A Coven of Cowards and Bullies: A Review of Ravensburger’s Broom Service

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When you see the box art for Broom Service, you are reminded of courageous, heroic wizards, like Harry Potter, Elphaba, or Gandalf. The dashing witch depicted on the box rides one-handed, with the daring of an equestrian. This lovely concept of heroic wizardry no doubt sells the game as well as the game’s awards, good reviews, and word of mouth.

However, Broom Service is not for the brave, but for cowards and bullies.

Let’s unpack that statement. You see, Broom Service is partly a resource management game, but it is primarily a bluffing game. While many games test your mettle, Broom Service actually builds it into the design, and cowardly and brave are important game terminology. Bullying is not, but it tends to find its way into most bluffing games, and it easily finds its way into Broom Service.

broom-service-cards

The premise of Broom Service is that the player must earn the most points through basically two means: 1) by having witches and Druids deliver potions to towers; and, 2) by having weather fairies collect clouds. A Weather Fairy can only collect a cloud next to them, and to deliver a potion, you must either have a witch token in an adjacent terrain or move one there to do so. Most towers can be filled with a potion only once and each cloud can only be collected once. There are seven rounds, and every round each player selects four out of ten cards to use that turn. Every player has the same ten cards to pick from: four witches, two Druids, three Gatherers, and one Weather Fairy*.

The oldest player leads the first round. Leading a round is generally considered to be disadvantageous, but, outside of the first round, it doesn’t have to be, as we’ll see. .

The first player plays one of his four cards, and then each player clockwise must play that card if they have it.  The lead player can choose to play the card “cowardly,” in which case he applies its effects immediately, or he can try to play it “brave” which has a more powerful effect. However, if you play it brave, and the next player plays it brave, you get to do nothing and he gets the benefit—unless the third player also plays the same card brave. This continues around the table, and if all four people have the card and play it brave only the last player gets the benefit and the other players get no benefit at all from the card. On the other hand, if player one and two play it cowardly, and player three and four play it brave, one and two get the cowardly effect of the card, four gets the brave, and three gets nothing. Because you don’t get any points when you don’t get to act, players learn quickly that it can be prudent to play your card cowardly when you’re opening a hand of cards.

Does gambling pay off? It depends on how many people are playing. Broom Service is a two to five player game, and the more players there are, the less likely that leading with a brave card is a risk that’s likely to pay off. In a four or five player game, brave players (literally, players who play their cards in the brave form) rarely benefit unless they’re gambling on being the only one to play a bewitched card or unless they manage to hold onto their cards for the very end of the round. All cards must get played, so if you’re the only one left holding a card, of course you can play it brave without threat at that point. This also rewards cowardice, as if a player can determine what the unpopular cards will be In a given round, they could employ a conservative strategy that turn to play those less useful cards brave rather than the more useful cards cowardly.

Just as cowards are rewarded by playing the cards in their weak form so as to be sure to enjoy the action on the card, now we’ll examine how bullies are rewarded by playing key cards early to make other players put down cards that they’re not ready to play.

While the terms brave and cowardly are actual game terms built into the mechanics, there is also plenty of opportunity to bully the other witches through playing preemptive tricks. Bullying is not a term to be found in Broom Service‘s English or French game rules, but this does not stop it from being a common strategy when opportunities for vexing other players are so rife in the game.

For instance, if I am leading a round, and my witches are the only ones near clouds, it is a good idea to lead with my weather fairy, as if other players have picked a weather fairy to play this round, they won’t be able to benefit from it in the opening hand. If I lead with a witch to move a token instead, other players will be able to move their tokens and then they’ll also be able to use their Weather Fairies to gather clouds. This will negate the value of my getting points for the cloud, as everyone else just collected a cloud too. And maybe they got a cloud cloud worth more than the one I did? Since the game is seven rounds long, and each cloud is worth more than the one you got before it, any round in which you can get a cloud and bar your opponents from getting one is good strategy.

The game designers no doubt anticipated this kind of aggressive playing, which is why they built in the disadvantage that if no one else successfully plays a card brave, you retain the initiative and must lead the next round of cards. Obviously, if you play the Wrather Fairy cowardly to flush out other players’ weather fairies, they will not play those forced cards brave and this will mean you have the bad position of going first yet again. If the lead player keeps flushing other players’ cards in an unfavorable order, though, leading can be advantageous.

Another example of flushing unready cards is through manipulation of the order in which the druid and the witch are played. When players have exhausted the towers near their witch token, they need to play a witch card to move the token to a new location with available towers. Often another player will have the corresponding witch and Druid in their hands, for instance Prairie Witch and Valley Druid, in order to both move and score points in the same round. However, if you are leading the round, and you already have your tokens set up, you can play them in reverse order, or you can just take a hand full of Druids (and maybe a Fairy Witch to keep collecting clouds) and lead with your druids to flush out your opponents’ druids before they get a chance to play their witches to set up scoring opportunities.

Broom Service was fascinating to me when I first opened the box, as it perfectly fit my criteria of Diceless Heaven, but since then it remains endlessly intriguing. It not only involves resource management and movement strategies, but also bluffing, and through these three dynamics, it pits the players against each other in inventively vexing ways. There are negative connotations to the words cowardly and bullying in our culture and on social media, but most gamers at the game table can be described by those words during different stages of the games that they play. Anyone who has been pressured by their significant other to trade precious resources during a game of Settlers of Catan knows that bullying is a fact of board gaming. Board gamers are at home with cowardice and bullying already, and it is just that Broom Service is unashamed of this gaming behavior.


Buy Broom Service on Amazon

Footnote

*If you play a Gatherer cowardly, it gives you a resource, usually a potion; if you play it brave, you get a bunch of resources. If you play a Weather Fairy cowardly, you can claim a cloud for your collection; if you play it brave, you get three extra points for doing so. If you play a Witch brave, it gets to move to a terraiin and deliver a potion in the same turn; if you play it cowardly, it gets only to move to a terrain. If you play a Druid cowardly, it delivers a potion if you have a witch in the terrain that the Druid rules; if you play it brave, you get 3 extra points for delivering the potion. Players typically use cowardly witches to set up cowardly druids for scoring points unless they have an opportunity to play both the witch and the druid card brave.

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