Board Games

Brass: the Identity Crisis?

Ahh, Brass. Whether it is Birmingham or Lancashire, Brass has managed to captivate gamers since Warfrog Games released the original Brass in 2007. Brass: Birmingham currently sits on BGG’s top 100 games of all time at number 4. Brass: Lancashire doesn’t lag that far behind, coming in at number 19. Brass sits in an esteemed class of games that have multiple versions in BGG’s top 100. Other titles in this category include Twilight Imperium, Through the Ages, Gloomhaven, and Eclipse. With Brass: Birmingham, though, I feel the Brass series evolved away from what made fans of the first game love it so much. The changes made to the original design are the sign of a more significant paradigm shift within eurogames.

Brass: Lancashire, or simply Brassis an economic management game where players manage logistics and five different industry types: cotton, steel, coal, ports, and shipyards. Over two eras, the Canal Era and the Rail Era, players will be developing industry, sell and buy resources, and exporting goods. Brass gained a cult following because of how difficult the game is to play well and others’ ability to mess up your plans. Each player has a grip of cards naming different locations on the board. There are more cards than there are spaces, and resources are scarce, as well. Due to how the shipping networks get built out, you might get stuck buying coal from your opponent. In reality, Brass is a game of opportunity. Each player has their network that is snaking around the board. Players are snatching up industry spots as they see other players develop. Do you start to build an industry you think will be in need or focus on expanding your canal network? Do you sell your cotton to your opponent’s port, or do you risk not being able to sell to the external market? Every single rule in Brass is a hidden edge on which you just might cut yourself. I love Brass and would play it anytime someone asked me. 

Brass turned into Brass: Lancashire in 2018 with the release of Brass: Birmingham. Brass: B is a spiritual successor of sorts. Brass: Birmingham made several changes to the system that caused the gameplay to change. Does Brass: Birmingham still feel like Brass? Yes, in a way. Brass: B makes two key changes: wild cards and beer. Both of these changes have been applauded by reviewers as a positive change between the versions. It is understandable why. The wild cards you acquire allow you to fill in the gaps in your plan more efficiently. In Brass: L, players would often find themselves stuck with suboptimal cards. This would lead players to scramble to find some way to squeeze points out of this juiced lemon of a game. It forced players to get creative with the resources that they were given. The beer gives you a guaranteed way to ship your goods that another player cannot easily steal. In Brass: L, a foreign market had the random possibility of shutting down at any time. If that happened, you would be stuck not shipping your goods. These changes both served to make gameplay more permissive. 

It wasn’t long ago, maybe 10-20 years, that eurogames were more focused on building systems that focused on interactions between players. Consider the popular eurogames Tigris and Euphrates, Power Grid, Santiago, and more. All of these games have an edge to them. However, games like these are on the endangered species list. If you look at boardgamegeek’s list of games recommended for those who like Brass: B, they vary wildly from those recommended for those who enjoy Brass: L. Why is that so? I believe it’s because eurogames are experiencing a paradigm shift. Games today are about accessibility. If you get particularly stiffed by another player and that play makes the difference in winning or losing, this can cause players to feel bad. Modern games want to give players more options. The new eurogame is focused on providing players intriguing mental playgrounds as they each compete for efficiency. 

I feel the changes made to Brass are to their detriment. In adding these two elements to the game, Brass loses some of what made it special. A lot of eurogames nowadays have a propensity to boil away those layers of negative player interaction. This leaves a cornucopia of decisions and ways to score points. It erases from Brass what made it so special. My favorite eurogames offer players ways to dance with each other in gameplay. The players around the table are what makes games special to me. The ability to give players tools to fence each other intellectually is one of the unique things about board games. Otherwise, I feel like I am crunching numbers and playing a physical version of a video game. Do I feel like an older man complaining about the way new games structure myself? Absolutely. I feel like if you enjoy Brass: Birmingham, I am grateful you enjoy part of the “Brass family” as nauseating a term that is to a Luddite like myself. 

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