Canals have been a part of human history for as long as people have sought to move large quantities of goods from one place to another along routes without natural waterways. Beginning in Mesopotamia in about 4000 BC, canals have fuelled the expansion of human settlement and trade just about everywhere. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th-and-19th-centuries saw an enormous boom in canal construction in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. To this day, engineering marvels like the Suez Canal and Panama Canal are critical to moving goods around the world.
Map of New York State canals with Genessee Valley Canal (1840-1880) in green
Growing up in the 1970s, every kid raised in Western New York State was surrounded by the mythology of the Erie Canal. Stretching 360 miles from Albany to Buffalo, the canal opened in 1825 and connected the ports of New York City with the booming Great Lakes region and the territories beyond.
Some of my earliest childhood memories of thrashing around in the woods in my hometown of Piffard, NY occured along the remnants of the Genesee Valley Canal which ran as a southern spur to the Erie Canal from 1840-1880. In my mid-20s I found myself living and working in Southwestern Pennsylvania, once again surrounded by the ghosts of canals and later railroad lines which fuelled the economic expansion of the old western frontier. Today, many these old canal lines have new lives serving as recreational arteries like the Genesee Valley Greenway and the Pittsburgh-To-Harrisburg Main Line Canal Greenway.
The Brass game board depicting Northern Engkand
My life has had a lot of canals running through it, and so it was great when I recently had a chance to try my hand at playing out the canal and railroad boom era in Brass. Produced by Treefrog Games in 2007, Brass takes players back to an England at the dawn of its massive industrial expansion. The game divides into two parts — a Canal Age and a Railroad Age — and is played on a map of Northern England cities and ports connected by transportation routes. When cards are used up points are scored at the end of the Canal Age for industries built, canal routes constructed and income earned. Canals and industries are then removed before play procedes through the Railroad Age after which there is a final tally of points for victory.
Brass industy cards (left to right: coal mine, shipyard, iron works, port and cotton mill)
Sample Brass location cards
Cards depicting cities and industries are dealt to players at the beginning of the game. Canals and lower tech industries are built in the first half of the game, and railroads and more advnaced technologies are built in the game’s second half. Each turn a player may develop industries, build canal or railroad sections, develop their existing industry, sell cotton or take loans for additional capital investment. The player who spends the least money on their turn gets to go first on the next turn, one of the game’s many mechanics which makes for a good balance of cautious and aggressive play.
The “Canal Era” in our game of Brass at Metropolitan Wargamers
Industries are built on specific locations by playing both a location and industry card in combination and then spending the appropriate money and resources. Connecting canals and railroads may also be built to establish routes between cities and ports to transport goods and resources. Multiple industries built by multiple players may be built at the same location, allowing for some level of shared collaborative play. A hub city like Manchester holds four industries and connects along five separate routes, making it a potential key location for players. Building routes to ports and foreign export of cotton becomes important as the game develops and generating more income for construction is needed.
The “Railroad Era” in our game of Brass
There’s a ton going on in Brass, and fortunately I had an experienced player walk me through my first game. I’ve heard the rules themselves are a bit hard to decipher, but playing the game my first time was pretty easy to follow. Brass plays like many Eurogames with a balance of area control, building, managing resources and playing cards. Ultimately the game becomes one of competition for routes and resources and biding one’s time to export cotton goods to foreign markets when demand is at its highest.
I won my first game of Brass in a three-player game, but I’d like to try it at its full four-player maximum. I managed to have an enormous amount of cash on hand to invest into developing my industries and transport routes pretty early in the game, a strategy that didn’t allow me to play first in most turns but paid off in the end. Playing an economic game like Brass makes for some very different play than my usual rolling of tanks and advancing platoons of soldiers. For a gamer like me with canals and railroads flowing through my blood, I’ll take an economic victory just as easily as a one won on the battlefield any day.