Having seen this in a list of top small box games, I put it on my list for Father Christmas. And wouldn't you know it, the big man in red delivered. All it cost me was a mince pie…
If you have not heard of Bruxelles 1897, do not worry! I hadn't either (until the clickbait list of games you know you are going to buy because you have an addiction). What I can say is: I am so pleased I found it.
You are an art nouveau dealer in Brussels, the year 1897. Luckily, the game does not rely on you knowing your Picassos, Turners, and Rembrandts (the guys that did the Friends theme tune I presume).
What it does challenge you to do is manage your "art dealers", as they help you progress your standing in high-class society. You will, however, also have to manage how many dealers you can live with being arrested.
It is a small game that you can fit in hand luggage, but a big enough experience that you want to try again. The first few plays are learning the strategy and nuance of the game. After that, it becomes the frustration of making the right decisions to increase your score. Or limiting an opponent - even if it might limit you as well.
As with most games these days, the rules and setup of Bruxelles 1897 can feel daunting. But don't worry, it's just a question of learning the process - worry about the tactics later. There are three phases of play (with phase 1 ignored until round 2). The phases are:
- Preparation Phase - resetting and cleaning up after the other two phases.
- Action Phase - either take a card from the middle area of the board (the art nouveau area) or send a dealer to Brussels.
- Majority Phase - score and improve your standing from the actions you took that round.
The cards in the art nouveau area allow you to purchase art, gain influence, get money/building supplies, or construct a building. Each of these actions is at the cost of a dealer card replacing the card you want. Building costs you a material card from your selection, and you will require more materials for each subsequent building. You purchase influence through nobles, who help you achieve certain actions - but also cost you money (VP) at the end of the game.
If you play a card to the Brussels area you can collect money, activate noble cards you have kept, or perform an Art Nouveau action. These actions alternate between plays until everyone passes. The first player gets 3 coins, everyone else only 1. So it does pay to quit early at times.
During the Majority phase, there are two possible bonuses. For having the highest score in a column, and for making a complete Brussels coat of arms out of the dealer cards. Only the player with the most in a section wins. Then you work out the majority for Brussels. If you have the most, one of your dealers is going to jail. You can free them through other actions later in the game. Essentially, you start the next round a card down for completing the action tasks. The board then resets and you keep going for 4 rounds and someone wins! Simple really.
While being a small box game, Bruxelles 1897 takes up quite a bit of table space. You need to make sure you can fit the grid of cards, score track and playing piles. The good bit is you can configure them how you like for the most part, but that's not really what this section is for!
So far I have only played this with two people (although it goes to four) and it is pretty quick. As you understand it more, the process gets easier to follow and you can move quite quickly through a turn. The problem comes when making the tough decision of whether to upset your opponent's plans or bolster your own. I say problem, this is part of the wonderful charm of this game; trying to work out how to balance your rows and groups to get further up the different areas. The first time we played my wife had more art exhibits and buildings than I did, but because I had progressed further each of my buildings was worth more. I had more invested in the nobles, that lost me a little but had gained me more over the game. The problem is trying to track all of this and balance it.
Bruxelles 1897 offers a wonderful array of challenges and possibilities that you can refine on each playthrough. You will also find each game different because each new grid you lay out will change your strategy and approach. If you are trying to advance on the building track you have to win by having more in that column at the end of the round. Although it may not have the cards you want to run the next art auction. It is a juggling act between the instant need and the future potential. Which will be the correct path to choose? You can be sure that as soon as you think you have a plan, your opponent will flip their ideas just to mess with yours.
This is a lovely iteration of worker placement games played solely with cards. No big box to tidy up like Scythe. It offers strategy, planning and resource management (of sorts) but in a 30-45 min card game.
This is a lovely addition to any collection. Although what I will say is for a game about art, the artwork does not feel as special as I would like. It does not detract from the wonderful gameplay, but it loses some of the polish because of it. I know the style is from the 1920s and fits so well within that, just for me personally I think their artwork could be prettier somehow. Not offering my design skills to it as I mention my drawing is terrible, and I do feel bad picking at it for something that is such a minor point to a great game. I am sure many will disagree and think it is perfect for the genre and era. And this is where we will disagree, because underneath the artwork is a fantastic game that has plenty of replayability.
My final thoughts on Bruxelles 1897 are completely positive. I can't bring the game down for my opinion of the artistic design. It plays nicely and quickly with more tactics than an NFL playbook (that's a lot if you don't follow the NFL). There are many ways to win the game and plenty to lose it too. You can play it during a lunch break, or play it all night without realising the time. It is by no means a perfect game and there will be those who find it a little too confusing (depending on your experience level of gaming). It is not hard to learn, but the variety of options may put off people new to the habit. Where things like Ticket to Ride are great gateway games, this is a great next step along. It is not too complicated, but it is advanced enough in terms of depth of strategy to get your teeth into and have a great time doing it.