Brass Birmingham becomes #1 on BoardGameGeek

20 February 2023

Although most of what I write and publish is on software development, some may know that I have a (un)healthy interest in tabletop boardgames. I got into hobby board games while at school and have continued my involvement, these days streaming regularly on YouTube with Heavy Cardboard.

Folks engaged in this hobby have long had their own social network, a website called BoardGameGeek, which hosts discussion forums, blogs, support files, and all sorts of material about the hobby. One of its features is that it stores ratings of all of its users on board games, allowing them to create a ranking of top games.

While people reasonably argue about the questionable meaning of these rankings, there's still a degree of interest in them. I've certainly found them a useful way to identify games that might interest me, aware that while many highly ranked games aren't to my taste, those that do fit are almost always worth trying out.

As with any ranking, the number one spot carries a certain appeal. BGG has been going since the mid 2000s, and only a few games have reached that spot. When I first started paying attention, it was filled by Puerto Rico, a game that set a new standard for a more skillful level of Eurogame. It looked like it would hold the spot forever, until one day I logged on and saw it had been toppled by Agricola. I did go out and buy this new champion and found another game that is still one of my favorites.

Since then there have been a few top games, most of which weren't really for me. The last two were both campaign games, designed to be played over many sessions in a continuous experience - not the kind of one-off games that I lean to.

Then a couple of weeks ago that last champion - Gloomhaven - was toppled by exactly the kind of game that I like: Brass Birmingham. After so many years, I saw a game I knew and liked sitting on top of the BGG rankings.

So what is this game, and what makes it so special, both to me and the wider BGG audience?

The first thing I want to make clear is that this is not a game for someone who's only played an occasional game of Monopoly. A game of Brass Birmingham will take at least two hours, and there's a lot going on here, both in terms of rules and strategic thinking. Someone who wants to try out modern boardgames should probably start elsewhere, I have several friends who enjoy modern board games, but don't fancy a game as heavy as Brass Birmingham.

But for those who are ready, there's a fascinating game in here. The first thing I'll note is the theme of the game - it's set at the birth of the Industrial Revolution in England, arguably the most important period of recorded human history, where humanity went from a world powered by muscle into a world powered by steam engines. The players represent industrialists of this era, building mines, factories, and transport infrastructure.

One of the special things about this game is nature of the interaction between the players. Traditional board games commonly depend on destructive competition. My chess pieces must knock yours off the board for me to win. This kind of interaction dominated the hobby wargames I played in the 1970s. The German revolution in boardgames in the 1990s made a point of avoiding this kind of interaction, preferring one based on competing for resources. In Puerto Rico I put my sugar onto ships before you, and build the last Wharf before you can.

Brass offers a rarer form of interaction, where players are involved in a form of symbiotic growth. In order to build her iron works, Alice needs coal, which she gets from Bob's coal mine. Obtaining this coal gives Bob points, and also helps Clara since she has a railway that serves Bob's mine. Then Dave needs iron from Alice to build his cotton mill, giving Alice points. There's blocking too, as people compete for the limited spots to build their industries, but the shared incentives around using resources is what elevates this game. Clara could build her own iron works to supply her cotton mill, but if Clara and Alice specialize, they both build higher-scoring industries.

The game has a beautiful production. The map on the board is illustrated with pictures of buildings of the period, I can see St Matthews church in Walsall where our school went for our annual speech day. The cards show workers in mills and mines in a nineteenth century style. Lovely art work like this is increasingly a feature of modern board games and significantly adds to my enjoyment.

Close up of the Black Country

Brass Birmingham is the second of a family. The original Brass, now called Brass Lancashire, appeared in 2007 and has been a highly rated game, staying in BGG's top 40, ever since. Brass Birmingham, which came out in 2018 isn't necessarily superior, despite being the one that took the top ranking. I have, and enjoy, both. (But have an extra fondness for the one that depicts where I grew up.)

The game is hard to buy as I write this, as it is between printings. Roxley, the company that publishes it, is small, when they took on publishing the two Brass titles in 2017, they didn't have any full-time employees. They were driven by their love of the original Brass game, and wanted to take over its publication. I'm delighted for them, and Martin Wallace, the original designer of Brass, that they've reached this accolade.

If you want to play Brass (either one), I recommend that you commit to playing it twice within a week. I say this as I've seen people play it once and feel it was too complex, but find that a second game, played soon after, allows them to internalize the rules and start to appreciate the game. You can watch me teach the game on Heavy Cardboard, but beware that the teach is longer than it needs to be because I also describe a lot of the history behind the game in the process, as well as some personal observations. (The video includes a full play of the game, my teach is the first hour.)


JonMichael Rasmus, one of the great rankings-watchers on BGG, kindly answered my query on the historic performance of Brass Lancashire.