“Black by day and red by night”
Note: Roxley Games sent us a copy of Brass Birmingham so that we could write an unbiased review
I have to confess, the industrial revolution in England between 1770-1870 is not a strong suit of mine, and being invited to play a game based on it didn’t sound that appealing. And yet here I am writing a review basically telling you this is one of my favourite ever games!
Set in the West Midlands, players take on the role of competing entrepreneurs who are building their industrial empires, by investing in coal mines, potteries, cotton mills, canal & rail networks and more.
How the game works
The game is played over two eras, the canal era and the rail era. During these two eras, players will take it in turns performing actions with the aim of developing their influence on the map, earning points in the process. Once everyone has taken their turn, players gain income (which changes throughout the game – hopefully upwards!) and the player order changes depending on who spent the least during the previous round.
Players start with 8 cards in hand which either show a location on the board or a goods type, and they must discard one card for each action they take, replenishing their hand after their turn. The only action that matters which card you discard is Build, for any other action you can chuck anything away!
So on your turn you can do any two actions from the following:
1. Build. From your player mat you can build one of the six industries; coal mines, iron works, breweries, manufacturers, potteries and cotton mills. Pay the cost (usually money and sometimes coal/iron as well), and place the building on the map in the location/industry on the card you played.
2. Network. Build canals/railways across your network. Your network will score points at the end of each era as well as allow you to build further afield, sell your goods for victory points and transport coal.
3. Develop. Skip buildings on your player board in whichever industry you choose. Because in Brass you need to construct buildings in order from smallest to biggest, developing allows you to skip some of these to get to the big point-scoring ones quicker.
4. Sell. Selling goods from your potteries, cotton mills and manufacturers allows you to flip over that tile, revealing victory points and an increase to your income. In order to sell goods you need access to beer – either your own, your opponents’ or with trade partners (more on that later) – which can be in short supply. Well-timed selling is crucial to a winning strategy!
5. Loan. Take £30 from the bank and decrease your income by 3. Taking a loan in games is usually a last resort, but in Brass Birmingham it is an essential part of the game. Buildings are expensive and loans offer a great injection of cash. Having a decent income is important but not essential.
6. Scout. Take a location wildcard and a goods wildcard from the deck by discarding two cards from your hand. Really useful if your hand of cards is rubbish and you want to build somewhere you don’t currently have access to.
Once the draw deck is empty and all players have run out of cards, it’s the end of the era and scoring begins. You actually only score points in two ways in Brass: Birmingham, from your canal/rail networks and from your flipped building tiles. After the canal era you remove all the network tiles and any obsolete industries, and you start over with the rail era. After the rail era, it’s time for final scoring.
The importance of coal, iron & beer
The three resources in the game and your access to them are the key to winning Brass. Coal can be tricky to get hold of, since any time you require it to build, you need to have a network connecting you to a source of it. That can be one of the external markets of Warrington, Oxford, Shrewsbury etc. or it can be to an active coal mine on the board (whether it belongs to you or not). Using other people’s coal is good for you (e.g. it’s free) and it’s good for the player whose coal you’re using (once all the coal is gone from their mine, they get to flip it, scoring points and increasing their income). Buying it from external markets is fine, but it costs you money.
Iron is more easily accessible since you don’t need a network in order to use it. If there is available iron on the board you use that for free, if not you can buy it from the market.
Beer is trickier, since there is less of it in supply. You don’t need a connected network of canals or trains to use your own beer, but you do if you want to use an opponents’. Because beer is in such short supply, it is very very annoying when someone else uses your beer, so it can be a good idea to build a brewery a long way away from the rest of the network. When you sell to an external market, you can use the beer there, but again that is in short supply so may not be an option.
There are just so many great mechanics here and they all work together to form one almighty gaming experience.
I love how the three resources work and how they’ve justified the mechanics through the theme. Coal was so widely used it needed its own transport network (canals and then trains), whereas iron didn’t (hence why it doesn’t need to be connected to your network to be used). A lack of clean drinking water meant that beer was often the purest and safest drink available. The difference in how you consume these three resources can be confusing to remember at first but it’s all part of the tapestry of the game.
The way the coal & iron markets fluctuate throughout the game is wonderful too. We played a game the other day where during the canal era coal & iron were always cheap so we got lulled into a false sense of security (“at least I can always buy cheap from the market”). Later on there was so little coal on the board that it ended up costing as much as £7 each. To put that into perspective, one rail link costs you £5 and one coal, so if you can use coal from a mine that’s £5, but now its £12! This alters the game massively, those with higher incomes can afford this jump in price without worry, whereas those with lower incomes will struggle. The markets going crazy also gives a chance for a player to cash in, because when you build a new coal mine, any coal produced first goes back to fill up the market, which you get cash for. Steph utilised this to great effect by building two coal mines on one turn, selling 8 coal, getting £36 and two flipped coal mines worth of points and income.
I am a big fan of the variable player order (the player who spent the least money in the previous round goes first in the next). It leads to players altering their turn to ensure they go first next time as competition for building space can be high, especially in and around Birmingham.
I think Brass really nails the income mechanic. You increase it throughout the game by flipping building tiles and reduce it by taking loans, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how much money you have at the end, it’s what you do with it that counts. I won our last 4 player game having had a low income right till the very end (and ended up winning on the income tiebreaker!).
Aside from all the clever mechanics it is just such a satisfying game to play. Every single decision – not just from you but from everyone – is vital in the game, so you need to pay very close attention to what everyone else is doing. You can try and guess where they’ll go next so you don’t waste any turns, if you suspect the player after you will use your beer the moment you build your next brewery, maybe hold off one more turn and build up your network instead. It’s very complex and hurts my brain to play, but it’s such a thrilling puzzle I have loved it every time I’ve played it. As you’ve probably gathered, resources in the game (especially coal & beer) are very tight. This is also true of your time (only 16 turns the whole game in a 4p game) and space (it gets quite cramped out there!). This helps as it forces players to get in each other’s way and compete for areas and industries.
Looks in a game are important to me and whilst it’s no Wingspan or Everdell, the artwork is very evocative and really gets behind the theme. The beer barrels are adorable and I’m very tempted to buy the premium upgrades to the coal and iron (just wooden cubes in the standard game). The boards all have a day side and a night side (gotta be the night side right?!) and are beautifully illustrated. Even though it is slightly the wrong era, it did feel a bit Peaky Blinders…
Can I think of anything negative to say? Only one thing, and that is that the set up takes a while, as the player boards have so many tiles that all need specific locations, but there’s no way around that without fundamentally changing the game and I would rather the faff of setting up than a simpler game. For some people Brass might be too long – it says 60-120 minutes on the box but I think you’d have to know the game really well to achieve that. It took four of us 4 hours including rules explanation last time, so I think 3 hours is more realistic, but I didn’t mind, I loved every minute! It is an extremely complex game, but then I think anyone buying it knows what they’ve let themselves in for! I didn’t find the rulebook to be perfect (mainly because I like written examples so that I can be sure I’ve interpreted the rules correctly), but they do include a link to a rules video too so that’s helpful.
Overall though if you’re into heavier games, I cannot recommend this game enough to you, it’s straight into our Hall of Fame!
Get this game
Check this game out on Board Game Geek