Review: Brass

By Dave Neumann 13 Nov 2015 2
Settlers of cotton. Settlers of cotton.

Here's something I never thought I would type: I played Brass this morning on my phone. Even with the rash of board games being ported to our touchscreens, Brass was one of those games that I always thought was too complicated and unforgiving to make a decent splash in a place like the App Store, yet here it is.

I first played Brass about five years ago and since then it's become a staple with my game group. If we have four players, there's a better than 50% chance someone will suggest we play Brass (or another Wallace gem, Tinner's Trail). It's a nearly perfect eurogame that doesn't feel like a eurogame, but I'm not sure why. It has Victory Points, limited actions per turn, and a solitary dude on the cover (although, he's not as dour as most). Those all go out the window when you're in the middle of a game, however, and the theme--the cotton industry of northern England in the 1700's, seriously--really comes to life. Despite the Victory Points and gaminess of the card play, this is an economic sim and you end up feeling like a tycoon or, more likely, a pauper by the end. It's wonderful, and now it's on my phone.

Reviews like this are difficult. Obviously, I've made my opinion clear on the game of Brass. Therefore, the big question comes down to, does this app let me play Brass unhindered? Do I get the same feeling on my phone that I do around the table? Is it Brass? Yes, yes, and yes.

Brass is a game for three or four players that takes place over two eras and at the end of each will be a scoring round. Yep, you only score twice in the entire game. The goal of players is to accumulate the most victory points, which are earned by building canals/rails and by "flipping" your industries. Each turn you have two actions to take from choices like building industry, shipping cotton, building canals/rails, developing industry, and taking loans. Keep that last one at the forefront of your brain for a few minutes, we're going to be coming back to it.

Building Industry allows you to place coal mines, ironworks, ports, shipyards and cotton mills on the board. This action is tied directly to which cards you have in your hand, as well as the location on the board. You cannot build a port in Liverpool, for example, unless you have a card that says Liverpool or Port. You also cannot build unless you have a connection into that city and access to any applicable building requirements. For example, higher level cotton mills require coal to build. I cannot build them in a city that doesn't have a transportation link to either a coal mine (in which you can then use someone's coal for free), or a port (in which case you can pay extra to ship in coal from the global market). Easy, right?

Winning also involves playing the markets and building coal mines and ironworks when the sale price is high. Winning also involves playing the markets and building coal mines and ironworks when the sale price is high.

When these industries perform their function, they "flip" which, in board game terms, means they literally flip. You flip the tile over, with the new income and victory points listed on the back of the chit. The video game lights them on fire to show they've flipped. Or gives them a glow or something. It doesn't really matter so long as you can tell which industries have flipped and which haven't, which the glow effect does quite nicely. That's it for industries. Once they've achieved their goal and flipped, they just sit there. They can be upgraded to a higher level of industry or, if you play with a bunch of a-holes, replaced with another player's industry, but for the most part, they are just there to sit and score victory points during the game's two scoring phases. Cotton mills flip when they ship their cotton, ports flip when anyone (doesn't have to be the player who owns the port) uses them to ship cotton, coal mines and ironworks flip when players use all the coal/iron they produce, and shipyards flip immediately when they're built.

Other actions help you get rid of low-level industries so you can build higher-level, and more lucrative, ones (development) or build links between cities (build canal/rails). The final action is taking a loan, and you'll be doing it with alarming regularity. Money, in Brass, is handled via an income track which is exactly what it sounds like: a track listing how many pounds you're earning each turn. Your token moves up the track when you flip industry, and down the track when you take loans. Regardless of how great you are (and I've seen you, you're pretty great) you will need to take loans for this reason: Martin Wallace is a jerk. I'm almost sure that's not completely true, but the way income is handled in Brass will make you wonder. The track has multiple spaces with the same income level in a row. For example, there are two spaces that say £1 followed by two spaces that say £2, etc. When you flip an industry, it might give you 4 income, which means you just moved your income from £1 into the £3 range. Yay, you! You're earning two more pounds each turn. When you take a loan, however, you will drop many spaces down for each £10 you take, which doesn't seem fair and will make you cry. Oh, and you have to burn a card and an action to take a loan as well, so it hurts all over.

Remember me? Remember me?

The app handles all of this with aplomb. The map is clear to read and understand and, wonderfully, rotates with your device. In landscape, you only see a portion of the map and need to scroll, but in portrait you get a great overview of the entire play area. Why hasn't anyone done this with a board game port before? It's a brilliant move. As for the income and victory point tracks, those are represented numerically but you can also click your score or income to bring up a visual representation of the track to see how everyone compares (not to mention how bad it's going to be when you take that next loan). Likewise, the global markets for coal and iron slide offscreen when you don't need them, but can be accessed by simply pressing a button.

Your hand of cards appears and disappears with the touch of a button which narrowly avoids being annoying because you can still interact with the map when your cards are visible. Also, cities in your hand are highlighted on the map, but only when you tap on the individual card. The app also grays out options in locations for which you don't have cards, but not until after you've actually selected the location. It would be nice if possible building locations were highlighted on the map, rather than having to keep popping up your hand of cards all the time.

Blacklisted in Blackburn Blacklisted in Blackburn

Actions are taken by via buttons along the bottom edge of the screen, and the game then holds your hand through each action process. Want to develop an industry? Ok, let's discard a card, now lets select which industry, now let's figure out where you're going to get the iron to pay for it, etc. The action steps are clearly denoted on the bottom of the screen with bright green checkmarks indicating your current step.

The hand-holding aspect of the app works great and doesn't feel clingy, even when you know what you're doing. On top of that, Brass has what might be the most robust set of tutorials I've ever seen in a board game which makes this complex game suddenly accessible. I'm not saying my 10 year-old is going to be playing any time soon, but for anyone who's got a little time to invest by going through the tutorials, Brass is yours for the taking.

Chapter 2 of 7, not to mention a video overview and a rulebook that isn't just a link to a pdf. Chapter 2 of 7, not to mention a video overview and a rulebook that isn't just a link to a pdf.

Graphically, it's fine. I would have preferred they kept the look of the original board, but this version works fine and is completely functional. The addition of animations for the buildings and interstitial screens that resemble old newspapers are a wonderful touch. Cublo Games also added the ability to skip your opponent's turns and just receive a summary of what they did, which makes solo games simply fly by.

Speaking of solo games, there appears to be only one AI to play against, which is surprising because I thought there were supposed to be different AIs to battle. The AI appears competent, but considering that I have yet to win a game of Brass in over five years of playing, I might not be the best judge of that. I have been able to beat the AI, so take that as you will. The game also offers Playdek-esque options for multiplayer, allowing you to set timers so games can last anywhere from two hours to 30 days. What you can't do is create private games, or invite friends. Looks like you'll have to coordinate friendly games outside of the app, which is unfortunate.

The best part about the entire app is that Brass feels like playing Brass. Cublo managed to take a game with a lot of information and complex interactions and turn it into a fantastic digital edition that both fans of Brass and newcomers to Wallace designs can enjoy. My only question is, what Martin Wallace game will Cublo tackle next?

Review: Brass

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