During my self-imposed blogging hiatus, exciting news came out.
Brass: Birmingham was being released in app form on Steam by Phalanx Games and Cublo! It’s now in Early Access.
It was a first-day buy for me, but because I was…not doing very well at the time, I didn’t actually get it played until sometime in July.
Brass: Birmingham is an economic game and successor to the original Brass (later renamed Brass: Lancashire to distinguish it from this one), both developed by Martin Wallace (though Birmingham also was co-designed by Gavan Brown and Matt Tolman).
I first played the boardgame back in January 2019, and if you want a full (well, kind of full) how to play of the game, go here.
This is a post about the app, though.
The game is currently in Early Access, so there will be bugs squashed and possibly gameplay changes (not in the game itself, obviously! But in how the app implements the gameplay).
How does it measure up, at least under first impressions?
Let’s take a look.
First, let me say that since the game has been out for at least a month, there have been some updates already. That’s good! It’s an Early Access game.
Let me tell you a little about how the game plays before we get into the “review” itself.
Players are entrepreneurs during the Industrial Revolution in England, trying to build up the best industries and sell goods to various markets to score victory points.
The game is divided into two eras: Canal and Rail.
You’re going to be building industries in various cities around Birmingham, along with products to ship to different areas.
Unlike the original Brass, there are more goods to sell than just cotton. Also unlike the original, the various markets you can sell to may only want a certain type of good. If the market doesn’t want it, you can’t sell it.
Or they might not want anything!
That can be a bummer.
In addition to building the normal coal and iron industries, there is also the beer industry. Beer smooths the way for you to sell your goods, so there almost always has to be beer available before you can sell. You can build breweries to make that beer, but your opponents can use that beer to sell their goods if they have a connection to your brewery!
That would suck.
You can do two actions on your turn, and there are a number of options. You can build something, you can build a connection between two cities (canal or rail depending on the era you are in), you can take a loan (this is Martin Wallace, remember!) to get more money, you can develop industries (essentially getting rid of the cheap stuff to be able to build better stuff), you can sell a good to a market, or you can Scout.
What does Scout do?
You can discard three cards in order to get the two Wild industry cards, letting you essentially build whatever industry you want.
Every action requires that you discard a card.
For building, you have to discard either a card with the city’s name on it where you are building, or an industry card. The industry card will allow you to build that industry in a city that you have a connection to. So not just anywhere.
For the other actions, it doesn’t matter what card you discard for it. Just make sure you don’t discard something that will help you in the future!
Victory points are scored by “flipping” tiles. For goods, flipping happens when you sell the good. For industries, this happens when all of the industry cubes are cleared from it (either by using them or by refilling the Coal and Iron market).
The victory points are added up at the end of each era. When the Canal era ends, all Level 1 tiles along with all canals are removed from the board. Level 2 and above industries remain on the board and will score again after the Rail era.
Each era has 9 rounds, so plan carefully!
So that’s the game.
How’s the app?
It’s actually really good for Early Access, though I have to admit that I’m not experienced enough with the game to really identify small bugs.
The game begins, of course, with the Tutorial. Even if you’re familiar with the game, the Tutorial will help you with how it’s implemented in the app. I don’t know why you wouldn’t play it once, just to see how that works, though some people can just figure things out.
The tutorial is good, but it’s not very complete, at least not yet.
It explains the extreme basics of building, selling, and linking cities. However, there’s no mention of the Loan action at all or any description of how this can change your income. Gaining income is mentioned when the tutorial talks about selling, but the intricacies of income aren’t explained at all.
When you flip a tile, you gain income in spots (above, yellow is sitting in the 40 spot). You could go from 10 to 13, for example.
However, when you take a loan, the income moves down by whole areas (in the pic above, yellow is in the 14 Income area. Taking a loan moves you down 3 areas, so it would drop down to 11).
That’s a big thing!
And the tutorial doesn’t mention it.
It also doesn’t explain the Scout action, so you have no idea what that is when you’re playing the game (unless you read the rulebook or have played it on the table).
In a game against AIs, it’s nice that they added a “Skip to your turn” button, though the log isn’t the most comprehensible unless you’re familiar with the game. It does tell you what the AI did, but since the log comes up and you can’t see the map anymore, you have to go back and forth to really get an idea of things.
Of course, you know that a big thing for me in any game like this is online multiplayer and it being asynchronous.
I have to say that Phalanx and Cublo have done a great job with Brass: Birmingham in this respect, except for one thing which is kind of annoying (and annoyed me about Wingspan too until Monster Couch changed it): It only has a 24 hour timer!
On most days, taking your turn within 24 hours of it being your turn is possible, but sometimes life happens and you can’t. You might need 26 hours. Or even 36.
Just like in Wingspan (before they went to 72 hours, though I’m assuming if you time out this still happens), the game just ends. No bot player replacing the missing player. It just ends.
And so far, anyway, it doesn’t disappear from your list of games! It happened with the first game we tried, though in this case it wasn’t the player’s fault. The game kept crashing on him and wouldn’t let him take his turn.
Eventually, he just timed out and the game ended.
And I can’t get rid of it.
The other aspects of online play are pretty good, though.
You can set up a private game with a password (just like the original Brass app). You have to create an account with Phalanx, so you can also play cross-platform most likely, when and if the game comes to iOS and Android (no word on that yet).
You get email notifications when it’s your turn, which considering the Steam “turn notifications” are pretty terrible (in my opinion) is very nice to have.
Another good thing is that you can go into a game when it’s not your turn, so you can maybe plot some strategy rather than having to make it up on the fly when it’s your turn.
The interface for the game is actually pretty decent, though some things aren’t intuitive.
For a while, I couldn’t figure out how to look at your entire industry board other than by starting and then cancelling the Develop action. Sure, the top tile for each industry is on the right, along with what’s required to build it (money as well as coal/iron).
But I wanted to see the whole board.
Of course, I discovered just this morning that clicking on any of the tiles on the sidebar takes you to the industry board.
Maybe I’m just stupid (don’t answer that), but that didn’t occur to me to do for a while.
I do like the Build action and how when you choose it, everywhere you can build lights up.
When you choose a city, it shows each industry that can be built there and whether or not you can build it (maybe you don’t have the resources or the money to do it, or whatever).
That is very handy.
It also flashes all connection opportunities when you chose that option, which is cool too.
When scoring happens, it pops up all the points player by player, which is pretty cool to see. It thankfully doesn’t go tile by tile, which would also be neat but would quickly become tedious. It does happen so quickly that new players may have trouble figuring out where all of those points came from, but that’s really minor and will quickly go away after a couple of plays.
You can tell from the screenshots above that the game looks wonderful. It really captures the artwork from the game and the layout on the screen is pretty good.
Players are listed on the left with their VP, money and income (both the money you will gain and also what income space you are on).
The Coal and Iron markets are clearly marked in the bottom left, with how much money each one will cost you. Open spaces are clear so you know easily how many cubes will be removed from your newly-built Iron industry.
Your cards are easy to read at the bottom of the screen. When you do a build action, the proper card(s) that you can discard for the action pops up. If it doesn’t matter, then the cards don’t pop up and you can choose anything.
It’s just a beautiful layout.
Brass: Birmingham is a brilliant game (even if it does make my head hurt) and it deserves a brilliant app.
This app isn’t quite there yet, at least to my first impression.
However, it is definitely on the road to it.
Modifying the tutorial and changing the async multiplayer timer would go a great deal toward making it an awesome app.
Check out Brass: Birmingham. If you do, you may become an elite business tycoon like me!
Don’t mention that these are easy AIs that I barely beat…
Brass: Birmingham is available on Steam for $18.49 CDN (so maybe $14.99 US? Not sure)