|Player Count (recommended)
|Nigel Kennington and Sarah Kennington
This is a preview of a prototype game, written as part of our Scotlight programme. One Free Elephant is a company registered in Linlithgow, Scotland. A prototype copy of Microbrew was provided in exchange for a fair and honest preview.
This is not a paid preview. Meeple Like Us does not, and will not, accept money for reviews, previews, or anything in between. This preview does not come with a rating because Microbrew is a prototype game but the post does contain Opinions.
Disclosure – Mrs Meeple and I know both of the designers (Nigel and Sarah Kennington) of old. There is a pre-existing personal connection here and that is something you should know before reading the post.
So, this is a preview rather than a review because our reviews come with teardowns and this is still a game in its prototyping phase. It doesn’t even have its final art – you can see that in the featured image at the top of this page but everything else is just illustrative. It’s not really fair then for us to critique the accessibility of a game based on what are sometimes going to be placeholder decisions. However, this also isn’t a preview in the sense of we’re just ‘giving you the facts, ma’am’. This post occupies a weird halfway house because it seems that everything we do has to be over-complicated. God, Why are we like this??
At some point in the future I’m sure someone is going to write a blisteringly devastating report on the casual environmental damage caused by the board game hobby. I mean, look at the shelves of your average game story – huge, bright, angry boxes that demand your attention. They’re covered in furious, wild colours like you’re staring at a herd of cubical horny peacocks. They’re like aggressive animals trying to get your attention by puffing themselves up so big you can’t ignore them. You buy them, perhaps out of fear, and you take them home. You open your new purchase and inside you find a set of components that could have fit in a box a fifth the size with room to spare. That shouldn’t be surprising – I mean, 99.9999999% of an atom is made up of empty space. Board game boxes though – one might well argue they’re taking the piss.
That’s why I like the idea of microgames. They’re almost fetishist exercises in subverting the expectations of the soft power of presence. You buy a tiny box, and ideally what you get out is a big game. It’s a lovely idea, especially for someone like me who is now forced into a ‘one in one out’ policy just because of all that empty air on his shelves. If more games focused on the precision of the coupling between package and components we’d all be a good deal happier. Maybe.
Of course, I’m also a contrarian and I like the idea here more than the actuality. Some of that is just because of the song this site was born to sing. That trend towards minimalism also creates accessibility issues in rough proportion to the efficiency of design. The lack of ‘give’ in the packaging can occasionally make games difficult to pack up in a way that diminishes the ease by which they can be stored away. Life is full of trade-offs and for a site that is so focused on the usability of play these kind of games are generally a tough sell. Mint tin games doubly so. Fitting everything in the Microbrew tin and still being able to close it is a time-consuming mini-game in and of itself. I have on occasion stored it in a zip-lock bag just because I had to be up early for work in the morning.
That probably gives you a good idea of how much you’re getting here – it’s not a small game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a game that unpacks from a tiny tin like something designed by Mary Poppins. Even so One Free Elephant have still managed to find room for the totemic elephant that represents the brand – a little 3D printed trinket that is very pleasingly idiosyncratic. It doesn’t have a role in the game though, which is a shame. I’d like to release it into the breweries of my opponent to shake things up when my prospects look at their bleakest. Nice kegs you’ve got there. Shame if something happened to them.
Here’s the quick pitch. You’re trying to arrange the production of trendy beers for fussy hipsters. You! You who are legendary for not being able to arrange a piss-up in the proverbial. Someone thought that it would be a good idea to put the future of a brewery in your feckless, clumsy hands. I’d say ‘I hope someone lost their job for that blunder’, but really the only person likely to be fired is you.
In front of you is a copper in which four different kinds of token are strewn. Three of these are different kinds of wort – heavier worts sink easily to the bottom and lighter worts bubble up effortlessly to the top. You’ll also have ‘maltings’ in there. They’re like someone threw some KY jelly into the recipe – they can slide in everywhere but you still need to engage in some delicate negotiation to get consent regarding the destination.
You get two brewers with which to operate your business, and each of those is going to be placed on the various action squares shared by you and your opponent within the the brewery. Those actions will let you bottle up beers, serve them to customers, swap around the various worts in your copper and a few other things. It seems on the surface like a standard worker placement game but there’s a nice twist here – someone occupying a space doesn’t mean it’s blocked. Instead, it means that when you take that action you return their allocated brewer to their supply. Essentially you elbow them out of the way and they head back off to the staffroom in a huff. It seems like a simple change but what it does is create an elasticity in turn structure that I haven’t seen anywhere else. You’re not weighing up the choices you have left, but rather the implication of the choices you don’t really want to make. You’re only rarely stuck doing something you don’t want to do – the only exception is when you block an action space with your own worker. Instead you have to worry about what’s going to happen with the flex you’ve just injected into your opponent’s industrial capacity. It’s permissive rather than prohibitive and it adds a nice tactical layer to play. It lets you think ahead not just to what you need to grab before an opponent goes for it, but instead to what you can gain when an opponent goes for it. It’s the beer equivalent of sliding into their DMs.
The brewery is where you’ll be choosing to brew beer, and that’s a puzzle game in and of itself. Each beer recipe has a set of tokens it needs to be perfect. Serving perfect beers to customers makes them loyal. Loyal customers are your points, and the winner is decided by the amount of loyalty they can command from their alcoholic clientele. There are some other things that get taken into account too, but each of those is just a way to earn a bit more loyalty – for international appeal, or for specialisation in a particular flavour of brew. Your artisanal brewing efforts will yield you the reward of perpetual appreciation. You too can be Brewdog, if you really take this whole thing seriously and carefully shepherd the worts into the columns that match the recipes you have available. You can be a legend amongst craft beer connoisseurs. You could be a pilsner poseur.
To do that, you need to look at your copper, take a brew action, and chain together wort swaps so that you can get the right token to the right column ready for brewing. It’s a logic puzzle because of the swapping requirements, but also because if you brew a beer from imperfect components it’ll accumulate a contaminant that sours the batch. People will drink it, but they will resent you for it. It’s not quite as tricky as it sounds. All you need to arrange are the right tokens within a column, you don’t also need them in the right order. Even so, you might spend a solid minute looking for the path that you need to follow to get your copper in order. You often need several brew actions to take advantage of an ideal conjunction of still and supply and you’ll need to take them quickly. When you get that all lined up though, well – let’s just say more than once Mrs Meeple did a little jig in her chair upon accomplishing a particularly tasty outcome. The quest for perfection in brewing, given how tricky it is to get it right, can be genuinely satisfying.
You know, craft beer is fine and well but you know what takes a lot less work? Cheap beer that tastes like cat piss. Let your competition keep their exquisitely engineered inebriation. You’ll bottle anything. You’ll fill your bottles full of tap water and treacle. You’ll serve sump water and sugar. Hell, you’ll even sell Fosters on tap. You don’t want love, you want money because money buys new recipes, new staff, a larger copper and even a chance to double-dip at opportunities already squandered. More importantly though it lets you buy the love that others merely earn. Chumps. People don’t drink your sludge for the taste. They drink it for the brand. Let the others perfect the ambrosial Pepsi. You’ve got crates of the vastly inferior Coke that you can crank out by the warehouse full. It gets more expensive to build a following as time goes by, but by then you’ve got the money to solve a lot of the problems you had earlier. If the brewing puzzle is just too opaque for you to crack, well – you’ll find it easier with more brewers and a larger set of columns from which to work.
Really, your games of Microbrew are going to be based on a blend of these strategies, and which you choose depends on opportunity and the point at which it’s sensible to pivot from one approach to the other. You don’t need to be a purist, and indeed that’s probably not going to be a feasible strategy. So much of perfection lies on serendipity – having the right beer, for the right customer, when you have the right combination of worts ready to go. When it all lines up, it’s great. If that’s too difficult though, and it probably will be, you’re not stuck for options.
But there’s another thing I haven’t mentioned yet.
When you bottle a beer, you take all the tokens from a column of your copper and place them on the card. Every time someone takes an action, that beer ferments – a token is removed, or placed in the contaminant section. Only when the card is free of tokens is it ready to serve. Every recipe you bottle, in other words, is a flare that you fire up into the air. ‘I am going to serve a beer!’, you say to your startled opponent and you can bet they will have a keen eye on its eventual destination. When someone puts that perfect beer out there to age, well – quality takes time. So maybe you swoop in – listlessly toss a can of Tennants into the waiting mouth of the customer they were hoping to seduce and temporarily sate their thirst. You won’t win their loyalty, but you can stop someone else from getting it if you want to play rough. Sometimes you brew bottles in Microbrew just so you’ve got a handy supply of Molotov cocktails to throw.
There are a lot of interesting choices in Microbrew and it’s definitely the case that One Free Elephant have packed a lot of game into a tiny box. I might be inclined to say ‘too much game’ just because of the accessibility issues that come with manipulating tiny tokens on a pair of cards that have a tendency to break up and separate during play. That’s the cost that comes with the intentional development of a mint-tin game though and absolutely everyone is going to know, coming into it, that sacrifices needed to be made in order to achieve the design goals. It’s a bit like complaining because the VHS tape you bought doesn’t fit in your blue-ray player.
I do though have some concerns with how much serendipity comes into play when looking to brew perfect beers. You have some control over the worts in your copper, but in the end gaining a loyal customer requires having the right recipe that matches. If you don’t then a whole path of opportunities gets cut off simply because you functionally cannot do that which is needed. You can go researching for recipes but again – if you don’t find what they’re asking for then your decision to go for mass-production is essentially forced upon you out of necessity. I enjoy the puzzle of optimising a copper, and it’s a curious design choice to allow, or force, one core part of the game to be pretty much optional.
Sure, you can focus on the owned recipes you know work for the loyal customers you have but that only earns you money – it doesn’t earn you any more points. It would be nice if there was some way in which you could more notably reap the rewards of building a local community by focusing on their needs. ‘Get every loyal customer drunk in a round and earn a random new loyal customer’, for example. As it is though before too long money is only useful for advertising and for tie-breaking. Servicing your fans, as it were, doesn’t feel satisfying in a way that is commensurate with the work that goes in to brewing perfection.
That’s compounded too by the way fermentation works – even if you match none of the tokens on a recipe, the worst that will happen is that your beer is contaminated by a single rogue wort or malting. That lowers its quality one level, but that seems an insufficient punishment for such wanton disregard for ingredients. As long as the recipe matches a customer, they’ll be happy to drink it. It’s like someone asking for a cup of Earl Grey only for you to hand them a mug full of liquefied compost. Sure, that compost might indeed be of extremely high quality but let’s be honest you would be justifiably aggrieved if someone expected you to drink it.
But still, this is a tiny game that punches very considerably above its weight – there’s a lot of challenge in here. It’s a game that requires you to approach each round like building a working still – it’s all loops and injections and distillations that need to line up in just the right way to end up with something worth drinking. And on to that it layers a need to be right in front of where your opponent wants to be. It needs you to be aggravating just so you can get the extra brewing capacity to accomplish anything. Even while you force yourself into someone’s path, you’re stuck knowing that they’re twisting their own brewers into your activities with all the tenacity of a corkscrew into a wine-bottle. Microbrew is a worker displacement game paired with a wort placement puzzle and both of those ideas are strong enough by themselves to carry a game far enough to be interesting. Both of them together more than merits your attention.
The Kickstarter launches on September the 1st, and I think you should definitely consider checking it out.