- Assuming that you were a wealthy and established business person, Britain’s Industrial Revolution must have seemed like a jolly good time. For the children and families working long and dangerous hours in the mills and mines though, things were very different. Brass: Lancashire is Roxley Games reimplementation of Martin Wallace’s classic of the same name. Brass tells the story of The Industrial Revolution in the north west of England and let me tell you; the revolution will not be televised, but it will play out on your table.
Before I continue, I should mention that Roxley Games simultaneously released both Brass: Lancashire and Brass: Birmingham. Both are re-implementations of Brass and for the purpose of this review, I’ll refer to Brass: Lancashire simply as Brass. I have played Birmingham, but not enough to review it, so you can assume that I’m only talking about Brass: Lancashire unless I explicitly state otherwise.
In Brass, two to four players each play the role of entrepreneurs at the height of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. All across the north of England, mills were springing up to give birth to whole new towns and cities, whilst mines were required to churn out more and more coal to fuel the huge machines that operated within these mills. The demand for steel was increasing, but transporting goods via canals was still slow. A change was coming in the form of widespread use of railroads which were much faster and required — you guessed it — even more coal. The scene for Brass is set.
Brass is played in two roughly equal halves. The first of them revolves around the use of canals as the main form of transit, lasting until the deck of cards that drives the action is exhausted. The second half of the game replaces canals with railroads and makes a few minor changes to the rules, with the same, reshuffled deck of cards again used to see the game out. On that note, Brass is a card-driven game in the same way as many other Martin Wallace games. The active player will play two cards on their turn (usually one per action) to take actions, most of which will relate to whatever the card depicts.
The objective of the game is to score the most victory points across two scoring rounds, which take place at the end of each of the transport eras that I’ve just mentioned. The focus of player actions will be to place mines, mills (steel and cotton) and ports in order to build up their industry, as well as to purchase ships. All of these buildings are worth a mixture of victory points and income when flipped, but only ships flip immediately — everything else must be flipped as the result of other interactions. Coal and steel mines must be exhausted, whilst cotton mills have to be connected to ports or to the distant market. Now here’s the really interesting bit — anyone can place your newly placed resources and buildings to fulfill their own objectives. In fact, more often than not, you’ll want to encourage them to do exactly that!
The version of Brass that I’m reviewing here is the deluxe edition, so it comes with gold filigree on the box and a set of very, very nice poker chips in place of money in the standard edition, but otherwise it is functionally identical. I was also told at a game club that the player boards are slightly higher quality in this version, but I haven’t been able to see the difference for myself. In any case, Brass is an exceptionally well made product that brings the smog and grime of the era to life in a sort of beautiful, murky detail.
Roxley Games have been quite brave, in my opinion, by using such a dark and occasionally oppressive colour palette through the components of Brass. It is fitting to do so when you think about the subject matter though — smoke, flame and coal dust would have been a pervasive image for the people concerned with the industries depicted in Brass and it feels fitting to bring this to life on the table. The artwork, even though it is dark, is gloriously detailed and very thematic. At the same time, everything is clear — you couldn’t mistake a cotton mill for a coal mine, for example, nor a ship for a port. The most intricate detail on the stunning, double sided board is probably the system of canals and railroads, yet even they are clearly distinguishable by type against the rolling, soot stained pennine landscape.
Component quality is also very high. The board, as I just said, stunning, as are all four of the player boards and the building tokens that reside on them. Transport links show trains and barges in detail, whilst the poker chips in this version are large, heavy and immaculately crafted. The manual is detailed and informative, but most importantly it’s good enough to learn the game from in full, which is pleasing given the reputation that Brass has as a complex game to learn and to teach. The cards, which feature full frame artwork, are all attractive and on theme, although the information that they contain is simple enough that you won’t look at them for as long as you might like.
For something as beautiful as this new edition of Brass is, it’s also remarkable to say that it hasn’t been overproduced. Iron and coal are represented by basic wooden cubes, unlike in Brass: Birmingham, which introduces beer as a secondary resource and uses replica beer kegs to represent it. It might have been tempting to include player miniatures or similar to mark the first player position or the upkeep and score tracks, but instead, Brass has functional and clear tokens made from cardboard and wood. All said, Brass is a functionally beautiful game that should be admired as much for what it doesn’t add as for what it does.
Brass has a reputation for being complicated, but I don’t think that’s strictly down to how the turns work. Instead, it comes from a few rules intricacies and some built in (and intentional) complexity about the efficiency of decision making. On a typical turn, the player can build a building, place a connection (canal or railway, depending on the era), develop their technology, trade, take a loan or pass. For the building action, the player will need to use a card that actually relates to the location that they want to build in, or if it’s an industry card, then it can be built anywhere that is connected to their network and has the relevant symbol on the board.
For the placement of a connection, any card can be used, but it must strike out from a location that they are already connected to (via another connection) or have a presence in (such as an existing mine or mill). Developing technology simply requires the player to burn any card and then pay one iron each to remove one or two building tokens from their player mat. A player might do this in order to access higher tier buildings that are worth more points or income, because at any point, a player may only build from the lowest tier available to them. Developing technology effectively takes up at least half a turn in which you won’t advance your board state, but it’s often worth it for the long term gain of being able to access better buildings without taking up space and resources building worse ones.
It’s also worth noting that any building (or ship) of tier two or higher can be scored both before the transition to railroad and after it, since those buildings remain on the board (and are flipped back to their face up side) when the second age begins. Worse still, any buildings or ships that are only tier one simply can’t be built once the second age begins, which means that they must be developed first — that will sometimes be okay, but more often than not you’ll want to develop on your own terms, rather than simply because you have no other choice.
The trade action is fairly simple and involves burning a card to flip any number of cotton mills (and the same number of connected ports) and then increasing your upkeep (and the upkeep of an opponent, if it was their port) as appropriate. Alternatively, if you don’t have access to a port, then you may attempt to trade with the distant market. In case of the latter, the player will draw a tile to determine the market status, which is usually in decline (or at best, static) although the starting value offers six income(making such a trade appealing the first one or two times it is done.).
Finally, the last two actions are fairly straightforward. Taking loans is more or less an essential way to progress in Brass, with denominations available in ten, twenty or thirty pounds. Taking a loan requires the player to burn a card and to reduce their income by one, two or three pounds respectively (which can result in a negative balance that has to be paid each turn.) in the unusual (and unlikely) event that a player has nothing to do, or chooses to pass for any reason, they’ll still need to burn a card to do so. More commonly, if a player is sitting on a hand that has no relevance to their current position on the board, then they may pay both of their cards to build on any legal location on the board, which could set them up for a better turn next time.
Brass has earned a reputation as a deeply thoughtful and strategic experience that demands quite a lot of mental investment from players, but personally, that’s a major plus point for it. I do enjoy lighter games, but what I really crave is simple mechanics and fast turns balanced with lots and lots of different possibilities and ways to win. Brass certainly falls into the latter category and there are many ways to score points and expand your industrial empire.
The fact that players can use each others resources to mutual benefit introduces some very interesting choices, but the interwoven destinies of the players don’t end there. In addition, canal and rail links will be scored based on how many industries are present in locations that they connect to, so a single connection can sometimes gain five, six or even seven points for its owner, even if they are not present in the cities connected to it. A player can win a game of Brass with just loans and ships, more or less, or they can become the provider of coal and steel to everyone else. A common starting tactic is to build mills and docks, but it is by no means the only route available.
In some games, the cards you draw will dictate your tactical choices, which can feel like randomness to some, but the more you play Brass, the more you’ll realise that it’s just part of how the game challenges the players to test themselves in different ways. It can feel like a beating to receive a hand of cards that are scattered far and wide, for example, but you will draw two more each turn and you’ll simply use those cards to burn on development and taking loans, for example. Things change quickly in Brass and you’ll always be planning two or three turns ahead, whilst at the same time responding to what your opponents are doing.
I like Brass a lot, which might come as no surprise given what I’ve said about it. It’s probably not what I would consider to be a gateway game, thanks mostly to the complexity of its strategy and decision making demands, rather than because it’s complex. Even so, it is the kind of game that I think deserves to be in most collections simply because it’s rare to find a game that is relatively simple to get to grips with, but which offers such a range of possible in game choices and ways to win. If you look at similarly strategic games like Feudum, for example, then you’ll more often than not find them to be considerably less welcoming than Brass is.
Roxley Games remake of Brass makes for a beautiful product, but the subtle tweaks they have made to the rules, the board and elsewhere are what really make it stand out. If Brass was once considered a flawed diamond, it is now polished to an almost impeccable shine.
A copy of Brass was provided for review purposes. You can find out more about it on the website of publisher Roxley Games.