I have this enormous soft-spot for Art Nouveau. Unfortunately it’s entirely a dead artistic style at this point, but it looks so, so good. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the iconic Metro signs in Paris, with the curling letters, the frosted fan-like glass awnings, and the serpentine lamps, just slightly tilted to look down on and illuminate the people entering the subway; it’s so lovely. Outside of Paris, you don’t see the style much with the exception of museums.
Luckily, Geek Attitude Games, with designer Etienne Espreman and artist Vincent Joassin, have a delightful little game to take you back to the height of Art Nouveau, Bruxelles 1897. The game builds and improves upon an earlier game from the company, Bruxelles 1893. In this new iteration you play as a Belgian art dealer in (where else?) 1897 Brussels. By buying and selling art, constructing homes, or expanding your social circle, you will rise to become the most popular and famous art dealer in all of Brussels.
Bruxelles 1897 is ultimately a pretty simple game. The game is played over four rounds. Each round, every player gets to play a architect card from their hand into a grid in front of them. You can buy art or materials to put into your tableau in front of you. Alternatively, you can sell art or sell your materials to build a house, which will get you money and victory points. You can convince a noble to join your social circle, getting access to their unique identity, or you start an art exhibition, where each player gets points for each unique piece of art they display.
Above the main grid, there are also three possible actions representing Brussels itself. You can go to the stock exchange to get money, you can go to City Hall and have a number of your nobles use their abilities based on your location in a track, or you can go the park and take any of the grid actions.
But, and here is where it gets interesting, that central grid isn’t just a place where you can get cards. It’s also a little area control game. The player that has the majority in each column gets a bonus based on the column, propelling them up different tracks and freeing architects from prison. Similarly, the person who has the majority in each set of four contiguous architect cards gets points as well.
It’s not just that you’re playing cards into the grid to get the art or houses or nobles that you want. You need to play into the grid to stop your opponents from getting majorities in each column. Maybe you need to prevent them from advancing in the architecture track, so that you can cut off a house based strategy at the knees, or you see that another player is getting points for each four contiguous architect sets that they dominate. You have to play a strategy that is both reactive, to stop your opponents from racking up points, and predictive, to be building up an engine to increase your own scoring at the end.
The game looks simple when you’re setting it up, but it’s got a lot of depth and strategy to it, and a lot of thinking required during each turn. I haven’t played the original Bruxelles 1893, but what I really like about this game is that deceptive depth. I think that the hardest part of being in the hobby-gaming hobby is that, well, the odd solo or co-op game aside, you generally can’t do it alone. You need to get some people to play it with, and while you may desperately want to play Twilight Imperium or A Distant Plain – two enormously complex games about space fighting in space and political disputes in Afghanistan, respectively – those are games that will probably lose you friends if that is how you try to win your buddies over to this genre.
And let’s be fair, Bruxelles 1897 is not the game that you want to use to get people into modern board gaming. Take out Welcome To, Elder Sign, or even that old classic, Settlers of Catan. Those should be the first foray. But Bruxelles 1897 is a great game to introduce others to once they’ve gotten their feet wet. It’s a great way to introduce new themes, new mechanics, and more rules; while still being light enough that non-boardgamers will love it.
At a price tag of $20, a beautiful design, and a simplicity with surprising depth, Bruxelles 1897 deserves a place in your collection.
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