Smoke on the Water – Brave the Elements review

BtE Cover

If you’re unaware of games design wunderkind Miles Ratcliffe, you should probably rectify that pretty quickly. After first coming across him and his game Medieval Mastery at the UK Games Expo a couple of years back, I was equally impressed and jealous at how well he’d put together his first design (which he also self published through his own company, Chaos Publishing). We bumped into each other at this year’s Nuremberg Toy Fair where he was toting around his follow-up release, a game that happens to be hitting Kickstarter now.

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Brave the Elements, first of all, feels a lot more well rounded that his first game. He’s taken his time in getting this new one out and it feels like that’s been well spent. The prototype copy I was sent over had no art to speak of and the rulebook had none of the story and fluff that generally give games their settings, so that gave me the chance to really get into the game, but the basic theme is that the players act as powerful priests, looking to control elemental forces to take down their opponents’ buildings. Alternatively, spies can be sent in order to infiltrate and score points by settling into those same buildings, and after a set amount of rounds (dependent on the number of players), highest scorer wins.

The whole game is card driven (though there is a little dice rolling, which we’ll cover shortly), with each player beginning with four location cards that are specific to their chosen starting element. With each location granting special abilities, you’ll find that you’ll be dealing with advantages and problems from the very start of play, but you’ll generally find that things become quite evenly balanced within a round or so.

On the subject of rounds, each one is split into sections, with all players doing the first part before moving onto the second and so on, until everyone has completed the sixth and final part of the turn. Initially, everyone will draw up to six cards and then play locations out before them, one by one, until everyone’s got at least five set out – of course, if you have five or more, you won’t be able to add anything to your tableau, but that’s one of the ways the game keeps balance between everyone.

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Certain locations have special elemental biases and abilities, but it often doesn’t bode well if you focus on a single one! Everything’s got a weakness…

Next up, it’s time to perform actions – just one per player – then a series of infiltrations take place. This section of the round is where you’re looking to steal other players’ locations from under their nose; check the defence value on the card you have your eye on then roll the dice, and if you’re equal to or higher you claim the location as your own and take the card. Followers can add to your roll, making this theft easier, but they’re only added if you attempt to infiltrate and fail – so, basically, perseverance pays off. You also score points for followers that you bring home, so failed rolls aren’t necessarily a bad thing!

Step five of each round is one of the more entertaining parts, where it’s time to conjure up some disasters. If you’ve got the cards in hand, you can attempt to destroy a couple of enemy locations, but doing so will use up your cards. “But I get six at the start of each round?!” I hear you say. Well, yes, but with that option to carry cards over from round to round, you don’t want to be wasting them on a relatively weak location – forward planning and holding onto certain cards can really swing things your way as the game progresses. You also can use them defensively against the attacks of other players, so holding on to them can often be a good call. The final part of each round brings in the points for locations that you control, then you swing back on to the start again unless it’s game end; in that case, it’s a matter of totally up various tokens that you’ve received and the values of locations.

Bte Disasters

Ahhh, disasters! Hurl one at someone, boost it with some extra cards just filling up your hand and blow the opposition away!

Now, where do the elements come into play? Well, each building is designated one of the four – Fire, Earth, Wind or Water, as are the various destructive Disasters that you can hurl at everyone else. These can also stack up – choose a card, then flip others in your hand sideways so they act as bonuses, adding yet more power to your attacks.  The defender can attempt to save their location by rolling a pair of custom dice, using the icons that appear to cancel out those on the attacker’s initial card. If you don’t roll the right icons, you can get rid of cards from your hand to make up the missing elements – but again, ending up with no cards in your hand can leave you open to even more attacks.

After playing through Brave the Elements a few times, I was really impressed with how well balanced the game was. Sure, it’s a pre-press version but even without the art, I really enjoyed the experience and loved the nastiness that quickly exploded on our gaming table. This is not a game for those who just like to turtle up and look after their own stuff – aggression is necessary if you’re going to get anywhere in this one, but at least if you fail when attacking someone else you get to put one of your followers on a building. Not only does this make things easier to steal the location, you also pull points in for the action, so get up in everyone’s face from the very beginning!

With only a small amount of rounds per game, the action can get pretty fast and furious with locations moving around the table and getting wiped out as disasters take hold. Players who take offense at being picked on need not check this one out – you will hate it – but for those who enjoy strategic light to middleweight games, Brave the Elements deserves some time on your table.

Brave the Elements is currently on Kickstarter, with the campaign running through to June 18. Designed by Miles Ratcliffe, it’ll be released through Chaos Publishing next February. I’ve checked out some of art on the KS page and it looks great, really pushing the whole ancient mythical empires theme. Between two and four players can get to the table with games taking around an hour. Get yourself a copy for £18 and support this truly talented designer!