Strange Brew

hoser

Not every game reinvents the wheel. Some games instead go to pains to sand down their felloes, shore up their spokes, and slap on a rubber tire in place of a steel band.

Those are all the wheel terms I know, and they all have to do with wagon wheels. But the metaphor is sound. Brew, designed by Stevo Torres, isn’t here to do something new. It’s here to do something old with the assurance of careful iteration.

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Brews! Beasts! Bforests!

The two keys to understanding Brew are things I’d heard before ever laying eyes on it. One, it’s pretty. Two, it’s mean.

The first part is certainly true. The entire package has been assembled with a keen sense for what a board game should look like on the table. I’m not talking about art, although of course there’s plenty of that, and of course it’s lovely to look at. Rather, I’m speaking about that particular crispness that seems to pop from the table, the legibility of the game’s parts, the way the creatures and the potions and the forests are color-coded to indicate their uses. The way the dice stand out from the forest cards, how they stack, the recessed portions that complete their symbols. The only quibble is that the dice tend to obscure the symbols of the forest cards. And that’s the sort of complaint that takes some digging.

Brew’s meanness is the far more interesting part. In part because it’s… well, it’s not “mean,” exactly. Not the way you might think. But to explain how exactly Brew pits its players against one another, we need to go back to the beginning.

also levers

Brew delights in passing out gears.

I’m always hesitant to talk about this sort of game’s setting. The fluff includes a few sentences about intermingling seasons and days and nights that don’t proceed in their proper order. Brew doesn’t disregard this set dressing entirely; the seasons of the forests and the creatures matter for scoring and a few abilities, and the main board flips between day and night between rounds. Sure, it’s a mnemonic, meant to contextualize its graduation from resources to potions to points, but it’s a sound one.

Rather, the issue is that Brew isn’t really about the changing seasons or taming creatures or brewing potions. It’s about an ironclad sense of tempo. One die, one brewed potion, and one potion down the hatch: those are the three things you can do on a turn, and only the first is mandatory. These restrictions are essential. Take, for example, the potions. Brew mostly revolves around placing dice. In the forest to gather resources and tame creatures, or in town, to, well, gather more resources. These dice are rolled at the start of each round, and it isn’t uncommon to need a different face than the ones you rolled. That’s where the simpler potions come in. Rerolls, choosing your die’s face, that sort of thing. The essentials of any dice game.

But that’s not all the dice are good for. Everybody has two types. Four of your dice forage for resources. The other two are elemental. The latter type tends to be more confrontational than you might be expecting. If your die shows fire, that means you can place it atop an opponent’s die to negate its presence in a forest. Water earns extra resources. And wind lets you pick up one of your foraging dice to place it again.

These powers matter because the lion’s share of points don’t come from potions, although it’s possible to earn a pretty penny from the titular brewing. Instead, most points are tied to control of those forests. At the end of each round, you check to see who controls each site. With how few spaces there are in each forest, this is often the difference between one and two dice. Control is tight, with very little room to wiggle. If somebody burns you at the last moment, it can represent a significant swing of points.

Remember when Dragon Age had "poultices" instead of potions, and you drank them instead of applying them to your skin? That bugged me.

Potions are one of many ingredients in this, um, brew.

This is the key to unlocking Brew. Potions are how you squirm out of tight spots or trap somebody in a corner. Removing elemental dice, swapping dice, moving a die from one spot to another — these are powerful effects, and they’re based on the potions you brew across the game. They’re so powerful, in fact, that it would break the game if it were possible to save your stockpile for the last placement before forests are awarded. Imagine how little every previous placement would matter if you could effectively jumble the board like a Boggle container at the last second. Hence the game’s ironclad pacing. One die. One brewed potion. One potion down the hatch. By forcing players to spread their best powers across multiple rounds, Torres takes a game that might have been about wacky abilities and instead makes it about squeezing every drop from each turn.

In the process, it also becomes “mean.” Not mean in the sense that you’re attacking your friends or stealing resources. Nothing so direct. It’s catty. Someone will carefully secure a forest with half of their dice pool. Except, whoops, one inopportune fire later, plus a potion that swaps one die for another player’s, and their forage dice are tied with neutral elemental dice rather than dominating the woodland. So sad.

In one play, I was ahead on points, so I made it my goal in life to disrupt, disrupt, disrupt. Often, a single placement or chugged potion could screw up two opponents’ plans. Before long, the table had transformed into a bucket of crabs. Everybody was moaning and cursing and vowing revenge with bitterer vinegar than we’d get from a more directly confrontational game.

Forest fires, on the other hand, are weirdly easy to contain.

Controlling forests is rarely easy.

And that’s a very, very good sign.

The best moments in Brew are those that present three powers, except you only have two more dice to place, and both powers would be best triggered on your final placement. Everything matters. Nothing goes missing. Not the game’s creatures and their bonuses. Not the potions and their capacity to disrupt or repair. And certainly not the struggles for dominance across the game’s forests. Ironically, this is partially achieved through the randomness of the dice, which is neither as chancy as I feared nor as inconsequential as it might have been. More worker placement games would benefit from giving some thought to making their workers this unsure, this prone to disruption, this important. The same extends to Brew as a whole.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on August 17, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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