Brass

Martin Wallace

Artist: Peter Dennis

Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games

I just realized that the man is holding a monopoly token (Photo credits: Ben. P@BGG)

“Where there is muck, there is Brass”

Brass is arguably one of two titles that Martin Wallace is known for. The other title being the railroad building game, Age of Steam (and its various reincarnations). Brass is also one of the heaviest and complex game from Martin Wallace that I own. In recent weeks, our gaming group has played all his designs from my collection and I have written reviews for all of them (the others being Automobile, London, Liberte and Railroad Tycoon). My hope is to rank these games and decide which to keep and which to purge.

I will come out and say this: Brass is fun but oooh boy, the learning curve is steep. This game is not for newbies or for the faint of heart. There is some serious explanation involved and be prepared to lengthen your first game by 45 min just to get the rules across. To me at least, some of the rules aren’t as intuitive and requires a leap of faith. I know Mr. Wallace has tried to explain why iron teleports while coal is land bound, and I find the explanation satisfactory. However, that still doesn’t help with teaching the game. Brass has way too many mechanisms and exceptions to the rules which makes it feel rough around the edges. Now, having come out and blasted the game early, Brass is also a stellar game on many levels and one that defines the gaming cliche: “this game requires repeated plays to shine”.

In Brass, players take the role of industrial tycoons trying to profit and develop the area of Lancashire during the industrial revolution. From what I gather, there was an extremely robust cotton industry in Lancashire. Lots of cotton mills were built and coal was abundant. In fact, coal was the primary driver that helped transition the industry from water to steam power. Coal probably also greatly improved the transport of materials to and from ports, allowing ships and canals to quickly be supplemented by rail transport. I’d imagine that changes in technology must have greatly accelerated output in the region. It is this theme that Brass is trying to capture, and I think it has done a great job. While others will find the topic banal, it is actually a huge part of why I find the game fascinating, and why like other Wallace designs, it bumps the game up a notch for me.

There is no way I can be comprehensive about the rules in this review without writing a tome. Basically, the gist of the game is that players are competing to build five types of industries in different towns within Lancashire. Each of these towns have a few slots where specific industries can be built with larger cities having more slots. Apart from these industries, players will also compete to build a transportation network between cities, starting with canals in the first era and replaced by railway tracks in the second era. Scoring occurs at the end of each era and the game ends when the railway era is completed. Scoring is actually quite simple: you score points for industries that were utilized (not just built), your contributions to the transportation network between cities as well as money left in the pocket. The winner is the person with the most points.

While scoring might be simple, how you get to it is anything but. Each round, players play a card to trigger one of five actions. They do this twice per round. These actions center mainly around building the industries or the transportation network on the board. The rules for building industries are numerous and this is where the meat of the game lies: being able to capitalize on the ever changing state of the game board by timing your actions properly to beat your opponents to the opportunities that presents itself.

There are five types of industries one can build and there are different levels (from I – IV) of structures one can build for each industry. Essentially, this is a “tech tree” of sorts even though there are no special powers attached to the more advanced structures other than scoring more victory points. As you can imagine, the higher level the structure, the more points you can earn and the more costly it is to build. Structures must also be built in the order from lower to higher levels. One cannot skip from first to fourth level without first developing the technology for it. Important to developing a strategy for the game, some lower level structures are scored during the canal era and then removed, but higher level structures stays around for both eras, essentially scoring VPs’ twice if you can get those industries on the board before canal scoring.

What are these five types of industries? The first two industries are the coal mines and iron works which are built to provide raw materials. Coal and iron are required to build more advanced structures in all the industries. The higher level the coal mines and iron works, the more raw materials they provide and the more VPs’ you will earn when the resources on the tile are depleted. Right, so for Brass as I mentioned before, scoring for industry works when the tiles are used, and not when they are built. For iron and coal, this means flipping their tiles over when the resources are depleted. Next, one can construct cotton mills and ports in which to ship the cotton. Cotton mills should ideally be situated close to or connected to ports via the transportation networks. If linked to ports, the cotton mills can then be flipped over for scoring, along with the ports connected to it. To spice things up, cotton can be sold to external markets as well for more benefits. If sold to external markets, the ports are not flipped and can be used repeatedly. However, the foreign markets are limited and once enough players have shipped the cotton abroad, the demand for cotton disappears. Finally, players can build shipyards. There are only 3 shipyard slots on the entire board and the competition is keen for these slots as the amount of VPs’ for constructing a shipyard is sizeable. Shipyards have no other benefits beyond scoring points.

You will be forgiven if all of this seems pretty straightforward thus far. So where exactly is the complexity coming from? Well, the true challenge of Brass comes from understanding the supply and demand relationships between industries as well as utilizing transport networks to not only move coal around the board, but also to ship cotton to earn VPs. However, even before players can contend with the intra-industry relationships, they must first decide where to build the industry. To build, one must need to have the right cards to play. Players can play a city card to build an industry in the city showing an appropriate industry slot or play an industry card to build an industry in any city on the board, so long as it is connected to your network. Once the location of the industry is determined, costs must be paid. Each structure requires money to build and also raw materials: either coal or iron. Iron can be picked up from any iron works built by any players across Lancashire while coal requires a network of ground transportation to move from coal miles to the location of the new structure. External markets for coal and iron are available in case coal or iron is depleted on the board, but one must be connected to ports in order to purchase more resources from the external market. Yep, coal and iron are free in Lancashire, but you must pay to ship in from external sources. The decision of where to build industries really depends on whether these structures are linked to their appropriate industrial partners both for supply and demand. For example, when building coal mines, one must make sure a transportation network is around to utilize the coal so that it is flipped for scoring. If the coal mine is located far away without a means of transport, then no one will use the coal. Similarly, cotton mills must be closely attached to ports to facilitate shipment. Where to build mills will also depend on whether those ports will be available for shipping. If a port is flipped, then any domestic sales for cotton will be blocked, especially after the foreign market dries up. The race is such that players will try their best to tap into the foreign markets to score extra benefits before resorting to the local markets. When to go local or to export is a matter of timing.

Thus far, I have avoided mentioning money. Well, money in any Wallace game is always tight with getting loans being a hallmark of many Wallace designs. Here getting a loan is one of the 5 available actions. Each loan will set you back an income segment on the income track. Each segment consists of a group of several slots. While positive income is gained by moving up individual slots, taking a loan drops you an entire income segment. It is costly to take a loan, but it is made costlier if you don’t time your loans properly. Yet, taking loans to supplement income feels essential if you want to remain competitive. Just like real life, balancing growth and debt is something that all companies must deal with. In this case, how much debt you accrue really depends on your tolerance for risk……just like in real life. So how do you gain income? Well, whenever you flip an industry tile, you gain not only VPs’ but also income. Income earned through flipping tiles is never direct monetary gain, but movement on the income track. This of course directly translates to money since you gain income at the beginning of each round.

As you can see, building and flipping industry tiles and constructing a network of canals or tracks is pretty much the central objective of the game. For the most part, you want to consume the resources that you have built, but you also cannot rely on just things that you constructed. You will likely end up using coal from other players or iron to develop new structures. Even if you have mines and iron works, you want other players to consume it. If you have a cotton mill, you want to sell it through ports, regardless of who owns it. If you have a port, you may want others to use it. The game almost feels like a semi-cooperative game where one has to utilize resources provided by others, knowing full well you will be aiding them as well. In turn, you expect that others will also utilize what you have built. Which means that the person who can best judge where and what to build, when the need is greatest, will stand the best chance of getting their industry tiles flipped and scoring the points. That is simply delicious! I really don’t have many games where the mechanism involves so much push and pull in all directions, having to consider so many variables. For example, early in the game, it feels like almost all the industries are good choices and equally useful to someone. It probably boils down to the location specific cards that you have, competition on the board and deciding which strategies to pursue.

Much has been said about the Roxley reprint of Brass. Many who purchased the game loved the realistic and grim artwork and components. For me, I like the original artwork from the earlier editions of Brass. I mainly like it for thematic reasons. It fits well with other games such as London and Liberte where the artwork is more age appropriate. The drawings of the industries and the cartoons are a throwback of the artwork in that era and hence, totally thematic. I get why some folks love the art in the Roxley reprint and the sturdier components, but I find the colors too dark and the lines too obscure. The lines, colors and artwork in the older version are simple, crisp and unpretentious. It is easy to differentiate the player pieces without too much confusion or impeding game play. Plus, the box size is more compact and that counts for a lot these days. Since the game itself hasn’t been changed much, I’d still prefer the older third edition over the Roxley reprint. But really, any copy of the game should be adequate to provide the same amount of fun.

Brass is a really good game, and deserves all the accolades. The pros outweigh the cons, and yet, I cannot ignore the fact that the rules feels really fiddly right off the bat. The addition of the virtual link from Birkenstock to Liverpool is pretty annoying to explain and remains confusing. Even midway through out second game, we still frequently made unforced errors such as building without a proper network or forgetting that iron doesn’t need a link, etc. These rule errors tells me that they are not at all intuitive and that’s why, frequent reminders are needed. So now, after having played a few times and putting it back in storage, it will take another monumental effort to drag it out and play it again a few months down the road. This is the sort of thing where you look at Brass and you look at other games in your collection and choose the latter. Perhaps that’s both the point and brilliance of Brass. Even with these nit picky rules and fiddliness, the game is still a tour-de-force of board gaming that cannot be ignore. It still gets a top billing from me though, albeit with a slight bit of hesitation.

Initial impressions: Great

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