Review of Brass

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

December 24, 2008


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

An excellent game that offers serious and innovative logistical play. Recommended for anyone who loves serious, dense games. Now available in a second edition.

Shannon Appelcline has written 677 reviews (including 358 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of Chang Cheng.

This review has been read 11131 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Brass
Publisher: Warfrog, FRED Distribution, Eagle Games
Author: Martin Wallace
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $59.95
Year: 2007

SKU: 1019


Review of Brass
Brass is the newest game published by Martin Wallace's Warfrog Games, originally distributed in the United States by FRED Distribution, now available in a second edition from Eagle Games.

Players: 3-4
Playing Time: 2-3 hours

This review of Brass has been slightly updated to talk about Eagle's second edition.

The Components

Brass is published in a dense bookshelf box, full of components.

Gameboard: A six-panel gameboard, depicting a simple view of Lancashire in northwestern Britain. There is a ton of stuff on this map, detailing all sorts of logistical information, including a turn order space, cotton demand info, and the track used for scores and income. In the middle of all of that is a largely abstracted map showing the cities of Lancashire and what can be built in each. The artwork is nice and period, but things aren't too cluttered, overall a nice compromise.

Cardboard Bits: Each player gets a set of 37 cardboard industry counters and 14 canal/rail counters. The industry counters are all printed in the player colors, with simple artwork depicting the industries on the front, plus a variety of info, including: coal cost, iron cost, money cost, tech level, period limitations. The back also includes information on income and victory points. Though there's a lot of info, it's all perfectly easy to find during play. The simpler rail and canal counters just show lengths of rail or canal. Each color also gets two victory point counters.

Finally, there are also 12 distant market tiles.

All of the cardboard is average weight and linen textured.

Wooden Bits: Each player also gets two wooden disks in their color, one for income and one for turn order. There are also 25 small orange wooden cubes for iron and 30 small black wooden cubes for coal.

Coins: Plastic coins in silver and goldcopper. The two coins are the same size and easy to confuse, especially since you expect the gold-colored things to be worth more than the silver.

Cards: A deck of 66 cards which each depict a location or an industry. The first edition had glossy stock, but the newer second edition is linen-textured. Though the location cards have miniature maps to try and show you where locations are, they're actually somewhat hard to use because the full network of cities isn't shown in the background. Nonetheless, it's better than nothing.

Rules: A full-color, glossy rulebook. The first edition rules have been somewhat derided on the Internet, and I will admit having to read them more carefully than most rule sets I work through (though that's partly due to the fact that the game has too many special cases). The situation wasn't helped by a few notable things that were left out (like saying that only one player can put a tile down on each length of canal/rail) and the fact that a somewhat awkward decision was made to split the rules into a main ruleset and a "reference" of special rules.

However, whatever troubles I had when I learned the game, the organization was terrific during play, as just about everything I ever needed to look up was organized alphabetically in the reference section. This is the thing that's changed the most in the second edition, as noted below.

The second edition of the game is largely identical to the original, with just a few changes. The biggest change is that the rulebook has been reorganized. The flow of the game is better explained, in advance. In addition, more attention is given to the flipping of the industries. I suspect it's easier to learn from now, but that's hard to assess when I already know the game.

The game has clearly been printed with a different printer, as the style of linen texturing is slightly different. In addition, as noted, the cards are now linen textured, rather than being a simple gloss.

Finally, a minor error was corrected where a couple of the industries in the first edition were missing a symbol that said they could only be built in the first era of the game.

Generally, the second edition of Brass is about the same as the first edition, with the minor changes generally being for the good.

Overall Brass has good components that are attractive; there's been pretty good attention given to usability. I've given it a "4" out of "5" for Style: well above average.

The Gameplay

The object of Brass is to not only manage resources in order to build businesses, but also to ensure that those businesses are used to their maximal efficiency.

A Note on The Game Modeling: Most logistical games involve players creating businesses, then immediately using those businesses to produce and/or sell products. In those games, there's no questions of running costs, break-even, or the economy as a whole. Brass instead offers a very different model. You're creating businesses as part of a larger economy, and you're not trying to generate profits off of individual sales in your businesses. Instead, you're attempting to insert your businesses into that larger economic web and thus make them profitable in the long term--giving you money and victory points.

Setup: The gameboard is laid out. The coal and iron demand tracks are filled. The cotton demand marker is placed at the top of the cotton demand track and the 12 distant market tiles are shuffled and placed face down.

Each player chooses a color and takes a full set of industry tiles in that color, organizing each set (cotton mill, port, coal mine, iron works, shipyard) in order, by tech level. Each player also takes the income marker in his color, and places it on the income track at "10" (which generates 0 income) and the victory point markers in that color (which he sets to the side for use later).

Each player is dealt an initial hand of eight cards.

A first player is selected, and the players' turn order markers are placed down in clockwise order from that player.

The Age of Canals has begun!

Order of Play: In a round of play, the following actions occur:

  1. Collect Income
  2. Take Actions
  3. Determine Play Order
  4. Refill Hand

Collect Income: Each player collects income based on his current location on the income track. 0-9 result in negative income, 10 in no income, 11-12 in 1 income, 13-14 in 2 income, etc. The income "bands" get larger the further you go up, so for example spaces 61-64 generate 21 income.

Take Actions: Now, in player order, each player takes two actions. An action consists of playing or discarding a card, then taking an action. The card you play only actually matters for the "Build Industry" action; for anything else, you just throw out a card you don't want. These actions are really the heart of the game. They are: Build Industry; Build Canal/Rail; Develop; Sell Cotton; and Take Loan.

Build Industry Action: You build the top (e.g., lowest tech level) cotton mill, port, coal mine, iron works, or shipyard on an appropriate space on the board. You can play in any city by playing the appropriate location card. Alternatively, you can play an industry card of the appropriate type to build in a city that you are already connected to via industries and canals/rails.

Each industry has a cost in pounds. Some also cost a coal cube and/or an iron cube. Iron and coal are both communal resources that may be taken from the board or the demand tracks.

To get coal you must be connected to a coal mine that still has coal via some line of canals/ports. Then, you remove a coal cube from the nearest source. Alternatively you must be connected to a port. Then you can buy a coal off the coal demand track, for 1 pound or more.

To get iron there must be iron on the board. Then you remove an iron cube from any iron works. Alternatively, if there isn't any on board, you can buy one from the iron demand track, for 1 pound or more.

Results of Building. Some of the industries have immediate effects when they're built.

The coal mine and iron works immediately get cubes placed on them. Further, if they're connected to a port, and some of the cubes have been removed from the appropriate demand track (coal or iron), you use your industry's cubes to refill the demand track, collecting money for doing so.

Shipyard automatically flip over when they appear.

Flipping Industries. The object of the game is to get industries running to full efficiency, at which point you flip them over, giving you permanent income and victory points. There are different rules for flipping each industry.

As noted, shipyards flip when they appear.

Cotton mills flip when you ship their product to either a port or a distant market.

Ports flips when cotton is shipped to them.

Coal and iron flip when all of their cubes have been used up.

Combined Build. Instead of taking two actions on your turn, you can take a combined build action. You discard two cards, and you build in any one location.

Build Canal/Rail Action: You can build a canal/rail connected either to one of your industries or one of your canal/rails. Rails allow more options than canals: you can build one or two, allowing increased speed, but every rail you build takes a coal.

Development Action: You can remove one or two of your industry tiles (allowing you to burrow down to the good stuff) for a cost of one iron cube each. This is required for shipyards: the first two are tech level 0 which can't be built, but must be developed through.

Sell Cotton Action: You can sell your cotton from an unflipped mill to an an unflipped port or through any port to a distant market. If you're selling to a port, you just flip both tiles (though the port might not belong to you, and thus you might help someone else). If you're selling to a distant market, you pull a tile, randomly decreasing the demand, and if there's still demand you sell to the market, which also increases your income a little bit.

Take Loan Action: You take a loan of 10, 20, or 30 pounds, then you drop your income back 1, 2, or 3 bands. Note that loans are never actually repaid.

Refill Hand: A round ends with each player filling their hand back up to 8 cards. When there aren't any cards left, players continue playing out their hand.

Ending a Period: The Canal Period and the Rail Period each end when all the players have played through all the cards. Players now get victory points in two ways:

At the end of the Canal Period all canals and all tech level 1 buildings are removed from the board.

At the end of the Rail Period, in addition to the normal scoring, each player earns 1 VP for each 10 pounds they have.

Relationships to Other Games

Brass is a logistical game, where you make money to make more money. However, unlike most logistical games, in Brass the money is just one side of the equation, because you also have to fight for board position, manage your tiles, and figure out how to create industries that will get used, overall creating a much denser and more intricate web of interconnections than is found in most games.

Wallace's central idea of creating working industries rather than just making one-time money is also shown in his most famous game, Age of Steam, however it's much more forefront here, and thus makes the game much more unique, whereas Age of Steam is a fairly normative railroad game.

The Game Design

I'll start out by saying that Brass is a great game. A game of this length really has to wow me to encourage me to play it rather than several shorter games. Brass did, which is pretty rare for me, even among Wallace designs (where I can typically admire the workmanship, but admit that they're too long for my own preference).

Brass managed to win me over firstly because of its very unique design. The concept of making sure that your industries are used is sufficiently unique and interesting to keep me entertained, and also can sometimes be a tactical puzzle, which is an element of many of my favorite games.

Brass' other strength is that aforementioned interconnected web of different game systems. There's a real depth to the gameplay possibilities, and often you'll find yourself mapping out a few turns in advance--invariably only to discover other players taking the opportunities that you were counting on. This could cause analysis problems among some players, but if your group can avoid those, there's a real depth of play here.

(And see my strategy article on Brass if you'd like to avoid your own analysis problems.)

The interconnections with other players are generally interesting, as you constantly have to decide whether to help someone out by building something that would use his coal or iron--or by using his port to ship your cotton. Doing this things will often benefit yourself, but they help out your opponents as well.

Beyond this, play is fairly rapid, and there's a lot of nice strategic variety, with many different paths to victory possible.

I wouldn't say that Brass is flawless; as is often the case with indie designs it features too many special cases and other "sharp edges" that make learning the game more difficult. However, there's are minor compared to the overall quality of the game.

I unreservedly give Brass a "5" out of "5" for Substance. It should appeal to any serious gamer.

Conclusion

Brass is an excellent logistical game that's innovative, thoughtful, and allows a variety of meaningful strategy. The way in which a network of industries is created is unique, and really makes for an original and fun game. Definitely, one of the best of 2007. I'm very happy that it's now available in a second edition, which will keep it on the shelves for 2009 and beyond.

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