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.

Cardboard time machine: My 2011 in life and board games

2011 was a trauma-free year for me. Highlights included a great visit to New York with Zoe (where I picked up Pizza Box Football in a small game store) and a visit to the Beautiful Days festival, seeing some of my favourite bands (Carter USM, PWEI, Levellers) topping the bill.

Work ticked over nicely, including a fantastic week in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress (an annual thing, then, for a few more years). And while music was still my ‘big’ thing, the board game obsession was continuing to grow.

The two-weekly local sessions (firmed up in 2010) were still going strong. This was giving me a good excuse to keep buying new games, as my exploration of Board Game Geek continued. And the guys had started picking up a few games of their own. All of us with very mixed results! But one of the highlights was definitely The Works filling up with a bunch of great game overstocks (more on which below), many of which I still have today.

I continued my tentative trips to the Cambridge board game meetup at Cambridge Union. This I generally did alone, and ultimately quite rarely. Cambridge is quite strange (people-wise) at the best of times – and the attendees of these events were a colourful bunch. Too often I failed to enjoy myself, after falling into a weird group. So I didn’t keep it up for long. But it did introduce me to some fantastic games. And later in the year, I had my first few trips to London on Board (see below).

My game plays in 2011

I recorded 349 plays on Board Game Geek – nearly 100 more than the year before and double what I’d managed in 2009. Quite a few months saw me playing an average of more than one game per day – thanks largely to our main group’s continued obsession with Race for the Galaxy. It again topped the playlist, with 55, in 2011.

Dominion, Ra, Ticket to Ride, Macao, Ingenious, Archaeology: The Card Game and Rattus continued to be favourites. And all but Rattus are still in my collection today. New favourites I picked up (via research) included Downfall of Pompeii, Pickomino and Alhambra. While Stone Age and Endeavor were also in heavy rotation. The big hit of the year that didn’t last was Glory to Rome – a fun game, but a bit fiddly. It was selling for silly money, so I cashed in.

As mentioned, for a year or so The Works became a great place to get good clearance games. Usually it was full of largely crappy books and art supplies. But a buyer (Laura Lemon – a legend on BGG for a while) picked up a shedload of game overstocks – and hit gold. I got Hamburgum, Cuba, Pergamon, Oregon, Notre Dame, Maori and Alhambra – plus most of its expansions. But you could also find the likes of Aqua Romana, Caylus Magna Carta, La Citta, Royal Palace and more. Light euro heaven at £7.99 a pop.

Being taught new games

The likes of Battlestar Galactica, 7 Wonders, Merchants & Marauders, Alien Frontiers and Qwirkle were introduced by local friends in the first half of the year. It was great to have other players bringing new games to the party. But none of them got into it as much as I did.

I was probably buying at least five new games to every one they picked up! And yes, I realise I was the one on the wrong end of that equation. But with such a good resale market, it was still proving to be a relatively cheap hobby.

Perhaps more significant were my first visits, in November 2011, to board game club London on Board. I was having to go to London quite a lot for work. So if I had afternoon meetings or events, why not hang around for the evening to play some games? The group was held in various London pubs (as it still is today). Which appealed to me much more than an afternoon in a social club. I wish I could remember who I played with the first few times I went (which included an epic game of Star Trek: Fleet Captains). But I did get taught a few games by John Bandettini, who I’m still playing games with to this day.

My hindsight Top 10 Games of 2011

I wouldn’t describe this as a vintage year for the hobby, by any stretch of the imagination. I only own four of the games below, although I’m still on the lookout for a copy of Vanuatu.

And I still play a few more (Trajan at Boite a Jeux and Drako at Yucata) online – both of which are available for free. You can read a detailed post on my best games of 2011 here, so I won’t go into much detail. But my choices were:

  1. Kingdom Builder: Simple placement/area influence game with a twist.
  2. Vanuatu: Viscous worker placement game.
  3. Castles of Burgundy: classic Feld tile-placer.
  4. Trajan: Another Feld euro, this time with a mind-bending mancala mechanism.
  5. Artus: Tricksy, interactive and underappreciated abstract.
  6. Letters from Whitechapel: One vs all cop/criminal game.
  7. Village: Well regarded worker placement euro game.
  8. Drako: Asynchronous two-player fantasy abstract game.
  9. Friday: Solo survival card game
  10. King of Tokyo: Yahtzee-style family game, with battling and monster powers.

I did own King of Tokyo in 2011, and we has fun with it. But ultimately I found it was too light for my main groups. I borrowed Friday from a friend in 2012, enjoyed it, but didn’t actually pick up a copy until 2018. I also played Village in 2012, enjoyed it, but never quite pulled the trigger (as with Fresco the year before). The rest I came to later. Kingdom Builder, Castles of Burgundy and Artus sit on my shelves, while I play plenty of Trajan online.

Mage Knight and Eclipse also came out in 2011 and are still high in the BGG Top 100. I owned Mage Knight, but it was just too long and mathsy for us to really get into. While local friend Howie bought Eclipse (in 2012) and I enjoyed my first few games. Before realising it was all just building up to a big, stupid, inevitable battle at the end each time.

The year’s end

By the end of 2011 I had a pretty decent (around 50, I think) board game collection. I also had a solid local group, plus some new friends at London on Board. But despite this, things were about to go next level. 2012 would prove to be a fantastic year for new games. Which coincided with my first trip to Essen, a Greek board gaming holiday, plus two UK game conventions. Not to mention a day on Centre Court at Wimbledon for the Olympics…

If you’re looking for my thoughts on games from other specific years, check out my Board Game Top 10s list page. Or drop me a line to request something specific I haven’t yet covered.

Board games that help with maths

As someone who hated maths at school, it feels strange loving working out the number puzzles inherent in board games. I think like many kids I was fine with the basics. But when letters starting appearing in equations, and I stopped seeing the connection to my life, I thought – what’s the point?

But I was good at basic maths – and I know many kids aren’t that lucky. And whether its lack of motivation, or just getting to grips with the concepts. Board games can play a genuine part in helping children improve mathematics skills. Hence why I’ve put together this list of board games that help with maths.

Below you’ll find a list of useful games, many of which have proven their worth in the classroom. I have several close friends who are teachers and teaching assistants, across all age and ability ranges, which certainly helped put it together. But they can prove equally useful at home. what can be better than having fun around the table, while sneakily actually teaching your kids something?

But I’m aiming things slightly higher than most lists you’ll see elsewhere – everything is from 6+ and beyond. Here, my focus is on the parents enjoying themselves too! There’s not a game below I wouldn’t play myself, and enjoy it, with other adult gamers. Links below go to my full reviews. And you should easily be able to find all these games to buy. I’d suggesting stating via Board Game Prices (which will also help the blog).

Board games that help with maths

  • Qwirkle & Ingenious
    (2-4 players, 45 mins, ages 6/8+)
    These are both colourful pattern and shape recognition games with nice chunky pieces. There are multiple versions available of both games, and in high street stores. Every good family games collection should have at least one of them.
  • Tsuro & Kingdomino & Carcassonne
    (2-8/2-4/2-5, 20-30 mins, ages 6/6/8+)
    While perhaps a less obvious maths skill, spatial reasoning is super useful. Tetris is a classic example, but you get some real meat (and no time pressure!) in the board game world. Tsuro is an abstract game, where you try to build your paths using tiles. Carcassonne take it all up a notch, having you create roads, towns and fields to score points. While Kingdomino seats neatly between the two. Again, all are very easily available.
  • Ticket to Ride
    (2-5 players, 60 mins, ages 8+)
    Ticket to Ride is a great example of multi-step problem solving. Collect coloured cards, which you then use to complete train routes on a board. And you can then use the routes placed to extend on to complete more routes. A massive best seller for a reason.
  • Zeus on the Loose
    (2-5 players, 15 mins, ages 6+)
    As a tool for understanding maths calculations, this little card game should be in every teacher and parent’s arsenal. I often see it in charity shops for a couple of quid. But at retail, it’s only about £10 anyway. It basically gamifies simple calculations in a fun way.
  • Yahtzee & Can’t Stop & Pickomino
    (2-6/2-4/2-6, 20-30 mins, ages 6+)
    We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to board games that help with probability. Yahtzee is another game you can essentially have for free by printing off some score sheets – or by finding in most charity shops. But my favourites are Can’t Stop (very simple dice push-your-luck game) and Pickomino, which takes Yahtzee up a small notch and adds a little flavour.
  • Sushi Go
    (2-5 players, 15 mins, ages 6+)
    This pretty and fun family game helps teach probability, deduction and strategy. A great game for any family, with cute artwork and theme.
  • For Sale & Catan
    (3/6/3-4 players, 30 mins/1-2 hours, ages 8+)
    money and value seem impossible concepts for children. Monopoly is an obvious example, but it’s too long to be fun. Light card game For Sale cleverly uses basic bidding and seems a good learning tool. While Catan relies heavily on negotiation, and attributing value that way. Property game Acquire is also brilliant, if you want to look more specifically at real estate.
  • Outfoxed
    (2-4 players, 20 mins, ages 5-10-ish)
    A popular ‘first cooperative game’ choice, as well as helping children with their deductive skills. Gather clues together to solve the mystery, and win or lose together.

Online versions

  • BGA – Can’t Stop, Carcassonne, For Sale, Kingdomino, Sushi Go
  • Yucata – Can’t Stop, Carcassone (a slightly mote complex version)
  • App stores (Apple, Google, Steam) – Carcassonne, Can’t Stop, Catan, Ticket to Ride, Tsuro, Yahtzee

Twitter’s continued failure to deal with racism – I’m out

I cancelled my Twitter account today after last weekend’s intolerable abuse of three English football players in the Euro 2020 final. I’m not going to get into that. All right-minded people condemn the abuse. But I did want to explain why I felt the need to leave Twitter.

Doing so isn’t really a hardship. And with just over 500 people ‘following’ me, it’s not going to shake its foundations. But as many use it as their primary social media platform, I wanted to explain my reasoning. But it’s a personal decision with no judgements attached to those still using it.

I’m also aware that, by using Facebook, I’m inconsistent. I mostly use Facebook to stay in contact with friends and family. It is private to me, so only those who are friends can see my messages etc. And my friends are accountable – if they post racist views, I unfriend them. For me, this is an important distinction. I wish Facebook would do more, and hope they will be forced to. But for now, the mental support I get from staying so easily in touch with those close to me outweighs my moral doubts about its business model.

Greed

I’ve worked in websites, as a senior editor, for a decade. I’ve overseen comments sections, message boards, membership models etc. And been in high level discussions and done regular media law courses covering the internet and social media. In my opinion, greed is the only thing stopping Twitter (and other ‘social’ sites) from doing the right thing.

Governments keep asking these platforms to tackle the problem. But haven’t legislated, instead wait for these profit-driven global behemoths to self-regulate. Which never, ever happens. It looks like the UK government may finally be forced to pull its finger out after this debacle. But we’ll see. Boris made some of the right noises in PMQs today. But his bluster rarely turns into action when it comes to large corporations – especially at a time when he’s still trying to justify brexit via tax breaks and undisclosed bailouts to secure jobs.

Registration & accountability

It is too easy to create accounts on Twitter. It’s a five-minute process with zero accountability if you later get banned or otherwise punished. This level of anonymity practically encourages poor behaviour. Increased levels of security and scrutiny are clearly available. Just look at banks or other online financial institutions. But yes – all that extra security and accountability costs time and money and would put people off signing up.

And then there’s moderation. You can set up word catchers etc but they’re crude at best and often easy to get around. What you really need is a team of actual people to police this. But, of course, those pesky people want paying don’t they?

And again, the law/government doesn’t help. In theory, those perpetrating social media hate crimes (such as racist abuse) can be prosecuted and face massive fines – even jail time (if you can find them). But Twitter, Facebook etc can’t. They build-in not being responsible for what people write into their terms and conditions. By signing up to use their services, you’re essentially waiving your right to blame them if someone abuses you on their platform.

I’m just tired of it

So I’m walking away. It feels like an insignificant drop in the ocean. But it all adds up. In a week where I’ve felt embarrassed, even ashamed, to be English, I needed to do something. I hope you do something too. And if you’re someone in the board game industry who thinks I can help in some way, in your own battle with any kind of prejudice, please get in contact.

Alma Mater board game: A four-sided review

The Alma Mater board game is a medium to heavyweight euro game for 2-4 players. It takes 2-3 hours to play and, due to its complexity, is suggested for gamers aged 12 years and up. This is definitely a game for experienced gamers.

Thematically, you’re each playing as the headmaster of a 15th Century university. Attracting lecturers and students while publishing books to (you guessed it) score victory points. Mechanically, this is a worker placement game. But it is more interactive than many, thanks to each player having their own currency (their books) which become an important part of play. And the theme works nicely to help gel everything together.

Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find Alma Mater for just under £40 – which is a bargain for the amount and quality of components. In the box you’ll find a large main board and four player boards; 180 cards; 150-ish cardboard tokens; 44 wooden pieces, and 120 cool little plastic books. The box also has a handy dandy plastic insert, and overall the art and presentation are top notch.

Teaching the Alma Mater board game

The Alma Mater board game is quite a tough teach. It’s one of those euro games where you really need to know everything before you start, as all the options and routes to points can be available from turn one. But I’m not going to go into detail here, as there are plenty of good rules videos available. I found the rulebook OK for learning the game. And it has a good set of appendix pages to cover all the game icons. But I found it a little frustrating when trying to find little rules and exceptions.

As mentioned, this is at its heart a pretty standard worker placement game. You have one (potentially two) worker spaces on your board, plus 13/10 (depending on player count) on the main board. You start with four workers, with two more available per player as the game goes on. Most spaces cost one worker for the first person to arrive, two for the second etc. But a few of the more boring spaces (get money etc) are non-competitive.

The bulk of the game sees you attracting students and lecturers to your university, while increasing the reputation of your books by rising up the research track. Both students and lecturers can give you income, special abilities and victory points. The first person to claim a particular lecturer sets the ‘price’ for them, which includes which type of book is required to trigger their ability. Students have set prices, but these vary depending on which players’ books are highest on the research track. Which is where the interactivity/clever bit comes in.

Buy the book

While there is money (ducats) in the game, each player’s books (by player colour) also work as an important currency. Rising on the reputation track (which mostly means paying books/money/VPs, or having met certain requirements) means your books will be required to get more/better students. While getting in quickly on top lecturers means your books will be needed to both collect and trigger those lecturers for other players.

Your own player board action/s allow you to buy your own books. These can either be kept for payment, or put up for sale in your shop (placed on your player board). So the more people need your books, the more profit you can make. Especially as players have to first buy any available books from you, not the bank, when they need them. This is a key element of the game and really makes it stand out from the crowd.

After six rounds the game ends and the majority of scoring takes place. This is very much a point salad euro, with pretty much everything scoring endgame points. For example, you’ll be scoring for students; lecturers (by type); lecturers (amount) multiplied by your position on the research track; etc etc. But luckily all the ways you’ll score are listed on your player board. And, of course, most points wins.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Alma Mater is a very well designed and produced euro game, as we’ve come to expect from Eggertspiele. And the clever book currency mechanism elevates it from average to excellent. But personally, despite the excellent artwork and integrated theme, I failed to connect with the game emotionally. For me it has a little too much ‘converting stuff into other stuff’ going on to leave room for a soul. Which I need to make a game a genuine keeper.
  • The thinker: What an excellent game. Once the long teach was over, I found myself quickly coming to terms with the mechanisms. But like most complex games, you really need to play through and score once for it all to come together. I’ve seen players do a bit of everything and win, and others succeed by concentrating more on a single path – which is always a good sign. While there is enough variety in the cards (if not the students – see below) to make each game feel different.
  • The trasher: The books in Alma Mater add a clever level of interaction between players. But it really couldn’t be done in a more ‘euro’ way! That’s not a criticism – but it really isn’t for me. Sure, there is some competition for worker placement spaces. But with basic planning you should always be able to do what you need to – its more about doing things efficiently. So while I recognise this as a good game, its not one I’ll be coming back to.
  • The dabbler: I love the presentation! The art style and component quality is definitely above the average, especially for a euro style game. But wow, it has a real learning cliff! Everything interacts with everything else – and there are a lot of bits! And so many icons. You even get to choose your own starting resources, which is hard when you don’t know what is going on lol. It could’ve done with a standard set up for that, for beginners. It’s the kind of game I’d have to play very regularly to keep in my head – and I don’t really want to.

Key observations

The Alma Mater board game is a tough teach. Made all the worse by a huge array of unconvincing icons. It takes ages to set up, and then you’re probably looking at about an hour of rules. And then you’ll be in and out of the rulebook the whole game looking up cards in the appendix. Which is crazy, as the following week (with the same players) we had the whole game done in about 90 minutes. But in this day and age, with so much choice out there, first plays can make or break a game.

Representation has never been more important. But unfortunately, here, in terms of ethnicity, you’ll find an all-white cast. A few of the professors and students are female. So it wouldn’t have been hard for them to add some people of colour too. Because this is not a game that relies on its use of theme in a true historical context, beyond naming the chancellor (not professor) cards. You’d hope this was simply an oversight. But the outcry on this topic has certainly proven this is a topic publishers need to take seriously.

The two-player experience

Due to the amount of interaction required in the game, the two-player rules introduce a third ‘dummy’ player. This works OK, as it only involves a small amount of set up each round (a few cards). But (for me) it very much diminishes the experience compared to playing with three or four. This is always tricky in a game where interaction is key.

Another issue is the lack of variety of students. You use the same 16 types in each game, which is odd as everything else has loads of setup variety. Clearly recognising the mistake, they’ve released a mini expansion (for less than £10) that adds four new ones. But even at this price, it seems steep.

Finally, some commenters have been disappointed having come to Alma Mater from its spiritual cousin, popular euro game Coimbra. The games share some of the design team as well as art style and theming. But this is definitely a more complex game. So if you liked Coimbra, but felt it was the edge of your enjoyment in terms of difficulty, you may want to give Alma Mater a miss (it is rated 3.8 (vs 3.3) for complexity at Board Game Geek).

Conclusion: Alma Mater board game

Alma Mater is a very good mid-to-heavyweight euro game. It nicely blends its theme into familiar mechanisms, while introducing a nice twist to make it feel fresh. While it also looks fantastic and offers solid value for money. So if heavier games are your thing, I’d definitely give it a try. But personally, the thought of teaching it again brings me out in hives. And while I enjoyed my plays, I didn’t fall in love with alma Mater. And nowadays a game has to get over that line to stay in my collection.