Posted by: gschloesser | July 14, 2011

Brass

Design by:  Martin Wallace
Published by:  Warfrog
2 – 5 Players, 2 – 3 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

 

Martin Wallace has designed some of my favorite games, including Struggle of Empires, Age of Steam and Liberte.  He has a penchant for designing games that have considerable depth, and are a bit more complex than most European fare.  As such, I am always keen to play his latest release.

Most of his designs from the past several years have had a decided militaristic tone.  Princes of the Renaissance, Struggle of Empires, Byzantium and Perikles have all involved warfare and military conquest.  His latest release Brass breaks this trend, and instead attempts to portray the industrial revolution as it sweeps through 18th century Lancashire, England.  

Along with a variety of tracks and charts, the board depicts Lancashire and an assortment of its cities.  Each city has one-to-three icons depicting the type of industry that can be constructed at that location.  These include coal mines, cotton mills, ports, iron works or shipyards.  Coal mines and iron works will be used to supply materials for further construction, while cotton will be shipped from the mills via the ports to generate additional income.  Ultimately, industries yield victory points once they are used to capacity, and the player who constructs and utilizes a profitable network will garner great wealth and win the game.

Each player receives a set of industry counters.  These are sorted and stacked by type and value.  Players must construct or develop these industries in order, working their way through the less valuable industries before constructing the more lucrative ones.  There is consistent time pressure to get to the more lucrative industries, as they will ultimately grant more victory points.  Further, when the game enters the second phase, all industries valued less than two are removed from the board.  Thus, players will want to construct at least a few value two industries prior to the onset of the game’s second phase. 

Players alternate taking two actions, which are largely regulated by the cards.  Each action requires the expenditure of a card, which depict either a specific industry or city. 

Actions include building an industry, canals or rail links, developing industries to discard low-valued tokens and access more valuable ones, selling cotton, and taking loans. 

When building an industry, a player may use an industry card to place the corresponding industry into a city wherein he has a canal or rail connection.  A location card can be used to place an industry in the corresponding city.  In either case, the city must have an icon allowing the industry being placed, and the city must be connected to a coal mine or port by canal or rail provided the industry being constructed requires coal. 

There are additional factors to consider when constructing an industry.  Each city has space for a limited number and type of industries, so players are under pressure to expand fairly quickly.  Further, during the first phase of the game, each player can only have one industry in each city.  Thus, players must carefully plan their construction and expansion strategies.  This latter restriction is lifted in the second phase.  

Finding the correct combination and location for industries is one of the keys to success.  Here is a summary of the various buildings: 

Coal mines.  Coal is required to build many of the industries.  Coal mines are the primary source of supplying this coal.  When a coal mine is constructed, the specified number of coal markers is placed upon it.  Each time another industry requiring coal is constructed, a canal or rail route must exist between the new industry and a source for coal.  If this route is to a coal mine, a coal marker is removed from the mine.  If the final coal marker is removed, the coal mine flips and earns its owner more income and victory points. 

If there is no route to a coal mine, but one exists to a port, the player may purchase a coal from the coal demand track if the location where the industry is being constructed is connected to a port.  When a new coal mine is constructed, it can immediately sell its coal to the demand track if it is connected to a port.  This is a clever tactic in the game:  construct a coal mine when the demand track is in need of coal.  If timed correctly, this allows the player to immediately “flip” the coal mine and earn income and victory points. 

Iron Works.  Iron works operate in a similar fashion as coal mines, in that they supply iron to other industries when they are constructed and earn income and victory points when flipped.  Like coal mines, they can also sell iron to a depleted iron demand track upon construction.  Unlike coal mines, however, they need not be connected to the location where an industry is being constructed in order to supply it.  

Cotton Mills.  The primary purpose of cotton mills is to provide substantial income.  A cotton mill must ship its cotton through a port.  When a route exists to do this, both the cotton mill and port are flipped and earn the respective players the income and victory points depicted.  Players do have the option of shipping the cotton overseas and earning additional income, but there is an increasing risk that the market will be depleted and they will not earn anything. 

Ports.  Ports must exist in order for cotton to be shipped, and are a conduit to connect to the coal and iron demand tracks.  They are flipped whenever someone ships cotton through it. 

Shipyards.  Only three shipyards can be constructed, and they are quite expensive to do so.  Further, two of the three locations are difficult to reach, and it takes time to construct the necessary rail lines.  The cost and time are worth it, however, as they yield a considerable amount of victory points.  Shipyards are the only industry that earns victory points immediately upon construction. 

Players may also build canals in the first phase of the game, and rail lines in the second phase.  Canals and rails are necessary to extend one’s network of industries, and they also earn victory points based on the number of industries in the locations at each end of a segment.  Canals are removed at the end of phase one, and players must then re-build their network using railways. 

Every action a player takes requires the expenditure of a card.  Properly managing one’s hand so that industries can be constructed in the desired location is vital.  A player may combine his two actions into one by playing two cards, which acts as a wild card, and can be used to represent any location or industry.  All other construction rules must be obeyed. 

Building a substantial income is important, as construction can be expensive.  Players may take loans during their turn, but this forces them to move their marker back on the income track, so future income is adversely affected.  Still, loans are generally needed at one or more times during the game.    

Each turn, players perform two actions, then refill their hand to eight cards and collect income.  The turn order is based on money spent in the previous round, from least to most.  This can be an important consideration when choosing the actions to perform on a turn.  When the draw pile expires, players will continue to play the cards they have in hand until depleted.  Victory points are then earned for the canal links and industries that have been flipped.  After this first phase, all canal segments and industry markers valued less than “2” are removed, and players receive a fresh hand of eight cards.  The game enters its second and final phase, wherein canals are no longer constructed.  Instead, in addition to industries, rail lines are now built.   

At the conclusion of Phase 2, victory points are again earned in the same fashion, with an additional point being earned for each 10 pounds (cash) they possess.  The player with the most victory points is victorious.  A typical game takes from 2 – 3 hours to play to completion, but certainly plays faster with more experience. 

Brass is not an easy game to learn, and even more difficult to play well.   The rules are organized in an unorthodox fashion, and the mechanics are not always intuitive.  There are similar situations wherein one rule applies, where in the other situation a different rule is applicable.  There is a lot to remember, and consequently, it is easy to overlook or forget certain rules.  Repeated play is certainly beneficial and will help games proceed in a smoother fashion. 

There is a LOT to consider here.  Building a profitable network of industries and canal / rail lines is important, but players must also be flexible and astute enough to take advantage of opportunities that arise.  Constructing coal mines or iron works when the corresponding demand track is in need of goods is a smart tactic.  It is also profitable to have a monopoly in coal or iron, or at least have them located in key locations, as other players will be forced to utilize your goods, thereby allowing you to flip those industries quickly and earn victory points.  Erecting several cotton mills and connecting them to ports is also lucrative and efficient, as one can ship cotton from multiple mills with one action.   Shipyards, while expensive and difficult to form the proper connections, are victory-point rich, and usually worth the effort to construct.

The list of strategies, tactics and things to consider goes on and on.  Suffice to say that Brass is a deep strategy game that will take many, many games to explore and fully probe its depths.  That seems to be a hallmark of Wallace designs, and he has truly become a master at producing these strategy-filled games.  The complexity and difficulty in learning and playing the game well will be a hindrance to some.  For those who enjoy tackling a deep game filled with a wide variety of choices and strategic options, however, Brass will be a challenging and enjoyable gaming experience.

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Responses

  1. Brass lives up to its quirky reputation. The classic Martin Wallace touches are all here, and the cards add fizz and a touch of the unexpected. Some rules are convoluted and/or contrived, but the resulting tension is worth it. Brass is substantial and delightful. (8/10)

  2. Wow. Much easier to play than I thought it would be. Various paths to victory. A wonderful economic game. (9/10)


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