Brass is a medium-weight strategy board game for 3 to 4 players. It was designed by Martin Wallace, and was first published in 2007 by Warfrog Games in the UK. Since then, it has been distributed in US, and to date, has enjoyed two successful reprints. The copy of the game used in this review is the first US edition.
Please note: This is just a general overview and review of the game, not a careful walk-through of the rules. There is plenty of in-depth discussion of Brass in the forums at BoardGameGeek, if that’s what you’re after.
A brief rundown
In the game of Brass, you are an industrialist entrepreneur in 19th-century Lancashire, England. Your goal is to build cotton mills, coal mines, iron works, ports, shipyards, canals, and railways, each of which can be used by you (and the other players) in some fashion to earn money and score points. Meanwhile, the other players are trying to do the same thing – it’s a race to see who can best take advantage of the economy.
Brass is one of those games that encourages you to plan out your actions ahead of time. In order to score, you have to build. In order to build, for example, not only must you have enough pounds to pay for the building, but you often must have coal as well, and you’ll be presented the choice of developing your own coal mines, using someone else’s mines (which gives them victory points), or buying coal at the market price.
One extremely cool aspect of the economy in Brass is that players influence both demand and supply. If there is a glut of coal on the board, then it can be had very cheaply. In a coal shortage, you’ll pay dearly for it (as well as raise the price for players who buy after you). Of course, you can always build a coal mine to increase the supply, thereby driving the price down and earning you income at the same time.
That was just one example. There is far more to Brass than I’m describing here, but suffice it to say that it’s a deep, tense, satisfying experience to play. More on that later.
What’s in the box?
The physical components of Brass are amazingly good, with one exception which I’ll mention now: the coins. The coins are categorically awful, nothing more than plastic tiddly-winks that are difficult to stack, and have a propensity for slipping (and even flying) all over the place. Throw them away, and use poker chips instead.
Now that the one truly negative bit has been outed, I’ll focus on the overwhelmingly positive. First, the artwork is absolutely fantastic, very thematic and evocative of the period. The game board presents the rough geographical location of each town featured in the game, as well as several flavor illustrations. The cards are attractive and quite useable.
The player colors (red, yellow, green, purple) are well chosen, and easily distinguishable. Each player receives his/her own set of hefty and well-printed building tiles in his/her color. The wooden bits are quite adequate, as one might expect of any serious Eurogame: black and orange cubes to represent coal and iron, respectively.
Lastly, I must admit that the rulebook, although well-set typographically and attractive graphically, is horribly organized. The rules aren’t simple as it is, and the way the rules are organized certainly doesn’t make them any easier. Thankfully, there are resources available on BoardGameGeek to help clarify the rulebook’s shortcomings.
How to play (in a nutshell)
Player order is not seating order, as it is with most games. In Brass, the money players spend is tracked, and the player that spent the least in the previous round is first player in the next round, second-lowest spender = 2nd player, and so on. Thus, the player order will most likely change from round to round. This is a really cool balancing mechanism that I wish more games had. You have to watch your spending, because this will affect your order in the next round, and therefore your choices of which spaces are left available on the board (the early players get first choice of the prime locations).
Another trick is that only the top tile on each of your personal industry stacks is available to be built. Typically (but not always), the more rewarding tiles are towards the bottom of each stack, so each player has to choose whether to build down through a particular industry, or develop the industry (remove tiles off the top).
The game takes place over two Eras: the Canal Era and the Rail Era, respectively. You start with a hand of 8 cards, each of which contains either a location on the board (for example, the city of Manchester) or a type of industry (cotton, coal, iron, port, or shipyard). Each turn, you will take 2 actions, discard a card for each action. At the end of your turn, you draw back up to 8 cards. An Era ends when all players run out of cards (not when the deck is depleted).
As what to do for an action, you may do any of the following five things:
- Take a loan (cash infusion)
- Build a link between cities (canal or rail)
- Build an industry in a city (cotton/coal/iron/port/shipyard)
- Develop an industry (remove 1-2 tiles from the top of your stack(s))
- Sell cotton (increase per-round income)
Here’s the rub: For an industry tile you’ve played to be any good, it needs to be used, or flipped. Cotton mills and ports can be flipped when a player sells cotton. Coal mine and iron works tiles are built with a certain amount of coal or iron sitting on them, and get flipped when their respective resources are depleted. When a tile is flipped, it is literally turned upside down to reveal the per-round income it will earn you, and how many points it’s worth at scoring. You won’t get any income or points for your unflipped (unused) industries, so only build what you think has a chance be used before the end of an Era.
A good rule of thumb is to try to build more of what other players are building less of. The demand will come, and the fewer players you have to share that demand with, all the better for you!
At the end of each Era, there is a round of scoring. Players get points for their flipped industry tiles and for their links to industrialized cities. After scoring the Canal (first) Era, all canal links and level 1 industry tiles are removed from the board, leaving a partially clean board for the beginning of the Rail Era.
In the interest of (relative) brevity, I won’t get into any more specifics about the rules here, but Warfrog has a downloadable PDF of the rules, as well as a FAQ page for those that are interested in learning more about how the game works. You’ll also want to check out the rewritten rules on BoardGameGeek after seeing the official ones! The BGG forums for Brass are another great resource if you have rules questions, or just want to read what other people have to say about the game. Finally, BGG has a wonderful image gallery of people playing Brass, some of the playing pieces, etc. All of the images used in this review are courtesy of BGG users.
Brass is an absolutely brilliant game, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to share my thoughts on it. It’s certainly not a simple game, and you’ll probably play it wrong on your first attempt (as I did), but I’ve found it to be a true gem after several plays, and I don’t expect my opinion to change anytime soon. Brass shares much in common with old-school railroad games, but emerges as its own unique experience.
Playing Brass actually makes me feel a bit like a 19th-century English businessman. Wallace has clearly designed the game to be thematic. Yes, there are some niggly rules exceptions, but the mechanics of Brass are largely refined abstractions of business processes from the period. Taking into account the geographical element, it’s amazing how much complexity Wallace was able to distill into a really fun, and relatively simple game. The game’s soul draws me in.
Brass can be quite contentious and cutthroat with 4 players, and slightly less so with 3. With either number, there will always be that delicious tension between wanting to increase your income, score more points, and position yourself to grab the prime locations on the board, whilst trying not to run out of money or have your plans foiled by the other players, all of whom are trying to do the same thing. There is a lot going on, and there will always be more you want to do than you are able to do – a sign of a solid and worthy game. I highly recommend Brass to those who like their games meaty and strategic, and who don’t mind using their first play or two of Brass to learn how to play it.