Friday, August 4, 2017

Quick Review - The Brigade - Kickstarter Preview

The Brigade
Designers: Alex Wynnter
Ben Hoban
Publisher: Red Genie Games
2-4p | 20-40m | 10+
Quick Review - The Brigade - Kickstarter Preview
Disclaimer Support me on Patron!

When I was a kid I used to go on an annual canoeing trip up to Quetico and the Boundary Waters in Canada and Minnesota with my dad and a group of his high school students.  He would take a group of city kids from the south side of Chicago up into the wilderness for a week where we'd canoe around 50 miles, carry all of our gear and food in packs over portages, cook over a fire, sleep in tents, and poop in a hole we'd dig ourselves.  It was really roughing it and for many of the kids it was their only experience with nature outside of some of the urban parks and forest preserves.  For me it was just part of life.  I went with every summer from the time I was in third grade until he stopped the trips when I was in college.  I went from being the youngest by far, to the oldest, aside from my dad.  We also went on trips there and plenty of other places with just our family, too.  Camping was something I did a lot of, and I still do it with my family today.  I love everything about being in the wilderness, but my favorite part of it all, ever since I was a little kid, is the campfire.  On those Quetico trips the first thing I'd do when we'd make camp, while everyone else was struggling to set up tents, or going fishing, or digging themselves a hole, was to find firewood, expand the fire ring, and get the campfire going.  That was my job, and I loved it!  I loved the fire so much that I usually earned the nickname "Pyro George" within the first day or so, even from guys that didn't know me before the trip.
30 years ago there was a 10 year old George, starting fires...
Well, today I'm going to tell you about a game that involves a school that I would have loved to attend if it was real.  You see, in the center of the town of Tinderbox is the Pyromancer's University.  What glorious things that go on there we can only imagine, but in The Brigade, the current class at P.U. is working on their final exams.  As you can imaging, this can be a bit devastating to a town called Tinderbox.  In The Brigade each player manages one of the four fire brigades in town.  Your job is to keep the fires breaking out, as a result of the happenings at the University, under control.  You want to become Fire Chief for all of Tinderbox, so as you put out fires you'll earn the loyalty of the tenants of the various blocks.  Gain enough support and you'll be declared Fire Chief.  But you must work together with the other fire brigades to make sure the entire town doesn't have to be evacuated while it goes up in flames!

The Brigade is for two to four players and takes about 20-40 minutes (I've found that games are about 30-60 minutes with new players).  You can find The Brigade on Kickstarter for about $49 USD ($60 AUD), including shipping, through August 31, 2017.  At the time of writing this review, the game is just about funded, so they'll be knocking out stretch goals very soon!

Each game you'll build the town of Tinderbox as a six by six grid of square tiles, with the Pyromancer's University as the four central tiles and the four fire stations at the corners.  Each tile represents one block and each block has a building on it owned by one of four factions: Merchants, Nobles, Council, and an as yet unnamed faction.  The goal of the game is to earn the loyalty of these blocks by putting out the fires spreading all over town.

Each player starts the game with a fire brigade consisting of just their chosen captain and a small water wagon.  As the game progresses you'll be able to upgrade the size of your crew, amount of water your wagon can carry, and the number of actions you can take each turn.  These must be balanced according to your strategy to gain enough loyalty to become Fire Chief.
Compete to advance your career while the city burns!
Each turn will start with you drawing an event card.  There are three types of cards.  When the wind gusts fires will spread.  Firestorms cause new fires to appear and existing fires to increase in intensity.  Special events might give players a helping hand, a penalty, or just a reprieve.  Having your water wagon and brigade on a block protects it from spreading or intensifying flames.
Event cards will determine how the fires spread.
Once the event is resolved you are able to take as many actions as are indicated in the leadership track on your player board.  This starts at four, but you can upgrade to earn up to six.  There are eight actions you can take as many times as you are blue, except you can only upgrade once per turn.  You can move your brigade up to three spaces, move your water wagon to any space on the board, extinguish fires, refill water, transfer water between your brigade and water wagon (if they're on the same space), recruit more crew (draw two, keep one), or upgrade an attribute of your brigade (crew size, wagon capacity, or actions).  Some crew members give you special abilities if you meet certain requirements.
Keep track of your stats on your Fire House board.
All of the move and water actions are there to support the main action of the game, to extinguish fires.  Extinguishing fires is what gains you renown and that is what earns you the loyalty of the various blocks, eventually earning you the title of Fire Chief of Tinderbox (a futile, though apparently coveted position).  To put out a fire you must have your brigade on a block that is aflame.  You discard water from your crew to put out the flames.  Each water cube reduces the intensity level of the block you are on by one.  The brigade can use water from the wagon if they are on the same block, but a wagon cannot extinguish fires alone (until it is upgraded enough or you earn a special ability).  If you are able to completely extinguish a fire from a block you'll earn renown equal to how many levels of intensity the fire was at.  Renown is represented by cubes of your brigade's color and you can distribute these renown cubes as you see fit on the block you just saved or any adjacent block.
As you fight fires you'll become more popular with the town's citizens.
Once your renown on a block equals the points value of the block (two to four, or five for a P.U. block), you'll gain that block's loyalty and be able to place a loyalty token on it.  You also get to clear off any other players' renown tokens, however other players can steal the loyalty of the block by placing new renown tokens on the block until they have one more than the point value of the tile.

If you gain the loyalty of five of the blocks of a particular faction (or three P.U. blocks), or one block of each type, including the Pyromancer's University, you'll immediately become the new Fire Chief and win the game.  The game can also end two other ways.  If eight or more blocks are destroyed (or three P.U. blocks) the town is evacuated and the player with the most points in loyal blocks wins.  In the unlikely event that all the fires are extinguished the game also ends and the winner is the player with the most points in loyal blocks.
Wind can spread the fire across town, igniting previously safe areas.
So, how do blocks get destroyed, you might ask.  Each block has a fire track to indicate the intensity of the fire.  When a block catches fire a fire token is placed at level one intensity.  As the intensity increases (when wind gusts of the firestorm targets the block again) the intensity increases.  If the intensity ever reaches five (eight for the P.U. blocks) the block is destroyed.  Flip the tile over.  It can no longer catch fire or spread flames.  So in a way, it can be beneficial to sacrifice a few blocks.  Just don't let too many burn or you'll ruin your winning strategy.
As blocks burn they'll eventually get destroyed if no one saves them.
That's the game in a nutshell.  It's an intense game of fighting fires that seem hopelessly out of control.  The game is competitive, but at times it feels a bit cooperative as you work with other players to prevent all out devastation.

Final Thoughts:
There is quite a lot going on in The Brigade.  You have to manage your water resource, worry about upgrading your stats, manage to keep your brigade and wagon close to each other, gain the loyalty of specific blocks, and keep tabs on what your opponents are doing, all while trying to keep the town from completely burning to the ground.  There's an interesting dynamic between cooperating to save the town and competing to become Fire Chief.  Sometimes the game can get somewhat stressful as the town starts to burn out of control.
This is near-final art for the Pyromancer's University.  In the final game the gray areas are filled out.
Every game of The Brigade will be different.  With 28 different blocks, there are over 3×10^24 different possible layouts.  On top of that, there are even more combinations of events and crew members.  Your strategy will need to adapt with each game.  Some games will feel like the town is burning out of control.  Other times the events will be more forgiving and you'll actually be looking for blocks that are burning enough to earn you some renown.  Sometimes factions will be grouped together, sometimes they'll be spread out.  All of this will cause you to adjust your strategy every game.

So if you like a lot of variety, and figuring out a new strategy each game, then The Brigade is great for that.  The game does have some flaws though.
Every game plays out completely different.
My biggest issue with the game actually has almost nothing to do with the mechanics.  It's the aesthetics that are an issue.  Don't get me wrong, the artwork is great.  The buildings depicted on each block look great, the crew cards are really awesome, and throughout the game each individual element looks stunning.  The problem is in how it all comes together.  With 36 blocks making up the town, each with a fire track, different faction color, a value that is critical information, and potentially several different renown or loyalty tokens, plus a bunch of brigade and water wagon standees (or meeples), the play area is very busy and hard on the eyes.  This makes it pretty difficult to visually sort all the information you need to make a strategic decision.  There are enough decisions in the game to make an AP prone player take a long turn and the clutter doesn't help make choices any easier.  With everything going on in the game I'm not sure there's a good solution.  You could get rid of all the building art and just have plain tiles, but that gets rid of a huge aesthetic element of the game components.  The fire trackers and renown tokens are a necessary part of the game.  You can't do much at all if you get rid of the brigade and water wagon standees.  So I'm not sure how to improve this aspect of the game.  The game definitely still works, it's just visually very busy.
It can be a challenge to discern what blocks are best for your strategy because of how much visual input there is.
Since receiving my review copy the game has gone through a number of mechanical revisions.  Mostly for balance, but a few larger elements have been tweaked as well.  In the copy I received the crew members came with abilities that could be activated by using an action.  Since them they've all been updated to have passive abilities that are available when certain conditions are met (have a stat upgraded to the max, have the loyalty of a certain faction, perform a specific action, etc.).  The negative Special Events have also been removed from the event deck, and the upgrade boards have been adjusted as well.  Also, when reaching the last space in an upgrade track it unlocks a special one-time or ongoing ability.  These are all great improvements, but I still feel that there are some additional tweaks needed.

As I mentioned, with all the different combinations of layouts and cards, each game will feel very different.  This is great for variety, but not so great for figuring out a strategy that works in the game since each game is different.  This may be a pro or con for you, but the issue it creates is that some games can be wildly unbalanced.  If a player has all the low value blocks near their fire station they'll have a much easier time gaining the loyalty of the right blocks to become Fire Chief.  If the event cards don't cooperate you might end up with a strong brigade, but few fires to fight.  Even some of the crew can give a player an advantage in certain situations.  I played a two player game where more than half of the event cards were special events that gave us upgrades.  So the fires weren't breaking out or spreading very fast.  However I got a crew member on my first turn that let me increase the intensity of a fire when I ended my movement on a block.  This allowed me to very quickly move to value two locations, put out the fires when their intensity was just a one, and gain their loyalty.  Our game lasted exactly four and a half rounds because I was able to secure a block every turn and I was the first player.  Other games feel like the fires are burning out of control and you can't take the time to upgrade anything or else you'll never gain the loyalty of any blocks.
Some games are close, others there's a runaway winner.  It all depends on the random layout and how the cards come up.
Personally, I feel like building your crew and coming up with a fire brigade with cool abilities is one of the coolest aspects of the game.  However the slow upgrade process makes it difficult to gain any crew, and definitely difficult to actually change out crew.  You start the game with only one member of your brigade, the Captain, and no crew members.  Before you can get any crew you have to take an action to upgrade, then another action to recruit.  I think I'd almost prefer to have the game eliminate the upgrade actions and just have the wagons have a set capacity, crew have a set maximum, and actions be locked in at three or four.  That would simplify some of the decisions and make being able to build a crew a more integral part of the game.  Making water a little more plentiful and crews a little larger will also encourage more competition over gaining loyalty of each block.  In the games I played there was very little competition over blocks, players tended to gain the loyalty of blocks and keep it.  However, making water more plentiful and crews larger will also mean that fires will be a bit easier to extinguish, so they might need to spread even more.  Fighting fires and building a crew were the most fun aspects of the game, having to waste actions to upgrade your stats was the least fun and most cumbersome aspect.  So, while I think the game works mechanically, I still feel there can be improvements to enhance the fun factor of the game and take out some of the more cumbersome aspects.
I think the game would be enhanced by making the blocks more difficult to clear and getting rid of the upgrade tracks.
They may have been necessary in the early design, but I feel the game has evolved beyond the need for the upgrade tracks.
They only add a complication where elegance would serve better in an already fairly complex game.  A classic case of "less is more". 
I also felt the game was poorly balanced for two players.  The play area for two players is too big and there's not enough competition over the spaces.  Tightening up the board in a two player game would really help.  You could easily take out the eight corner tiles to make the town a plus sign instead of a square - remove the value one blocks and one of the value two blocks of each faction, then make the win condition gaining the loyalty of four blocks of a type instead of five.  That would increase the challenge of a two player game.
Removing the eight corner tiles would tighten up the board for two players, enhancing competition.
I can also see the game having multiple difficulty levels.  It would be really simple to have flames of two different colors on the event cards.  An easy difficulty would only add/spread flames of one color, and a more difficult game would add/spread flames of both colors.  That would add even more variety to the game without affecting the balance.
The Flames Spread event cards are easy enough to read, but it would be super easy to add
different colored flames for a bigger challenge.
Overall though, I think The Brigade is a pretty fun game.  I enjoyed every game I played, loved the theme and setting, and liked how each game is a new puzzle to solve.  There are a lot of important decisions, and personally I like having to figure out a new, ideal strategy each game.  The jam packed playing area was a bit of an issue for some of the players I showed the game to, but some didn't mind it either.  If that's something you can tolerate, then the artwork in the game is really great.  So be sure to check out The Brigade on Kickstarter through August 31, 2017.  About $49 USD will get you quite a bit of game that has a lot of variety and replayability.

Preliminary Rating: 7/10

This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

Did you like this review?  Show your support: Support me on Patron! Also, click the heart at Board Game Links , like GJJ Games on Facebook , or follow on Twitter .  And be sure to check out my games on  Tabletop Generation.

This is actual artwork from the game.

This is actual artwork from the game.

This is actual artwork from the game.

This is actual artwork from the game.

This is actual artwork from the game.

These are just placeholder art and not what will be in the game.

These are just placeholder art, and not what will be in the actual game. 

GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends. Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games. Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play). I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game. Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing. Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment