Bruxelles 1893

Etienne Espreman

Artist: Alexandre Roche

Publisher: Pearl Games

The artwork is fantastic for the game. Art nouveau anyone? (Photo credit@Sebastian Dujardin)

Bruxelles 1893 was published with very little fanfare from a new designer (at least for me), Etienne Espreman. Though the game was well received, I didn’t give it much thought, probably due to lack of hype and exposure. I was therefore really glad when a gaming buddy of mine picked it up. In short, Bruxelles is very solid Euro, and is definitely one of my more recent favorite. You can tell the game is very well play tested as all the individual cogs rotate seamless around the core worker placement machinery. Even though there is a glut of worker placement games out there, this one stands out and deserves attention.

Bruxelles is undoubtedly one of the heavier worker placement Euros out there, but it doesn’t feel byzantine. It is heavy enough that a complete recap of the rules won’t be possible. In Bruxelles, players earn points by selling art, designing buildings and earning area majorities during action selection on the modular board. These are the main areas for scoring. There are more points to be scored during the game including recruiting personalities, etc. However, I consider these victory points to be more complementary and not part of the main scoring mechanisms. Moreover, there are also points to be scored at the end of the game, but there is no hidden scoring and everything is out in the open: a feature that will delight folks who detest hidden scoring.

Each round, players choose to place their workers to perform actions either on a fixed board or a more dynamic and fluid modular board. On the modular board, actions are generally selected to buy art, sell art, recruit personalities, pick up 2 cubes or resources for buildings and then using the cubes for designing buildings. These actions are really straight forward, but the true decision angst lie in the the secondary considerations for each action. Some of these considerations have a spatial element to it. I spot at least 5 different variables to consider: 1. the main action itself; 2. the peripheral benefit to players who own a building at that spot; 3. column majority for power cards; 4. shield/emblem scoring majority; 5. amount of bids on the column. This does not take into account choice denial for other players, turn order preferences and also cost-benefit of selecting one space over other slots. It is hard to describe all these variables in detail, but most good worker placement games do feature some of these brain burning decisions, but certainly not this many in one selection. Even though the decision tree sounds complex for a single action selection, it didn’t feel like the game had significant analysis paralysis. I think while the first few actions tend to be slower because the options are wide open, the round quickly accelerates toward the end as the available choices are whittled down. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to pass with unused actions as passing first has significant advantages.

I find that the action slots on the fixed board to be more complementary. From the fixed boards, players get to claim income, pick up wild “white” resource cubes for buildings, perform any of the 5 actions from the modular board without placing a worker on the board and triggering special powers on recruited personalities.There are five actions in total and unlike the modular board where it is first come first serve, players can select the action as many times as they want on the fixed board except that the cost start to escalate with more workers required to select the same action. Importantly, the player(s) who has the most workers on the fixed board must pay a price: one of their worker gets trapped by bureaucracy and must work in some dark administrative dungeon, thus penalizing the player for the subsequent rounds unless that trapped worker is freed. This is not exactly a novel concept in worker placement, but the balance is delicate yet does not feel fragile. The cost-benefits are there, but the rewards and penalties feel appropriate and impactful without being overwhelming or crippling. For me, the numbers all seem to work out and this is why I think the game is very well designed.

There are several mini-mechanisms within Bruxelles which some will like and other will see it as an arbitrary “mashing of mechanisms”. However, like everything else about Bruxelles, I think these mechanisms are very well integrated and doesn’t feel forced. For example, there is a fluctuating marketplace for selling art. The marketplace functions by allowing players to push around a tile on a grid to determine the value of the artwork. After moving the tile, the price of your artwork is determined by reading the XY coordinates which will give you a readout of the VPs’ and coins your art is worth. One can push the tile to score lots of points, but few coins or vice-versa. Alternatively, one can opt for a more even 1:1 ratio of payouts. Again, not exactly revolutionary, but certainly very impactful. Another mini-mechanism is the shield scoring at the end of each round based on area majority. Here, players place workers on the modular board to perform actions. In the process, they will also try and surround a shield/emblem which lies at the intersection of the four action tiles. If workers are found on all four tiles surrounding the shield, then an area majority scoring is triggered with the player scoring as many points as his/her token is placed on a separate shield track. This area majority scoring is a potent in game scoring mechanism if properly executed.

I think a good game doesn’t always have to be novel, but a great game certainly needs that extra “wow factor”. For me, Bruxelles comes close. The implementation of player turn order is actually a delicate piece of work. It is probably more important that most people realize. By bidding on cards in a column on the modular board, players not only win the power of those cards, but simultaneously accumulate the Manneken Pis icons to be the start player with players having the most icons being first in player order. Those icons are good only for the round and are discarded after. In addition, passing first also allows you to pick up a tile that has 2 more icons that can add to the total. Those icons are permanent. Over five rounds, players fight to go first in player order by seeing who has collected the most icons for that round. The race to collect the Pis icons is pretty delicate as the player who starts first not only gets first choice for actions, but also controls which quadrant on the modular board is available for action selection. This is vital as it locks out certain card and building choices for that round. It also allows one to control which direction the game can go by restriction action selection. Of course, luck of the draw also comes into play when determining which cards are available, but the benefits are immense for being a first player. Passing first also comes at a cost, of course, since players can’t play nearly as many workers to the board, but the tile you pick up besides having 2 Pis icons, is also a tile which you gain income each round, and also gives you more art pieces to choose from when you perform a blind draw. Again, the decisions are multilayered and each decision has a cost-benefit that is clearly laid out. This may seem like a very simple feature, but I think is very well implemented by Bruxelles.

More than anything, I enjoy games with multiple “viable” paths to victory. Witness my love for games like Goa, St. Petersburg, Steam time, etc. While many games claim to have multiple paths to victory, few designs actually achieve this claim. In this regard, Bruxelles is outstanding. To win, I think specialization in one area is required. This is true probably for most games featuring multiple VP engines. This means focusing on one major VP engine while lubricating that engine with minor and opportunistic VPs’ collected along the way (selling art pieces, using personalities, VP shields, etc.). I don’t think a hybrid system is competitive within 5 rounds of game play, but perhaps careful and efficient play will prove otherwise. I appreciate that even peripheral VP engines such as triggering the powers from recruited personalities could potentially be co-opted as a major VP engine. For example, there is a personality that scores 5 VP each time you trigger the power. It is possible that if you acquire more than one such card early in the game, you can get 10 VPs’ per round for up to 5 rounds. These minor engines seem like they could become potent if paired with the right complementary pieces.

There aren’t that many flaws in Bruxelles per se. Some may argue that color scheme is awful and the icons are tiny but these are minor issues and personal preferences. I thought the resource clock was more a gimmick and injects some randomness during resource collection which impedes planning for builders. It is however largely mitigated by the white cubes which act as wild resources that can replace any single resource. Overall, Bruxelles is a shining example of a well designed, heavy worker placement Euro. There are a few in this genre but this is definitely one of the gems.

Initial impression: Great!

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