Bruges Expanded (Hamburg variant)

Stefan Feld

Publisher: Z-Man Games / Homemade

I initially wanted to lump this write up with the main review but decided the expanded game is different enough that it deserved its own entry. At the point of this writing, my wife and I have replayed 2p Bruges and expanded Bruges several times to compare the two games and jot down our thoughts. Just to be clear, neither one of us think expansions or variants are necessary for most games and we avoid house rules if at all possible. I personally root against getting expansions as I do not feel they are worthwhile. There are exceptions of course.

Bruges is a special case. It is one of my favorite Feld and the recent reprint of Bruges in the form of Hamburg has really sparked a debate about the price of the Kickstarted game, the art direction as well as the tweaked rules. Many players owning Bruges enjoy the art and some have been reluctant to purchase a new copy for multiple reasons. Suffice to say, the previews indicate Hamburg is a fusion of Bruges with Zwin and Pets expansion along with an altered rule set. The previews thus far have given a good glimpse of the rule changes but they are not final. At the time of this writing, the final rules for Hamburg is still unclear.

I own the base game for Bruges and no other expansions…. well I did say I am not a fan of expansions. That said, I was curious about the biggest change in Hamburg: splitting the draw deck in 5 piles based on color. This is such a fundamental change to the game that I decided to recreate some of the previewed changes as seen in Hamburg, but all the while retaining the Bruges flavor. The newly made modules are files are in pdf and you can download it on the BGG files section in Bruges. Since I have no experience with the expansions, my opinions are probably less relevant for those that own the expansions. Some of the “modules” or variants from Hamburg I have designed and played include the split deck, boats (as appeared in Zwin), houses (monastery track in Hamburg), wild dice, VP majority token, expanded reputation track and starting resource cards (Mayor cards?).

So, what’s the preliminary verdict? At least for 2 players, we feel that the expanded Bruges rule set plays better and is more strategic compared to the original rules. It is a welcome change. However, the changes may not be for everyone and whether you enjoy the changes will likely depend on how much you enjoy the tactical aspects of the original game. At least for us in the early days, we are enjoying the changes.

Split deck: By being able to pick and choose your colors, what was once a tactical game becomes more strategic. Setting up a scoring engine becomes a more viable and predictable route if you know you can build houses or pick up workers of a specific color. In fact any action that requires specific colors: getting workers, building houses, building canals, activating boats, triggering card powers become a lot easier to plan for. The end result is that the game morphs from a tactical game where one responds to what is given from the card draw to a game that hinges on planning ahead a few steps to draw the right cards for the right action. In essence, the game has swapped the “fly by my pants and do what I can” action sequence to a “which actions do I want to do this round”. With this change, Bruges now has a vastly different play structure even though fundamentally the game has the same feel.

Boats: This module is found in Zwin and so players who have the expansion may not feel the novelty. For us, the boats are new and really bumps up the canal action. I was fearful that boats would significantly increase the power of canal actions and while it does, not all boats are useful all the time. Some boats are not particularly pertinent for each round and moreover, one may not always have the right workers to trigger the boats. So while boats are powerful, particularly the one that allows movement on the reputation track for 3 guilders, it does not feel overwhelming. One thing I do notice is that the more canals you build, the more expensive it gets and if the reputation track boat turns up late in game, it is much easier to build canals if you haven’t already filled up both tracks. It’s a trade off for sure, but to win the game I don’t think you can ignore canals and boats.

Houses: The other big change is the Monastery track in Hamburg which I have reimagined as the houses track. Instead of a variable number of rounds, the new Bruges now has 8 fixed rounds. Based on the pips on the wild dice, each round, one worker is assigned to a house of a specific color. A roll of 6 results in the worker assigned to the canal. At the end of the game, players earn bonus points for the number of workers in houses or canals based on the corresponding person they have recruited. For example, if every red person recruited in your tableau, if there are three red workers in the houses, then each red worker is worth 3 additional victory points at the end of the game. (Edit-we initially played this incorrectly, assigned the bonus points to the color of the houses built instead of the color of the person recruited) . Scoring bonus points really opens up and encourage recruiting specific types of people of a particular color. In previous games, recruitment was always neglected in favor of canal building or even reputation track advancement. Money is tight, making recruitment of the high value folks quite challenging. The houses module encourages recruitment of people and it does balance out canal scoring a bit. Theoretically a person can score a maximum of 8 bonus points if every round, the same number is rolled on the wild dice. Unlikely, but possible. On the flip side, some guys can also earn 0 bonus points which is fine since each person already comes with victory points. We now love playing the houses track as a way to try and score bonus points for recruitment. I am quite aware that the game is tight scoring-wise and each additional point matters. This is an excellent overall addition and made better once we played it correctly.

Wild dice: I have to say, the addition of the wild dice is just awesome. I do not know why, but just having an additional dice bouncing around to add more threats, open up more boats and more importantly, add workers to the Houses track makes the game…. fun. It’s not like the wild dice is any different from the other dice, but the variety in threat marker distribution is actually a nice addition. Previously in Bruges, threats faced are almost similar until mid game. Here, the variety in threats chips will add more tension to the game. The wild dice also adds an extra boat to the harbor and make the reputation track more expensive. These are all minor changes. However, I still enjoy having the extra die.

Reputation track: The track is now expanded by one more slot to 21 points. This is mainly to accomodate the 8 rounds of game play. However, the addition of the wild dice makes thing more expensive, so movement on the track should be slower. Granted, one of the boats will feature a reputation track movement for 3 guilders, but in our games, movement in the reputation track has always been slow and doesn’t feature a huge gap between players. Nonetheless, the changes here are likely important to match the number of rounds played. This to me is more a neutral change.

VP majority token: This is probably my least favorite addition. The base game doesn’t really feature many ways to add VPs mid game. So earning the majority can really be as cheesy as discarding the first threat token in the early rounds just to scoop up the majority token and then forget about the in game scoring for the rest of the game. There are some personalities one can recruit to score points mid game and I would argue that with the split decks, it will be easier to pursue some of these mid game scoring. This is probably an overall plus, but I noticed that catching up to the leader on the VP track to score the majority will be next to impossible if you don’t have a scoring engine. I have thought about this issue and proposed using the Pets expansion as a way to increase mid game scoring. In Hamburg, animal or zoo cards which function essentially as pets are played immediately without a need for houses. I thought rather than scoring these pets end of the game, perhaps scoring them immediately would make this majority token more competitive.

Starting resource cards: I have not yet tried the starting “mayoral” resource cards. The powers are a bit insane and overwhelming that I fear it will unbalance the game. For example, one of the powers in a card reduces every canal segment to just only 2 gold. Still, the crazy player powers in Marco Polo suggests that insanely powerful cards may not be as detrimental if all the cards are equally powerful. Who am I to say it wouldn’t work?

Pets/Zoo: Recently, we managed to get the Pets mini expansion added to the base game. This expansion features 17 animal cards. Skipping the original rules, we implemented the Hamburg variant where the Zoo cards were played directly onto the tableau without a need for houses. We also included the animal majority token. I felt the addition was…neutral in a way that luck still mattered in drawing the animal cards. It is very likely that the first person to draw a pet will play and win the majority token and thereafter, there is no longer any pressure to purchase another pet. Splitting the decks into 5 colors also meant that there is a fair chance to come across the animal cards during the draw phase. This is particularly true for 2 players. We didn’t think it was a problem picking up animal cards, just that the first person to do it in the first round will gain the upper hand. It does feel a little cheesy when that happens and 4 VP is important. Still, I felt the addition was neutral while my partner felt it was distracting. Yet, another majority token to focus on.

Increased hand size to 6: I am not sure if this is also an official ruling where the hand size of each player increases to 6 and 5 cards are played each round instead of the original size of 5 and 4 played per round. In essence, 8 additional cards are played in the entire game, 1 per round for 8 rounds. After a couple of games with 2 player, we agreed that the game really dragged and felt very long at times. The additional card made it difference in several ways: first, card draw felt more relaxed. Unlike before with 5 cards, you may be forced to focus on picking more than one card per color, but then also worry you won’t have enough coverage to get guilders efficiently. With 6 cards, you can double up on one color and it felt less….tense. The change was certainly palpable for me during the card draw phase. That loss of decision making angst was noticeable. Further, our games with 2 players felt loose. In that I mean that we both completed canals and reputation tracks easily and the game came down to odds and ends points mainly from end game points and perhaps one majority token difference. We are not sure if this was due to hand size increase, but it made intuitive sense. The more rounds you have, the easier it is to complete the tasks at hand. My opponent often finished canal building by mid-game and had time to catch up on other majorities late game.

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Overall, most of the changes in the Hamburg variant are either neutral or positive. However there remain some new concerns. Now that we played the houses/monastery track correctly, the module is wonderful. We love seeing that recruitment of people is now more valuable and balanced over canal building. That is certainly a plus. There is now more incentive to recruit even low value people if the bonus points are high enough. Another concern I have revolves around deck balance. This is something Feld may address in Hamburg by tweaking around the card values. As of this moment, I cannot spot any glaring need to alter card values. But I don’t think I have play tested enough. Unfortunately, this is also one aspect of the game I do not intend to remedy since I have no wish to whip up a new batch of cards.

The variant rules definitely makes Bruges a more strategic game. Instead of making do with the semi-random card draw, players can now plan ahead. There is no need to worry about not being able to build that last canal segment or build that last house. There is no need to worry about being unable to remove a threat marker if you can just pick the right card to do so. In a way the game has lost a little of the variability which comes from not knowing what cards you draw. Before, you may need to decide if it is worth the risk to wait until the final round to build that canal. With the variant, that risk is almost abolished (assuming you have the guilders). In other words, the risk assessment aspect of the original game is neutered with the new rules. For some, this will be a plus. For others who may enjoy some aspects of pushing your luck, then the new rules may not work as well. For sure, I found that it is now way easier to finish canals. I can plan ahead and decide when to purchase the segments by selecting the right cards. No longer do I have to decide “should I just build the canal now because I have the blue card or can I afford to wait longer because blue is worth more in Guilders at the moment”. Instead, now I just do the deed knowing that I can pick up another blue card the next round. My guess is that for some players, this is seen as a negative. I suppose if you play Bruges constantly, this could lead to more predictable outcomes and that in a nutshell, is my final concern: the game feels slightly more scripted and less urgent. I noted that among our several plays with the new rules, there is a lot less tension in getting to where we want. In fact, for most these games, if not all, the canals were completely built by both players, especially when playing with the increased hand size. Getting the statues are important, but we frequently just alternate picking up statues and the differences in scoring is small if you alternate the statues: a 2 point difference. I know the fight will be more intense with multiple players. With two, the difference is not huge. I felt that in the original rules, there is a chance of missing out in completing canals or even recruiting certain people due to length of game and uncertainty of card draw. Now, it is easy to string out the game and plan ahead. So, canal building is really effortless and a must if you want to compete. The 2p games we have played have always come down to some points here and there, including the end game bonuses and majority tokens. The game also increasingly feels more like a race to see if we can collect all the majority tokens and our action selection is very driven by the majority tokens since the scoring seems to be largely determined by this form of scoring. It is evident during end game scoring, that we frequently just “cancel” out scoring for canals, reputation tracks and in some cases, even majority tokens. What we are really left with are the differences in types of persons recruited and additional end game victory points on the cards. Funny enough, in our post-game analyses, we wondered if using the insanely powerful starting cards could actually propel us down different paths.

Still, at least in the early stages, I feel the new additions improve the overall game play by introducing a wider scope of decision-making and scoring opportunities. The increased hand size rule is the only one we will avoid while the pets expansion is neutral. This has led to more satisfying outcomes that is less dependent on reacting to unexpected card draws. However, I increasingly feel that the original rules are not “inferior” in any way shape or form. It is just different and has its own strengths. The good news is, I already love the original game and will always have the option to go back to the original design.

Initial impressions: Good

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