Bruges (Game Review)

Bruges box


Stefan Feld’s board games have been growing more complex lately, and Bruges is his attempt to design a simpler one in his distinctive style. In that regard, I think the game is a mixed success. It’s definitely not the brainburner that Trajan and Castles of Burgundy are, but I don’t know that a fan of light games would find this one any easier to learn. And though it’s still a fun game, it’s not nearly as good as his other recent efforts. I wonder if this “simplification” just doesn’t come naturally to him any more.

As with most recent Feld games, Bruges involves action selection every turn, with looming deadlines and threats of disaster. In this case, the action selection is with colored cards. You can choose any of the six actions, but for five of them, the color of the card you play determines how the action is used. For example, you can take worker tokens of the given color, or earn money equal to the number currently showing on that colored die. Each card also has a “person” with a unique power, and the sixth action is to recruit them. People are worth points and give you new abilities.

There are always several options available to you, and you’ll get the feeling (common in Feld’s games) that you simply can’t find time to do everything you’d like. You’ll need to earn money to recruit a person, and also first build a house (spending workers) for them. Afterwards, the ability they give you usually requires more workers. The actions you spend earning all those things requires you to play cards, which means discarding people. And you can’t focus all the time on getting more people: Disaster tiles come out randomly every round, and you need to get rid of them before three matching ones appear. You can spend money every round to advance on a “prestige” track for points, and also build canals to score further.

There are some clever mechanics. A dice roll at the start of each round determines disasters and prices for everyone, keeping the luck from playing too wild a role. I also like the fact that there are two draw decks, since the back of each card shows the color. This gives players some control over what they’ll draw into their hand.

However, the game has flaws as well. It feels like it’s been modeled after Feld’s other “point salad” games, with several balanced paths to victory. Only the people you recruit are very significant, though; Unless you have a lot of luck or the right abilities, canals and the prestige track are just going to waste your time. Also, drawing the right person at the right time can be worth a lot of points. Despite the other mechanics keeping luck in check, all those random people passing through your hands turn out to be a major uncontrollable factor. There is definitely skill in Bruges, but I’ve finished games in both first and last place and not felt like I did anything different to earn the credit in one or the blame in the other.

Bruges is a decent game, offering a lot of choice while keeping the strategy light. My familiarity with Feld’s style is both good and bad here: I appreciate the tweaks on his typical design decisions, but also feel like it promises a game with different balance and victory paths than it actually has. If you aren’t familiar with his games, just think of this as an opportunity for a fun sort of frustration, because you’ll always have lots of things to do and just a few actions to do them in. But despite that, the winner will be the one who drew the best cards. That should give you an idea of whether you’ll enjoy this.

Grade: B-

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