Three Ring Circus: Bruges

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.

Three Ring Circus: Oriental Express

The good people of Germany declared Istanbul their favourite strategy game of 2014 ,(Kennerspiel Des Jahres).  When it comes to matters cardboard, their judgement is pretty sound and so I decided to pick up a copy.

The premise of Istanbul is that you are a merchant, with four trusty assistants, trading your way through the streets of the city.  “Trading, in the Mediterranean! Haven’t I seen that before?” I hear you cry and also your mutters, “Actually Istanbul isn’t even in the Med.  Why is he putting words in my mouth?” 

The box art also promises little.  The standard European marketing ploy of ‘putting a chap on the cover’ is used to full effect here:  a merchant displays his collection of rubies while welcoming you into his world or carpets, fruit and spices.  Despite those cosmetic reservations, Istanbul turns out to be a game of great pace and tension.

He will crush your rubies…

Istanbul

The game is published by Pegasus Spiele in Europe. It plays in around 45 minutes and offers fun for 2 to 5 players.

Contents

The components are all of a good standard: made either of wood or thick cardboard. Oh, and there are the rubies themselves, glowing red plastic chunks, that look good on the table.  Also of note are the rules, which are clear and concise.  There is no insert in the game and I think that is a case of ‘could do better’.

Setup

The board is made of 16 generously sized, (and beautifully illustrated), tiles that are laid out in a 4 x 4 grid to form the city.  There is a little bit of set up involved in placing rubies, hand-barrow parts, (of which more later), and tiles in the mosques and market places, but experienced hands working together will be ready to play in 5 minutes.

The board is lush with colours and components.

Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby

The game is a race to get to 5 rubies.  Some rubies can be bought, others are earned.  Getting them means pounding the streets, and using the mosques, markets and other locations to pick up and deliver your way to success.

You start the game with four assistants and a half sized wheelbarrow to store your wares.

Warehouses allow you load up your barrow to the max with carpets, spices and fruit. Markets convert your goods into cash,  mosques offer power ups in exchange for gifts.  These power ups are really useful, offering a fifth assistant, dice bending powers and the option to buy goods or return an assistant to you.  It’s a first-come cheapest cost situation with the bonus tiles.  Making a grab for these can pay off in the long run and importantly, picking up both tiles from a mosque gets you a bonus ruby.

The carter will enlarge your barrow for cash, (and who wouldn’t want that), while the Palace and Gem Dealer will give you rubies for goods or money.  If you are feeling lucky, a bit of gambling is allowed down at the tea shop and the black market.

My cart runneth over: a wheelbarrow with two extensions fitted.

At the Istanbul police station, you will find the black sheep of your family waiting to be bailed out to act as a bonus assistant who can immediately  make it to anywhere on the board.

Finally, the fountain in the market square allows you to recall all your assistants from where you dropped them off. If you don’t have assistants you can’t take any actions and that is a bad thing.

On your turn you:

  • Move your merchant, with the stack of assistants beneath him, one or two spaces.
  • Drop off an assistant or pick one up.
  • Take the action of the location.

There are a couple of other possibilities:

  • Pay 2 Lira to a player if their merchant is already there.
  • Use the Governor or Smuggler for bonuses if they are on the location.

That is how the game works: simple actions making for simple turns.  The complexity is in how you do it: the routes you plot and the decisions you make.

Playing with Three

I’ve played this game with two, three and four players.  All player counts were fun, but it could be that three is the magic number.  With three there is some interaction and your turn comes around soon enough.  Upping the player count increases the challenge slightly, as more locations are blocked

How easy is it to teach the game?

The basic, ‘move one or two squares and drop off/pick up’ mechanic is supremely simple.  The complexity comes with all the tiles having an action, which need to be explained.  After one game, anyone should be up to speed.

Can complexity be scaled?

The game comes with a suggested starting layout, which should make the game more streamlined.  Once you have gone past that first game, there is a long route and a challenging layout, as well as rules for creating random ones.

For two to four players white assistants can be added.  They can be used by anyone and add a little to the game too.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

This is a tough one.  Giving someone a gem start could well be too much.  Allowing additional starting Lira or another bonus card is probably a better approach.  In fact I think I may well try this in the next game I play.  Edit: My son got a one Lira starting bonus and romped to a win.  He was happy and that makes me happy too.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

We have been close to this twice.  As the game gets towards the finish, it is possible to work out how many turns it is going to take you to reach your final gem and, thus, how likely you are to win.  The game is tight and frustration at losing does not compensate for the exhilarating experience of a close race, (apparently).

Beyond the game

My son and I are great fans of They Might Be Giants, my wife less so.  Repeat playing of Istanbul, (the game), while repeat playing Istanbul, (the song), is inadvisable.  Incidentally, I own another version of the song by Ska Cubana which is good, but not quite good enough.

What do I think?

A lot of games I have been playing lately have very tight finishes, where the difference between winning and losing can be just one turn.  Istanbul is no different. Games finish when a player gains their 5th ruby, but everyone gets to plays out their final round of turns.  This means that last gasp ruby grabs, can leave the player activating the end game staring down the barrel of a tie-break loss.  With a few games under your belt, you soon begin to realise that being short by a Lira or a rug on a turn can make all the difference.

This is the nub of the game: it’s an efficiency race of routes and resources, with multiple paths to victory. You may be only moving one or two squares each time with a single transaction, but in your head, you will be playing multiple turns ahead and calculating cash and goods ins and outs, like a stock controller on a three day caffeine binge.  What will my stock holding be in three turns time?  Can I pick up a ruby and an assistant at the same time?  If I go to the mosque will someone have gone before me and pushed up the cost of the Mosque tiles? I have come to recognise this as the type of play style that works for me.  I’m going to define it as agonising micro decisions.

But, but, and indeed, but:- don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an agonising game.  Its a fun game! Those micro decisions can be made while you are waiting for your turn.  There may be pauses now and again, when the decision tree needs pruning but, in the main, the game will pass like a time lapse movie.

This is a game that hits my family-play-time-sweet-spot because it plays in under an hour.  It doesn’t have complicated rules and doesn’t rely on an optimum player count.  It’s a keeper for me and I recommend it.

Look out for the smuggler by the fountain.

 

A Colonel of Truth in There Somewhere…

I'm pretty sure I don't look anything like this...Name, rank, and service number, eh? Col. Paul Blake, reporting for duty, service number India-Papa-Lima-Alfa-Yankee-Golf-Alfa-Mike-Echo-Sierra. No, I’m not going to be filling the post of “resident Grognard” or anything like that. It’s just that, when one is given an honorary title, one might as well use it – even if it was given as the result of an outdated personnel list.

So, what kind of person is this Colonel Blake fellow, anyway? Why should we care what he has to say?

I’m glad you asked that, hypothetical asker of rhetorical questions. I’ve been a lot of things in my time: Professional clown, juggler, conjurer, origami aficionado, toy designer, game developer, and yes, I was even fortunate enough to hold that lofty title of “Used Video Game Store Sales Associate.” I’ve traveled abroad, seen exotic locations, and helped liquidate the contents of a South Pacific toy store. My life has been everything I could possibly want, and so much more. One time, I even got to ride a moose.

Okay, a little more down-to-earth: I’ve been actively designing, playtesting – and on a few occasions, even publishing – tabletop games for the past fifteen years or so. I don’t really consider myself any particular kind of gamer: I’m equally comfortable sitting down to a 3-hour session of an epic civilization-style game as I am trying out a twenty-minute beer-and-pretzels filler. I like games. Video games, tabletop games, or even abstract conceptual games which only exist in the minds of those who play them.

So, yeah. I’ll be writing about games, game design, game publication, and occasionally Doctor Who. No, it’s not relevant, I just like Doctor Who.

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