Saturday, 26 July 2008


Brass is a game I have thought long and hard about buying. This is a Martin Wallace design. I have slightly mixed feelings about his designs. His games are definitely in the Euro camp, and many are complex Euros. Yet most of them have very unique stories to tell. My guess is all his games start with the story or background in mind, and then he developed the mechanics around this base idea. I liked Age of Steam, Railroad Tycoon. I didn't like La Strada, Mordred. I liked Byzantium at first, but later found that I didn't like the Bulgar aspect of the game. But generally I like his designs. They are unique, and they are mostly at the more complex end of Eurogames, which is what I like. Brass is definitely this type of game.

The other reason I hesitated is Brass is quite expensive at USA online retailers, where I usually shop. Then I found out that an old friend is returning to Malaysia from the UK, so I bought the game at a UK online retailer, and asked him to bring it back for me.

Brass is about the start of the industrial revolution in Lancanshire in western England. This is a game about building industries, building transportation networks (first canals then later railroads), and of course, making money. Well, there's victory points too, like most Euros, and thus also the balancing act of building up your money-making capacity and ramping up your victory point-generating ability.

The first thing I can say about Brass is this is a tough game to learn from the rules. This is a widely heard complaint of Martin Wallace's game rules, despite his games being so highly regarded. The rules are not incomplete, nor ambiguous, nor unclear, but somehow it's a pain to try to understand what's going on. And I can't even really pinpoint what's wrong with the structure. So I did a rule summary (like I often do), and that helped a lot in learning to play. Normally I can do a rule summary for any game using just half a Powerpoint slide, which can be printed onto a quarter of an A4 paper. Past exceptions are Wilderness War, Rommel in the Desert, Die Macher, Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, Pacific Victory (mostly wargames), which needed one slide. I've even managed to fit these games into half a slide: Britannia (with faction details omitted), Crusader Rex, Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge, Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal (maybe this shouldn't count, since this was mainly a reference for important and easy-to-forget rules, and I didn't repeat information in the quick reference chart that comes with the game). Brass needed a full slide. It has quite a few special rules, and quite a few things that you can easily forget. I guess it's a balance between being thematic and having elegant rules, and also sometimes some quirky rules are needed to make the game work. Power Grid is a favourite which has some quirky rules. Despite the rules seeming rather daunting, and the game components too, Han, Michelle and I found the game to be not as complex as we feared. It only took a few rounds to get the hang of it.

The game board, soon after the game started.

Close-up of the game. This was still the canal period, so we weren't supposed to have more than one industry per player at the same city. Oops.

There are 5 types of industries you can build. The front and back of the tiles are different, the front showing the cost to build, whether it can only be built in the canal or the railroad age, any resources required (coal or iron), any resource to place on it when built, and also the technology level.

I like the artwork of the cards. Showcasing all 5 industries here.

This is the railroad age.

One of the unique aspects of this game is the tile flipping. When you build an industry, it (usually) doesn't make money for you or give you victory points immediately. It needs to be used (by yourself or by others) sufficiently before it can be flipped, and only then it increases your earning power, and it can give you victory points. E.g. when you build a coal mine, some coal is put onto it, and only when these coal cubes get exhausted, you can flip your coal mine tile. This is interesting. You need to anticipate, and also plan to use your industries. You can use others' industries for free, which is tempting, but you have to remember by doing that you are helping them towards tile flipping (i.e. profitability).

Another unique aspect is the cards. You must play a card for every action you do, but out of the 5 actions that you can do, only one has any dependency on the cards. When you build an industry, you must play a card showing the location where you want to build, or a card showing that industry. For other actions, like selling cotton, building canals or railroads, or developing your technology, it doesn't matter what card you play, and the card becomes merely a tool for tracking your actions remaining. However for the industry building action you cards are still important. It determines where you can expand your business (another important restriction being your transportation network), so when you do the other actions, you basically try to discard cards which you are sure you won't need.

We made 2 big rule mistakes in our game. In the canal age, i.e. first half of the game, no player should have more than one industry in a city. Maybe that explains why we didn't find the game too tough. I also made a big mistake in teaching the scoring rule for canals and railroads. I forgot that you should count the number of coin icons of the flipped-over tiles at the cities at both ends of the canal/railroad. We didn't realise the importance of canals and railroads in scoring and had thought they were only important for expansion.

The game played well otherwise. Not as difficult as we had expected. I like the game a lot and really want to play this again. Unfortunately this needs at least 3 players, and now that Han has moved to another city, it is not likely I'll get to play this again any time soon.


Isamoor said...

There's some *okay* 2-player rules up in the BGG forums.

And I feel your pain about the third wheel moving away.

Nice blog by the way.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks for the tip on the 2 player variants at BGG. Will check them out and hopefully convince my wife to play this again. She thinks Brass is complex, and yet she's offering to play Through the Ages again.