The world is in chaos and magic has run amok, sending things into disarray as the seasons all run together and even the wildlife has begun to change. Only the forest mystics know the way to fix it, to use their magic to bring back balance to the world. No, this isn’t another Miyazaki movie. It is the setup to Brew, one of the big 2021 releases from Pandasaurus Games and a new addition to the canon of “cute but cutthroat” board games. I’ve been excited about this game for a while, and was lucky enough to get a copy from Pandasaurus at GenCon!
What’s In The Box?
- 1 Village board
- 1 First player marker
- 4 Character boards
- 16 Forage dice(4 per player)
- 8 Element dice (2 per player)
- 20 Forest cards
- 36 Creature cards
- 32 Potion cards
- 4 Reference cards
- 96 Ingredient tokens
- 24 Herbs
- 24 Shrooms
- 24 Crystals
- 24 Energy Berries
- 38 VP tokens(1s and 3s)
- 10 Scorch token
The crack about Miyazaki I made at the beginning isn’t just a joke about the plot of the game. Everything about Brew feels built to evoke the whimsy and hidden darkness of a good Studio Ghibli movie, complete with the same soft tones and lush forest backgrounds straight out of My Neighbor Totoro or Howl’s Moving Castle. The characters you play as have a lot of personality and the creatures you can tame and use are cute as heck. Through it all are little touches of elemental corruption, including things like mushroom coated deer and flaming frogs. It’s a beautiful little game on the table.
How’s It Play?
You start by choosing a distinct mystic, either based on their looks or their optional powers. These powers are a great way to guide your strategy, but are optional for play. Ditto the companion creatures (its a promo pack but if you can get it, I would), which give little bump each round.
The basic gameplay of Brew is centered around dice placement, with players rolling six at the start of each round and then placing them on either the village board, the forests, or a tamed pet in order to activate an effect on that space. Four of the dice are color coded to the characters and are used for foraging, while the other two are elemental dice with more extensive powers. You have to match the face of a dice to the forest space to get the result you want, usually either a resource or the ability to tame an animal. Element dice can be used for any symbol, while also letting you increase your harvest (water), stack on another die and replace it (fire), or retrieve your own placed dice (wind). You can also place dice on the village spaces, two of which are wild and three of which correspond to the faces on the element dice. The element spaces are powerful (they have to be to make them worth using), while the wild ones allow for an out if you get stuck.
The ingredients you forage (or special wild card energy berries earned from different powers) are used to brew (eh?) special potions which not only are worth victory points at the end but also have one-time powers that alter the course of the game. These can be bonuses for the player or ways to mess with your opponents in order to knock their strategy off or send them reeling. The better the potion, the more reagents you need to gather to create it.
While at first it seems like a fairly straightforward resource management/dice-placement game, the trainable animals are where things get interesting by adding an element of engine building to the proceedings. Each animal you train has an ability, and different seasons of animals tend towards different powers (summer critters often let you scorch the forest while winter critters might encourage resource hoarding). Unlike potions, these creatures don’t go away and sometimes can be used multiple times. By chaining together your actions and effects, you can get quite a lot of bang for your buck…especially when you train a deer.
Victory is decided primarily by potions brewed and animals trained, as well as the claiming of the forests each round by having the majority of forage spaces.
Brew has somehow gotten a reputation as a mean game. A “mean” game is as far as I can tell any game that has rules that let players mess with each other. Stealing or denying resources, moving around pieces, causing problems on purpose. There’s nothing wrong with games that do this, but somehow Brew has acquired an extra level of dislike from some folks for having “mean” elements. Perhaps that’s due to the Ghibli-influenced art style and creature design that fills the game. But it isn’t mean. Can you burn down a whole forest just to make sure your opponents can’t have things? Yes. Can you totally wipe out your opponents placed dice and ruin their strategy? Also yes. But that’s part of the fun! And they’re encouraged to do the same to you. The gameplay is supposed to be a little wild, a little chaotic. But at the same time, you do get to play your own way.
Investing in animals and your engine is just as valid a choice as going heavy on potions, and you’ll probably do a little bit of everything to keep your dominant strategy intact. The strategy is varied but not so deep as to be intimidating, and it only takes a round for the core concepts to be apparent and easy to pick up. I think it definitely straddles the line between light and medium play weight, making it a good entry point for board games alongside something like Everdell. Whether you’re here for the appealing artwork or the easy merging of different game styles, brew is a concoction that’ll stay with your for a while.
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Images via Pandasaurus Games
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