Board Game Review: Brewin’ USA – Solid Fun for a Select Group | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Brewin’ USA – Solid Fun for a Select Group

It uses bottlecaps for currency, but this is no apocalyptic future. In Brewin’ USA, players adopt the role of brewers trying to take certain cities with their lagers, ales, and ports. All you need are the right ingredients and a tactical mind.

The Basics. Each player begins with six bottlecaps in their color. Those bottlecaps will mark various beers that they have brewed. Meanwhile, a number of city tiles are placed on the board to set up the game. The number depends on the number of players, but even with five, you’ll only use twelve of the sixteen available (and double sided) tiles.

The tiles are arranged in rows by region. Essentially, the regions correspond to the four time zones in the U.S.A. Players are also dealt five beer recipes and must immediately discard two for an initial hand of three. Throw some starting money at the players and they have everything they need to begin the game.

Each round begins when the dealer takes the stack of ingredient cards and deals out a number of piles equal to the number of players. The player to the left of the dealer then begins the bidding. He selects one of the piles to be auctioned and announces a bid. Once it’s purchased by the high bidder, the second pile goes up for auction and so on. The last pile is grabbed by the last player for free. Once all the piles are auctioned, the dealer places the money spent  onto various cities to denote the “market demand” for beer.

I hope the auction tracker isn’t intended to imply that I can’t remember how to count upward…

Then each player can brew up to two of their beer cards by discarding the proper ingredients. The player can also throw in an adjunct ingredient which provides a special one-time power. Once brewed, the recipes can either be placed on a particular city to control it (your brew is all the rage there), or they can go to a city that is already controlled and try to break into the market. Wherever there are competing beers, a brewfest begins. Players can put forth their best ingredients and whoever’s ingredients are more valuable wins. Nevertheless, the market share is divided (with the remainder going to the victor) and the loser takes those bottlecaps as coins. The winner can take his as coins or leave them there so that they can accumulate as points for end game scoring.

Finally, there is an accounting phase. At that point, each player controlling a city can either take one market demand into his supply as money, or add one money to increase the market demand at the city. Some cities also have special abilities that trigger in that phase and allow for income generation or stealing market demand.

The game end triggers when someone has created their third brew. At that point, there is one more round and end game scoring. At game end, each player gets points for money on hand, number of beers brewed, the market demand on each city they control, bonus points for majority in a particular region, and any bonuses that the cities provide for controlling with a preferred type of beverage. Most points wins.

A potential board (though lacking one tile for the four player game)

The Feel. Even though it provides a good time, Brewfest feels a little disjointed. Auctions, area control, area majority, set collection, and some element of bluffing all appear in the game. And they don’t necessarily merge or flow together in a cohesive way. Plus, the rulebook isn’t always clear. For example, it says that the minimum bid at auction is one bottlecap. But it also says the last player will get their ingredient pile for free. But this isn’t called out as an exception, but stated matter-of-factly as though it’s obvious a zero bid would be made there.

But putting aside some of the strangeness of the mechanics, it is a surprisingly enjoyable game. It’s great to see that ingredient cards are displayed randomly but auctioned off. This removes the luck factor and ensures that players have access to a wide array of choices – for the right price. Since money translates into end-game points, every auction is essentially a payment of points for the hope of more points later. Plus, it allows an amount of meta-gaming to develop as different groups tend to favor particular cards or strategies.

One of the more fragile aspects of the game is the way market demand works. At game end, it’s worth points on every city you control. So, in theory, you want a lot of demand on your cities. However, if someone starts a Brewfest against you, they get half of the market demand there. Even if they lose. Even if they contribute nothing! So having significant market demand, or working to increase it during the accounting phase, is generally just a way to give money to other people.

Red controls the city and has a bit of market demand to manipulate

And that’s especially true because at game end, unspent money is also worth a point each. So whether I take the market demand as money (where it is safe and can’t usually be stolen) or whether I leave it on the city (where it can be Brewfested away easily) it doesn’t really matter. At least not until final scoring. At final scoring, there is a bonus for each player with majority control in a region. And they get a bonus equal to the total market demand in that region. So if that’s me, I want the market demand to be there because it will be worth bonus points. If I’m not going to get the bonus, then I want to squirrel it away in my reserves.

Plus, when the money is placed by the dealer as market demand on the cities, it has to be placed on uncontrolled cities. By the final round, there might only be one or two such cities. So huge demand ends up there and everyone has to attach a brew card to it just to get their piece of the pie. This results in somewhat scripted play by end game.

Money! also, Market Demand!

That said, I don’t want to seem overly critical of Brewin’ USA. It definitely feels like a modern game – no retread of tired mass-market mechanics. In some sense, it feels like a much (much) lighter version of Power Grid. Auction, use resources to build/power, and take over cities.

But I think this game will find the most success with a particular segment of society. Specifically, non-gamers or casual gamers who enjoy craft beers. Every one of the 82 beer cards references a real craft brewery somewhere in the U.S. For those with serious interest in that hobby, it’s enjoyable to see familiar labels and brew them yourself. But I’m not so sure this game will find more purchase with more “hardcore” gamers. It’s a little too light, and just a little too scripted.

Beers of Brewin’ USA

Components: 4 of 5. On the one hand, I absolutely love the bottlecaps as markets, money, and market demand. Not only are they thematic, but highly unusual and fun to manipulate. And they make a delightful clinking sound. On the other, the artwork, such as it is, is fairly uninteresting and I absolutely hate the irregular box. It’s neat and unique, but a pain to store on the game shelf. And it has a hole in it! Ugh. Give me boring and square so that it fits on my shelf.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. There are two sources of luck in this game – drawing ingredients and drawing beer cards. And in both cases, the game substantially mitigates any misfortune. With the ingredients, it sets up an auction so that you pay for the better ones, or accept the poorer draws with a discount. With beer cards, you typically get to draw multiple and then discard. Luck still has some impact on the game, but not so much that you find yourself cursing the cards.

Mechanics: 3.5 of 5. Brewin’ USA is a fairly solid title. While the mishmash of mechanics doesn’t always flow nicely, or solidly adhere to a thematic basis, it does provide a good experience. I wish the rulebook was a little clearer in certain instances. Also, the setup of the city tiles is a little ambiguous. The rules say to set it up in columns as a “map of the USA,” but does that mean that Milwaukee should be placed higher than Chicago? The example in the rulebook shows the opposite…

Replayability: 2.5 of 5. Some gamers will get a lot out of this game. Especially those who love to see the represented beers and get a kick out of introducing their favorites to various cities. But I think Brewin’ USA falls into the trap of showing you everything it is on a single play. There is very little to explore and therefore less reason to return to the title repeatedly.

Spite: 2.5 of 5. Brewfest seems like it would be very adversarial. After all, you can jump into someone’s city and steal half their market demand for almost no cost. Wouldn’t that happen all the time? Well, it does happen. But the game doesn’t allow for you to build up your market demand much. The end game often gets triggered on just the third or fourth round of play, so there isn’t really all that much time to jockey for position on big cities. Sure, cities with very high market demand at game end get clobbered, but those also tend to be previously uncontrolled cities. So while spite can and does occur, it’s a much smaller part of the game than it might seem on first blush.

Adjunct ingredients add that extra kick

Overall: 3 of 5. Brewin’ USA doesn’t purport to be a giant brain burner or intricate multi-hour affair. It’s a relatively light auction game with strong area control and interaction. And, in that sense, it succeeds. And, I imagine, will see the most love from craft brew enthusiasts who will recognize the represented breweries. And if that gets you interested, there’s enough of a game here to keep you entertained. But if the theme is irrelevant to you, I’m not so sure this would be a worthwhile investment of time.

(A special thanks to Adam Rehberg for providing a review copy of Brewin’ USA)

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