Something Good is Brewing
I finally had an opportunity to play Brew Crafters from Ben Rosset and Dice Hate Me Games at EuroQuest. As an amateur home brewer, I was interested in it since I first heard about it, but had missed some previous opportunities to back it. Now that it is in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign, I wanted to play it even more, to make sure it was worth backing. It is.
[Update: Kickstarter funding has ended, but expect it in stores in 2014]
The short overview of the game is that it is a 2-5 player game, deeply inspired by Agricola, with a similar worker placement mechanic. But there is one big difference that the designer is quick to point out. Production and building actions can’t be blocked. It looks like shared action spaces are the new hot mechanic.
What You Get
I played the designer’s final prototype. None of the art was included, and pieces were mostly cardstock and handmade. The Kickstarter page shows a bit of the final artwork, and the graphical style looks like it will be a great fit for the game. There are a ton of wooden cubes for the three basic resources: malt, hops, and yeast, and the three advanced ingredients, spice, coffee, and fruit. The box is also going to be full of cardboard: player boards, the market board, research labs, building upgrades, collaboration tiles and skilled workers. And then there’s the beer. Not actual beer, unfortunately, but the recipes players brew in the game. The game is currently set to come with (I think) 24 recipes, and each recipe has a pile of tokens to represent the batches brewed, and a gold label for each recipe.
What You Do
Players have 12 rounds (seasons) over 3 years to grow their brewery. In that time, players collect the ingredients, grow the brewery, and of course brew beer. The game starts by placing the 3 basic recipes: ale, porter, and stout, and a random selection of 2 advanced recipes in each category. With all the extra recipes and extra skilled workers to choose from, there is a lot of variability in setup. Nine skilled workers with unique abilities are also added.
Each round starts with two market actions that players use to compete for ingredients that restock, and hire workers (the skilled workers and additional brewery shifts). Then players have brewery actions to process beer (brew, bottle, and sell in the same action) upgrade their breweries, and perform research. Brewing is a clever mechanic that starts by paying the ingredients to add a batch into your fermenter. The next time you brew, the first batch moves to the bottling line and you can add a new batch to the fermenter. The next time, the bottled batch gets sold, the fermented batch moves to bottling, and the fermenter is ready for the next batch.
You can use a brewery shift to upgrade your brewery. You start with limited storage and processing capacity, and can add a variety of buildings to gain more reputation, brew more, brew faster, or gain extra ingredients. You can also use the shift to research, gaining abilities in different categories, like building, ingredients, or brewing. Early research gives you a one-time bonus, but keep investing and you gain recurring bonuses and reputation points.
While the market actions limited to one use per round, the brewery actions are multiple use. Everyone can choose the same action, and you can do the same action multiple times. Players start with only one brewery shift, and like most good worker placement games, gaining the extra shifts will be key to winning. But you can’t just hire an extra shift, you need to have brewed several batches first. And, of course, you can’t jump straight to the most valuable recipes, you have to start with the basic recipe of each type. Be the first to brew an advanced type and it nets you 3 reputation points.
At the end of each winter, you have to pay for your workers and for your building improvements. Like harvests in Agricola, players need to have made enough money to pay, or take loan tokens that hurt your reputation. At the end of the game, players count the reputation from all of their brewed batches, research, and brewery upgrades.
What I Liked
When I first looked at the game, I noticed that it’s easy to get stuff. There are a ton of spaces that give you ingredients. Buildings and equipment, research, and skilled workers don’t cost anything to gain, and many of them give you more ingredients immediately and extra ingredients later. The only thing you have to pay ingredients for is to start a batch of beer. You almost can’t help but gain ingredients. That is why balancing storage and production is such a deep part of the game. You need to get the right ingredients at the right time.
That also means that there are multiple paths to victory. You can focus on brewing just one family of recipes or go for a broad range. You can find alternate ways of getting the ingredients you need. You can also focus on research to make the most of limited actions, or focus on your operations to improve your brewing process. There is a large amount of interaction between different parts of the game, making it important to consider your options carefully.
The separation between market and brewery actions is great, too. You need to carefully plan both halves of the round to get the timing right. But the game isn’t punishing, either, like many worker placement games with blocking. When you miss something, it is because you didn’t leave enough time in your schedule, not because another player took the crucial space. Instead of a delicate stack that crumbles when one support is missed, the game is a series of interrelated processes that rewards you for efficiency.
In terms of theme, what isn’t to love about running a craft brewery? But even better, the theme feels very tightly integrated. There is a very natural progression to the game. It is easy to add things to your brewery, but they mostly cost extra money. It naturally becomes harder to make enough money because you have grown, not because the game arbitrarily gives you less time to make it. In fact, the game gives you enough time to build an engine and use it, instead of cutting you off when you finally get it where you want it. It is up to you to make the most of it.
What I Disliked
After a single game, it is hard to find things I didn’t like in the game. This is a good testament to the work that has been done by Ben Rosset to create a smooth playing game with no sharp edges. My only disappointment in the game is that I would like it to go even deeper into the details of different malts and hops, and include even more beer styles. But I have heard that these could be included as later expansions or standalone games.
I was cautiously optimistic before playing, but my first play convinced me to go home and back Brew Crafters the very next day. Brew Crafters is going to claim a prominent place on my game shelf, and I’m looking forward to seeing and playing the final product. Fans of deep Euro-style strategy games will find a lot to like. The theme and work that have been put into simplifying this game should also make it a great way to get more casual gamers into the hobby. The game has an enticing aroma, great body and is heady enough to keep you coming back for more. If you haven’t yet, go to Kickstarter and pour yourself a big frosty glass of Brew Crafters.