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Saturday, 8 September 2018

Big Brew, Bitsy Box

In the past, small games tended not to offer a lot of game play, serving mainly as a filler in between longer, more in-depth games or as games to play with casual players. Not so with the ‘Microgame’, which originally appeared as mini-wargames such as Metagaming Concepts’ Ogre, MicroGame #1—first released in 1977 and since published by Steve Jackson Games in various formats—and with the growth in popularity of Euro games, has seen a revival of the format, most notably, the ‘Tiny Epic’ series from Gamelyn Games. These pack enough game play and depth into their boxes that it easy to imagine them having been as a standard big box games, but as Microgames, their components can be just as good (if much smaller), their game play can be as thoughtful, and they can be both far more portable and more inexpensive.

Microbrew is a Microgame which should appeal to gamers of a certain age and their love of beer—especially their love of craft beer from microbreweries. Thus, you have a small game about brewing small beers. Published by One Free Elephant, best known for Carcosa – A Lovecraftian board game of Cults and Madness, a version of Carcassonne infected by the Mythos, Microbrew is a two-player worker placement game with elements of pattern building and recognition. The two players lead rival brewing crews at a brewery, competing to brew, bottle, and serve beers to their thirsty customers. If they can brew and serve the right beer to the right customer—for every customer has his preferred beer—then they will not only make money, they will also ensure the loyalty of those customers.

Microbrew comes with quite a lot of components. These start with the four Copper Still cards, each player receiving two of these to form the Copper Still in which he will brew his beer. The Copper Still is marked with sixteen interconnected spaces divided into four equal columns (a fifth column can be added during the game). It will be filled with Wort tokens of varying strengths (Wort being the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer or whisky which is fermented by brewing yeast to produce alcohol) and by ‘brewing’ moving the Wort around in the Copper Still, a brewer will be able to match a recipe, more or less—hopefully more—that he can serve to his thirsty customers. Each Copper Still card also has a track for the amount of money a player has.

Between the players is the Brewery, again made up of two cards. It is marked with Brew, Bottle, Serve, Mash, Flush, Break, Advertise, and Manage Actions which a player can assign his workers to. There are two wrinkles here. One is that there is a Brewmaster in charge at the brewery and he constantly moves from the Manage Action to the Flush Action to the Advertise Action, and then back round again. When he arrives on one of these Actions, they automatically happen. The other is that when a player has placed a worker on an Action, it does not block that Action for the other player. If a player really wants to, then he can displace his opponent’s worker and take that Action, but this gives his opponent a chance to place his worker elsewhere, effectively giving him an extra action. This is a nice touch, providing a solution to the frustration of players being blocked from taking an action.

The Customer Cards all prefer particular types of beer, such as the Englishman’s love of English Milk Stout and the Jamaican’s like of Jamaican Tropical Stout, indicated by the particular recipe each card. When a Thirsty Customer is served a beer, he will pay a player money, the amount depending upon the quality of the beer and whether it included a favourite flavour, such as a sweet for the Scottish Wee Heavy. If a Thirsty Customer is served a beer which they rate as perfect—that is, matches their preferred beer—they become a Loyal Customer. If a Thirsty Customer was not served a perfect beer, he has had his fill of beer for this round, but will return the next round as a Thirsty Customer once again. It is possible to keep serving a Thirsty Customer imperfect beer from round to round in order to make money, but it is also a viable tactic to serve a Thirsty Customer an imperfect beer, not just for the money, but to force your opponent to serve an imperfect beer to another Thirsty Customer instead of the intended Thirsty Customer for whom they had the perfect beer and so prevent him from gaining them as a Loyal Customer.

The Recipe Cards are all marked with the four Worts they need from one column in a player’s Copper Still to be brewed perfectly. The fewer correct Worts a recipe has when served, the less money it will make for a player when served. Similarly, if there is a contaminant in the beer it will make less money. Each player usually has one Recipe Card which is kept secret, so that he has one potential perfect recipe he can serve, whilst there are at least three face up on the table that either player can attempt to brew.

The last cards are the Reputation Cards. These are objective cards, one of which is kept public, whilst each receives two to keep secret. Typically, they are fulfilled by brewing the most recipes of a particular flavour or acquiring Loyal Customers flying particular flag. If fulfilled, they score a player the equivalent of extra Loyal Customers at the end of the game.

Lastly, there are the wooden tokens. Most are the yellow, orange, and brown Wort tokens, but there are also Green Malting tokens which can clog up a Copper Still (one or more being added at the start of the game, depending upon the desired complexity); tokens to track a player’s money, a management token, upgrade tokens to add a fifth column to a player’s Copper Still, and three Workers per player. 

The rules pamphlet is double-sided and folds to fit in the game’s tin—like everything else. The tin is actually packed quite tightly with the components. It also forms a part of the game’s play too, Worts being drawn blind from it when a player needs to refill part of his Copper Still.

Game play itself is made up of Rounds divided into two phases. In the Work Phase, each player takes it in turn to place his Workers in the Brewery and take their Actions. In the Rest Phase, Workers return for reassignment, Customers served imperfect beer last round Thirsty Customers again, any Customers who became Loyal Customers and any recipes made last round are replaced, and the Management token moves to take a new action.

There are a number of Actions at the heart of the game which are essential to brewing beer. These are Brew, Bottle, and Serve. The Brew Action allows a player to move one Wort token in his Copper Still up or down, swapping places with the Worts above or below it. Dark Worts always want to settle, whilst light Worts always want to rise, and as long as there is a light Wort below it, a dark Wort can keep settling and swapping places. Equally, as long as there is a dark Wort above it, a light Wort can keep rising and swapping places. This allows a player to radically alter the arrangement of Worts in his Copper Still, his aim being to have Worts in a column match those on a Recipe Card—either in his hand or face up on the able. They do not need to match the order of Worts on the recipe card, just the colours. This is the puzzle element to Microbrew, a player having to arrange the colours or Worts on his Copper Still card to get a match with those on a recipe card.

To Bottle a beer, a player takes the Worts from one column of his Copper Still and places them on a Recipe Card, hopefully one where the colour of the Worts match as much as possible. Once a beer has been bottled, it has to ferment. Whenever a player uses on of his Workers to take an Action or passes because he no more Workers to place, each bottled beer ferments. This is simply the removal of one of the Wort tokens from the Recipe Card. When they are all removed the beer is ready to serve. Once served, the player keeps the Recipe Card, but cannot brew it again.

What this means that brewing takes time and fermentation. In game terms, at least six or seven Actions over two or three rounds, although this will speed up once either player hires a third Worker. It is also likely that a player will have more than the one recipe on the go—and one piece of advice tis that a player should always have a beer of any kind fermenting as it might not be the perfect beer that any of the Customers currently want, but it will gain you some money and money will buy you upgrade, new staff, and advertising.

Other Actions include Mash (draw more Worts blind from the tin to fill a player’s Copper Still), Flush (return all discarded Worts to the tin and then swap any from any from the player’s Copper Still—that is, not blind!), Advertise (draw an extra Loyal Customer and an extra Thirty Customer), Manage (Overtime—gain an extra Action; Three recipes—add Recipe Cards to a player’s hand and those face up; Hire Staff—add a third Worker), and Break (a player’s Workers use the vending machine and earn him money and all Customers who have had a beer become Thirsty Customers once again). The Overtime, Three Recipes, Hire Staff, and Upgrade Actions cost a player money.

Play continues Round by Round until the last card from the Customer Deck is drawn or all of the Customers are loyal to one player or the other. The player with the most Loyal Customers, including any extra from Reputation cards, is the winner, the amount of money serving as a tie breaker if needed. Game length is roughly between thirty and sixty minutes, probably towards the latter when first learning the game and if a second set of Microbrew is added to the first to allow for a three to four player game (although another two different sets of meeples will be needed if this done.)

Physically, Microbrew is impressive. For such a small game—physically, at least—the components are all nicely done, if of course, a bit small. This may make the game a bit fiddly in places to play, especially when manipulating the Worts in a player’s Copper Still. The rules pamphlet feels a bit light, but that is a more an issue with the amount of space there is in the tin. The rules do need a close read though, as the lack of space means that they are succinct and perhaps in places could have done with more of an explanation. The advantage to the small size is Microbrew is very portable and even when in play, takes up very little space.

There are essentially two paths to victory in Microbrew. One is brew the prefect beers, sell to the right Thirsty Customers and turn them into Loyal Customers. The other is sell imperfect beers as fast as possible, raise enough money to pay to Advertise and so gain more Loyal Customers and more potential Loyal Customers, but that methods gets more expensive, the more Loyal Customers a player has. Then of course, a player can switch back and forth between the two paths. The game has a strong puzzle/pattern recognition element in the manipulation of the Worts in a player’s Copper Still and getting that right can quickly set a player up with lots of fermenting beers and potential sales. The capacity for a player to undercut another player by selling an imperfect beer adds a nice tactical element to the game play, whilst the hidden Recipe and Reputation cards give a player something to work towards without his opponent being able to actively block him.

One Free Elephant has taken the theme of brewing beer and microbreweries and done a very nice job of applying that to Microbrew. Overall, Microbrew is packaged small, but does a big job of brewing beer and satisfying thirsty customers.

—oOo—

Currently, Microbrew is being funded on Kickstarter.