Brewin’ USA Review

Brewin' USA
Area Control, Auction, Set Collection
Adam's Apple Games, LLC
Adam Rehberg
Maki Naro

Brewin' USA is sort of an odd melange of game mechanisms, featuring auctions, set collection, area control, bluffing, bidding, and hand management; several adequate tastes which, here, taste adequate together.  By no means a bad game, it may not offer enough bite for those who aren't charmed by its admittedly excellent presentation.

Ok, so, full disclosure time – I don’t really drink.  It’s not that I won’t, or that I have anything against alcohol consumption in general, but it’s just not a habit I have.  I’ve never seen the appeal, I guess.

Jess:  And yet, as soon as you saw Brewin’ USA at Gencon, you were immediately interested in it!

Andrew:  Absolutely!  I mean, look at it!  The visual presentation is striking, and some of the core mechanics like hand management and set collection are among my favorites in games!

A unique box profile translates into unique component distribution.

Jess:  …But?

Andrew:  Well, yeah, there is a ‘but’, but let’s walk through the game before I get editorial.

Brewin’ USA has its players take on the roles of entrepreneurs in the craft beer industry, each vying to control the sudsy beer economy in 4 different regions of the US.  They will do this by gathering up ingredients, brewing batches of their finest beers, and challenging each other to the occasional brewfest as they look to establish dominance in cities across the country.

Taking over the country, one brew at a time.

Each round is divided into 4 phases:

  • Ingredient Auction:  Piles of ingredients are drawn, 1 per player, and brewers will hold auctions for each lot.  Lots are paid for in uncolored bottlecaps, which then get added to cities as market demand (more on that in a second).  Once everyone has gotten a pile of ingredients, we move to…
Piles for auction are drawn randomly, with each pile growing until either a double of an ingredient is drawn, or to 6 cards.
  • Brew Beer:  In player order, players can brew up to 2 beers on their turn.  To do this, they turn in ingredient cards which meet or exceed the minimums on the beer recipes they are brewing, and then assign their foamy offering to one of the uncontrolled cities on the map, thereby claiming it.  Alternately, they can also challenge an already-claimed city, thus instigating a…
Each beer requires the 4 basic ingredients (‘Orgainc’ is wild), and can also have a single unique accent added, like this bourbon barrel card, for special effect.
  • Brewfest:  During a brewfest, any number of players can jump in.  Participating players form a hand of 3 ingredient cards, have one blindly discarded by an opponent, and then reveal the remaining 2 cards, adding their values together.  The player with the highest number wins the city and a share of the market demand caps which were on it.  That player can either reinvest those caps as market demand, or claim them as cash for future ingredient auctions.  Losing players get equal shares of demand caps, but can only use them as currency (look, I’ll make all this market demand stuff make sense, give me a second).
The player aid cards. one whole card is devoted to resolving Brewfests.
  • Accounting:  Players either add cash caps to cities they control (increasing market demand) or claim caps from their cities, to be used as cash.  In the advanced variant (more on that later), there may be some other abilities activated here, depending on what cities are controlled.
Pretty components.

Jess:  Ok, so the deal with the whole ‘market demand’ mechanic works like this:

During the auction, all caps spent on lots go to the active player.  That player must distribute those caps to any unclaimed cities (pro tip: as the active player, distribute caps to cities you think you can eventually claim).  These caps sit on those cities, acting as either future income or endgame points for the player who controls the city they are on.

Only one beer, and thus player, can control a city at a time.

Controlling cities means brewing up beers.  There are 6 beer styles (Belgians, Pale ales, American lagers, Stouts/porters, German lagers/ales, and American ales, for those of you who just had to know), and each city tile will favor some, tolerate others, and reject the rest.

Phoenix is pretty laid back, and will drink basically anything. Seattle, though, only has room for stouts and pale ales.

Jess:  By brewing a beer that a city favors, you qualify for the city bonus, either at the end of the game or each round, as determined by the particular symbol. Brewin’ USA has both ‘normal’ and ‘advanced’ variants – the difference being that in normal mode, city bonuses are always just victory points…

VPs for controlling these cities with a preferred beer at the end of the game.

…whereas in advanced, they can range from extra income, to stealing market demand from neighboring cities each round, to giving a variable amount of points based on market demand.

The advanced variant introduces a few new twists on city control bonuses.

Andrew:  So a lot of the strategy of Brewin’ USA is in knowing where to pile your caps.  The caps which get added to cities form the basis of your future earnings, you know, assuming you control those cities.

Jess:  And assuming you don’t get undercut in a brewfest.

Andrew:  Right, that.  So now’s probably the time for the ‘but’.

Brewin’ USA is, in theory, a good game.  It has all the right ingredients – simple, functional mechanisms, great presentation, scalability (that’s a word, right?), and a neat theme.  But there are some things about it which just hit a sour note with us.  In no particular order:

  • The rules are a bit muddled and not well delivered.  The rulebook could have used an edit for clarity and contradicts itself at least once (bidding zero in an auction is only permissible if you have $0, but also says the last player to get a pile at auction never pays; these statements are separated by a single sentence) and for a game with 2 player-aid cards per player, there isn’t actually a player aid card for, you know per-turn operations.
  • The presentation comes at a cost.  First of all, this game generated more plastic waste than any game I have ever unpacked.  Each and every single bottle cap (all 79 of ’em) came in an individual plastic baggie.  That’s ridiculous.  And for as thematic and attractive as they are, they also don’t even stack all that well and can be a chore to count when stacked.
This borders on irresponsibly wasteful.
  • The endgame can easily be rushed.  As soon as a player brews their third beer, the end of the game is triggered.  And since players can theoretically brew 2 beers in a turn, all a player really has to do is build a hand of ingredients, wait to be in first place, and then slam out 2 beers to end the game.  Other players cannot counter this tactic, and it has won 100% of the games we’ve played.
Quick, how many caps are in this stack?
  • Brewfests disproportionately aid the losers.  When you challenge another player to a brewfest, you are guaranteed to walk away with as many caps as they get, win or lose.  The only downside to losing a brewfest is you don’t get control of the target city.  Sure, you technically don’t get to add your caps to cities as demand (losers always take caps as cash), but since caps are worth 1 vp each at the end of the game no matter where they are, the reward is virtually the same for the winner and loser in many cases, especially in the normal game.

Andrew:  I’ve played Brewin’ USA a handful of times, and I keep trying to figure out why I’m not enjoying it as much as I feel like I should.  Everything I like is there, and yet somehow, it’s just not coming together for me.

Jess:  I feel exactly the same way, actually.  The advanced variant makes it a little more interesting, but ultimately it just felt a little, I don’t know.

Andrew:  Foamy?

Jess:  Yeah, that’s a word.  There wasn’t quite enough substance to the decision-making, and all I really did was gather piles of ingredients, plunk down my caps, and hope no one brewfested my points away before I could end the game all at once.

Left-Hand milk stout for scale reference. And your drinking enjoyment. (Game does not come with actual beer)

Is Brewin’ USA a bad game?  Nope, I don’t think so.  But for whatever reason, it simply didn’t resonate with us.  Maybe a group who is more likely to be charmed by its subject or who are more accepting of its mechanical oddities, but for now, this is a light brew we’re going to pass on.

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(Gameosity received a review copy of this game.  We were not otherwise compensated.)

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