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.
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!
- Edge of the board scoring track.
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.
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?”.
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.
*Probably. I didn’t research this.