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Brass: Birmingham First Impressions

Occasionally, a board game comes along that is impossible to write about it first time around. Such is the case for Brass: Birmingham, a game that takes 3-4 hours to play, is split into two distinct phases, and has a theme revolving around the industrial revolution. It is, by all accounts of the term, really crunchy and is a puzzle right from the offset.

Today, we are going to take a look at that experience in a bit of detail and what it is like playing Brass: Birmingham. There is a lot to unpack with Brass: Birmingham, from the player interaction to the decks of cards. With that in mind, and rather than typing out around a 40 page rule book, here’s the let’s play video. If you don’t know Brass: Birmingham then it should be an interesting watch. If you have played Brass: Birmingham then it should also be an interesting watch – if only to refresh the rules –

Brass: Birmingham First Impressions

Brass: Birmingham is, there is no other way to say it, simply stunning as a game. From the moment the boards come out, to the beer tokens, to every single bit of cardboard – Brass: Birmingham is beautiful. It has a real table presence, and even those who were around us but who weren’t playing were encapsulated. The map depicts the Black Country during the 1700/1800s. Although not to scale, something we kept finding funny as we tried to point out our location (we should be on the board!), the board is big and impressive. What is more, it is two sided, and although practically identical it is nice to have the choice to play in night or day.

Brass: Birmingham is split into two different stages – the canal era and the steam era. In our game, both took around 1.5 hours, although we were beginners. Having done some reading online, expecting a game to last 3 hours isn’t abnormal, and the timings on the box are a little bit laughable. It recommends 90 minutes to 2 hours.

Brass: Birmingham can be played in 90 minutes with 4 players.” – No one ever.

Brass Birmingham Misplacement

The first place I built in the canal era. Experienced players may be able to tell there are at least two things wrong with this picture.

Those two stages form the backbone of the game. Merchants around the edge of the board are randomised based on what they want. Where this is understandable, it is possible to have merchants who don’t sell anything, and this can cut off a segment of the board. This can also make the game frustrating at parts, adding to the challenge.

So, when we played this, yesterday (or yesterday at time of writing) I actually turned to the guy who owns the game and said “this reminds me of when you hear about secret handshakes – we’ve got to roll up our trouser leg, tap elbows, slap each other hands, chanted a poem, sing a song, and sacrifice a chicken to the dark lord Cthulhu…and then you can finally do what you want to do.”

Brass: Birmingham is a phenomenally complex game, and there are a lot of rules. As a game, when we played, it was the end of a games day (so we do have to keep that in mind), but it felt more complex, like there were more nuances in the rules, than games like Trickerion, Twilight Imperium, or Tyrants of the Underdark. It is one of the most complex games we own in our gaming group, that is for certain.

Brass Birmingham Beers

Beer in Walsall

That being said, Brass: Birmingham has these brilliant moments. The first and second halves of the game are literally two different 8 round (with two players) games. The board almost fully resets, as all first level buildings and canals are removed. These then make way for railroads and…more buildings in the second part of the game. Any second level buildings (or higher) built in the first round stay in place.

So, what does this mean? Well, actually, and this only occurred during the second phase of the game, but Brass: Birmingham is actually a short term strategy game disguised as a long term strategy game. Where it is possible to over think and over analyse how to play the game, it is actually a game where long-term strategies don’t tend to come to fruition. This is due to the potential of other players using the resources you have generated during the game.

To put this into context, for the canal phase, I attempted a long term strategy, which earned me around 20 points in the first phase. Then, when the rail phase began, I actually ignored everything I had been doing and focused purely on short term gain. During that second phase, I scored around 95 points. That was a phenominal shift, and I think representative of the other players around the table as well. Brass: Birmingham turned from a “oh well, I’d better plan for 4 turns in the future” to “how can I get the maximum number of points this turn?”.

Pointing at Birmingham

Yes…Birmingham…

Once you get the hang of Brass: Brimingham it is actually remarkably simple. There are a few complex concepts, but once you get the hang of them, and once you understand that Brass: Birmingham is a short term strategy game with slight hints of long term then there is no reason it can’t be thoroughly enjoyed time and time again.

There are one or two things that need a shout out that really do make Brass: Birmingham something special, leaving aside the art work. Once understood, the economics system is superb. It creates a market place that thematically may be off at times, but generally speaking, the whole connections being placed between places concept works really well. It is route planning and route building at its finest. It is a bit odd how players don’t get paid for resources until all resources are gone, but we can overlook that for how beautifully the route building works.

Secondly, each location is a small puzzle. The idea that you get restricted on where you are placing or building based on your own network or location cards actually forces your hand as a player. Without that, I doubt it would be as difficult, and so that restriction is actually a welcome addition to the game. It makes the game something that really requires contemplation and optimisation.

IMG_20191005_214231_428-1984x1984.jpg

Cards in Brass: Birmingham

What I really like about Brass: Birmingham though, and ultimately why I am excited to play it again moving forward, is that it completely possible to get a small engine going. Brass: Birmingham is a game in which you can do two actions per turn, and it is possible to create a beautiful synergy between your turns based on a small engine once you get going. It can get to the point where the other players can’t get in your way, and boom, you are creating these great combos each turn. Those moments, those plays, are what makes games like Brass: Birmingham enjoyable.

First Impressions of Brass: Birmingham

I’ve been thinking a lot, whilst writing this, about how best to end it. Well, what I can say is that Brass: Birmingham is not a perfect game. There are slight holes in the theme, and there are slight quirks that can throw a game off; however, and this is a huge however, it is a very very good game. Generally speaking, for the first hour and a half, for the entire canal era, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and that did impact the fun. That being said, I recognise that knowledge was an issue and as such, yeah, I can’t wait to play again.

What do you think? Obviously, there is a lot that can be said about a game like Brass: Birmingham, and we have literally just scratched the surface today, but those were my first impressions. What were yours? Let me know in the comments below.

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