Bruxelles 1893 board game: A four-sided review

The Bruxelles 1893 board game is a euro-style game published in 2013 by Pearl Games. It us currently quite hard to find. But a card game version – Bruxelles 1897 – is easily available for around £20 (check out comparison site Board Game Prices). The card game has the same atmosphere and interaction, but loses some of the complexity. A worthy substitute, I think.

I don’t usually give full reviews to games that aren’t in print. I’m making an exception because the Bruxelles 1893 board game it appears in so many of my lists, including my Top 40 of all time. Plus, it is available to play for free via online board game website Boite a Jeux. So even if it’s hard to find, you can still get a fix.

At its core it’s a worker placement game. But strong (temporary) area majority and bidding elements make it highly interactive for a euro game. To win, it is essential to closely follow – and counter – what your opponents are doing. A game lasts 1-2 hours, accommodates 2-5 players, and is recommended for ages 14+. Not because of the rules, but more how everything interacts and overlaps.

The theme is totally paste on. Not once will you feel like a 19th Century architect. Although that’s probably a good thing. But I love the Art Nouveau art style, which help create a beautiful look on the table. And while the iconography does little to help you remember what does what, there’s not too much of it. So after a few plays you’ll find the dips into the rulebook for clarifications will quickly peter out.

Teaching the Bruxelles 1893 board game

While not the easiest teach, regular euro game players will be on familiar ground. The biggest obstacle to learning the game is a lack of connection between icons. Slightly bigger and more helpful player boards, with some cheap sheet info, would’ve helped immensely. Thankfully, a fantastic player aid has been uploaded for free to Board Game Geek which I’d highly recommend (thanks Daniel).

The main board is split into two main sections – admin and worker placement. With the worker placement side being modular, so the action spaces are in a different configuration each game. Players start out with four workers, with two more available later. One of the many nice, fresh aspects of the game is that these extra workers will ebb and flow, rather than being enforced on you as the game progresses. It’s perfectly possible that you may have less workers in the final round than you did in the first. But you could still win.

Passive agressive

It’s hard to describe the game in shorthand and do it justice. Of the five main actions, you could flippantly say you’ll be gathering resources/helpers, then building/selling things. But each is done with an original flourish. Which usually involves passive aggression towards your fellow players.

Want to sell some art? As you do so, you’ll probably be blocking other players from selling there’s – or reducing the victory points/money they may receive. Want to build a building? Afterwards, make sure the requirement for the next player aiming to build includes materials they don’t have. And be sure to place your new building on a worker space you know they’re about to use, so you’ll get a kickback.

While worker placement spaces are limited, there are the usual ‘anyone can go here’ spaces for those players blocked out. These spaces are often better too. But the player who uses them the most each turn loses a worker to the courthouse (where you other two workers start). There are ways to get these guys back, but those ways are mot always available to you. Yes, the game – as well as your opponents – are all out to get you.

What’s the score?

The game’s complexity largely revolves around how scoring is calculated. Because placing workers is about more than doing the action on the space. You are also considering if its position will score you points, as each square of four worker spaces surrounds a scoring shield. While each worker also needs at least one coin placing in it. And the most coins in a row will get that player another reward.

And these shields, plus buildings you place, can trigger multipliers and other benefits. Or block your opponents from getting majorities etc. All elevating the game from simple worker placement to incredibly thinky worker placement.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Passive interaction is one of my favourite things. And few do it better than the Bruxelles 1893 board game. Every decision has a knock-on effect somewhere. But not in an annoying ‘turn this into this into this’ kind of way. Despite frying my brain, these elements are largely tactical. It’s not as if you have to mentally hold onto an obscure and complex long-term plan. And the game doesn’t get bigger over time in the way big Ewe or ‘Key’ games do. But despite that, it still feels as if it arcs nicely towards a climax.
  • The thinker: This is an excellent game. The mechanisms slot together beautifully, it flows really well, and gives your brain a proper workout. But in a shorter time than you’d normally expect for a ‘heavy’ euro. And I’ve seen players win using all kinds of different tactics, which is always a good sign. And unusually it not only plays well across all player counts – but also feels the same game whether playing with two or five.
  • The trasher: Bruxelles 1893 pretty much epitomises the phrase ‘passive aggressive’. You can always do something. So always feel you’re moving forward. But if you’re not careful, you can end the game with half the points of your opponents! all those little majorities and bonuses really add up. On the downside, its a bear to teach – in the same way all complex games are. So I do pass over it sometimes, due to the big time overhead that first time.
  • The dabbler: This game is beautiful. While it may not be to everyone’s tastes, the quality and style on show are undeniable. Which is pretty much the only reason I agreed to play something I knew was going to be hard work! In honesty, this is a bit too much for me. I got the hang of things, but its the next level beyond the rules that’s the important one. And I don’t think I care enough to bother playing enough times to get to that level.

Key observations

The Bruxelles 1893 board game does have its detractors. But as you’d expect from a game with a rating above 7.5 on BGG, these are rarely actual criticisms. More, they’re people expressing that they don’t like this kind of game. It is long; the mechanisms are thrown together (literally the definition of a board game); it’s theme-less; it’s a point salad. Or it has complexity for complexity’s sake (definitely disagree here).

It’s a similar thing with the artwork. Some don’t like the style. But that’s a matter of taste. If you don’t like it, fine. But it’s not ‘bad’ – it’s good for what it is. That said, for a complex game, they could’ve done a lot more to help new players get to grips with things. As mentioned above, there is a good player aid you can download. But they’ve done a poor job labelling what connects with what. Which is a shame, as its a tough teach.

Lastly, while this is a ‘point salad’ game with plenty of paths to victory, you can’t ignore building. As players are architects, this should probably be a given. Then, this isn’t the most thematic game out there – so it would be easy to overlook in the teach. Building feels stronger than other scoring types. I can imagine learning the game and thinking, “I’ll ignore building and do everything else”. Then losing heavily. That could definitely leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Conclusion: The Bruxelles 1893 board game

Bruxelles has quickly become one of my favourite heavy euro games. Once you get past the teach and have played a full game, it flows and hangs together beautifully. I highly recommend it. But don’t take my word for it – check it out on Boit a Jeux (linked above) for free and see for yourself.

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