Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Brass: Birmingham

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The Brass series is an important part of Martin Wallace's line-up of game designs. Brass was first published in 2007. It lead to the Age of Industry series. Brass: Lancashire and Brass: Birmingham were both published in 2018, by a different company, and using all new artwork. Brass: Lancashire is the new version of the original Brass, and there were some tweaks done. Brass: Birmingham has (of course) a different map, and some new mechanisms too.

In Brass: Birmingham, you play entrepreneurs during the industrial revolution, from the end of the 18th century to the 19th century. You build factories, you build canals and railroads to support the factories, and you make money!

This is your player board. Everyone gets a whole set of factories that can be built, and you organise them using this player board. Icons on the left side of a factory indicate the building cost. You need to spend money, and sometimes coal or iron too. When you build a factory on the board, you've merely started a business, and it is not profitable yet. You need to flip the factory tile in order to make it profitable. How to flip a factory depends on the factory type. If you've built a manufacturer, a cotton mill or a pottery, to turn them profitable you need to deliver your first batch of goods. If you've built a brewery, iron works or coal mine, the appropriate resources will be placed on it, and once all such resources are consumed, the factory is flipped. Once a factory is flipped, it increases your earning power - your income every round increases. The factory will score points at the end of the era. It will also contribute points to connected canals and railroads.

Each time you perform an action, you must play a card. For most actions you may play any card. The cards in the game serve as a countdown. When both the deck and the player hands are exhausted, an era ends. The game is played over two eras. The only action type which has dependency on what card it is you play is the build action. This is the most important action in the game. There are two card types. The one on the right is an industry card, specifying which factory type you may build. The one in the centre is a location card, specifying where you may build. Location cards are usually better because you can directly build without needing to have established a connection to the location. With industry cards, you can only build within your network.

The transportation network is crucial. In the first era you build canals, and in the second era railroads. Building railroads require coal, and if you want to build two for one action, you need beer too. To sell goods (and thus flip factories) you need to connect to the appropriate merchants at the edges of the board. To make use of some resources, you need the transportation network too. Often to build factories at certain locations, you need to extend your network to those locations. Canals and railroads score points too. At the end of the canal era, all canals are removed from the game, so that in the railroad era, you start from scratch rebuilding your network. This doesn't mean canals have been destroyed or made illegal. The game is only trying to convey that the canals can no longer support the needs of the industries, so railroads are needed.

You will run out of cash, and you will need to take loans. This is classic Martin Wallace. Picking the right time to take loans is important, because each time to take a loan, your profitability drops. It is not easy to increase your profitability, so you need to manage loans carefully so as not to stunt your own progress.

These chips are optional. They are huge, and they fit the game well. There is a recess in the box designed specifically to fit this box of poker chips. The chips also nicely fit some spaces on the board meant for keeping track of money spent in the current round.

Flipping factories is an important part of the game and needs to be explained in more detail. To flip a pottery, a manufacturer or a cotton mill, you need to perform the sell action. Your factory needs to be connected to a merchant (along the edge of the board) who buys the specific goods. Usually it also needs access to a beer resource. When performing the sell action, the beer is consumed, and you flip over your factory. You increase your income level, and your factory will score victory points at the end of the era.

Flipping the other type of factories - the resource factories, require fully consuming the resources on them. When you build a coal mine, iron works or brewery, you place some resources on them. If the coal market or iron market is short on resources, you can already sell your resources there to make money. If other people take goods from you, they don't pay you. By taking your goods they are helping you towards flipping your factory. Usually you welcome people using your resources, unless you have plans to use them yourself. Supply and demand are what drive your decisions whether to build these resource factories, and which type to build. You want to build when there is demand, or when you predict there will be demand.

One interesting mechanism in the game is how player order is determined. Every round when you spend money, you place them here instead of directly paying money to the bank. The turn order for the next round is determined by the least amount of money spent in the current round. Big moves usually cost more money, which means if you've pulled off something big, most likely next round you'll go late. Sometimes it is important to manipulate the turn order.

These two are jokers. They don't exist in the original Brass. The one on the left lets you build in any city, and the one on the right lets you build any industry. To get a pair of such cards, you basically sacrifice one turn. They seem to be very powerful and well worth the cost of one turn, but when we played, it turned out that one turn was often more valuable. I was the only one to have collected such jokers, and I did it only once. I did it only when I was truly desperate - when I really wanted a specific card but didn't have it.

The Play

I own the original Brass. It's a game I like a lot. I have played it a couple of times, but it had been a long while since I last played. Such is the fate of boardgames when one owns too many of them. I had a chance to try Brass: Birmingham because Han brought along a copy when he was in town. I did a 3-player game with him and Allen. The game supports up to four players. With 3 players, some cards are removed, and some merchant locations are left empty, making a section of the map less accessible and less lucrative.

In Brass: Birmingham, you will be competing for space - space to build factories and space to build canals and railroads. Everyone wants to build factories and make money, and the available slots and types at each city are both limited. Each city only supports a few industries. However, there is also collaboration among the players. Maybe collaboration is not the right word. It is basically making deals. You make offers and hope others cannot resist helping you, because they will help themselves too. There are very real supply and demand relationships in the game. Player actions are driven by real demands and not any forced scoring rule. When you see many people building manufacturers, cotton mills and potteries, you will want to build breweries because these factories will need lots of beer to sell their stuff. If people have been building railroads and consuming coal from the market on the board, you will want to build coal mines so that you can immediately supply coal to the market and make money. When you build resource factories, you are inviting others to take the resources and help you flip your factories. Your opponents are often willing to help you because they are getting free resources. They save the trouble of building such factories themselves, and they save money because they don't need to buy from the market. This kind of win-win situations is one of the interesting aspects of the game.

The story arc in the game starts with you having a little money and needing to grow your business empire to make money efficiently. You spend money to make more money, and it takes time to build up to a healthy, regular income. For most of the game you are doing this. Only towards late game you may be spending money for the sake of points. The factories you build throughout the game are worth points, but most of the time you make decisions based on business sense. Potteries are very expensive, but score many points. Normally you need to plan far ahead to save enough money for them.

This was the first half of the game, we were still building canals. I (light grey) started in the south (left), unlike Han and Allen who both started in the north. The merchant in the south traded in all three goods - pottery, manufactured goods and cotton. Other merchants only traded in one goods type. My canals had now connected my factory in Birmingham all the way to the merchant in Gloucester. There was a barrel of beer in Gloucester. That meant I could do selling now for my factory in Birmingham.

You have a hand size of 8. Although which card you play only matters when you build factories, even when you are performing other actions, it is often not easy to decide which card to use. You want to keep cards which might be useful. In the early game this can be painful because most cards are potentially useful.

I (light grey) started off in the south (left) and had built four factories by now. Allen (brown) started in the north, and worked tirelessly expanding southwards. His canals were now connected to the canal network in the south. He made a mistake in the early game. The north did not have the merchant he needed, so he had to expand southwards. Han (yellow) started in the north, but later switched to build in the west.

My (light grey) brewery here was built by playing a location card. Allen (brown) had built the canal leading to Walsall, and blocked off my network. I could not expand my network here then build my factory using an industry card.

This was the second half, we had started building railroads. When the first half ended, canals were all removed, and Level 1 factories too. So the second half was almost like a reset. Most of my (light grey) factories were in the east, Allen's (brown) in the centre, and Han's (yellow) in the southwest.

To check whether a factory has been flipped, you look at its background colour. If the top half is black, it's flipped. If the background is fully in the player colour, it's not yet flipped.

I (light grey) built many railroads. I knew they were going to be worth many points.

The Thoughts

Brass is not a new game. I originally considered writing about Brass: Birmingham just as an expansion, explaining the differences from the original and skipping the basic rules. Brass is a relatively old game (2007!) in this age of too many new games. Many people may not have tried it. I like the game a lot, and would be happy if more people get to know it and play it. Thus the longer version.

Brass: Birmingham has many trademarks of Martin Wallace designs. It's not easy making money. You need to manage your finances carefully. The supply and demand work naturally, and it's a beauty to experience. This is meaningful user interaction.

Brass: Birmingham is a variant of Brass. The underlying engine is the same, but there are some notable differences. No more shipyards. You get potteries instead, which are similar but not exactly the same. There is now a need for beer to make sales. There are merchants limiting where you can sell. The map is of course different, but the spirit of the game is still the same. The artwork is quite different.

This is the original Brass, and the art style is very different. I prefer the old art because it is clearer and more practical. The new art is too dark. It is beautiful and stylish, but the old art is pretty good, and I prioritise practicality.

In the original Brass you stack all factories of the same type like this. There is no player board. You can only see the cost of the topmost factory. You can't see the cost of the others stacked below, and you can't see the income increase or the victory points which are printed on the back of the tiles. To see these details you need to pick up the tiles and examine them. In the new version all this information is displayed clearly on your player board, so this is an improvement.

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