Brass: Birmingham is an economic strategy game sequel to Martin Wallace' 2007 masterpiece, Brass. Birmingham tells the story of competing entrepreneurs in Birmingham during the industrial revolution, between the years of 1770-1870. As in its predecessor, you must develop, build, and establish your industries and network, in an effort to exploit low or high market demands.
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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.
I just played #Brass: Birmingham for the first time tonight and I quite enjoyed it. I didnt even get a full experience. I've only played 1 era, about half way through, and just played against myself.
However, even reading the rules was enjoyable and got me excited to play which is always a good sign. Once I dove into the turns there was quite a lot of rule look ups immediately and for the first few turns but I started to see the rhythm and strategies emerge.
Im looking forward to a real playthough with my wife soon and hopefully one with @philryuh on camera 😉
Martin is a renowned board game designer who is consistently ranked among the Top 25 designers in the world. Here you can find the stories behind his origin, his design approach, and the depth of insight gained from surviving through the waves of changes that have passed through the board game industry over the past decades.
Hey Martin, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My pleasure. OK, born in 1962 in Hampshire, UK. Moved to Manchester in 1969, where I lived until 2013 when I moved to New Zealand. Since October 2017 I have been resident in Australia, living just south of Brisbane.
I started gaming properly when I was 14, cutting my teeth on wargames from companies such as SPI and Avalon Hill. I was introduced to D&D at Sixth Form college in 1978. One of my first jobs was working as a sales assistant for Games Workshop at their Manchester shop.
I started designing games around 1990. I self-published my first design in 1993, which was Lords of Creation. I first visited the Spiel in Essen in 1994, with a reprint of this game. Since then I have been churning out games every year, including Age of Steam/Steam, A Few Acres of Snow, Discworld Ankh-Morpork and Brass. I used to run my own games company, Warfrog Games, which then morphed into Treefrog Games. Now I focus on licensing games to other companies.
For anyone who might not be familiar with your games, could you describe what makes up a signature Martin Wallace game?
I like to think I design a wide range of games but most people know me for my heavier designs, such as Brass and Age of Steam. My aim has always been to blend the elegance of the Euro style of design with the thematic emersion that you find in American games. For me theme comes before mechanisms.
Which American game have you played that particularly stands out for its theme?
Apart from role-playing most of my early gaming involved wargames, which by definition have to be closely based on their subject material. Particular games that stand out are Advanced Squad Leader, Breakout Normandy and Across Five Aprils. Having more free time we could also fit in games such as Empires of the Middle Ages, which is pretty much mostly theme as you a really along for the ride.
Your games tend to feature a variety of historical settings. Is historical theme your favorite? and is there a certain timeline that you want to try and incorporate in the future?
I find it easier to design a game around a clearly defined story, whether this be from history or a work of fiction. History is so rich in interesting stories that there is no end to the games you could come up with. At the moment I’m doing a lot of reading on ancient history. I have an itch to design a good civilization game. A lot of those on the market strike me as being far too abstract in design. I want to create something that feels a lot closer to the actual history of the period.
What is your favorite mechanic and how do you think it relates to your personality?
I’m not sure I have a favourite mechanic, as generally I try not to think in those terms. A lot of my games employ a simple two-action per turn format. I think it is important to present players with simple choices that have complex consequences.
What was the first board game you had published? Looking back on it now, how would you rate the game vs. your more recent games?
My first board game was Lords of Creation, which I self-published in 2003. Compared to my more recent games this would be considered rather simple fare. It is a cut above Risk in terms of complexity. The first game I had published by another company was Und Tchuss, by Goldsieber in 1998.
What is one of your lesser known works that you'd love to see get more attention? Could you tell us a bit about that game?
I feel that A Study in Emerald, in both its versions, has not really gained the attention that I thought it deserved. The game riffs off of a short story by Neil Gaiman and blends the fantasy of H.P. Lovecraft with literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes and real persons from history, such as Bismarck and Prince Kropotkin. Players are either fighting for the good guys or the Old Ones and must both try to identify who they are fighting against as well as who is on their side.
As someone who's been around a while, what are some of the major industry shifts you experienced? Is there another game changer that has been on your radar?
The major shift would be Kickstarter. It has massively transformed the industry and its effects are ongoing. It’s very difficult to accurately predict future changes. I’m not convinced that traditional board games are ever going to be successfully integrated with computer technology. My own feelings about the future is that mechanisms will take second place to story-telling. You can already see that happening with the number of Legacy games on the market.
In what ways did you have to adapt to these changes in order to survive in the industry? Have you had to make any changes to your design process, networking, marketing, selection of theme/art, etc?
I have certainly had to adapt by carefully choosing which types of games I design. Fortunately for me it is now possible to design heavier games and have them be financially profitable, Brass being a good example of this. Kickstarter means you can bring games to the market which would not normally work through traditional channels. Marketing and networking are far more important than they used to be, which from my point of view means I need to work with others who have those skill sets.
To what would you attribute the current heyday of the board game industry?
I think the explosion we have seen in board game publishing is due to the combined effects of Kickstarter, changes in print technology that have reduced the costs of production, and the internet for allowing access to a world market.
Would you say that Kickstarter has leveled the playing field for everyone? Does this make it easier or harder for the amateur designer?
I would agree that it has made it easier for an individual to bring their design to the market. Gloomhaven is proof of that, a design that could never have been published under the old system. I’m not sure the situation is harder for the amateur designer, more of a case that you have to work a lot harder on the social side of things now. The fact remains that there is now a body of known game designers who have built their reputations on games they themselves have produced and presented via Kickstarter.
Could you expand a bit more on what you mentioned about the "old system"? What has changed that makes a game like Gloomhaven more viable/marketable today?
Kickstarter is all about direct sales. The production costs of a game like Gloomhaven would make it uneconomic if you simply sold via the normal distribution path. Now, I know that shops do sell Gloomhaven, but that has only been after it proved itself through successful direct sales. Generally your MSRP is six or seven times your production cost, so a game retailing for $70 has to come in at around $10 production price. Without Kickstarter I do not think any publisher would have taken a chance on Gloomhaven as the final MSRP would have been far too high.
Do you think that the quality of artwork can make or break the success of a game?
Today yes, in the old days no. With so many games on the market first glance impression is more significant than ever. When I first started there were so few gamers and games around that you did not need decent artwork, if any at all. Now you must focus as much on the presentation of a game as the mechanisms within it.
Even as a veteran, are there same struggles that never seem to go away?
Still struggling with making a living, so no changes there! You still have the same issues of how to make the market aware of your product, just a lot more noise to cut through now.
If you don't mind, could you expand a bit more on the realities of making a living as a board game designer? What would you say to all of the amateur designers out there who are dying to transition into game design full-time?
I cannot speak for other game designers but the reality of my existence is that I have to keep coming up with new, fresh designs knowing that the majority of them may only make me a few thousand dollars. Generally an advance is in the region of $3000. You then have to wait for a few years before you receive further royalties. If a game is not reprinted then you are looking at making possibly $5000 from a design. If you work out the hours it takes to create a new game then the average game designer is working for less than minimum wage. On top of that you have to pay to attend various trade events, without which you simply cannot do business. I have to fly to Europe at least once a year, for the Spiel, and now the US, for Gen Con. I also need to attend smaller conventions in Australia to get playtesting done. It all adds up to a lot of outgoings. The majority of designers who make good money are those that have an evergreen that brings in a steady amount of money.
For those wishing to break in to the market then I would advise the path that such designers such as Jamey Stegmaier, Ryan Laukat and Isaac Childres have taken, which is the KS path. However, to be successful you have to be prepared to put an awful lot of work in. You also have to have some sort of talent to design, which not all folks have. It really is not as easy as it looks. My final piece of advice would be not to give up the day job.
What is your favorite part of being a board game designer that never gets old?
I love that I get to have an idea, then shape it and eventually see something tangible enter the world. There is something highly satisfying in a defined beginning, middle and end to a process.
What do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
I think the thing most designers aspire to is to create an evergreen game, one that folks will be playing for many years from now. I almost had one with Discworld until I lost the license. That still remains my main goal, to create a game or system that takes on a life of its own.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works that you'd like to share with us?
I always have to be careful when answering questions like these as now all of my work is for other companies, and they like to keep things under wrap until ready to go public. What I can say is that I am working on a number of major games that are tied to computer game licenses. I also have another design which may be my evergreen, but not sure yet. The unusual thing about this game is that it is not a board game, it’s a role playing game.
Thanks for inviting me to take part in this interview.
Thanks Martin for taking your time to share your story and your insights!
Readers, please feel free to leave comments below with any of your questions/comments for Martin or for any of the games mentioned! I am always open for feedback on these interviews and for suggestions on who I should interview in the future!
Below are my links to past interviews:
I think for me it would be a toss up between Brass: Birmingham and Architects of the West Kingdom or maybe a Feast for Odin
Does Brass: Birmingham actually live up to its #3 spot on BGG? Is it a great game for two players? Here are my first impressions after a session against @trentellingsen.
Perfect - Keep in mind that this is the Deluxe Edition, which features thicker cardboard, the Iron Clay poker chips, and a couple of other upgrades. And at least at first glance, it's absolutely well done. In particular, the art direction and overall design is fantastic. The cover is one of the best I've seen and the color choices and the way they contrasted the background illustration vs. the player pieces show great design sensibilities. Roxley has been absolutely killing it in their marketing and presentation of their games and they're one of the publishers out there who are definitely on my "watch list". And in case you didn't know, Mr. Cuddington (a husband-wife creative duo) is the mastermind behind the artwork for this game plus many other amazing looking games out there (e.g. #Santorini, #The Grimm Forest)
Surprisingly easy to follow - It's definitely on the heavier end, but it also doesn't have as much rules overhead or little exceptions to memorize like other games in the same "weight". Trent taught me the rules and while I got 80-90% of the rules down after several turns, I often found myself tripping over 1-2 rules mostly because I'm the type of person who likes to learn and teach games with as much thematic reasoning behind them, so not having a full knowledge of that made it harder. I'll be reading through the rulebook myself at some point!
Simple but deep - Very different game, but it bears some resemblance to #Clans of Caledonia. You have 5-6 unique types of actions available in every turn, and it's up to you to make the most efficient string of actions as you build up your network. For Clans, you're building a network of workers, cows, sheep, wheat field, distillery, etc, and then you have Brass' cold steel industrial network of canals and railroads and factories. The charm behind these two games is that its simplicity leads to great variations in strategy and tactical play.
From blank stare till it "clicks" - Because I was completely new to the game, I stared at the board with its intricate network of different locations and I had no idea where to start. This is different from games like #Concordia where all players start from one central location and start branching outward. I think It really helps limit analysis paralysis from new players when you have a starting point that makes you feel grounded. Of course, it doesn't mean that this is better, but it was an interesting thought. Once I completed my first couple of turns, it was easier to see where my options lie and I slowly built up my strategy one step at a time while learning the flow. And once we got to the end of the first era and went through midgame scoring, it "clicked" and I was all set.
Plays very well at two players with great amount of tension - There's a tug-of-war kind of feeling all throughout the gameplay, and there are a number of factors to this:
- There are two tracks that show each player's progression: (1) victory point track with midgame scoring and endgame scoring, and (2) income track that shows how much money a player will make at the end of a round. Players constantly progress further on the income track with each round (or sometimes go down if you take out a loan). Having this live update of each other's progress leads to lots of "eyeing" on one another and making you feel like you really need to keep up or "one up" the other person.
- Order of play is determined by who spent the least amount of money in the previous round. This adds another layer of tactical play where you're trying to efficiently use up your money vs. sometimes not too much so that you can ensure taking two turns in a row to make one big move.
- Network building game with quickly limiting options and competition around hotspots with great point potential. There are also plenty of opportunities to take advantage of your opponent's established routes and resources to advance your own.
Surprisingly very puzzly and not as thematic - As mentioned earlier, I went into this game not having read the rules myself. And by the second era, I knew how to make decisions that will net me lots of points/income, but I didn't fully understand why certain mechanics worked the way it did from a thematic point of view. That would've helped me appreciate the game much more.
It's a game that leaves an impression and stays in your head for a while - I went into this with about a year of hearing/reading how great it is. That's a lot of expectation to live up to. Throughout the entire session, I couldn't help but keep evaluating whether this lives up to its #3 rank, especially because I was missing a little bit of that thematic connection that would've tied everything together. And to be honest, I had my doubts and still wonder where it should place (but that same question goes for SO many games on BGG's list). But I did realize that ever since we played, this game's been on my mind and it's one that I'd like to play more of. In fact, writing out my first impressions is making me want to play again. And..... I think I can now see where Trent was coming from when he told me that this game is like bacon to him. It's not a fancy dinner kind of game that fills me with absolute excitement, but it's darn good and I find myself wanting more of it.
Is it the right game for me and my wife? - I'm honestly not sure. We only game together maybe once a month or less these days and there are a number of games I'd love to get in more plays of (e.g. #Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated). I like the amount of player interaction in this game but with the longer gameplay length, it directly competes with games such as #Clans of Caledonia and #Concordia that deliver on satisfying puzzly experience under 1.5 hours and with less setup time. Perhaps with repeat plays, it could get to that point?
I'm so glad this game wasn't a let down and that Trent introduced it to me. I completely see the appeal and how wonderfully simple and deep it is. And if you're interested in acquiring this game, you can either get the regular edition on our game page or find the Deluxe Edition for $80 on Roxley's website! Iron Clays add SO much to the overall experience.
[Brass: Birmingham, Concordia, Gùgōng, The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, Irish Gauge, 1861: Russia / 1867: Canada, Pax Pamir (Second Edi...]
[Brass: Birmingham, Age of Steam, Steam, Brass: Lancashire]
[Brass: Birmingham, A Feast For Odin, Architects of the West Kingdom]