June 16, 2008

Memorial Day Gaming - Brass

by Susan Rozmiarek

Well, our Memorial Day was not exactly the gaming bonanza that I was expecting. We had a huge crowd and it was fun, but I only played two games! They both ran a little long and I also got caught up in cooking duties. Still, I'd have thought I could manage more gaming in ten hours. Also, for some reason, Ed neglected (forgot?) to take pictures.

Fortunately, those hours that I did spend playing were definitely of the highest quality gaming time - Brass and the new Pillars of the Earth expansion. I'm just going to talk about Brass in this post.


Martin Wallace games were once automatic purchases for us, but we now proceed with caution, especially after Perikles which I did not enjoy at all. Even his much touted masterpiece, Age of Steam, is a design I admire but can't stand to play as its unforgiving economic system and brutal competition makes it feel like too much work. It's one of those games that practically reduces me to tears of frustration. Brass, however, fixes these problems for me yet remains highly competitive, boosting Martin Wallace back up on his pedestal for the time being.

Brass is about the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire, England. Players will be building industries like coal mines, iron works, and cotton mills in the various towns and building connections between them to move the resulting goods, either selling them at ports or using them to do more building. The game is played in two periods - a canal period and a rail period. Building is done through card play. The board shows which industries can be built in each town. Right here are two game attributes that I dearly love - route building and hand management.

There is a bit of a cooperative aspect that is really nice. When you build a coal mine or iron works, the resulting products can be used by anybody for free. The advantage for you is that once they are used up, the tile is flipped and you get an increase in income and the victory points. Thus, you'll want to build coal mines in towns that other players are connected to so they can use it. The same goes with the ports. Another player can use your port to sell their cotton, but it then flips and you'll get victory points and an income boost. A good strategy here is to not be cooperative and build your ports such that you use them yourself to ship cotton.

Victory points are awarded after each period for flipped industry tiles and connections between towns. Leftover money also earns VPs at the end of the second period.

There are several mechanisms that make Brass less painful and more enjoyable for me:

- It's much harder to get blocked in on the board as often happens in Age of Steam. You can play an industry card to build off your network, but you can also play a location card to build in a particular town even if you aren't connected to it. This allows you to jump to another part of the board and start building another network. There is a bit of luck here in drawing a location card that you want.

- If resources are scarce on the board, you can buy them for a price if you are connected to a port. Since this includes flipped (used) ports and ones that are fixed on the board, it is not that hard to do.

- Player order is determined in a very clever fashion. Players take turns based on how much money they spent in the previous turn from least spent to most. So, if you have a "big" turn, you will likely be going last in the next one and vice versus. This means that you have some control over the turn order which often drives your decisions on a given turn.

- Money is quite tight, but a loan can be taken as one of your actions on your turn. This causes a decrease in your income but can sometimes be timed so that there is less of an impact. Like Age of Steam, you get income every turn and are continually increasing how much you'll get. However, in Brass it seems easier to increase it due to these other things that I mention above.

There are a few other things in the game that I'm not going to describe but will just say that there is plenty to worry about and deal with in this game, making it quite strategic. I wasn't really sure what I was doing until I saw the scoring at the end of the first period. After that, things fell into place and I at least understood the flow of the game. The rules aren't that hard except for some niggly rules that are easy to forget. There appear to be several different strategies and I'm looking forward to exploring them.

My biggest worry is a comment from a player in our group who has played it a few times and seems to think that the few shipyards are too powerful and will determine the winner. I hope that this is not the case as this game has so many things in it that I like.

Before I wrap this up, I have to comment on the theme. I am really enjoying heavily themed games lately. Most games with a historical theme seem to be either Eurogames where the theme feels like it was merely tacked on for flavor or wargames, an entirely different beast. Brass breaks out of this mold with a strong non-war historical theme that plays like a heavier Eurogame. I'm hoping Wallace's new game, Tinners' Trail, is of the same type. I'm reminded of the Ragnar Brothers, also British, who have given us this same sort of game with Fire & Axe and Canal Mania. I'd definitely like to see more of these types of games.

One more bit of praise - I love the clean, attractive art and overall look of the game which is very evocative of the time period in which Brass takes place.

Posted by Susan Rozmiarek at June 16, 2008 3:56 PM

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