A few weeks ago, I did something unexpected.
I saw there was a live Kickstarter for 1861/67, and I backed it immediately. Me, the Euro gamer who judges whether or not he'll like a game based on the percentage of beige on the table. Me, the person for whom turning wooden pieces into other wooden pieces is the idea of a perfect weekend. Me, the person who will probably end up naming his future firstborn Uwe Pfister Feld Gerdts.
In ages past, I've tried to venture outside my dry-Euro comfort zone. I tried to play Ameritrash games: Dead of Winter, Journeys in Middle Earth, and anything FFG offered that could snap me out of this comatose German aversion to anything that remotely reeks of fun. But to no avail--every time I tried to engage with plastic miniatures and beautiful graphic design, I spent entire gaming sessions looking over my shoulder, wondering if my beloved Concordia felt betrayed, asking myself if the dead, empty eyes of the sad men on Great Western Trail's cover would ever take me back.
But then I saw something that would haunt me forever.
Capstone's new edition of Irish Gauge.
Look at it. Feast your eyes on that beautiful, minimalist graphic design. Look at the delectable little choo-choo trains. The placid greens, the muted hexagons, the obtuse-yet-simple table of numbers. But surely it wasn't for me. Train games are for middle-aged nerds who collect stamps, and I'm a cultured Eurogamer. I don't manipulate share prices--that's beneath me! I'm too busy turning salt into bricks into food into tools into wine into cloth into cold, uncaring victory points in the Mediterranean. Auctions? Hah! What is this, 1997?
So I guiltily tucked it away. I kept my little transgression hidden in the deep, dark recesses of my cardboard-obsessed mind. And for a while, I was happy. But then I finally got the chance to play a game I'd been dying to try; I finally played Brass: Birmingham. I have trouble categorizing the Brass games: are they economic simulations? Are they Euros? Do they share DNA with the rest of Martin Wallace's games, which are decidedly not Euros? These questions will surely go down in history as some of the greatest unanswered mysteries of our time. But what isn't a mystery is the fact that Brass: Birmingham is special.
A bloat of obscure rules, concepts, and grammar coalesce into a cutthroat tapestry of economic manipulation--a knife-fight between British gentlemen who dare say you're bloody daft for interfering with their capitalistic machinations, and by jove they will strangle you with the coal-and-soot-laden invisible hand if they have to. It's a nasty game, and it's an unusual game, and it is special. I can say with confidence that it is probably the best designed board game I've ever played. To boot: if you're a sheepish Eurogamer like me, it is infinitely more palatable than the barebones economic rampage that is train games.
The first time I played Brass: Birmingham, I lost. I lost by a lot. But I had a hell of a time losing, and try as I might, I just couldn't get the game out of my mind. Maybe, I thought to myself, Maybe I could be into economic board games? Maybe I could love games that aren't beige? Maybe, somewhere deep inside, there is a part of me that could be confrontational, and conniving, and cutthroat? Ah, but it was in between print runs. Bad luck. There was nothing for it.
Weeks later, I saw that my local game store had a more innocuous--and civilized--game on sale: Gugong. I'd played it before and remembered liking its spin on the worker placement mechanism, so I drove out to pick it up. I don't know how the timing lined up so perfectly, but there, in the midst of the chaos and cardboard mayhem, were the two games that had been plaguing me for weeks: 1 copy of Brass: Birmingham, and several copies of Irish Gauge.
I did not stand a chance. Faster than you can say Kennerspiele des Jahres, I had 3 new games in my shelf.
The first time I played Irish Gauge, I hesitantly introduced it to the table as some train game I saw at the store for cheap. It was a lie designed to obfuscate my shameful obsession. Oh, how wonderful would it be if this impulse purchase could somehow ride the wings of serendipity to rise above the fray of mediocrity? (The table is the perfect place for melodrama). So we played. And it was fantastic. It was beyond fantastic--it was revelatory.
Look, don't read this word-vomit as a review. It isn't. Irish Gauge, by all regular metrics, is a fine game. Fans of the cube rails genre (to which Irish Gauge belongs) don't even consider it the best cube rails game--that accolade many of them reserve for Chicago Express, or, if the pedantry will allow, Wabash Cannonball. But it is a solid game of auctions, company value manipulation, and general economic skullduggery. And it's a whirlwind--what with its one page of rules and its breezy mechanics for determining dividends, the whole thing plays in under an hour. It basically begs you to play it a second time.
Irish Gauge is a game, but it's also an argument. It is likely the simplest, most stripped-down version of itself, and so on that merit it makes a case for the value of barebones economic games. What it abstracts away is dross; what it keeps is a spatial puzzle of optimization and tenuous alliances. There is a fragile balance to be found in this type of game, not unlike the fragile balance I later came to enjoy when I played Pax Pamir.
Brass: Birmingham, that lumbering behemoth, planted the sick notion in my head that economic games might be as fun as the driest of Euros. Irish Gauge convinced me of that fact. For the longest time, I refused to consider these types of games as the expansion of my horizons--too mean, too complicated, too mathy. Not enough story, I thought. You can't ask that much of me; I play games to have fun, not to do homework.
But here I am, a convert brimming with potential. If economic games are for me, then why not the Pax games? Why not COIN games? I am once again excited to discover new things--I feel once more the thrill I felt when I first became a hobbyist, when every Shut Up & Sit Down video was an exciting new possibility, when every game on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop could possibly be the game. I eagerly await the arrival of my first 18xx game as my cardboard pantheon grows to include names like Wehrle and Russell and Wallace and Tresham. It doesn't mean I've turned my back on the chorus of passive-aggressive Germans who brought me into this hobby. It just means there's room in my heart to be a little bit sinister.