Back with another one of the games that skyrocketed up my list of favourites, this time with Brass: Birmingham, my #1 game, up there with A Feast for Odin. Like many of my wonderful experiences in gaming, Brass: Birmingham was an impulse buy. I had heard good things about the production quality of the game, had heard that it was a heavier economic title, and that Roxley really hit it out of the park with this sequel. So, I bought it on a whim from my Friendly Local Game Store, and immediately went about learning it.
(Even though Brass: Birmingham is, in fact, my favourite game and I bought it on a whim, I will caution others against impulse buying. I buy plenty of games, so hitting a dud every once in a while isn’t a huge deal, but I still wish I hadn’t impulse bought this game. There are two versions—a retail and a deluxe—and if I’d known how much I would love it I would have opted for the deluxe in an instant. If you have the luxury, I always recommend trying before you buy!)
Brass: Birmingham is a sequel to Martin Wallace’s original Brass, from 2007. In Brass: Birmingham, Gavan Brown and Matt Tolman were added into the design credits, adapting and changing the original structure. On May 11th, 2017, ten years after Brass’ original release, Roxley successfully Kickstarted a new edition and a sequel: Brass: Lancashire and Brass: Birmingham (hereafter referred to simply as Birmingham). I should also clarify that I have never played Wallace’s original Brass, so I can’t speak to how Birmingham improves it, beyond the aesthetic advancements.
Some Iron Clays are included in the deluxe version of Brass: Birmingham. Mine were bought separately.
Board games play a major role in my life, from work to relaxation. This immersion allows me to play hundreds of different titles each year, learning more than 2 games a week on average. What does a game need to do to hold onto my #1 spot among hundreds of different games? Well, Birmingham scratches all of the itches that I didn’t even know I had. Here is a quick list of Birmingham’s greatest strengths:
Birmingham is played across two eras, the Canal Era and the Rail Era. The two halves of the game have a lot of similarities, but with some key differences that affect strategy and scoring across the eras. It falls into that “Dry Themeless Euro” category, where you attempt to simply accrue more points than the other players by playing more efficiently, but don’t hold that against it! The main game board has a ton of locations that make me (a Canadian) super self-conscious. (Am I pronouncing “Worcester” correctly? My British friends tell me I’m not.)
Each of these locations has a number of corresponding cards, and throughout the course of the game players use them to perform various actions. However, in the case of five of the six actions, any card may be played. The card type only matters when performing the Build action, which we will discuss. All the other actions allow you to discard less useful cards that you cannot or do not want to play. This rule enriches the game’s strategy depth. Oh, you tanked your economy and now you need to take a loan or you can’t really accomplish anything? That may be an easy choice, but now you need to strategize over which card to toss away. Do you give up on pushing your network into Coalbrookdale or do you toss away that Pottery card you have been hanging onto since the first round?
Some of the cards you might get in a 4-player game.
On any given turn, Birmingham offers several action options for furthering your economic success. The Build action allows you to spend some money (and sometimes resources) to place buildings, or Industry tiles, on the board. This is arguably the most important action as it establishes your network, scores you points, builds your economy, and can get resources out onto the board. You have to play a card corresponding with either the location that you want to build in, or the type of building you want to build, provided it is in your network. This action is simple and straightforward—pay the cost and build the tile.
The Sell action is another vital action, allowing you to flip some of the buildings you have on the board. All buildings are either sellable tiles (Manufacturers, Cotton Mills, Potteries) or resource tiles (Coal Mines, Iron Works, Breweries), filling two different roles in the game. Each tile also flips when a certain condition is fulfilled: sellable tiles flip when sold, while resource tiles flip when depleted of resources. Flipping tiles will grant you points at the end of the era and an income boost immediately. The Sell action allows you to flip as many sellable tiles as you would like, provided you have the beer and connections to sell all the tiles you want to (merchants are thirsty dudes and won’t buy your stuff unless you tip them in IPAs).
Taking a Loan is important for building your economy and placing more tiles. You gain £30, but your income is reduced by £3 per turn. When you are gaining £0 per turn, this can be a scary deal that can immediately put your economy in the red. But, using loans to build up your long-term success is important. If you rely purely on passive income, then you cannot afford the growth that a winning strategy will employ. (Also, never needing to pay back loans and instead having a slightly reduced income until you build your income back up seems like a good deal. Can Martin Wallace redesign our economy please?)
The Scout action is used when your plans have fallen through allowing you instead to spend a precious turn and pick up some wild cards to make future Build actions easier.
Taking some time to Develop can be an important action for getting strong buildings out sooner. Developing allows you to spend some iron and remove up to two buildings from your player board. Since you have to build the weakest buildings first (and can’t even build level 1 buildings in the Rail Era), getting to higher level buildings is an important way to score more points.
The Network action allows you to build up your network, connect different areas on the board, and score points based on the buildings (yours and your opponents’) that are a part of your network. Notably, the distinction between whether you are connected to a given building and whether it is in your network is often a cause for confusion in the first few games. Your buildings and your boats or trains (depending on the era) determine what is in your network, but all boats and trains determine what is connected. You are allowed to ship coal on another player’s trains, but that doesn’t mean you own the train! Connection is important for shipping coal and beer, but also for selling different Industry tiles to their merchants.
Coalbrookdale and Dudley are connected here, but the purple player’s network is only Wolverhampton and Dudley, while the red player’s network is only Coalbrookdale and Wolverhampton.
After pushing through the whole deck and playing your final two cards for your final two actions, the era ends, and players score points based on all of their boats or rails, depending on the flipped Industry tiles around them. Each player also scores points for their own flipped Industry tiles. The actions are simple and the scoring is simple, but the ways they intersect with each other and other players reveals a great depth. Birmingham also features about a half dozen fringe cases and caveats that add to the complexity of the game. There is a lot of double checking whether you are connected to an area or whether it is a part of your network—a distinction that is hard to grasp initially, especially when different resources act differently. (Coal has to be connected to be used, but iron doesn’t. Beer doesn’t, unless it is someone else’s beer. New Build actions function slightly differently depending on the cards you use to play them.) While all of these rules and exceptions make sense mechanically and thematically, it is a lot to figure out during a first play.
Oh yeah, and you can Overbuild, replacing your own or other players’ flipped Industry tiles with your own higher-level tiles. But, only so long as an incredibly specific set of conditions is met. (I have never seen it happen). BoardGameGeek users rate the game close to 4/5 for complexity, so if you prefer a simpler game to chat over, this title will disappoint.
Explaining what makes this game so interesting to me is a little challenging. The game has a certain je ne sais quoi, but I’m not here to just say, “Trust me!” A lot of really solid economic games are built on a foundation of starting with very little, and turning it into a huge churning economy by building up a board state or an engine. Barrage and Prêt-à-Porter and Food Chain Magnate—these great games are all about building something efficiently. Birmingham has that too, but I think what sets it apart are the resources. Much like the Scythe style of resources, apart from money, resources are not owned by anyone. If I build a Coal Mine, coal is added to the board. I can use it, and often want to, flipping the tile and boosting my economy. But, other players also have access to that coal (provided they are connected to it), and if they use it, they boost my economy. So how do I approach my building? Do I try to isolate my resources and keep them for myself, or do I build extra coal, hoping other players will dip into it?
What the board could look like late in the game, during the Rail Era.
Reading the board and strategizing your engine build is important. Risks are important. Do you Scout to make sure you can build in Wolverhampton or do you Build somewhere else hoping to draw a Wolverhampton card or the right Industry card? And what if the other players build there first? Do you build an extra Industry tile or spend a little more to build some extra trains, hoping to more at the end of the era?
Birmingham is filled with interesting choices. The first and second era shift mechanics and rewards slightly, asking players to adjust their strategies and goals throughout the game. You are rewarded for taking risky plays, building an extra Pottery tile and hoping to make one additional sale during your Sell action. Unless it backfires and someone else Sells first, taking all of your precious beer off the table to whet the tongues of the merchants. Every single action in this game is a battle for control and dominance in the industrial market. Even the turn order is a cutthroat battle, with the player who spent the least in one round playing first in the next. As the first player, you have to decide how much money to spend to try to land in that important position for the next round. The last player has the luxury of knowing exactly how much money they can spend and still snag the coveted first player spot, allowing a massive four actions in a row. The board state can change drastically in four actions, and if you allow a player to manipulate the market freely in this time, you may see your plans go up in smoke.
All that said, it never feels aggressive, like you are butting heads. It has that beautiful Euro-quality, like your actions are tangentially affecting everyone else around you. And sure, sometimes that can be devastating, but usually it is simply a little inconvenient.
If you enjoy games that ask a lot of its players, with a rich depth of strategic complexity, Brass: Birmingham will be a huge hit on your table. I would absolutely recommend this to most players, provided they can get behind a themeless game with stellar mechanics. I mean, I went to Cuba on vacation last year and allocated some (very tight) luggage space to my copy of Birmingham. So, yeah, I think it has earned that #3 spot on BoardGameGeek.
A perfect beach game, right?