WBG Score: 9/10
Player Count: 2-4
Published by: Roxley
Wow! What a game this is. Currently placed at three on Board Game Geeks overall ranking charts, Brass: Birmingham is a big hitter, for that there is no doubt. But does it deserve to be? In short, yes. It really does!
Published in 2018, Brass Birmingham builds on previous smash, Brass: Lancashire. Lancashire was first published in 2007 and is a brilliant game in its own right. I wont go into the differences between the two games here as it has been discussed many times and way better that I can do justice, but if you are interested, there is a fantastic summery here.
But in short, Brass: Birmingham is the more popular game now according to Board Game Geek. However both have very high ratings and reviews and many fans, rightly so. In this review, I will focus on Birmingham as that is the copy I own and have played, and in a very short time, absolutely fallen in love with.
I first played this game with my son. He is Eight. I did this for a few reasons. Mainly, I wanted to quickly learn the game before playing with some friends. I find playing is the best way to learn complex games. I also wanted to play it as soon as humanly possible and my son was available! But lastly, I wanted to test the game on an eight-year-old. Could a game with a weight of 3.9 be taught and enjoyed to a younger gamer? The answer was a resounding yes, despite my own misinterpretation on the rule around turns, that I did not correct until a later game with other rule book reading adults that weekend. (Thanks Nick!)
But following games with my son have proved without doubt, this game is teachable and can be enjoyed with an eight-year-old. Admittedly my son has the advantage of playing daily games with my wife and me, so knows modern games well. But it’s certainly possible.
So, let’s get into it. Why is Brass: Birmingham so good? (Known hence forward in this review for simplicity as simply Brass). This is something I have spent a lot of time thinking and discussing with friends. There is no doubt this is an excellent game and deserves to be rated as highly as it is. The question I will try to answer in this review is why. I have broken it down into five simple things.
Learning and playing a more complex game is satisfying. Winning a hard game is even more fun and feels great! This is a simple point, but it is an important one. Everyone I have played this game with has said they have really enjoyed it, more so than most games. And this is not just because it’s good; but because it’s hard. And they did it. They got through it. The process of learning, getting confused, then everything clicking and finally understanding Brass is a wonderful experience. One generally quickly shared on social media afterwards I have found! There is often a sense of “I made it!” And time for me is now gauged in BB and AB. Before and after knowing and understanding Brass! Life used to be so grey…
There is a lot to this game. It feels deep in strategy, variety, and options. This could be said about many games, but it seems to have another level in Brass. There is a layer of something that I can’t quite put my finger on, that is present in this game that makes it feel special. The best way I can describe is by saying that when you play this game you feel fully present at all times. It absorbs you in ways that some other games can’t, or in truth, don’t need to. This doesn’t mean it’s really hard! Although its certainly on the more complex end of learning and understanding. (More on that later) Or that it demands your full focus for hours on end in a time sapping way. But it does make you want to stay focused and in the game. Your focus will naturally rest on your strategy and the board. Not because you have to, but because you will want to. This feeling of connection is highly rewarding.
The game is staged over two distinct periods. Set over a 100 year period during the English Industrial revolution, the first part of the game runs between 1770 and 1820. A time when Barges flowed between towns and cities, delivering Coal and Iron. Placing your own Barges is crucial for your network and connections during this phase and scoring afterwards. Once this period has run its course, all first level buildings and barges are scored and removed, as the technology moves on. The second phase, set between 1820 and 1870 introduces a few new rules around building placement and Trains replace the Barges. Your power to enact more intricate and cascading turns greatly enhances and the sense of progression in the gameplay is highly rewarding.
I love a mid-game switch like this. The way it is done in Brass is so intrinsically linked with the theme. It feels natural, but also very exciting, and is elegantly woken into the mechanics and flow of the game. I also love mid-game scoring. Knowing how I am doing against the other players, and assessing my situation relative to their scores in deeply satisfying to me. It helps set up the tension for the second part in a way that wouldn’t be as present were you less aware on the scores.
Sure, this is not generally seen a great thing in board games! And in truth, its not great here either. But what I would say is this. If a preceding player is taking some time to think out a move, then you too can think out your move. Sometimes, you may be itching to just take your turn, and playing as an experienced player with new people could be frustrating. But sometimes, a little more time yourself to weigh up the options can be a good thing.
Also, and this is a key point, there are only ever a certain number of things you can do in this game. It’s not always obvious which one you should do, or how best you should deploy your chosen option; but the choices are not as daunting as other games. The A.P. in this game comes more from not understanding the strategy than the variety of choices. Once this understanding comes, I find games flow a lot quicker. Any game that has A.P issues no matter the players or experience can cause some frustration. But from my experience with Brass, the A.P. fades in game the later half of the game for most players.
Win or lose, scoring well in this game is satisfying. Developing a strategy that works, seeing your progression through the game and enacting combination turns is a richly rewarding experience. More complex games; certainly the ones on the longer side, can lead to players walking away feeling dissatisfied, if after all that time, they don’t win. Whereas with Brass, each time I have played, every player, win or lose has spoken very highly of the game and their experience with it. In fact, after five games, I personally still had not won! (The sixth game was a rout though!) There is a lot of joy in winning, do not get me wrong, but just experiencing and playing this game is fun.
Playing badly is frustrating for sure. But you will still have learnt something about your strategy and enjoyed the deep experience. There are some longer or more complex games that can be a little hit and miss depending on the outcome for you personally or the atmosphere at the table. For Bass, I find both of these variables have less of an impact. The winning I have covered, the atmosphere I will talk more on now. And it is an important point.
So may games, you will hear reviewers say that with the right people this game will be a lot of fun. Well, what are the right sort of people and where can I find them?! I get that Cosmic Encounter can be brilliant. It’s in my personal top 10 for a reason, but I wont play with certain people as the game wont be as fun, and way longer too! Brass on the other hand I will play with anyone who want to. I love teaching it. I love playing it. I love winning and losing at it. It’s just such a brilliant experience that other players cannot affect it in a negative way like other games. Perhaps as the game is a little more insular, and there is no real negotiating or trading that other players can affect. But I think more simply as Brass is just so good!
Supply & Demand
In the game, the main resources are Beer, Iron and Coal. When you acquire Coal or Iron by building a Coal mine or Iron work, you can sell it straight back to the board if there are spaces available market. Being able to do this is a wonderful thing. Instantly clearing your resources from your recently built tiles, as the supply is low and demand is high and (for the case of Coal) your connections have been built, is a great feeling. But if this was possible every turn, or early on in the game, it would not feel as rewarding when it happens. The challenge here, is to develop the right options and being able to enact them at the right time. I won’t cover the rules fully here, for now, I just want to discuss this delicate balance.
There are times when certain resources will be plentiful and highly accessible on the board. There are other times when the exact opposite in the case. The genius in this in Brass, is the speed of this swing. Sure, this can a feel a little luck based if you get to sell high and buy low all the time. But generally, if all players are paying attention, you can make your own luck in this game. And a lot of that luck comes from your timing of moves based on the supply and demand of resources. This is a highly rewarding and satisfying part of the strategy in Brass.
“This is well and good, but the Rodney Smith video is over 30 minutes Jim!” Ok, sure, learning this game won’t be quick, and the short and rather sparse (for a game of this complexity) rule book defies the deep strategy you need to learn this game in full. But the experience I have had with this game (now I have taught to three separate groups) is that Brass surprisingly simple to understand, and has a bigger learning curve in the strategy to the rules.
The rule book is simple, but very good. Read that and watch a video and you will be fine. The only thing I fell down on was the process of what made up a turn, but with this aside, I was able to then teach this in under 20 minutes on my fourth game. Players started the game unsure on their strategy for sure, but they knew the rules.
This is important as there was definitely some uncertainty from most of the people I played this with (all new to the game) about how easy it would be to grasp. I get that. I felt it too. But the effort is worth it, and crucially, it is not as much as you may fear. Let’s put it into context. Learning Brass is obviously going to be harder than learning a simple card game like Cockroach Poker for example. But it is way less difficult than building a working rocket that could land on the moon. This may sound flippant, but I often think like this when people are dissuaded from trying certain games as they think it may be difficult to learn. Humans have accomplished so much. I am confident my group of friends can learn Brass!
It should also me said that Brass is absolutely stunning to look at! The art is sumptuous. The cards are gorgeous. The board, simply stunning. The production throughout is very good and the quality makes it even more of a pleasure to play. There is no insert though, so it all sits loose in bags in the box, but this may be a space and money saving thing. Brass is, first of all, very affordable for its quality and production value. And secondly, very thin! Surprisingly so. The box is your standard Ticket to Ride size, but half the depth.
Adding this game to my collection has not only added a modern classic. It has changed my view on many things. Firstly, it has made me think about all the other more complex euros my gaming group could try. I have avoided putting games like this on the table too often for fear of failure. “People may not grasp it as quickly and not want to play games with me again!” This often races through my mind as I chose what to play for a game night. And it did so for Brass most times before I played. Apart from one afternoon with some other gamer friends who I knew would love it too, this is not a game you would often choose lightly for a casual game with mates. But class out ways difficulty. And all my more casual gamer friends have loved this as much as I have, and I will be less intimidated and reluctant with weightier games in the future.
Secondly, it has made me think differently about longer games. Often when I have a few hours to play games, I will want to get as many different games in as possible. I love variety and trying new things. Recently, a friend came round to play games, and we happily only played this. We had around 4 hours in total, and after the general chit chat and catching up, all we had time for was Brass. And I loved it! Usually, I would think about the missed opportunity for a few quick games of this or that. But not this time. It was just pure unadulterated Brass joy!
And last but not least, I have changed my top 10 board games of all time. This races into the top 10 and sits easily within some other greats I have loved for years. This has the lowest play count of any other game in the top 10 for me, but I am certain that in a few years it will be up there with the most played too. Brass is a fantastic game and one I would encourage anyone to try.