Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Big Brass Pair

Tuesday night games were at Chris' place this week as we get back to our regular schedule after our switcheroo the last couple of weeks. On hand were myself and Mike to fill out the table to three. 

Some time ago, one of the hosts asked me not to bring games to his house for game night unless he'd requested it as he wanted to be able to justify his collection and couldn't do that if we were playing other people's games. I generally honor that for most of the group, but now that I live at the South Pole and not too many people show up when I host, I have to be aggressive and ask for the games I want to play when I go to other people's houses. So it was that I asked for Brass if we could swing it, and I got it. 

And, unlike my first playthrough of most Wallace titles, I "got it". 

People have gone on and on about this game as one of Wallace's best. Of course, they tend to do that every time Martin puts out a game. There's usually a backlash of some sort, as what happened with Tempus, but in general the man knows how to design a pretty tight yet involved game. There's usually some luck element to level the playing field a bit, but in general if you know what you're doing and see how the various elements fit together you can win the game. 

In some cases, such as Struggle of Empires, the game is very difficult to figure out with a single playing, mostly because of the interaction of the various tiles you can buy. Brass doesn't have that problem, or at least Wallace figured out how to make it elegant but deep. Here, you have a handful of different types of industries you can put on the map - cotton mills, coal mines, iron foundries, ports, shipyards - but each becomes more expensive but more critical to victory as the game goes on. You have a good sense of how each industry will benefit you both financially and politically (because what else could VP represent in this game? It has to be power!) within 20 minutes of starting play, and managing how those industries progress is a vital skill in the game.

Funny story - Chris hands me a very nice cheat sheet that he copied from the rulebook that devotes a good sixth of the page to Easily Forgotten Rules. I think this is a brilliant idea, one that I've used when trying to remember the chrome in a wargame. As he hands me the sheet, I say, "Oh, look, easily forgotten rules. In a Martin Wallace game. Who'da thunk?" 

Chris is a gentleman and a scholar, but if you ever want to provoke a reaction (or maybe it's just me), all you need to do is imply in the slightest way that Martin Wallace games are "too harrrrrrrduh!" Hilarity ensues. 

Actually, this is a very elegant game in many ways, although there are still small issues to remember. You can't build using a generic industry card in a city unless you've hooked up via canals/rails. You can't build canals/rails unless you've got a connection already. Thus, when I wanted to build a shipyard late in the game, I couldn't do it because I couldn't build a rail line out of the city Chris had monopolized in the north, and I couldn't build the shipyard first because I couldn't get coal and iron to the city. 

This is the kind of depth and considered play that I love, and the fact that I took to this game like a duck to Eugene says quite a bit about how good I think it is. Cooley's Law does apply (I won), but by the time we'd gotten through the canal phase I felt like a man in control of my destiny. That doesn't mean I'd have won, and I struggled mightily to get to a point where I could play a shipbuilding industry (with no success), but I felt like I could do more or less whatever else I wanted during my turn. I certainly figured out how to make enough money during the early part of the game - I ended up with over 60 pounds of cash left over at the end while no one else had enough money to generate a single bonus VP. Chris in particular seemed to struggle with money, often being one pound shy of being able to do what he wanted. This suggests that economic success, while not the final measure of victory, is critical early on. I was close to maxing out my income by the end of the game, and it allowed me to make the plays I wanted to.

Of course, we played with three people, and while for most of the game play order wasn't all that important, by the end of the game I was phasing my actions so as to swing double turns. I spent 15 pounds on building double rail lines often, as Chris pointed out that this game is all about cycles and the more you can do in a given cycle the better. In fact, aside from a couple of blown opportunities because of Mike's giant four cotton mill selloff and a few development actions to prep for laying down shipbuilding industries, I felt I was able to do what I wanted to do. I don't know that this would be the case in a four player game, where you might wait as many as six player turns between your actions, and the resultant reduction in cards and thus choices. Still, it's a game I'm looking forward to playing at Sunriver in a couple of weeks with any number.

Thanks to Chris for hosting, and for allowing me to impose my gaming needs on "his" night. While we seem to have fewer people showing up to play since I moved, at the same time I can't complain about the gaming we've done, and Brass is a definite highlight of my year insofar as gaming goes. Perhaps my favorite Wallace game to date, although only time will tell if that's true.

Next week we're back at Matt's near the Rose Quarter, just in time for the Blazer's season to be over (and traffic to be more likely to be tolerable).

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