Reviewed by: Greg J. Schloesser
(Z-Man Games/Pearl Games, 2-5 players, ages 13 and up; 90-120 minutes; $64.99)
Brussels in the late 19th century was an exciting place, as the city was a hub for an artistic and architectural revolution. The “Art Nouveau” style was born here, and many outstanding buildings were constructed and are still a marvel today. It was apparently quite the scene and attracted architects and artists from around the world.
Bruxelles 1893 is a design by Etienne Espreman that seeks to recreate that exciting time. Players assume the role of famous architects who enlist the aid of various assistants in the quest to construct fancy buildings and outfit them with stunning works of art. In gamer terms, it is primarily a worker placement affair, but with some novel twists and clever mechanisms that help set it apart from others in this burgeoning facet of gaming.
There are two main boards wherein most of the action occurs: the city board and the modular Art Nouveau board, the latter being comprised of five panels, each depicting five spaces upon which workers can be placed and buildings erected. These can be arranged in various ways to create a different board layout each time the game is played.
Each player receives an architect board depicting an historical architect of that era. The board is primarily a repository for the player’s six buildings, but also includes an architect track that records the points a player will earn for each building constructed, as well as a cryptic turn sequence and action display that is heavy with iconography. Players begin with a few Belgian francs and five assistant pawns. They are able to recruit up to two more during the course of the game.
Each turn a Stock Exchange card is revealed which determines the area of the Art Nouveau board that is in play for the current turn. Based on this card, the start player will have a choice, which can range from 9 – 16 spaces. This decision can be important, as it will determine which spaces are available during that turn. The card also determines the amount of money a player can acquire when visiting the stock exchange on the city board.
Once the area of the board is determined, players alternate placing their assistants onto spaces on the two boards. Each space on the Art Nouveau board can only accommodate one assistant while spaces on the city board can house multiple assistants. The Art Nouveau board has five different types of spaces and, depending upon the section of the board that is active, there are often multiple of each type available.
When placing an assistant onto the Art Nouveau board, the player must also place one or more coins. These coins will be used to determine the winner of the bonus cards that are at the bottom of each column. More on this a bit. For now, let us look at the various actions available on this board.
Workshop. The player creates a work of art, taking one at random. If a player has acquired one or more exhibition tiles — which are gained if a player is the first to pass — he may select multiple art tiles and select the one desired. Art can later be sold at the art market but, while in a player’s possession, can increase his turn income or earn victory points at game’s end.
Sale Action. The player may sell one of his works of art. However, he cannot sell art if the same type (color) is present on one of the two spaces above the art market. Before selling, the player may influence the price based on the number of works of art in his possession. Thus, the player will have greater control over the amount earned if he possesses more art. The player earns money and/or victory points when selling art. He then places his work of art in one of the two spaces above the market, removing a piece that is already there, if necessary.
Royal Theater. The player may hire one of the four public figures available on the city board. Their cost ranges from 1 – 4 francs. At hire, the player may use the public figure’s special ability which can include earning victory points or money, increasing one’s status on the various tracks, acquiring a new assistant, exchanging resources, etc. The player must then make a decision: discard the card or keep it. Keeping it allows the player to once again use the ability on future turns, provided he activates it by visiting the Grand Plaza on the city board. However, the player must pay the player’s salary at the end of the game or lose five victory points. It is usually wise to employ a few public figures, but not too many, lest the cost prove to be prohibitive.
Materials. The player takes two material cubes. There are three different colored cubes representing wood, stone and iron, and a different mix is needed to construct buildings.
Construction. The player may construct one of his six buildings. The first two buildings cost two resources but the cost increases to up to four resources for the final two buildings. The final two buildings, however, do earn the player five victory points apiece. The type of resources required to construct a building is based on the “Compass”, a clock-like gadget located on the city board. The resources needed are indicated by the location of the two clock hands and this can be a combination of materials and/or money. After each construction, the player may move one of the hands, thereby changing the required resources. This can certainly interfere with opponents’ plans so it is a rather nasty aspect of the game.
Buildings are placed onto the Art Nouveau board but cannot cover a space currently occupied by another building or an assistant. The space remains active but, when an opponent places an assistant on a space occupied by a building, the owner of that building gets a bonus based on the type of space it occupies. This can be a resource cube, victory points, art, etc.
Buildings earn five victory points when constructed if a player did not use any wild resource cubes. They also earn victory points at game’s end based on the location of the marker on the player’s architect track. Points range from 3 – 10 points per building so a building strategy must be accompanied by efforts to increase one’s status on the architect track. This is usually accomplished by winning the cards that are available at the bottom of each column or by employing certain public figures.
In addition to the Art Nouveau board, player may place assistants onto the four spaces on the city board. Unlike the Art Nouveau board however, multiple assistants can be placed on each space. However, there is an increasing cost based on the number of players. With three players, a player must place one more assistant than the previous player placed. With four or five players, the first two players on a location only need one assistant but the next two need two assistants, and the next two will need three assistants and so on. Players must plan accordingly and have a keen sense of timing.
The spaces on the city board grant three “wild” resource cubes, give the player money (based on the current stock exchange card), allow the player to use one or more of his public figures (the number based on his progress on the Royal Palace influence chart) or even allow him to perform one of the actions on the Art Nouveau board. These city spaces are always popular but get quite congested whenever the Art Nouveau board is restricted to just nine spaces on a turn.
The first player to pass — and this can be done even if he has assistants remaining — earns a franc plus one for each different type of art he possesses. Further, he acquires the top exhibition tile which will allow him to have a greater choice when selecting art and also give him two points towards becoming the next turn’s start player. Going first can be a nice advantage so it is not uncommon for players to pass before using all of their assistants. Players who pass later still get income based on their art but do not get the bonus franc or an exhibition tile.
After each of the five turns, bonus cards are earned and a scoring of shield majorities on the Art Nouveau board is conducted. Each column is examined to determine which player placed the most money with their assistants. That player receives the bonus card at the bottom of that column. If two or more players tie for the most money, neither receives the card but all can use the action the card grants. These cards give powers similar to those granted by the public figures. However, players have a choice: keep the card and use it as a victory point multiplier or use it for its power. The powers are usually beneficial but increasing one’s victory points for the four end-game categories is essential. This can be a tough choice.
Turn order can play an important role in winning these bonus cards. As a turn approaches its conclusion, players going later in turn order can assess the amount already bid in a column and place just one more coin there to win the card. That is, of course, there is a space still remaining in that column whereupon an assistant can be played. Bid high and you may frighten away possible competitors…or you may not!
Further, most cards depict “Manneken Pis” icons, and the player possessing the most of these icons at the end of the turn will be the start player for the next turn. A player counts these icons even if he uses the card for its power. [Note: The Manneken Pis is that famous statue in Brussels that depicts a little boy urinating into a fountain. Use of the word “pis” is not common in board games, but it is one that causes boys of all ages to chuckle!]
A shield scoring is now conducted. At the intersection of every four spaces on the Art Nouveau board, there is a shield. If all four spaces surrounding a shield are occupied by assistants, that shield will earn points for the player or players who have the most assistants surrounding it. The number of points earned is based on the player’s influence on the City Hall track, which can be increased by acquiring certain public figures or bonus cards. A player can earn up to four points per shield, which can be significant, especially over time.
Finally there is a nasty little aspect to the game. The player who placed the majority of assistants on the city board loses one of those assistants to the Courthouse space. He must again recruit this assistant if he desires to once again gain his use. This nuance often forces players to pass on placing an additional assistant onto the city board lest they lose his services.
The game continues in this fashion for five turns after which end-game victory points are earned. As mentioned, players must first pay for the public figures in their employ or lose five victory points apiece. It is best to plan for this expenditure a turn or two prior to game’s end. Victory points are earned for constructed buildings (the amount per building based on a player’s progress on the architect track), resources possessed, and holding the Manekin Pis token. Further, each player earns points for the four categories listed on his personal board: money, art, public figures and assistants. The amount earned for each is based on the bonus cards he has placed by the categories during the course of the game. These are the bonus cards won each turn for having the most money in a column on the Art Nouveau board. These points can be significant and gives a player various ways in which to earn points. Concentrating on one or two of these categories is one of the keys to success in Bruxxeles.
Bruxelles 1893 is solidly in the “worker placement” camp, a facet of the hobby that I usually thoroughly enjoy. Apparently many other folks do, too, as there is an avalanche of games using this mechanism. As such, many are becoming familiar and, well, stale. Fortunately, Bruxelles adds enough interesting twists and turns to help set itself apart from the mundane and make it shine.
There are numerous factors to consider each and every turn. There are enough options and viable paths to victory so players are not all traveling the same road. However, these strategies do overlap, so it is rare when one player can pursue his strategy without interference or competition. As with most worker placement games, there is a critical timing element: wait too long to grab a spot and will likely be taken by an opponent. Prioritizing one’s actions is critical, but this carefully planned apple cart can easily be upset by your fellow players. So, adaptation is a requirement.
I appreciate the restricted play area of the Art Nouveau board, meaning every space is not available on every turn. The competition for the bonus cards and shield control can be fierce but is often overlooked by players as they concentrate on the actions they desire to perform. I have been guilty of overlooking these aspects, usually to my detriment. Like most good games, trying to balance all of the aspects necessary for victory can be extremely challenging and daunting.
I also appreciate that you cannot be completely slammed on a turn, having the actions you need most all taken by your opponents. The City board provides spaces wherein you can perform needed actions, albeit at the cost of additional assistants. This eases the pain and frustration of having coveted actions scooped before you have the opportunity to place assistants there.
Scores can be close – extremely close. In one game, three of us tied with 143 points! There are no tie-breakers and I am fine with that. I tend not to enjoy tie-breakers, especially in strategy games. You spend two or more hours playing an intense game, following your strategy, adapting to changing circumstances and attempting to perform better than your opponents. Then, you lose or win the game on some afterthought — most money, player order, etc. — upon which you were not really concentrating. Those tie-breakers usually seem artificial to me.
I readily admit that I am not an “artsy” type of person. While I do appreciate and enjoy some art, I am not an aficionado. My wife — who is a bit of an artist in her own right — can spend hours upon hours in an art museum, gazing at paintings and sculptures. I generally breeze-through these museums in a fraction of the time she spends, offering quick glimpses at most pieces. As such, the theme of Bruxelles 1893 was not made with folks like me in mind. That being said, the theme works and is somewhat different than the usual fare of merchants, noblemen and fantasy creatures. One does not need to be an art connoisseur in order to appreciate the excellent game that is set in this decidedly artistic period. It almost makes me want to study more about the Art Nouveau style. Almost, but not quite!
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Summer 2014 GA Report Articles