Friday, September 28, 2007

A Short Rules Preview of Brass

Martin Wallace is one of my favorite designers. And so it was with great pleasure that I discovered that Brass, a new Wallace design, was nearing completion this fall. And when I saw that the rules were debuting on the Warfrog website, I knew I would have to download them pronto.

Brass is a game of industrial development in Lancashire in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Players build coal mines, cotton mills, iron works, and shipyards in various cities, and try to connect these cities with canals (in the first half of the game) and railroads (in the second half). In fact, many industries cannot be built by a player until he connects the building location to his other industries by canal or rail.

Mr. Wallace has several mechanisms that limit players’ actions. First, each player has five stacks of industry tiles, divided by industry type. The tiles are arranged according to tech level, with the high-scoring high-tech tiles on the bottom of the stack. Players must build their less efficient low-tech industries before the higher tech ones become available.

Players also get a hand of cards to play each round, and each player may only play two cards per round. Cards allow the players to take the following actions: build an industry tile, build canals or rail links, remove the top tiles from their tile stacks (to get to the higher-tech tiles faster), sell cotton, or take a loan. The rules for cards allow players to combine the two cards they play each round into one action in order to get around some of the normal game restrictions. Card management seems to be a part of the game, but in most rounds players should have plenty of options.

Another limitation on growth is the need for coal or iron cubes to build certain industry tiles or rail links. Each coal mine tile produces coal cubes, and iron works produce iron, and players may obtain these resources even from tiles controlled by opponents. But if there are no appropriate cubes available on the tiles, players may need to purchase coal or iron from the game’s coal and iron demand tracks which may increase production costs.

But one man’s limitation is another man’s opportunity. When all the coal or iron cubes on a tile have been bought, that industry tile is flipped to its back side, and it yields income and victory points to the owning player. It seems that one strategy to the game is creating chains of industries that do not require outsiders to supply the raw materials for growth, and allows players to flip a maximum number of their own tiles to their profitable sides.

Another interesting twist is provided by the rules for selling cotton. There are no cotton cubes; when a player plays a sell-cotton card, all of his cotton mills that are connected to ports have the opportunity to sell their wares. But there is a cotton demand track that indicates how the price of cotton drops with every sale. Players may have to choose between using a valuable sell-cotton card now, or waiting to connect that final cotton mill to a port while hoping that another player doesn’t drive down the price in the meantime.

The opportunities for growth increase dramatically in the second half of the game as the rail era replaces the canal era. Each city can hold more industry tiles in the rail era, and there are some cities that can’t be connected to the others until the rail period is reached. Also, the canal connections are no longer operational in the rail era; players have to rebuild their network of connections using the new technology.

There are more rules, but this overview should give you a good idea of what the game is about, and the major mechanisms in it.

There are some posts on the Geek from gamers who are concerned that Brass doesn’t have much player interaction. But it seems to me very likely that competition for connections between cities and industry spaces (both are limited) should add a good deal of inter-player tension. Brass looks like another solid economic engine game from Martin Wallace, and it is one of the upcoming games that I am most looking forward to.

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