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Huzonfirst
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I’m a big fan of Martin Wallace. He is a master of integrating eurogame inspired mechanics into games with interesting historical themes. The length of some of his most recent games, though, have made it hard to get them to the table. Moreover, he tends to employ a little more luck in his combat resolutions than I usually like.

So when I heard about Brass, I was very interested. Its listed duration is two hours, relatively snappy by Martin’s standards. And it’s a pure economic game, his first since the blessed Age of Steam, with nary a battle in sight. I had been wanting to try this out for a while, and our pre-Thanksgiving bash was our first chance to play the game.

The title, by the way, comes from a British saying, "Where there’s muck, there’s brass". If you’re anything like me, that leaves you just as clueless as before. Friends on the other side of the pond have provided me with this English to English translation: there’s money to be made in activities where you have to get dirty. So Brass, in this instance, means "wealth".

First, let me get the issue of the rules out of the way. Despite what you may have heard, they are not poorly written. What I don’t care for is their organization: the first section goes over the basics of the game and then the appendix describes the details item by item. This is fine if you only use rules to check on answers that pop up during play. But I want to be able to learn a game from the rules and I felt the organization made this a more difficult job (to be fair, not all agree with this). However, it’s by no means impossible to learn the game like this; it just requires some patience and careful reading. So don’t be dissuaded from picking up this great game because you’re afraid the rules will be unintelligible.

The setting for Brass is the early days of the Industrial Revolution in Britain’s Lancashire County. The players are entrepreneurs who seek to utilize this new technology to make their fortune in the cotton industry. As in many of Wallace’s games, what is important is the income stream. Income (and victory points) are earned by making sure the industries the players construct (cotton mills, ports, coal mines, iron works, and shipyards) are used. Before I explain how this is done, let’s look at the components.

The board shows the area covered by Lancashire, which includes about two dozen cities. Each city contains from one to four spaces where industry counters can be placed. Each of these spaces is dedicated to one (or occasionally two) of the five industry types. The board also includes two types of potential transportation links between the cities: canals and railroads.

Each player begins with his own supply of industry counters. Each counter has a tech level. The players divide their counters into separate stacks for each industry type, in order of tech level (with the lowest, least developed counters being on top).

There is also a deck of cards. Cards either show one of the cities or one of the technology types. Players begin the game with eight cards.

Each player on her turn will perform two actions. These include building an industry, building a transportation link, selling cotton, development, and taking a loan. The same action can be taken twice in a turn. A card must be discarded to perform the action, but the details of the card only matter when industries are built. The cards are replenished at the end of the round; when the deck runs out, cards are played until the players’ hands are depleted. At this point, the period ends. The game consists of two periods: the Canal period and the Rail period. There are 8-10 rounds in each period, depending on the number of players.

Industry counters can be built in a city that has an empty space devoted to that type of industry. The player then can either play a card which shows that city, or one which shows the industry type. In the latter case, though, the city must be connected with his transportation links to another city where he has an industry counter. Each counter has a cost which must be paid. There are some other requirements to building which I’ll get to in a bit.

Transportation links (canals in the Canal period or rails in the Rail period) must either directly connect to one of your industry counters or another one of your links. The card played has no bearing on where you build your link.

Some of the industry counters or links require the expenditure of a coal or iron cube. These are conveniently provided by the coal mines and iron works that players can build. Each of these states how many cubes should be placed on the counter when it is built. To use a coal cube, a connection must be made between the newly built item and the coal mine. Anyone’s links can be used for this connection, but the closest mine with cubes must be chosen. There is no cost for using these cubes, but the mine owner still benefits, as we shall soon see. Iron cubes are used in the same way, except that there is no need to establish a connection; it is assumed that the established transportation network is sufficient to handle these deliveries.

None of these industry counters is worth anything when it is built. As I stated earlier, it’s necessary to use them to gain a benefit from them. The way this happens depends upon the type of industry. Cotton mills and ports get used via the Sell Cotton action. If one of your unused mills is connected (using anyone’s links) to an unused port (either yours or an opponent’s), you can choose this action to flip both the mill and the port counter. You literally turn over both counters, revealing an income increase and a VP value for each. The income increase is immediately applied for the owning player on the game’s Income track; victory points aren’t scored until the end of the period. These counters are now considered used and are no longer eligible for participation in another Sell Cotton action.

Coal mines and iron works are flipped when all of their cubes are used up. This again adds to the owning player’s income and eventually, to her VP total.

Shipyards don’t have to be used; they’re flipped when they’re built. There’s only a few spots where they can be built, though, and they’re hard to get to; in addition, the counters are very expensive. However, they have the highest VP values in the game.

The principal goal of the game is to get as many of your counters flipped as possible. This entails maintaining a good income stream, getting into key areas, and establishing a healthy transportation network. Mastering all of these concepts is a real challenge.

Another of the player actions, and a very important one, is development. Taking this action allows you to discard one or two industry counters from your stacks. This is important for a number of reasons. Some of these can only be built during the Canal period, so if you’re in the Rail period and these haven’t been built, the only way to get to the ones you can build is through development. Another reason has to do with the transition between the two periods. After the Canal period is scored, all the links and all the Level 1 industries that were built are put out of the game. This is somewhat similar to the start of the second age in Amun-Re. The only things that will remain at the beginning of the Rail period are industries of Level 2 or higher. The way the stacks are laid out, it takes a real effort to get these built that early. Development can definitely be useful here. This effort can be quite worthwhile, as these leftover industries make it much easier to get started during the Rail period. Finally, the higher level industries are worth more victory points, so this is another reason to try to quickly work your way down your stacks. All of this has to be balanced with the loss of an action, of course.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Wallace game without loans. Money isn’t quite as tight as in Age of Steam, but it’s still an issue and most players will have to visit their banker at least once a game. Loans subtract from your income level, so the interest payments are handled automatically. (By the way, the Income track uses an expanding scale. Each flipped counter adds points to your running total on the track and this translates to an income you receive at the beginning of each turn, but not in a linear way. At the beginning of the game, your income goes up one pound for each two points you’ve accumulated. After a while, it takes three points to increase your income by one, and then four. So players with a higher income get less of a benefit out of it. This is similar to the income reduction mechanism from Age of Steam, but implemented in a more refined and less obvious fashion. I believe a similar scheme will be used for the new Mayfair AoS 3rd Edition, assuming it ever sees the light of day.)

At the end of each period, victory points are tallied. Industries just score for what’s listed on their counters. Links are also worth points: they score for the number of flipped counters at either city they’re connected to. This can be particularly lucrative in the second half of the game, as economies are sufficiently robust that there should be a lot of flipped industries. The VPs for the two periods are added together and the player with the highest total wins.

Those are the main rules; I’ve actually left quite a few details out. This is anything but an elegant game, as there’s exceptions to practically every procedure. But the extra details all add to the richness of the game and are well worth mastering.

Brass is Wallace at the top of his game. The game isn’t all that easy to get into—the concepts are somewhat unintuitive, keeping all the exceptions straight takes a while, and you won’t really know where to begin as you start your first game. But unlike Princes of the Renaissance or Struggle of Empires, where the vast number of choices provided from the very start really adds to the learning curve, here things are more manageable. Things should clear up within half a game, although you’ll still find there’s plenty of strategies to explore. I’ve played twice, enough so that I’m comfortable with the game, but I’m nowhere near to getting a handle on solid play.

The rules for where things can be built are relatively simple and logical, but they have a large impact on the game. The two main elements of Brass are positioning and timing, but both are implemented so subtly that it takes a while to recognize which are strong positions and which are weak ones. A seemingly innocuous link can make all the difference in the world, particularly in a game where the total number of actions is small, so you can’t afford to waste any.

I’ve read in a couple of places that the cards have little effect on the game, to the point that some wondered why they were there. All I can say is that these people are certifiably insane. The cards have an enormous effect on your strategy and on the flow of the entire game. This is not to say that there’s much luck in the cards you receive; you do have eight cards most turns and there’s plenty of good ways to play each hand. The trick, of course, is optimizing the cards you have. But where on the board you start each age, where you will expand to, the types of industries you concentrate on; all of that is influenced by the cards you are dealt and draw. I view this as a big plus, because it means that the game isn’t susceptible to standard strategies. A good Brass player will have to be able to work several types of strategies to best take advantage of the cards she will receive. It also means that the several games my group has played have all played out very differently. Given the mechanics, this variety is quite surprising, but it all comes down to the way the cards influence play.

The "flipping" of the industry tiles is the game’s distinctive mechanic and it works very well. The tactics of flipping your cotton mills and ports is fairly straightforward, although it can be a struggle to get some of these cashed in as each period comes to an end. Flipping the coal mines and iron works is less direct, as you have to project where these resources will be in demand. Building them is quite worthwhile, though, both for their contributions to the bottom line and because a supply of their resources can be so vital to expanding your network.

Development is easy to overlook, but I think it’s an inspired concept. Using the simplest of rules, Wallace reflects the advantages of greater industrialization and smoothly introduces a tech tree with practically no bookkeeping. It’s impact on the game is considerable; probably the biggest difference between a beginner and a more experienced player is that the latter will develop more frequently and earlier in the game.

Like many of Wallace’s games, the object is to survive the beginning and score at the end. Getting your income up quickly brings in much needed cash. But most of the scoring occurs in the Rail period. This is a lesson I’m still learning and the different tactics needed to play well in these two periods only add to the challenge of this most challenging game.

Agricola has been getting most of the ink from this year's crop of Essen games, and rightfully so. But right now, Brass is running neck and neck in my personal battle of Game of the Fair. I might give the farming game a slight edge because of how well the solo rules work, but I’ve enjoyed my games of Brass every bit as much. To find two such superior titles is a huge treat and I expect to have a lot of fun deciding which game I like more.
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Eric Williams
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Good review. This game is worthy of a lot more information.

I particularly like your emphasis on development and can assure you that your suspicion that the more you play the more you'll likely choose development actions is accurate. As cotton mills increase in tech they actually earn less income - but they are VERY good bang for bucks (pounds) in VP's. The opposite being coal mines which can generate great incomes but VP wise are pretty weak.

The rail period is a far greater run because players are no longer limited to "one building per city" which means you can have a greater VP influence by fully developing cities served by your own links = lovely VP's. Also, in the rail period you can build two rail links in an action which makes development faster and competition greater.

Sensational game!
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Dave Eisen
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Also in the rail period you get one more action than you get in the canals period. And in the rail period you can utilize infrastructure you have remaining from the canals period if you prepare properly.

Agricola seems a fine game all right. But Brass is the class of 2007 from where I sit.
 
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Eric Williams
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dkeisen wrote:
Also in the rail period you get one more action than you get in the canals period.


You might want to revisit or clarify this statement...

In the first round of the canal period you play 1 action but it's 2 actions every round - canal period AND rail period - after that.

The only difference in the rail period is that you can build two rail links with one action at a cost premium of 15 pounds for the 2 instead of 5 pounds for 1. You certainly don't get an extra action, even though this can seem like it.
 
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Dave Eisen
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I meant one extra action over the whole era, not one per turn.
 
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Eric Williams
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dkeisen wrote:
I meant one extra action over the whole era, not one per turn.


That's what I thought you meant. I was more worried about a newcomer getting confused.
 
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