  

The whole game is about working out the most effective use of your hand to pull in victory points.  Typically our two player games see us finishing grouped around 55 points mark and usually not too far apart.  A few points dropped can definitely make the difference between winning and losing.

When I start playing I generally have some sort of strategy formed by my starting hand of cards.  It could be building up a large pool of citizens in my tableau or going all out for canal building to pull in the bonuses for completing its full five stages.  This doesn’t often last long as I will be reacting to what cards come into my hand and the threats that build up in the game.   

Each hand becomes a benzedrine fuelled spider’s web,  (http://www.trinity.edu/jdunn/spiderdrugs.htm) of possibilities and layering and betrayal.  Five cards, four to use, six possible actions and then the order of play make for many choices.   

Playing with Three

Until recently Bruges has been almost always a two player game. This is something it excels at, but it plays well with three and four too. Turns come around quickly with the occasional bogging down when all those possibilities overwhelm you.

How easy is it to teach the game?

For a long time I was scared of teaching this game. When I tried it with a few friends it turned out to be not as hard as I thought.  Once the card actions are explained there isn’t too much else to cover. Less experienced gamers might well need a assisting through the first round.

Can complexity be scaled?

No, you’re in at the deep end here.  

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

We’ve not considered handicapping. Scoring mainly takes place at the end and it just doesn’t feel right to do so.

How likely is your child to flip the table halfway through?

There could be table flipping, but it’s pretty unlikely given scoring happens at the end.  I struggled to convince my son to play Bruges. He was adamant that he wasn’t going to try it and in the end it was playing another Stefan Feld game, Rialto, that persuaded him.  

What do I think?

I have owned Bruges for a couple of years now and it sits very comfortably in my top five games.  It seems to have everything; great board and card art, incredible variety and plentiful decisions to make. Definitely one to try.

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*Probably.  I didn’t research this.

About Neil Robinson

Some say Neil spends too much time thinking about board games. I disagree. What is true, is that I moved to the coldest and wettest part of England, guaranteeing plenty of chances to play games with my family.

The Island of Mystery — A Review of La Isla

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May 072015
 

You are leading a team of naturalists on the mysterious island of La Isla. The island is so mysterious that, apparently, it is named after itself. What is truly mysterious though is that a whole host of rare animals thought to be extinct have found refuge on this tiny island. Rather than leave well enough alone, your goal is to locate and capture as many as possible in order to win the prestige of the scientific community, the wonderment of the world, and the adoration of your daughter who desperately wants a pet dodo bird. Who’s gonna miss just one?

The Basics:

Designer – Stefan Feld
Publisher – Ravensburger
Number of Players – 2-4
Ages – 10 and up
Playing Time – 60 minutes
Mechanic – Hand Management, Area Enclosure, Modular Board

The island in La Isla with a few explorers placed. Image from Meeples Magazine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The island in La Isla with a few explorers placed. Image from Meeples Magazine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Rules:

Lets assemble an island! The circular board is modular and you will put together the 10 peripheral pieces of the island around a center piece. Then place an animal token randomly on every empty green area on the island. These areas are surrounded with numbers (2,3, or 4) which are associated with the number of colored areas with different icons (hats, knapsacks, tents, canteens…). The purpose of the game is to capture animals by surrounding them with your explorers. When each colored area surrounding an animal contains one of your explorers, you successfully capture that animal.

Getting explorers on the island is a bit trickier. Each round, the players will all take three cards. The cards each have three potential uses — the top of the card provides a special action, the lower left provides a resource, and the lower right provides an animal. The cards are then added, face down, below the A, B, and D spaces of their cardholder. Placement depends on what aspect of the card you wish to be used. The card actions are then done simultaneously.

Card holder in La Isla showing the A, B, C, and D phases. Image from Meople's Magazine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Card holder in La Isla showing the A, B, C, and D phases. Image from Meople’s Magazine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

a) This allows you to use the special action on the top of the card. Each player can have three special actions at any one time. If there is an open slot, then the card in A goes there. If there is no open slot, then the card has to cover another card to become active.

b) The card in B is using the resource and the card is discarded and the player can take one resource as shown on the card.

c) No card in slot C! Everyone, in turn order, may place one explorer on the island or take a resource from the supply. Explorers are placed on the colored areas on the island and a space can be occupied by more than one explorers (science is friendly that way…). If a player is out of explorers then they may move one already on the island. There is a cost though! Players need to pay two resources of the same color as the space. If a player successfully surrounded an animal then remove the token and the player scores (2, 3, or 4) points.

d) The card in D is using the animal icon. The card is discarded and the animal’s purple marker is moved up one space on the game board. The player then scores points for each of the animals they have captured.

This play continues until, depending on the number of players, a combined value of animals on the game board is met. Then score an additional ten points for each complete set of animals and apply the appropriate multiplier for each animal and one point for each remaining resource cube.

The Review:

For a Feld design, this is a light game. It is simple to explain and set up and the rules are quickly understood. All this without horribly limiting your decisions in the game. There are quite a few. I especially like when cards have multiple uses so the tactical element of this game is increased. Players need to determine the most optimal play of the cards they have. Which special abilities to keep (or cover up), which resources to grab, and what animal to move up in scoring. But not too much. You never feel overwhelmed with the amount of choices.

The strategic element will appeal to experienced players. The tactical to new ones. I tend to prefer tactical games but the strategic elements of Las Isla didn’t kill me. The placement of the explorers on the board. Which to move. Anticipating which areas are going to be of interest to the other players. All this provides a nice approachable strategic environment.

I love a good “inspansion.” La Isla allows for extra cards for the experienced gamer versus a simple, base set for a beginner. But basically, if you have ever played a modern board game or a game designed by Feld, include the cards. Playing with newcomers, keep them out of the first game or two.

There isn’t much player interaction. However, with the jockeying around for position on the board and the ability to snag an animal from other players. For a family game, there is a pleasant amount of interaction but I wanted a bit more. The ability to block other players from spots on the island would have been more my speed. The game lends itself to be more of an optimization game. Which is fine if that is your thing. No judgment here.

The components are lacking. The card holders are flimsy and I doubt that they would stand up to the use you would expect in a library. The plastic explorer minis were not that compelling and I ended up replaced mine with standard wooden meeples.

Animal track in La Isla. Image from Meople's Magazine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Animal track in La Isla. Image from Meople’s Magazine (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Rub:

La Isla is a pleasantly simple, quick to learn and play, family board game. While I tend not to get too excited over Stefan Feld games, this one is has just enough theme to make it worth my while. After several plays with a variety of ages and levels of experience, the game tends to be a hit. Their is very little investment in learning a large rule set or deep strategy. The set up is fast and people can get a feel for the flow of the game within one round. Other games from Feld may be just as simple (such as Rialto) and accessible but the light veneer of adventure and exploration makes this one well worth the play. If you have emerging gamers who are interested in exploring deeper games with a tinge of math and calculation then they just may like the depth of strategy that many La Isla games offers. Unlike many other games that tend to solitaire, there is a tad more competition than I expected. Players will they to jockey for position, manipulate the animal market, and find just the right special actions to move their little scientific engine forward. Good stuff. I may become a Friend of Feld yet…

About John Pappas

I'm John ~ a short, mustachioed Library Director of a small branch library outside of Philly. I'm a father, geek, librarian and zen practitioner. I wear glasses, play board games and tend to read pretty much anything that comes across my desk. I organize and host three gaming groups at my library ~ The Golden Gamers (65+), Tabletop Gaming at the Library, and a Game Design Guild. The name of this column "Roll for Fire" comes from my love of Flash Point: Fire Rescue [ and cooperative games in general] and the desire I have to watch it all burn down.