Worker placement, where actions are performed on the board by assigning a fixed group of worker pieces to spaces one at a time, is a very popular mechanic. But while it’s great for deep strategy games, it has a problem: Without a seed of variety, the games that use it can become dry and repetitive as everyone becomes obsessed with the same successful strategies.
There are several fixes, but one of the most interesting and least used is to replace worker parts with dice, rolled faces influence the actions they can take. The latest board game to explore this developing space is Brew, where players represent mystics in a fantasy desert. Their dice make them search for components, which they then use to brew powerful potions for single-shot effects.
What is in the box
Brew stands out even on a shelf, with its unusual linoleum-style box art showing a strange creature in a rolling landscape. Lift the lid and you will find the same art on the game board, tiles and cards. It’s really amazing, a great balance between looking good and, at the same time, still being very playable. All the information you need is clear and accessible, allowing you to sit back and enjoy game and art at the same time.
Beneath the cardboard sprues are the main game engine, custom dice bags in four different player colors, plus white element dice. They are good dice, solid and engraved with elegant symbols to carry the ink. There’s not much else in the box, but it’s a nice compact size so it should be easy to place on your shelves.
Rules and how to play
Brew is one of those games where simple rules belie a plethora of options on the board and cards. At the start of a round, everyone rolls their dice pool: four forage dice and two item dice. They then take turns placing them on the board or cards and as the game progresses they brew and / or drink a potion.
Forage dice can only be placed on forest cards, which change from round to round, and only in a space that matches the thrown symbol. You also get a potion ingredient that shows up in space, or possibly a creature from the four face-up options. Creatures grant you special powers, such as additional ingredients or points when you perform certain actions.
Right away, this presents players with an impressive array of options. There will be four face-up potions, each of which will need different ingredients, so you’ll want to look for the most useful ones. On the other hand, creatures give you an immediate bonus for one die, so it’s tempting to snatch the good ones before other players do. And after all the dice are placed, the players with the majority on each forest card can claim it, which is an important source of points.
At the beginning of the game there are almost too many options, which makes it difficult to start carving your rhythm in the unspoiled nature of the game. It is confusing and paralyzing. As the game unfolds and you begin to find combinations between creature powers and brewed potions, you can begin to focus and develop specific strategies. This offers the pleasure of securing an important potion or creature before your opponents. But looking for synergies to get started can be a daunting task.
Item dice add even more options to the mix. These can be used as fodder dice if desired, and can be placed in any space with additional placement power depending on their symbol. But they can also be played in a matching space on the board to gain a special power like purging other dice of forest items or trading ingredients for the more flexible energy berries.
Once you have enough ingredients to start adding to your potion supply, they will become essential weapons in your strategic arsenal. Most of them allow you to meddle with your dice: reroll them, move them after placing them, place an extra one on your turn, that sort of thing. They are also worth points whether they are used or not. However, they often take a backseat in scoring despite the name of the game. In fact, thematically, Brew is a bit messy, and its parts don’t fit into any kind of narrative or thematic ensemble.
While all the options give players a lot to think about, there are times when all of those alternatives for each decision feel more like work than game. Despite its simple rules, Brew isn’t the cheesy family food you’d expect from art and iconography. It is a middleweight strategy game. Even the dice are there to provide variety in decision making rather than excitement.
With that said, Brew begins to spread the excitement once players have understood that timing your plays is crucial to strategy as well. Since forests offer big points, it’s key to game design that it gives you plenty of ways to upset majorities during the turn. Fire element symbols can be placed on top of an opponent’s dice, denying them. A potion allows you to sneak into an extra turn to claim a prize spot before the next player. These moves are where the game gains tension, which builds nicely as it comes to an end, and elicits whoops of joy and dismay from the assembled players.
The result is a game where it pays to plan ways to upset your opponents as much as possible. The late game can get quite bitter as scoring opportunities pass from player to opponent. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but Brew isn’t one of those games where you don’t have to worry about what other players are doing. You may not interact with them directly, but messing with their plans can be even more satisfying at times.
Where to buy
Brew is available from a variety of retailers. The MSRP is $ 29.99.