Game Night Verdicts #50 – Brass: Birmingham

Brass Birmingham is set in the industrial revolution in 19th century England: during the heyday of capitalism. As large industrialists you open up new markets by investing into the country’s infrastructure. But it takes coal and steel to do so. A clever businessperson will soon notice the budding demand for those resources. So you position yourself in a way that lets you profit while others build up England’s industries. Ideally, you will end up making money off of your investments and the attempts of others to prop up their own.

It’s not easy to wrap your head around the intricacies of supply and demand for resources in your first play. It’s made more complicated by the fact that multiple types of industries want to be created and developed at the same time. Each of which is accompanied by different financial incentives. On top of that, you have to keep an eye on the constraints each location on the board comes with. Not every town is open to the same factory types. It takes experience with the game to properly gauge the benefits and drawbacks of each city on the board. In addition, you must also keep in mind how a new connection between two locations can open up new opportunities for construction. You have to know which resources and actions are available through somebody else’s connections and which are not. You have to consider when resources can be bought from the market and when they can’t be. Last but not least, you have to know when you are forced to use resources of your competitors (and thus generate profit for them) and when you are not.

All these are the basics of the game. Tactical subtleties will grow from there later. You won’t be plumbing any of the game’s strategic depths until you’ve had some plays under your belt.

Tableau added for legibility reasons

Because of this you can’t really meet the game’s quite complex challenge head-on after a single play. I play with a fairly experienced gaming group, and even with the (formally comprehensive, but structurally ‘unique’) rulebook in hand, we wrapped up our first game mostly exhausted and confused. With less experience or when encountering some of the game’s mechanisms for the first time, it will take several attempts until you manage to finish the game without making any major mistakes.

Brass Birmingham is a game for people who aren’t easily discouraged by an ornate rules design. The game’s reputation precedes it. The scene – here as it is represented in BoardgameGeek’s best games list – awards it spot #3 of more than 30,000 games. It is one of the designs that cemented Martin Wallace’s reputation as an outstanding game designer. Even 10 years after its release, Brass Birmingham excites and intrigues even the most seasoned and hard-core “expert” gamer.. But you have to claw your way through a few wonky plays of it to find out why.

That is despite its unavoidable and long learning curve, which is usually a cardinal sin when it comes to good game design. It’s rarely worth the effort to memorize complicated and convoluted rules when most of the time you end up following fairly simple strategies to play competitively. 

By contrast, Brass Birmingham earns its learning curve. With the help of your fellow players’ actions you quickly find yourself in a dynamic and fascinating web of opportunities, incentives, and risks. You will have to develop a keen eye for investment opportunities, new ways to profit and burgeoning synergies to stay ahead.

When someone at the table unexpectedly opens a mine or connects two cities, markets and supply chains can shift rapidly. Brass Birmingham manages to appeal to both our ambition and our vanity. But it’s not just the banal competition for highest score that grabs us. You soon find yourself wanting to beat the game itself. Soon you just want to see your plans come to fruition in spite of all the monkey wrenches thrown into your engine.

Naturally, the game also allows and anticipates a more competitive style of play. But at least in the early stages, snatching away resources or jumping the queue to build a new industry is more of a prank you play on each other than a strategically thought-out decision.

Token and cube placement is a result of heavy thinking

Once you make it through the first few games, you begin to anticipate the actions of your competitors. The cities on the board are cramped and crowded enough that you can’t help but get in each other’s way. The sighs of frustration when access to a city is suddenly blocked soon become a regular occurance. As you become more experienced with the game, you also learn how to bounce back quickly and leap onto new opportunities for profit.

Once you’re comfortable with this level of play, you will move on to the next stage. Your plans stretch out further into future turns. You spend considerable time during the first half of the game setting up your position for the second half. You formulate strategies based on the cards in your hand and play them out in your mind. Any small synergies you discover, are immediately added into your tactical repertoire for future games. 

The rules that first seemed obscure, bureaucratic and petty turn out to be miniscule dials you have to operate subtly to clever secure advantages for yourself. This unwieldy mess of a rules set has a purpose and the astute use of it turns out to be one of the greatest joys Brass Birmingham has to offer.

But the need to win also sneaks its way back into the game. The potential amount of schadenfreude you can get from frustrating and annoying other players in this game is enormous. This may be when Brass Birmingham reveals its most immature side. When you find yourself in a petty tit-for-tat with another player, you’re quickly reminded that you are in fact only playing a game.

After all, aren’t games at their heart about naming winners and losers? Perhaps this attitude is the reason why Brass Birmingham’s setting goes so well with its mechanisms.

One of the modern approaches in game criticism likes to take a closer look at a game’s theme and lay out elaborate historical anecdotes to give an impressive explanation of what the game is actually about. Unfortunately, I am not a historian. I’m just a gamer. As such, I look at Brass Birmingham and see a board game about economics, not English history.

What’s interesting here is which aspects of the setting which become relevant to players by way of them being covered by rules mechanisms, and which are not. For example, the working population of England is almost as present in Brass Birmingham as native inhabitants of foreign continents are in games about colonialism.

They exist as an idea in the minds of people who are at least vaguely familiar with Britain’s industrial history. But as part of our decision making process, and therefore our experience of the game, they do not exist. We do not make investments for them. Nor do they play a role in our profit considerations. Even if they can be seen on card illustrations – laboring for us – they only exist as evocative embellishments to the game’s ambience.

But that is precisely what a capitalist understanding of markets is. A land with its inhabitants, its communities, its history and culture is reduced to an expandable infrastructure that serves to generate profit. That is its function and the only way it has any meaning for us.

One may fantasize that a newly built factory will create jobs in the area, or that we will financially support the region by building factories there. But that is completely inconsequential in the context of the game, and also in real life. Investments are merely fixed costs that should be recouped as soon as possible through profit.

A factory creates products for the market and when you can sell them, your investment pays off. Your profits increase and in the race to see who has the longest… I mean… the biggest… I mean who is the best at doing business, you rise through the ranks. Just imagine your frustration if Brass Birmingham’s workers suddenly demanded fair wages, better working conditions or their share of the profits! It would be the end of our way of life!

But none of this happens and that is why Brass Birmingham is so much fun. Analyzing the board state accurately, predicting your competitor’s next move and setting yourself up for more profits keeps your dopamine production going without fail. Brass Birmingham isn’t an awkward mental arithmetic exercise like so many games like it. 

Pure joy etched into the faces of these character

You have to think like other players in order to anticipate them and secure your profit margin. You will also have to make some bold decisions and assume that your investment now will pay off later in the game. Or just disrupt the plans of others so that they don’t pass you by on the scoring track. Juggling these tasks and challenges is simply a lot of fun. This is in no small part due to the fact that you can’t lose in Brass Birmingham.

I understand that this statement may need some additional explanation. It is of course possible to not win the game. In the end, there is only one person who has raked in more money than everyone else. Comparing scores is always how the game ends. But at no time are you exposed to the risk of being eliminated from the game. The biggest blow you suffer in Brass Birmingham is making less profit than other people. That’s all.

You may argue that this is an abstraction and simplification necessitated by modern game design standards. That multi-layered, real-world economic system of capitalism had to be simplified to make it fun. Of course, that’s not entirely wrong. Brass Birmingham is a game. We play it for fun and sometimes to compete with each other.

But it still captures the reality of life for people like Julio Gonzalez: CEO of a tax consulting firm and owner of 24 rental properties. In this article, he complains that his profits have dropped by 15% since he can no longer put non-paying tenants out on the street. Note: he is not talking about income, but profit that he has “earned”. Truly there is nothing worse – especially now – than making slightly less money than someone else.

Brass Birmingham is an impressive game. Despite its complexity and learning curve, there is a lush, challenging gaming experience waiting for those willing to dig into it. But even more impressive is how it magnificently demonstrates why capitalism is fun, and for whom. 

It’s the people who only have to worry about their profits, but not their livelihoods. The abstraction provided by the game design does not simplify these economic roles, but reduces them to their essence. It’s fun to be a big industrialist when you don’t have to worry about the people who have to work for you, and when the worst that can happen to you is a slight dinging of your ego.

Brass Birmingham lets you compete to win the favor of the scoreboard. Its complexity doesn’t distract from play, but is the reason why play feels challenging yet dignified. You don’t puzzle over how to make the smartest and most impressive move. Instead you deal with the task at hand, through careful deliberation and planning ahead. The joy of Brass Birmingham lies in the satisfaction of having played well, as evidenced by your score at the end.

That’s the kind of design that has a right to demand a little bit more effort from its players.

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