Last week my high school debate students got to experience me trying to explain the fundamentals of microeconomics in 15 minutes. How much they enjoyed or learned from this brief flurry of graph-making and gesticulating I will not comment on. Nor will I comment on the regret they might have felt for raising their hands when I asked if they wanted this explanation.
I can’t help it! It’s all so exciting!
So I started with the basic supply and demand graph; the square-L border tracking price and quantity and those intersecting diagonal lines representing supply and demand. I emphasize that the graph is super abstracted–a representation of an idea, not mathematical precision. I quickly ponder and dismiss the idea of mentioning elasticity. No time. How is this relevant to the debate topic of energy policy? Well what happens when an energy source is taxed? Or subsidized? How does that shift those diagonals, changing the market clearing price and quantity? What happens with competing goods; complementary goods?
I see their eyes start to glaze, but I’ve got two minutes until the end of class and time for one more demonstration. “Now, of course, the price of something doesn’t really reach this theoretical equilibrium because the lines are always in flux”. At this point I wave my arms about in a kind of crossed wiggly motion.
“Regardless, what happens on a large scale if, say, some immigrants arrive in a country? What does that move if we consider goods and services as a whole?”
Someone correctly suggests that demand shifts right. At this point I think I sort of hopped in delight.
“And when demand shifts right, the price and quantity sold go up, but what does that do? What does that signal to entrepreneurs now that stuff is getting sold more at higher prices? They’ll want to get in on that, shifting supply right, resulting in even more economic activity at lower and lower prices. Entrepreneurship is about predicting such things and taking advantage of it, pushing this economic process further and further”.
I think (and hope) the students picked up on my excitement, but I’m here to tell you today that the spontaneous order of the market is downright beautiful. What does this have to do with Martin Wallace’s Brass (now called Brass: Lancashire)? It’s the best example I’ve played of a game that captures this elegant economic process.
The new version from Roxley Games is beautiful, though it pushes the line of “too dark”. I wouldn’t want to play it without adequate lighting in the room. The smoky complexion of the game board highlights the industrial period in which it’s set, and the players are tasked with building factories across north west England as profitably and efficiently as possible.
Really Brass straddles two different games–an efficiency exercise in which you try to balance money expenditures against victory points with a limited number of actions and a deeply interactive economic and geographic game where opportunities and incentives rise and fall with every action.
When you sit down to a game of Brass you’ll have five different building types in front of you, each enticing in their own way. Producing coal and iron boost your income, but provide relatively few victory points. Higher level cotton mills bring in a lot of points, but it takes money and effort to be able to build them. Shipyards give you the most points of all but there are only a few isolated spaces on the board where they can be built and you need a fat stack of cash on hand to afford them.
Each building type can’t work on their own. They’re part of an industrial ecosystem managed by the players. Want to build a lucrative level three cotton mill? You’ll need to bring in both coal and iron as part of the construction cost. Coal needs to be transported to that location via canals, so there has to be a network of canals (owned by any players) from a coal source to the building location. What’s a coal source? Well, you can buy from the general, off-board market, which has a Power Grid-esque pricing structure, or you can get the coal from someone else’s (or your own) coal plant. Oh, and that coal’s free.
And so it goes. Players build the things they want to build, connecting their factories by canals, supplying coal or iron when the market price dictates. Soon a sprawling network of construction fills the board and difficulties like transporting coal soon become no issue at all.
Then the trains come.
Stephenson’s Rocket brings a new way of transporting materials more quickly than troublesome canals. At this point the board nearly resets, points are tallied, and all of the canals are wiped away. The second half of the game proceeds similarly to the first, but the map opens up as rail technology, though more expensive, pushes industry further. It feels a bit odd at first to have a game bisected like this, though once you give it a bit of thought there are a number of games played over a series of rounds, just not typically eurogames.
The mid-game reset is a bringer of both hope and despair. Whatever mistakes you made before are mostly wiped away, but the transition can be difficult. See, each building has different levels that make them more powerful at what they do, but you have to play the lowest level building you have available when you build that type. Additionally, when the train change happens only the level one buildings are removed. Anything higher up stays on the board to score a second time at the end of the game.
You can plod along, building from the lower levels up, but that’s not going to get you far. Instead, you can spend iron to “develop” removing two lower level buildings from your personal supply. But actions spent developing are actions not spent building up infrastructure, which provides points and income. What’s the balance between gaining access to the best buildings and getting income now? That’s the trick, now, isn’t it? How much does iron or coal cost now? If it’s expensive you can build a plant and rake in the cash by selling it back to the general market. Difficult decisions abound, as you weigh strategy vs tactics, short term vs long term. And since everyone connects in so many important ways to everyone else you need to have that entrepreneurial foresight to see what people will need before they need it.
Your tactical decisions are influenced by this constantly shifting board state, alongside the cards you hold secretly in hand. Each action requires a card, and to build you’ll need a card with the town name you want to build in or the type of building you want to build. Managing this hand of cards can be key, as more than once I’ve been stuck with a plan but no way to execute it. Experienced players can utilize the list of cards helpfully provided on the player aids to track what may be in other player’s hands, using that knowledge to cut off key routes and opportunities.
The cards bring a pinch of uncertainty to a largely information-heavy game, just enough to make each play new with conflicts you’ve never seen before. Brass is the best kind of “heavy” game, one full of strategic thought bourne not from a large rulebook but a sprawling matrix of emergent decision points. Every decision by every player has the potential to spoil your plan or add a new complication. Simple elements like the fact that turn order is determined each round by the amount of money spent in the previous round adds layers.
Brass is a stunning game that exercises the entire mind. More than that, it’s a twisting, morphing eurogame organism that shows how delightful games can be. It’s a representation of what’s best about board games. Mirroring the dynamics of a market, Brass is truly beautiful.