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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Brass Review

Brass is a moderately heavy economic/development game for 2-4 players. It is currently ranked 9th on BoardGameGeek, which is really 8th since there are two versions of Dominion above it. The basic idea is that you have five kinds of tiles that you can place on the board through card plays that represent the locations on the map or the kind of tile. When you place a tile, there are mechanisms that cause them to flip over, and when they do, you increase your income level and gain some victory points.You can also use card plays to take loans, build links between locations on the map, remove tiles from your stacks, and sell cotton, which is mechanism for flipping the Cotton Mill and Port tiles in matched pairs. The Coal Mine and Iron Works tiles provide materials that are used to build more advanced tiles, and flip when their materials are used up, and the Shipyard tiles are just expensive to build and flip immediately. There is a halfway point in the game at which point you earn some points and the weakest tiles and the links between locations are removed. Points are also scored for links based on how many flipped tiles are on either end of that connection. I'm leaving out a lot of small details, but this gets to the general idea of the game.

The Good
I really like the turn order mechanism in the game. Each turn the player who spent the most goes last, while the player who spent the least goes first. This is a nice mechanic because I'm not a huge fan of mechanics where the players somehow control who goes first - that doesn't feel like an interesting part of the game. Agricola and Caylus have that kind of thing and that bothers me. In other games like Puerto Rico, behind behind or in front of a certain player for the whole game can really help or hinder you in an unfair way. Power Grid also has variable turn order, which is good there as well. Someone did data analysis on the games played on the online implementation and it showed there was no advantage for any place in the turn order in the first turn. I like that.

In Brass, you have an 8 card hand and get to use two of them each turn except for the first turn during which you play just one. Since the cards correspond to various locations on the map, of which there are 18, you have a fair number of options but not every option every turn. Each location only has certain industries on them, so the cards you get force you to determine what you want to focus on. I like this because it means you can't just become really good at one strategy and be done with learning about the game. It adds a lot of depth and replayability without needing something like the cards in Agricola.

The Bad
The bad in Brass really isn't all that bad, but these are aspects that might bother other people more and strike me as a bit inelegent or frustrating.

The loan system in the game is both interesting but counterintuitive. It doesn't bother me a great deal, but it's strange that you can actually profit from a loan. The general idea is that a loan gives you $30, but you reduce the income you receive each turn by 3. This means that if you do with with less than 10 turns left in the game, you are actually making money. The subtle aspect here that makes it interesting is that it takes an action to get a loan, so you are using up some of that limited resource to get your loan.

Once in a while the cards bite you. You start with a hand that looks to be strong for putting down a bunch of ports, but then draw no more port location cards, for example. This can be a little frustrating but actually doesn't happen as often as one might think. 

Overall I rate Brass a 9, which means I wouldn't necessarily play it any time, but I would play it almost always if someone suggests it. I've been playing it a lot on Brass Online, which is an amazing interface for turn-based play. I generally play in 3-4 games at a time, joining a new one when the last one is at turn 5 out of 18. I highly recommend it if you find you like the game, and it helps iron out for you the small niggling rules you might find hard to learn otherwise. I have completed 12 games on that site as of this review, and have probably played 5-6 times in person. Brass is one of those games where you have a lot of meaningful decisions, and it seems to be fairly skill-based. It's definitely one of those games you should play three or four times before making up your mind about it.

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