This review talks about Brass: Birmingham, an economy board game set in the industrial revolution. How good is Brass: Birmingham?
Introduction to Brass: Birmingham Review
I’ve always been a big history fan, with certain periods that particularly fascinated me. The industrial revolution was one such period.
It was a time of great change. Technological advancements allowed for easier manufacturing, mining, and transportation. The world changed enormously in just a generation or two. Cities boomed (with beer often being a healthier choice over water) with housing and factories, hills mined away, and the sky darkened as a result of all the smoke.
The situation was a breadbasket for enthusiastic entrepreneurs, innovators, and industrialists. The potential to make money was large, and some cities rode the big industrial wave with great success. One of them was Birmingham, a centrally located hub to many of these industries.
Brass: Birmingham is a sequel to Brass: Lancashire (another area of England that changed heavily during the industrial revolution) which had mostly positive reviews, although it was not perfect. Birmingham builds on those foundations, fortifying them, and erecting a mighty factory above, a factory where every single machine and person moves in perfect harmony.
Designers: Gavan Brown, Matt Tolman, Martin Wallace
Players: 2-4, works well with all player counts.
Playing time: 60-120 minutes, depending on player count.
Unboxing And Components
I’ve got to admit that I haven’t played Lancashire, therefore I didn’t quite know what to expect with Birmingham. I knew that it was quite a highly rated and fairly complex resource management board game and that was about it.
With the currently popular trend of inflating complexity and game mechanics that designers manage to stuff in a single game (resulting in a ton of components, fiddly moving parts, and a long set-up), I was pleasantly surprised by the minimalism of Brass: Birmingham.
It achieves a lot with (relatively) little. There’s the double-sided main playing board (with the back side behind purely cosmetic), 4 player boards, 180 building tokens, a deck of cards, and coins. That’s cardboard. On top of that, there are wooden tokens for coal, iron, and beer.
The artwork on the boards and cards is nothing short of spectacular. Its crimson tones take you back 200 years with no problem. The boards sport a great overview, as well. Cities, buildings, and connections are all clearly seen on the main board, as well as the resources above them.
Personal boards feature all the possible buildings with costs and prizes, making it easy to see which you should focus on, which to skip (use the develop action), and what it will cost.
Rulebook, Learning, and Teaching Brass: Birmingham
The only thing left to mention is the rulebook, and it was thinner than expected. It’s only 12 pages long, with large text and plenty of illustrations. It’s very well written, everything is in its place, and easy to understand.
Some concepts are reiterated multiple times (i.e. discarding a card for every action) which makes them much easier to grasp. Moreover, it comes with basic strategy tips and things to remember, making Brass: Birmingham a surprisingly easy board game to learn.
Teaching others is easy as well. Most of the rules are simple and straightforward, making them very easy to understand. Some concepts (like resource connections) take some more time to grasp, but when playing, it all flows naturally.
The trick is not in remembering hundred fiddly rules, but rather about strategy and player decisions. While some basic tips can be shared, eventually it’s up to every individual to figure it out. Brass: Birmingham is one of those easy-to-learn, but hard-to-master titles.
As already mentioned, Brass: Birmingham achieves a lot, while not being bloated by components.
Therefore, the setup is relatively short, especially the common area, the main board. The only tedious part are player boards, which require each player to place his 45 building tokens on them.
But despite this, the game is still ready in a couple of minutes and the setup was never a problem.
How to play Brass: Birmingham
Discard a card and select an action
Brass: Birmingham’s main mechanic is action selection. This means that each turn, you will choose two actions from the available: build, expand your network, take a loan, sell buildings, develop your board, or draw wild cards.
Each action requires you to discard a card. While building requires you to discard a specific card, other actions don’t. So the deck is more of a timer, than anything else, although you must take care not to discard the cards you might need in the future.
Flipping building tiles
The building tiles you place on the board are the main way of earning points. But they don’t score in their prime form. No, the tile must be flipped. For coal mines, iron mines, and breweries, this is done when the resources on them are spent. On the other hand, factories, potteries, and cotton mills must be sold to merchants.
There’s only one resource in your possession – money. Other resources (coal, iron, and beer) are placed on the board (when an appropriate building is built), available to all players.
Coal and iron are required to build more buildings and beer is required when selling to merchants. It’s preferable to spend your own resources since that makes your buildings faster to flip.
Keeping cities connected
The other way to earn points is through building connections. You start with canals and you can build rails later. Connections are scored as per how many buildings they connect (regardless of the owner), which makes building them very lucrative.
Moreover, several actions (building, further expanding connections, hauling certain resources) require the locations to be connected, so you definitely want to link up your industries. If you don’t an opponent will, and he’ll take the spoils (victory points).
The players go through the main deck twice (canal and rail era). After the canal era, buildings and connections are scored and partially removed from the board. Then, after rail real, both are scored again.
Review – My Thoughts on Brass: Birmingham
Just to confirm. Brass: Birmingham is a fantastically good board game. It’s rightfully at number 3 of all-time board games on BGG and it’s one of the best (if not the best) competitive euro games you can get. Let’s take a closer look at some of its stand-out points.
It has great scalability. Although it’s more fun with 3 or 4 players, it’s still excellent at two. Lower player counts are played with fewer cards in the deck (the northern towns are taken out), which retains the focus around Birmingham and the tight play around it.
The northern part of the map is not closed though – you can still build there, although, without dedicated location cards, it’s much much harder. But not impossible, which I think is an excellent solution.
There’s a small downtime issue with 4 players, but when players have a few games under their belts and start planning in advance, it pales away. Overall the game plays exceptionally quickly for a game of such strategic complexity.
The turns move swiftly and soon it’s the end of the canal era, end of the rail era, and end of the game. A two-player game can be finished in less than an hour.
I love the unique approach on how the resources are handled (they are available to all, spending other people’s resources, making connections), introducing interesting interaction among players. You must plan ahead whose resources you’ll consume. Build another mine to have your own coal, or use the one from your neighbor?
If nothing else is available, you can buy from the common market, which features elegant supply/demand mechanics. Each resource you buy is more expensive, but if you build a mine for a resource in demand, you immediately sell it back to the market. That way you earn a bit of cash and your mine is closer to flipping to its scoring side.
The game is all about Birmingham
Birmingham is the largest city on the map (the only one with 4 building slots) and how the gameplay revolves around it, it’s justifiably in the title name. It’s a centrally located hub, with many possible connections and resources pouring in (very thematic and historically accurate).
As such, it has great scoring potential, from both the buildings and the surrounding connections. Whoever controls the Birmingham area is one step towards victory, which of course makes it a highly contested area with the players.
All this results in a high level of interactivity between the players. Although very little is indirect, this is not a multiplayer solitaire. It matters what others are doing a lot.
Plenty of strategic options
Brass: Birmingham accomplishes a lot of strategic complexity with simple initial inputs (straightforward actions, simplified loans, only money as a personal resource). While your initial strategy will depend on the hand you’re dealt (dictating which are and which building you’ll build), you’ll soon have to adapt.
Instead of building and then producing enough resources to flip those buildings, other opportunities will arise. Contentions for merchant points, resources, building slots, and connections will make you change your pace and adapt your plans.
You’ll always have plenty of options on your turn, even without changing your strategy much. Will you build a mine first and then build a brewery, or vice-versa? Whose resources do you want to consume? Sell buildings now, or build some more and then bulk-sell, saving an action – but risking running out of beer.
Clever game design
Even if you push into one direction too hard, there are in-build mechanisms that ensure the game moves smoothly onwards. Two examples.
It makes perfect sense to complete all your buildings and then flip them in one big sale at the end of an era. But that would be a pretty dull game arch.
Instead, Brass: Birmingham prevents this with merchant bonuses (+free beer) for the first player to sell at a certain merchant. This makes selling about a balance of being the first or waiting out. Neither is correct or wrong – you’ll do both at some point.
Another situation is in the instance the resources run out in the market. In such a case it’s even allowed to overbuild a mine on your opponent’s tile, just to be sure the resource is back in circulation an the game can continue.
Two eras with noticeably different paces
I like the way the pace picks up in the rail era. Suddenly, you’re allowed to stack more industry in the same city and you can build longer connections. This requires you to consume much more coal, making it the main fuel behind the industrial revolution. How thematically appropriate.
High replay value despite relatively low variability
I found Brass: Birmingham to be exceptionally replayable. I just want to play again and again. The games feel reasonably different from now another to not feel stale. Variability comes from the cards you are dealt and how the merchants are randomly positioned. This dictates where you spread and what you build.
More maps? Maybe?
Although the board is double-sided, the map on both sides is the same, which is a huge waste of potential, in my opinion. I’m not saying the game suffers from lack of variability and that it needs another map, but it surely wouldn’t hurt.
Perhaps something similar, but still different. Somewhere in Western Europe or the USA with slightly altered resource distribution and more paths to victory?
Unfortunately, there’s no official solo mode in the box. That’s a big shame since the interaction mechanic is perfect to play against a well-designed AI. Luckily, fans came to the rescue and there are several fan-made solo modes available.
I’ve tried the Mautoma version and I can confirm it is phenomenal. AI’s play is almost indistinguishable from a human, the difficulty is scalable, and the upkeep is minimal. It does require you to print a deck of cards though – or you can use an online alternative.
One last thing to mention is that Brass: Birmingham is not a cheap board game. Particularly if you just look at what you get in the box and compare it to other games of similar price or similar box contents.
In the end, gameplay-wise, it’s definitely worth the money, but the initial steep price might prevent some people from playing. People who would otherwise enjoy it.
Brass: Birmingham is very very good. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.
One last thing to mention is the theme. I haven’t particularly talked about it through the article, but that is not because of the lack of it. On contrary, the theme oozes through every board and every illustration.
More importantly, it’s interwoven into game mechanics, with every action feeling thematic. If you are even remotely fond of the Industrial revolution, you will feel it at every moment of playing Brass: Birmingham.
A review copy has been donated by Roxley Games.
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