This review is based on a pre-kickstarter version of the game provided by One Free Elephant. Art is not final. I have played several iterations of the game during its development but my review is based on the final version, played from the rules as written without any of the creators present.
Welcome one and all to the smallest brewery in the world!
Yes that’s right inside this tiny tin is a whole brewery just waiting on your tender managerial skills to brew the correct beer for the the thirsty customers that line up outside each day. From all over the world they come to sample your wares, but wait, you aren’t the only one on duty today. That person over there, yes THEM, they want to make beer as well, and you know what, they want to do it better than you. How very dare they!
Microbrew is the third game from the One Free Elephant team and this time it’s a co-design between Sarah and Nigel Kennington: a two player, worker placement game of breweries and beer. Originally conceived of for the mint tin competition on BGG, where it came a very impressive second place. They have now taken the brew and run with it, barrelling towards production just in time for Oktoberfest, the game hits Kickstarter in September. So is it a wonderful craft beer or a terrible cheap lager? Let’s pour a glass and find out.
Good things come in small packages
The first thing you notice about Microbrew is that it is totally stuffed with components: cards, wooden tokens, meeples and a neat compact rulebook. In fact it is so stuffed that I can’t get mine totally back together but I am a ham fisted idiot, so that’s not really a complaint.
Microbrew is a straight forward enough proposition: make and serve beer to customers, the person with the most loyal customers at the end is the winner. It’s a worker placement game, a genre I’m not usually a fan of, but from the first time I played Microbrew I knew it was a bit different. Walking into your brewery you are armed with a copper full of bubbling wort and maltings and some lovely assistants to help you get things done. The brewery manager is helping things run smoothly, and getting in the way a bit as managers are wont to do.
As you tussle for the spaces on the ‘board’ in the middle you are also trying to manipulate the tokens in your copper to brew the best beer possible. The copper manipulation is a really compelling little puzzle. Light (yellow) wort floats to the top whereas dark (brown) wort sinks to the top with a medium (orange) wort moving up if swapped with dark and down if swapped with light. The maltings (green) always swap. Heavier will swap with lighter moving down and lighter will swap with heavier moving up. You can move one wort a fair distance with one Brew Action, and using that action efficiently feels great!
Starting off with one recipe, with more appearing every turn, you manipulate the copper to try and brew the best beer you can to get the most money when you serve it to a customer whose taste it matches. Or, you can churn out any old guff and hope that people will throw you some money anyway because beer is just beer isn’t it?
If you brew a perfect beer, exactly matching the colours on one of the recipes, and it perfectly matches the tastes of the customer you give it to, they become a loyal customer! Mediocre beer sells for less depending on how much you didn’t match the recipe, and will also sell for less again if it doesn’t match the preferences of the drinker. An interesting side note is that mediocre beer will turn over the customer it is served to, meaning you can deny a loyal customer to someone for at least a turn if you time things correctly. Mediocre beer is also much faster to make so you could just pump that out, make money and advertise really hard, giving you a loyal customer every time you do it. Not like real life at all. No siree.
The worker placement aspect of the game was interesting to me as it is much more combative than I have come across in other games with this mechanic. Each action has 1, or 2 in the case of brewing, spaces but once someone puts a worker there, that is not the end of it being used for the turn. Every meeple can be replaced by your opponents giving a lovely feeling of struggling over the limited resources of this small operation and weighing up giving your opponent a worker back in order to get to the thing you really want to do.
Alongside the copper puzzle and worker placement lies some public and private goals that can reward you with extra customers at the end of the game. These could be that you need to have the most fiery beer loving customers or the most customers from a particular selection of countries. You don’t only have to brew a fair amount of beer, you also need to brew smart to take advantage of these bonuses.
I’ve really enjoyed all my games of Microbrew. It’s a smart, incredibly compact and elegantly designed puzzle. I would imagine it’s going to be pretty cheap to buy as well and will literally fit in your pocket, if you can get all the components back in the tin! I’ve had some very close games of it which I both like and find unusual for a worker placement game. One Free Elephant run tight, incredibly well managed campaigns and have succeeded in packing a lot of game in that tin, including a literal elephant. They are absolutely a company to watch as they grow.
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