Economics games require a few skills to be honed in order to be good at them, or for some of us to be able to enjoy them in the first place. You have to be able to take advantage of timing, understand how other players at the table value the resources in game, and how to be able to squeeze every last cent out of an opportunity. To top that off, some of the most draconian rulebooks come from these style games.
Usually if I were to bring up the words “economic simulation board games” into a conversation that would start to conjure examples in your mind of games like PowerGrid or Indonesia for the well adjusted, and games like Arkwright or18XX for the more anxious of us. I have felt for a long time that the perfect introductory economic game hadn’t yet been invented since no single introductory game included opportunities to develop all of the needed skills while still being approachable for less experienced players.
In an effort to make sure I never bury the lead too deep I will come out and say I was right; that game isn’t out yet…
Brick & Mortar (Kickstarter Page) will be launching on Kickstarter later this year (2020) and this game may have reinvigorated my faith in great original strategy games coming out of Kickstarter again. Taken directly from the Publisher’s website since it is the perfect elevator pitch for this game:
“Brick & Mortar is a competitive economic game of narrow margins, tense decisions and strategic market manipulation. Two to four players assume the role of store owners seeking to expand their reach into a variety of markets. Over multiple rounds, they try to maximize profits, build equity, and undercut the competition—all while dealing with a market that can change at the whim of their opponents.”
What this starts to look like in practice is the game is split into rounds (up to 12, but typically around 6-8) and each round is split into several phases. Phases are played simultaneously for the most part and could not be clearer in how you proceed through them. The phases run the gamut from opening and closing stores, to stocking shelves, selling your wares, and investing hard won capitol.
In the game you have a small plaza in which you can open up to four store fronts. These stores are what the game in centered around. They will determine what types of goods you can buy from the wholesaler, and later sell back to your customers at a “reasonable” markup. They will also start to grant you bonuses in affecting the market, but be careful since each store will start to cost you more and more as each will have expenses associated to it. You will have to pay your utility bill at the end of each month (round), restock shelves in your store with goods to sell, and have products become too old and get thrown in the trash.
This would be infinitely simpler if all stores were selling the same goods, but in fact there are five different goods a store can dabble in, and some stores will mix and match what goods they deal in. The primary driving force in the game is to make as much money as you can by the end of the round, since this is when you earn the lions share of your points. During the last phase of the round you can purchase victory points, the more you buy the more expensive they get, but you never know how many opportunities you will have to make these purchases so you are tempted to go that one extra point more which could cost you since this will determine how much money you have left over for operating throughout the next round.
Phase by phase, the designer has engineered mechanics that are informed by theme and create tense, meaningful decisions around your next steps. Of course there will be mechanics you expect in this game around trying to buy stock at a low price, and reselling it to the public for a profit. Even moments where multiple players at the table are bidding to undercut their competitors.
There are a couple mechanisms in this game that make it shine though. During the Inventory phase your products age. YOUR PRODUCTS AGE! Food spoils, fashions go out of style, and electronics become obsolete. In gameplay terms, items that have been stocked on your shelves for a while then they are no longer sellable and just go back to the supply. This is a mechanism that has been missing from a lot of games and is something you see in 18XX when trains rust (also shout out to Supermarché for having products in a store that age). In Brick & Mortar it has been simplified mechanically to simulate a sense of urgency in selling products for fear that they will spoil entirely and be a lost opportunity.
Perhaps the most elegant design in the game is determining supply and demand. Nicholas McCollum has come up with such a clever system that it can be understood intrinsically by a first time player, but is robust enough to be taken advantage of and manipulated by more skilled players. Each player will have a hand of five mini sized Market cards. On these cards will be squares representing a number of units of a good. Four blue squares and two pink squares? Thats four pieces of clothing and two pieces of art. But how you use them determines if they are available for you to stock your store with or what the general population is looking to buy from you.
During the round you will select two of these Market cards. You can place both face up, face down, or a combo behind your player screen. Any face up Market cards will start to stock the wholesalers, creating a supply for you to purchase from. The remaining face down cards will be flipped face up in a later round when it is time to sell goods to your customers, thus creating demand. Of course all the other players at the table are doing this too, and of course you are determining supply and demand collectively as a table, not as individuals. As you open more stores you have more options of what you buy and sell and bonuses to the cost of buying and selling, reserved spaces where only you can sell goods, more flexibility with your market cards, and so many more abilities from the stores.
Because the market is shaped by all the players simultaneously and in secret the game carries an almost comical feel at times. This system can create moments at the table of all the players bursting out with laughter when they see that there is an alarming demand for electronics, but none will be available to get from wholesalers. This mechanic also gives you a chance to feel properly clever. Plan right and you can piggyback off of someone else’s poor planning. Then you get to control the market’s demands and sell at an also alarming profit since you didn’t let anyone else buy electronics this round.
This creates a myriad of opportunities for indirect player interaction. Small steps you can take to make your opponent’s life a little harder all the while making your plaza that much more lucrative. Seeing someone operating unobstructed with Art sales? Time to get into the Art curation business yourself. Or more deviously, make sure you don’t add any Art units to the warehouses during the Supply phase to dry up the Market. Perhaps you let them have their puny Art shop at the end of the plaza as you are just too busy running a textile empire on the other side of the street! Every choice you make impacts the entire game, not just your player board and that is how ‘good’ games get remembered as great games.
Brick & Mortar isn’t just a scripted system you try to exploit at opportune moments when they present themselves, it is a sandbox where you can create an entire ecosystem that begs to find balances and reveal disparities. Experienced gamers will appreciate how smoothly this opens doors for newer people at their table, while less experienced groups of gamers will find a lot to explore and play within this box. I think Brick & Mortar will broaden the horizons of all approachable economic simulation games to come, and I would absolutely suggest you look into it.
This is a strong opening for a new game publisher. Octoraffe Games have successfully caught my attention, and I would encourage you to keep an eye on them too.
Board Game Squad was provided a prototype copy of Brick & Mortar for this article, and photos. All game components are subject to change.