The Tabletop Crier

Reviewing board games that shed a tear.

Brass: Birmingham - Board Game Review | The Tabletop Crier

Brass Birmingham boardgame cover

BRASS: BIRMINGHAM

a review of the board game Designed by Martin Wallace

Players: 2-4,  Time Investment: 60-120 mins
Rating:

I'm Sobbing!


Game Aesthetic


Components:


Brass Birmingham clay money for boardgame
Money Money Money!

Other than the really nice clay money, the components are your standard cardboard, cards, and cubes. I normally have more to say here but this isn't one of those games that has a tactile experience to note. If anything, the only fun bit here is the beer barrel but mine aren't painted or stained in any meaningful way so it really just looks like a thimble to me.


Brass Birmingham beer barrels for boardgame
Why must all my sales include beer?

Artwork by Lina CossetteDavid Forest, and Damien Mammoliti:

This is where the game is definitely pleasing. First off, the main board and the player boards have a night side and a day side. It's functional and is pretty! I can read other side just fine so it mostly depends on whether I want the feeling to be dark or bright. I have gaming friends that find one side easier to read than the other so this helps folks with those preferences. 

The art for each of the player order tokens has that antique feeling, and pays attention to the clothing of that period. Mind you, I'm not an expert of the fashion from that era so I couldn't tell you about the historical accuracy of those choices (but the rulebook does note that they had someone to consult on historical aspects so yay?) but I like it nonetheless. I could easily imagine buying large printouts of the art for each player color to post in a boardgaming room, especially since their faces look like faces (I've seen too many games that have horrible excuses for human faces and they're the stuff of nightmares). 

The map on the main board has a nice aerial view, with attention to buildings, trees and other topographical details. Metals are shaded well in this game -- which makes sense considering the time period -- but the rest of the art falls flat, especially the crates. Of course there's only so much you can do to make wood look good but it wasn't anything special. 

My main gripe is the income and score tracker, as I had a difficult time distinguishing the tracks and planning accordingly (e.g. I kept asking what my income was the first time I played because I couldn't read it for shit). For a little while during my first play of the game, I was also mixing up interpreting income vs points on the industry tiles. So make sure you get in your brain what those are because they give you VERY different things in your life during the course of the game.


The First Turn


Options:

Building out a canal seems to be an okay start especially considering you can afford it but note that these will disappear at the beginning of the Rail Era because no one cares about boats anymore. You could piggyback depending on player order and get right into building resources like coal or iron for later and get the market advantage, though.

Money is tight in this game so you can always take an action to acquire a loan but keep in mind loans have interest so spend it now and spend it wisely. Don't do what I did and hoard all your money for no damn reason. Of course, also don't fret: the pains of paying interest are only applicable if you suck at building industry tiles that flip to provide income.

Pay close attention to your player mat and the main board, because Canal Era buildings die at the end of the canal period so better flip them and feed into your plans for the final Rail Era.


Brass Birmingham player mat for day and for night in boardgame
Do you choose Daytime or Nighttime?


All in all, the first turn is relatively simple and really is just the preparation for Rail Era. It's okay to feel like you're bumbling through this time period. At minimum, your hand will tell you what your options are; since everything in this game is related to playing a card just make something with the hand you've literally been dealt.

Rewards and Objectives:

So back to money: THOSE FUCKING INCOME SPOTS ARE SO GODDAMN FRUSTRATING. There are brackets between one level (yes, ONE MONEY) and the next level (yes, THE ADDITIONAL ONE MONEY) so even if you're like, "Yay, two income!", you could still be on the edge of one level but not quite making it to the other. This will likely make you flip the table (by the way, I did *not* but I really wanted to). 

Money funds networks that will fuel your industries and to even afford setting up industries to begin with. Taking loans is not a bad thing, but ensuring that you aren't eaten alive by interest is important. You can manage this by balancing opening industries with acquiring new loans. It's not necessary to have high income to win this game. I've had plenty of games where I've lost miserably with a ton of money because money doesn't buy you success in this world unless you're using it properly. Do not spend your money for the sake of spending money because this also determines turn order, and for some segments of this game once the map starts to become crowded it's important to ensure that your plans do not fail.

Building industry tiles that are compatible in the Canal Era and the Rail Era is a solid first objective to aim for, since at minimum the math roughly comes out to you scoring it twice.

When assessing industries, there are two kinds of timing that may benefit you or destroy your hopes and dreams: 
1) meeting market demand in exchange for money 
and 
2) exceeding market demand to prepare for the future. 


Brass Birmingham iron and coal market for boardgame
If the market looks like this, you're going to get money whether you like it or not.


For the first situation, if the economic state of the game favors you building a specific industry and you're in need of a cash boost for your next action, it's perfectly reasonable to build it, flip it, and get money right away.  But if the market doesn't want your lovely coal mine your coal will sit there until you or your opponents need it. You can end up unintentionally or intentionally play chicken against the market to flood it for money.

You'll notice that a majority of industry tiles require beer consumption so there is also a clear need for that. Same principles of industry assessment apply, and even worse so because beer markets only carry one or two barrels.

Then, here's the kicker: even if you understand market timing, being able to sell and buy goods depends solely on your access to the outer edges of the map because that is where the markets are. Whether you are the one providing access to all, or if you are piggybacking on someone else's access, in times of desperation you may need to close gaps with this.

It's very clear that the most straightforward points come from crowding around booming cities with your canals and rails. From experience, this can give you the edge on a win all other things being equal. This helps with promoting your future industries as well, so it's a good first part of the map to influence.


Brass Birmingham partial game map for boardgame
Everyone wants a piece of Birmingham.


DO NOT MAKE RESOURCE OR POINT DENIAL AN OBJECTIVE. If you can net ahead of someone, it's entirely okay to use their resources such that their industry tiles flip. Just like in any real life economy, there's a certain amount of push and pull on the market that you do together, and then when the timing is right the best industry mogul pulls ahead of the pack.

This, to me, is the real brain melting part of the game. Notice that in this blog post, the options are clear but the rewards and objectives are not? Yep. The struggle is real.

Ability to Pivot:

You can only place one of your buildings in each city during the first era, which pivots focus on building a network to prepare for the future. The reason? You are restricted in the Rail Era to building off what you already started in the Canal Era, so if you didn't make your plans early, it's possible to come back but it's a long railroad ahead.

Location cards trump any restrictions on building specific industries but they are hard to give up for lame actions. You sometimes have no choice since you must take an action in this game with what you have in your hand.

You can at least piggyback on others' networks when trying to accomplish some objectives that require resources, so there is consequently an element of area influence but not in a war way -- more of a cornering the market type of way.

Blank markets suck and can happen (i.e. they are put out randomly so some markets are just lost to us and the beer that comes with them is also lost to us) so be aware of a changing need for beer when this is not a possible fallback.


Brass Birmingham empty market for boardgame
This is what dead dreams look like.


One of the main issues in this game is resource timing. If you do not plan to use your own resources, you can be sure that opponents will be using them, and you'll need to start your industry plans from scratch.

Paying careful attention to industries that can only be built in the canal era is important because you'll be spending precious iron to develop those tiles away otherwise.

Finally, be mindful of player count with this game as it doesn't seem to scale for Pottery when there are just two players on the map. Anticipating needs and market timing is the hardest thing and keeps me coming back for more plays. Never a boring day in this environment.

Game End

The end of the Canal (first) Era comes as soon as everyone has played their entire hand. Remember that everything you do, including passing, requires a card. This is how the timer in the game is held accountable, and so you can track how many actions remain. It's a blessing and a curse, depending on if you're doing well. On one hand, you can think "Oh good, I still have more to do" and on the other hand, you can think "WHAT I HAVE TO DO ANOTHER THING? I JUST THOUGHT ABOUT THE FIRST THING".

The end of the Rail (second, and final) Era comes in the same way. Then it's just most points wins.


Brass Birmingham multiplayer railroad connections for boardgame
Railroads themselves provide lots of points if connected to bustling towns.


Considering the deck is the game timer it should not be a surprise to you of when you should start feeling a sense of desperation to make power moves. This is also not one of those games that you can tell who is winning during your first play. After a few more plays, you'll start to see patterns of who is leading and how sad you should be about it.

A personal thought: I have often considered that maybe there should be more aggression on my part for overbuilding instead of developing away the "chump" tiles since this can mitigate against network losses in the Rail Era. I haven't tested this yet but it's something to consider toying with.

I've played both Brass: Lancashire and this one; by far this is my favorite so do not try and look for or ask for a Lancashire post because you will not get one. *arms crossed*