Design by Andreas Pelikan & Alexander Pfister
Published by Alea / Ravensburger
2 – 5 Players, 1 – 1 1/4 hours
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
Since its founding way back in 1999, Alea has earned a much-deserved reputation for producing high quality, challenging games. Indeed, for years their forte seemed to be developing deeper strategy games than what their parent company (Ravensburger) normally published. While dedicated gamers were enamored by their games, they were largely overlooked by the Spiel des Jahre committee, the group that yearly grants the most famous German game awards. So many Alea games seemed deserving of the award — Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, Taj Mahal, Castles of Burgundy, and more — that gamers began suspecting there was some sort of hidden bias against the company.
Finally, the long drought has ended. Broom Service by the design team of Andreas Pelikan and Alexander Pfister won the prestigious Spiel des Jahre, but strangely in the Kennerspiel (strategy games) category. The game seems much more suited to the standard category, which tends to recognize games that are more family friendly and offer less depth or strategy. I thought it rather odd that the game had received a nomination in the strategy category, and was even more surprised to see it win that award. Odd.
Broom Service is actually a revamping of Pelikan’s earlier Witch’s Brew, which was also published by Alea back in 2008. This new version introduces a board, whereupon players will fly on their brooms to deliver powerful potions throughout the realm. The role selection mechanism remains, albeit with a few twists.
The large board depicts numerous castles and towers scattered about two dozen or so territories, which vary in terrain: forest, prairie, mountain and hills. There are several lakes that may not be crossed until the flight-impeding clouds are magically dispelled. Players begin with two witches on the board and will move them based on the play of their cards.
The card play is at the heart of the game. Players each possess an identical set of ten cards, each depicting a witch, gatherer, druid or “weather fairy”. The four witches are territory specific and are the main movement cards, but they can also be used to deliver a potion after movement…if you are lucky. Gatherers allow players to gather potions, and similar to witches, they are potion specific (there are three types of potions). The druids allow for the delivery of the potions, while the Weather Fairy can chase away those pesky clouds, provided she has enough magic (represented by magic wand tokens).
At the beginning of each round, each player selects four of their ten cards. The start player plays one, then boldly states whether he will be brave or cowardly. Each card has both a “brave” and “cowardly” section. The brave selection provides more benefits, but is risky, as if any other player has selected that card and chooses the brave section, any player who played the card previously and selected the brave action will have his card nullified. Ouch. Choosing the cowardly action is much safer, but at the cost of reduced benefits.
Choosing the cowardly action will not nullify the brave actions of any previously played cards. However, players who are later in the turn order are usually more tempted to select the brave action since there are only one (or no) player who play after them.
What is vital is the “duty to follow” rule, which requires any player who selected the same card played by the start player to play it. This often forces players to play cards in an order other than what they had planned. This can–and often does–ruin a player’s plans for that turn, which can be quite frustrating.
An example is in order. Benjamin surveys the board and plots his course for the turn, selecting the four cards he requires to fulfill his plan. He is the start player, so his first move is to play the Fruit Gatherer so he can collect three potions (2 purple and one additional potion) if he chooses brave (and gets lucky) or at least one potion if he chooses to be cowardly. He decides to be bold and chooses brave.
Unfortunately, Craig also had selected the Fruit Gatherer. Craig opts for a more conservative approach, so he chooses cowardly and collects one purple potion. Since Craig did not choose brave, Benjamin might still be able to perform his action, provided neither Chris or Gail has the Fruit Gatherer and, if so, chooses to be brave. Chris didn’t select the Fruit Gatherer, so Benjamin only has one more person to get by. Sadly, Gail did select the Fruit Gatherer, and since she is last in turn order, she is risk-free and chooses the brave action. Benjamin is not happy, as he gains no benefit from his played card. He must now attempt to salvage some use out of this final three cards.
The idea is to formulate a plan, select the four cards that will help execute that plan, then hope to be able to bring that plan to fruition without too much interference from your opponents. A plan will usually consist of some combination of gathering potions, flying witches to the appropriate towers, and using the witch’s brave power (or an appropriate druid) to deliver the potion.
Potions are delivered to towers, which will earn the player victory points. Towers are colored to indicate the type of potion they will accept. Some towers will only accept one delivery during the game, while others will accept unlimited deliveries. The challenge is to correctly identify the territory(s) in which a tower is located. The rules state that the base of the tower determines this, but this is still confusing as many towers straddle multiple territories and the board art makes it difficult to discern which territory or territories a tower is actually located in. This certainly could have been much clearer. As is, it is a constant source of confusion.
Some deliveries will reward the player with magic wands. These wands are needed to dispel the clouds that hover over the lakes. Doing so will make traveling to certain lands easier. Wands will also provide victory points at game’s end, as will undelivered potions.
Once all players have depleted their hands, a new round is conducted in the same fashion. After seven rounds, the game concludes and final points are tallied. For each set of four different resources (3 potions and 1 wand) the player earns 4 points, while having three of four resources earns 2 points. Those pesky clouds that you dispelled by using your Fairy Witch? They, too, are worth points, ranging from 3 – 30, depending upon the value that are collected.
Broom Service’s cleverness is in the choosing of the “bold” or “cowardly” actions, as well as the “duty to follow” rule, requiring players to play a card if the lead player has played it. There is some angst when selecting one’s cards, as any plans may well be foiled if one is forced to play a card out of order. This angst is heightened as the start player begins playing cards, as one hopes his plans will remain intact.
The board aspect of the game is a simple “pick-up and deliver” affair, with players gathering potions and delivering them to the towers that will accept them. Of course, choosing the correct cards to facilitate this process is easy to plan, but often difficult to employ. The old adage, “The best laid plans may go astray” is certainly prevalent here.
There is a small race aspect to the proceedings as some towers can only accept a single delivery. These tend to be the more valuable or strategically placed towers. So, getting there first will reward the player with more victory points and often prevent longer journeys. Generally there are ample towers that will accept deliveries, so players will usually not find themselves unable to complete a delivery…eventually.
All of the above makes for a pleasant game. The rules are easy to understand and teach, and there is not much complexity present. This makes the game an excellent choice for lighter or family gaming. That statement, however, comes with a caveat: players must be willing and able to handle a considerable amount of frustration and randomness. Plans are quickly dashed as players are often forced to play cards out of the order they desired. This can often be much more than a mere nuisance; it can often severely impact a player’s turn.
The “brave” and “cowardly” choice is fun, and really a matter of risk-taking. If a player is bold, he can choose brave, but must be willing to accept that he may not be able to perform any action with that card. The wise course of actions seems to be to play the odds, saving the “bold” choice when playing later in turn order or when the likelihood of an opponent possessing the same card is slim.
It does warrant mentioning that the “duty to follow” mechanism was used to great effect–I would even say better effect–in Uwe Rosenberg’s Glass Road, which was published in 2013. In that game, the hurt wasn’t as severe if the lead player played a card you had selected. Indeed, there was an incentive to try to select one or two cards that the lead player selected, as it would ultimately allow you to play more cards. In Broom Service, it is almost always a detriment.
Broom Service is a pleasant family game with a clever card play mechanism. It doesn’t seem to be a good fit for dedicated gamers, which is why it is quite a surprise that it won the Spiel des Jahre in the strategy category. There are certainly decisions to be made, but none are too taxing so as to exclude most ages. If one can handle the high dose of randomness and related frustration, it is certainly a pleasant way to spend an hour or so flying around the realm on a custom broom.
NOTE: Thanks to Eric Martin and BoardGameGeek for use of his photos in this article.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Dan Blum (2 plays): It’s definitely an improvement over Witch’s Brew, but it’s still a fairly chaotic game. I’m willing to play it, but I don’t feel a need to. My plays were of the basic game; it’s possible that using the extra bits (special clouds, tiles, etc.) would make for a more interesting game, but I worry that they will cause a lot of analysis paralysis.
Ted Alspach (1 play): I had played Witch’s Brew originally and wasn’t a fan, and was really hoping that this enhancement of the game would propel it to the next level. Unfortunately, it just felt like it dragged the game out longer than it should have been. I’m always mystified as how a game like this qualified and won the KDJ, as it’s lighter than the competition (the very excellent Orleans) and not nearly as engaging. The value of aesthetics of a game for SDJ/KDJ can’t be overstated, it seems, because Broom Service looks like it will be fun, but in the end is more frustrating than anything else.
Nathan Beeler: Broom Service just took a game mechanism I quite like and failed to tart it up. For a game that boils down to second guessing your opponents (in card selection, play order, and whether to try for the full or partial rewards) and a heaping helping of chaos, I certainly don’t want a lot of added folderol around that. It’s fine in its simplicity and doesn’t want anything else. Consequently, I vastly prefer the simpler Witch’s Brew to either Glass Road or Broom Service.
And for the SdJ garbage? Who cares? A politically biased panel of German gaming insiders picking games for German families doesn’t move me one way or the other. Someone needs to make a game award that actually means something to me and my friends. Takers?
1 (Love it!):
2 (Like it): Eric M
3 (Neutral): Dan Blum, Nathan Beeler
4 (Not for me): Greg Schloesser, Ted Alspach