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Brass is set in 18th century Lancashire at the beginning of what would eventually be called the Industrial Revolution. It starts at the beginning of the Canal Age and ends after the development of railways. Players take the roles of entrepreneurs attempting to make the most money from the various industries of the time. Cotton dominates the game but players ignore the other industries such as coal mining and engineering at their peril.
Note: While the rules have been rewritten for clarification, game play has not changed.
It's much-loved. It's heavy. It's thematic. It's quirky. It's deep. It's Martin Wallace. It's Brass. And it's brilliant.
Officially released as a game for 3-4 players, but perfectly playable with a popular 2 player variant, Brass offers an incredible gaming experience that few other games can match. You and your fellow players will head to 19th century Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution, and with the help of the cards you draw, make important choices in your quest for prosperity and points. The striking industrial revolution theme is very present, and is closely integrated with the game-play, making for a strong relationship between theme and mechanics as is often the case with Martin Wallace games. Are you ready for the tough economic challenge of building cotton mills, coal mines, iron works, canals, railways, ports, and shipyards, in what many people consider to be Wallace's magnus opus?
It has to be admitted that the somewhat clunky rules can be a beast to learn for new players, but they are well worth the effort. It's worth mentioning that Brass can be readily played online at orderofthehammer, and many consider this a great way to learn the game. Brass is altogether a tough and heavy economic game, and the game-play offers a tremendous range of strategies, choices, and options. In view of this it has very high replayability, and its many strengths lead many to consider it Martin Wallace’s best game. In fact, many consider Brass to be unsurpassed, and the best game ever. It has been the subject of many accolades for its numerous outstanding features that recommend it to serious gamers. As an extra bonus, a fan-suggested two player variant has proven highly satisfactory, so you're not required to have a minimum of three players to enjoy Brass.
Brass is not for the faint of heart, given that it requires overcoming the initial hurdle of a somewhat obtuse rulebook. It's not without its faults, and its threshold will simply prove too much for some gamers, especially those who find the rules too complicated, the length too long, and the gameplay too tough to get their head around. But those who enjoy this challenge and are prepared to overcome it will find one of the very best economic games of the modern era. It's a signature Martin Wallace design, where the narrative arc created by the rich historical theme is closely linked to the game's mechanics, and where all the elements come together to produce a very rich and deep experience that features challenging economics, tough decisions, diverse strategies, subtle player interaction, and almost unlimited replayability. If you consider yourself a serious gamer and enjoy economic games, Brass is a quintessential Wallace game absolutely not to be missed.
Martin Wallace has designed some of my favorite games, including Struggle of Empires, Age of Steam and Liberte. He has a penchant for designing games that have considerable depth, and are a bit more complex than most European fare. As such, I am always keen to play his latest release.
Most of his designs from the past several years have had a decided militaristic tone. Princes of the Renaissance, Struggle of Empires, Byzantium and Perikles have all involved warfare and military conquest. His latest release Brass breaks this trend, and instead attempts to portray the industrial revolution as it sweeps through 18th century Lancashire, England.
Along with a variety of tracks and charts, the board depicts Lancashire and an assortment of its cities. Each city has one-to- three icons depicting the type of industry that can be constructed at that location. These include coal mines, cotton mills, ports, iron works or shipyards. Coal mines and iron works will be used to supply materials for further construction, while cotton will be shipped from the mills via the ports to generate additional income. Ultimately, industries yield victory points once they are used to capacity, and the player who constructs and utilizes a profitable network will garner great wealth and win the game.
Each player receives a set of industry counters. These are sorted and stacked by type and value. Players must construct or develop these industries in order, working their way through the less valuable industries before constructing the more lucrative ones. There is consistent time pressure to get to the more lucrative industries, as they will ultimately grant more victory points. Further, when the game enters the second phase, all industries valued less than two are removed from the board. Thus, players will want to construct at least a few value two industries prior to the onset of the game’s second phase.
Players alternate taking two actions, which are largely regulated by the cards. Each action requires the expenditure of a card, which depict either a specific industry or city. Actions include building an industry, canals or rail links, developing industries to discard low-valued tokens and access more valuable ones, selling cotton, and taking loans. When building an industry, a player may use an industry card to place the corresponding industry into a city wherein he has a canal or rail connection. A location card can be used to place an industry in the corresponding city. In either case, the city must have an icon allowing the industry being placed, and the city must be connected to a coal mine or port by canal or rail provided the industry being constructed requires coal.
There are additional factors to consider when constructing an industry. Each city has space for a limited number and type of industries, so players are under pressure to expand fairly quickly. Further, during the first phase of the game, each player can only have one industry in each city. Thus, players must carefully plan their construction and expansion strategies. This latter restriction is lifted in the second phase.
Finding the correct combination and location for industries is one of the keys to success. Here is a summary of the various buildings:
Coal mines. Coal is required to build many of the industries. Coal mines are the primary source of supplying this coal. When a coal mine is constructed, the specified number of coal markers is placed upon it. Each time another industry requiring coal is constructed, a canal or rail route must exist between the new industry and a source for coal. If this route is to a coal mine, a coal marker is removed from the mine. If the final coal marker is removed, the coal mine flips and earns its owner more income and victory points.
If there is no route to a coal mine, but one exists to a port, the player may purchase a coal from the coal demand track if the location where the industry is being constructed is connected to a port. When a new coal mine is constructed, it can immediately sell its coal to the demand track if it is connected to a port. This is a clever tactic in the game: construct a coal mine when the demand track is in need of coal. If timed correctly, this allows the player to immediately “flip” the coal mine and earn income and victory points.
Iron Works. Iron works operate in a similar fashion as coal mines, in that they supply iron to other industries when they are constructed and earn income and victory points when flipped. Like coal mines, they can also sell iron to a depleted iron demand track upon construction. Unlike coal mines, however, they need not be connected to the location where an industry is being constructed in order to supply it.
Cotton Mills. The primary purpose of cotton mills is to provide substantial income. A cotton mill must ship its cotton through a port. When a route exists to do this, both the cotton mill and port are flipped and earn the respective players the income and victory points depicted. Players do have the option of shipping the cotton overseas and earning additional income, but there is an increasing risk that the market will be depleted and they will not earn anything.
Ports. Ports must exist in order for cotton to be shipped, and are a conduit to connect to the coal and iron demand tracks. They are flipped whenever someone ships cotton through it.
Shipyards. Only three shipyards can be constructed, and they are quite expensive to do so. Further, two of the three locations are difficult to reach, and it takes time to construct the necessary rail lines. The cost and time are worth it, however, as they yield a considerable amount of victory points. Shipyards are the only industry that earns victory points immediately upon construction.
Players may also build canals in the first phase of the game, and rail lines in the second phase. Canals and rails are necessary to extend one’s network of industries, and they also earn victory points based on the number of industries in the locations at each end of a segment. Canals are removed at the end of phase one, and players must then re-build their network using railways.
Every action a player takes requires the expenditure of a card. Properly managing one’s hand so that industries can be constructed in the desired location is vital. A player may combine his two actions into one by playing two cards, which acts as a “wild” card, and can be used to represent any location or industry. All other construction rules must be obeyed.
Building a substantial income is important, as construction can be expensive. Players may take loans during their turn, but this forces them to move their marker back on the income track, so future income is adversely affected. Still, loans are generally needed at one or more times during the game.
Each turn, players perform two actions, then refill their hand to eight cards and collect income. The turn order is based on money spent in the previous round, from least to most. This can be an important consideration when choosing the actions to perform on a turn. When the draw pile expires, players will continue to play the cards they have in hand until depleted. Victory points are then earned for the canal links and industries that have been “flipped”. After this first phase, all canal segments and industry markers valued less than “2” are removed, and players receive a fresh hand of eight cards. The game enters its second and final phase, wherein canals are no longer constructed. Instead, in addition to industries, rail lines are now built.
At the conclusion of Phase 2, victory points are again earned in the same fashion, with an additional point being earned for each 10 pounds (cash) they possess. The player with the most victory points is victorious. A typical game takes from 2 – 3 hours to play to completion, but certainly plays faster with more experience.
Brass is not an easy game to learn, and even more difficult to play well. The rules are organized in an unorthodox fashion, and the mechanics are not always intuitive. There are similar situations wherein one rule applies, where in the other situation a different rule is applicable. There is a lot to remember, and consequently, it is easy to overlook or forget certain rules. Repeated play is certainly beneficial and will help games proceed in a smoother fashion.
There is a LOT to consider here. Building a profitable network of industries and canal / rail lines is important, but players must also be flexible and astute enough to take advantage of opportunities that arise. Constructing coal mines or iron works when the corresponding demand track is in need of goods is a smart tactic. It is also profitable to have a monopoly in coal or iron, or at least have them located in key locations, as other players will be forced to utilize your goods, thereby allowing you to flip those industries quickly and earn victory points. Erecting several cotton mills and connecting them to ports is also lucrative and efficient, as one can ship cotton from multiple mills with one action. Shipyards, while expensive and difficult to form the proper connections, are victory-point rich, and usually worth the effort to construct.
The list of strategies, tactics and things to consider goes on and on. Suffice to say that Brass is a deep strategy game that will take many, many games to explore and fully probe its depths. That seems to be a hallmark of Wallace designs, and he has truly become a master at producing these strategy-filled games. The complexity and difficulty in learning and playing the game well will be a hindrance to some. For those who enjoy tackling a deep game filled with a wide variety of choices and strategic options, however, Brass will be a challenging and enjoyable gaming experience.
Q: Yeah, who designed this game, and what's it about?
A: I'll try to forgive you for the first part of the question, as I can't believe you haven't heard of Martin Wallace, one of the greatest board game designers of all time (okay, at least the past decade). Martin Wallace is known for designing deep games loaded with strategy that incorporate elements from war games and the designer games. Prior games include the well-renowned Age of Steam and Perikles, and I'm excited each year to see what game he comes out with this time. Brass is a game that concentrates on Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution. Players attempt to control different industries and production, as the area builds up. I was actually quite interested in the theme – it works well with the game mechanics – although I guess not everyone will be fascinated by it.
Q: How does the game look?
A: Very thematic, and the artwork by Peter Dennis is quite well done and looks like it was pulled from a novel from this period. The tiles are thick and easy to read and see. The only major annoyance I had with the game is that the tiles have to be stacked in piles in a specific way in front of each player, and they were quite easy to knock over by clumsy fingered players. It's a neat idea – stacking them in order, but it didn't always work well in theory. It wasn't always easy to find specific cities on the board, also; although that's more of a lack of knowledge of Lancashire on my part. Everything fits inside a nicely designed box, and the game has an austere, solid look about it while set up.
Q: And the rules?
A: Well, there are eleven pages of full color rules, including a player aid sheet, lots of examples, a reference section, and more.
Q: Sounds like they were a cinch, then?
A: Certainly not! Brass has one of the most obtuse rules sets that I've come across. I played my first game with three people who are used to me dumping new games on them, and this still threw us for a complete loop. We practically crawled through the first half of the game, slowly understanding the rules but not completely understanding the concepts. Finally in the second half everything clicked, but it still was tough going through. Follow up games made more sense, but it's on the far end of the heavy scale – at least when teaching. I've seen several on the internet insist that the rules aren't that difficult, but they are for the most part seasoned gamers. I would warn new gamers to stay away from this game, unless they were taught by an excellent explainer. A few of the rules are only mentioned in the reference section, which is fairly unintuitive for me. I don't think that the toughness of the rules is a detriment to buying the game, but folks should know what they are getting themselves into.
Q: You mentioned halves of the game?
A: The game is broken up into two distinct parts: the Canal Period and the Rail Period. While most of the mechanics are used in both parts of the game, they feel completely different. Many of the industries that are built during the Canal Period are taken off the board at the end of the Canal Period, as well as the canal structure. A player who is not planning ahead may have to start over from scratch, while those who look towards the future may end up making too little money in the first phase. Players are not eliminated during the first phase if they do poorly, but more often than any other game with different phases – a player must prepare during the first phase, or they likely will fail during the second.
Q: What exactly are players doing?
A: Players are building cotton mills, canals, rail links, ports, coal mines, iron works, and shipyards. Each building has its own usefulness. Coal mines and iron works provide resources that players need to build different industries. Canals and Rail Links provide victory points and ways to transport resources to where they are needed. Cotton mills and ports work together to produce victory points, on the other hand shipyards are an expensive way to gain points. Players use cards to build buildings in different locations on the board. This presents an interesting dynamic, since players build using the locations or icons on their cards but are also restricted by the locations on the board. Further complicating the matter is that players must play their lowest tech buildings first, unless they waste an action to discard the lower buildings – allowing them to build better and longer lasting buildings.
Q: Are these choices time-consuming and does this lead to "analysis paralysis"?
A: Strangely, while people did take a bit of time to think on their turn – turns weren't awfully long, and players often were studying the board quite a bit during their opponent's turns. A player doesn't have a huge amount of choices but much thought must go into what players are exactly looking to accomplish later in the game. Choices are few enough that every single one of them impacts the game.
Q: So player interaction is low?
A: Quite the opposite, actually. While players aren't destroying or otherwise directly attacking other players or their industries, there is a feel during the game of a complicated framework, in which all the industries are dependent upon each other. In a perfect situation, a player would build their own cotton mill and port, shipping their own stuff for many victory points. In the game, there are fights for the ports, and players are often forced to work using the resources and help from the opponent's buildings. The hunt for resources is also interesting, as there seems to be plenty of them in the beginning, but they run out at a staggeringly quick rate later on in the game. Players who go last may not have the resources to win, as I have sadly discovered.
Q: What is the economic game like?
A: Brass reminds me of Phoenicia, another game that has come out this year, in that players are attempting to increase their income during the first part of the game then increase their victory points. Players must seek out that moment in the game when their concentration must switch, because a low income will hurt a player at the end; yet income does not win the game for a player. Then there are loans available in the game. Players can take loans but must move their income marker back, causing them a permanent loss of income for a short influx of money. This isn't as debilitating as loans in other games, but it does make a player think twice before borrowing the money needed. Brass is a tight economic game, and players will likely never have all the money they want. It also has an interesting effect on order of play.
Q: What's that?
A: Each turn players place the money that they spent into a box – the player who spends the least amount of money goes first the next round. Turn order is critical in the game, and players are often torn between spending all their money or saving some so that they can go first in a future, more crucial round.
Q: I see that there are rails in the game. Is it a connection game like Ticket to Ride?
A: The rails and canals in the game look like they are a connecting network similar to other games, but it feels and acts quite differently. They are less of a connection feature and more of a points addition at the end of the game. Canals are slightly important, but rails are more so; a player who ignores them is missing out on a lot of potential points. I've seen a player with a lot of rails win the game.
Q: How much randomness is in the game?
A: Not much at all. Obviously there is some in the cards that are dealt out; but since a player can always use up two actions to build a location anywhere, players are never really too stymied by their cards. Giving up an action is certainly a horrid thing – I despise it, but it's better than being locked out of a specific city. There is also some randomness in tiles that are flipped when players sell cotton to a "distant market", but players know that they are taking a chance when doing this – and I haven't seen it affect the end of the game yet.
Q: How would you rate this against Martin Wallace's other games?
A: It's certainly on the heavier end of the scale – outweighing pretty much anything else (except possibly Age of Steam – and even that makes more sense to folk, if only because of the intuitive pick-up-and-deliver mechanic). Its theme won't appeal to as many people as some of the more exciting themes (Liberte, Struggle of Empires), but the game play is extremely balanced. In fact, this may technically be the best game that Mr. Wallace has designed; I think it's exceptionally well done, although it certainly isn't my favorite. That's not to say that I don't like it – I do enjoy it, but it's a tough game to learn and play.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: Martin Wallace proves that he is once again the king of board game designers by designing a game that makes sense thematically and has a tight yet fair economic system. It's not a game that I'll bring out on every occasion – it's only for the core gamers, the ones who are looking for a deep, engaging game. It's not too long of a game -- play seems to take 90 minutes to two hours – but it's an intense experience of deep thought and tough decisions. Wallace fans will likely be happy with the game, but beginners should beware and perhaps look at something easier before attempting Brass.
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