New Game Weekend: Brass

Brassbox

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.

GVC

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.

BrassBoard

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.

BrassCards2

Brass industy cards (left to right: coal mine, shipyard, iron works, port and cotton mill)

BrassCards3

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.

IMG_2967

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.

IMG_2968

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.

Gaming The Rails

HSCPA

I’ve been a railfan for as long as I’ve been a gamer. I grew up taking daily school bus rides past the rail yards of the short line Genesee & Wyoming Railroad. As a kid, my brothers, father and I built an enormous HO scale model railroad in our basement, complete with mountains, tunnels, trestles, lamp-lit streets and a working waterfall. After graduate school, I found myself living in Western Pennsylvania surrounded by and visiting railroad landmarks like the Gallitzin Tunnels, Horseshoe Curve National Landmark and East Broad Top Railroad. To this day, I rarely walk by a magazine rack without leafing through the latest issue of Model Railroader Magazine. There’s just something about trains.

For dual fans of railroading and gaming like me, there are a lot of options. Railroads lend themselves to gaming with their familiar cultural history coupled with thematic economic and mission/route-completion mechanics. Real-world competition among railroad companies, investors and promoters also contributes easily to any game presented within a railroading context.

AARailBaronAvalon Hill’s Rail Baron from 1977 is widely considered the grandfather of railroad games. Based on a 1974 board game called Box Cars, Rail Baron presents players with a map of the US with 28 historic railway routes. Players compete, as did the railroad moguls of the past, to complete routes, upgrade to faster trains and collect more cash to pour back into their empire. Rail Baron became one of AH’s all-time best-selling games, and most modern railroad board games owe more than a little to this classic.

Ticket

A longtime favorite at my house is Ticket To Ride, the award-winning 2004 game from Days Of Wonder. TTR is a pretty straightforward game where players complete routes between US cities, scoring points based on the length of the rail line and connections made along the way. Players balance holding cards in their hands attempting to build more longer valuable routes with the risk of their opponents building the highly-prized lines before them. The game is great for kids since play is fairly straightforward with little-to-no reading required, and various expansions have added to the replay of the game over the years.

steam box

A couple weeks ago I had occasion for a first play through Steam at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. Steam, released by Mayfair Games in 2008, is similar to many train games in that it has a a route-completion component. The basic game comes with a two-side board featuring the US Northeast and the European Rhine/Ruhr region on the flipside. Aside from building routes, players transport goods between cities and upgrade towns to become new hubs. The game is competitive, but players can also balance sharing the wealth over some lines as tracks are strategically completed. Various map expansions add geographic possibilities in Europe, Africa, Asia and the West Coast of the US. Steam Barons expands the game further with a heavier economic mechanic of investing in the stock of multiple railways.

IMG_2658

In my first play through Steam I really enjoyed the Eurogame feel with choices made each round in various focuses of upgrading trains, building track, establishing new stations and moving goods. Bidding for turn placement also becomes increasingly important throughout the game as the board becomes crowded with competing routes and available goods begin to dwindle. Access to capital also shifts during the game, as access to lots of money becomes less important late in the game after a focused growth mode early on. Having played through the game, I’m anxious to give it another ride soon with the Steam Barons expansion’s added stock market elements.

RussianRR

The latest favorite rail game hitting the table at the club in Brooklyn is last year’s Russian Railroads from Z-Man Games. In classic Eurogame style, Russian Railroads is driven by worker placement mechanics as players push to develop increasingly technological superior trains ahead of the competition. While I haven’t had a chance to play the game yet, it did make a lot of people’s top games of the year, so I’m certain to jump into a game in the very near future.

Like myself, I’ve found a lot of gamers who are passionate about trains. Maybe it’s the competition inherent in railroad history that make them appealing. It could also just be the boyish thrill big trains never cease to bring. Regardless, like a passenger waiting at some rural depot with ticket in-hand, we’re all waiting for the next train to arrive with the possibility of adventure and fortune somewhere down the tracks.

New Game Weekend: Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game

CivBox

Unlike myself, electronic games have been a constant presence with both my sons since they were born. Now aged 8 and 13, my boys have graduated up through a host of platforms and games with the Leapster, DS, PS2, Wii, PS3, online through sites like Steam and on the iPhone. Over the past year, their obsessive play over Minecraft has been gradually replaced with scores of hours logged with the wildy-popular Civilization V.

Developed more than 20 years ago by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley, the Civilization franchise has evolved from a PC-only DOS game to occupy a variety of gaming platforms. The turn-based civilization-building mechanic and historical theme sets up an incredibly-engaging and educational universe for players to plan and play out a nearly-endless variety of paths in human advancement from the ancient era to the near future. The latest iteration, Civilization V, broke on the scene in 2010 with two expansions since. Worldwide, the game has sold millions of copies and has continuously won accolades from a couple generations gaming critics and devoted fans alike.

Even though my kids are devoted electronic gamers, they’ve also been raised with a healthy love for card, board and miniatures gaming. So, when my 8-year-old caught wind last week that a boardgame version of Civilization existed, I leapt at the chance to introduce the boys to the game. I’ve played a number of civilization-building games such as Clash of Cultures but hadn’t yet played Civilization.

Now published by Fantasy Flight Games, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game has been around since 2002 and can be found at your local Barnes and Noble for $60 or cheaper online. Like many games of this type, the box comes stuffed with hundreds of components plus more than 300 cards. Geared for 2-4 players ages 14 and up, Civilization takes 3+ hours to play. Fortunately, my boys have been exposed to enough games, both online and on the tabletop, that they’ve been able to quickly pick up on the basic play and strategy Civilization offers.

CivContentsCivilization involves a march toward victory in one of four ways: Economic, Military, Cultural or Technological. Players begin by selecting a civilization such as the Americans, Egyptians, Romans or Russians. Each starting civilization carries its own strengths in play, making this first choice an important one in setting your strategy for the game. Based on the number of players, a map of hidden tiles is laid out and the market area is set up to the side of the board.

After set-up, the game progresses through a series of turns. In the Start Turn, a player may build a city or change their government type – an important choice which can greatly affect the path of a player’s civilization. Next, the Trade Phase allows a player to reap trade points from the areas around their cities and offer trades in resources with other players.

In the City Management Phase, the player may build units or buildings, harvest resources or focus on developing their culture. Building units – Scouts or Armies – allows the player to explore and conquer areas of the board. Constructing buildings such as Markets, Temples or Baracks allows a variety of bonuses to your civilization. At a higher price, Wonders like The Oracle, The Hanging Gardens or Angkor Wat may be built. Finally, a player may pay to build their military prowess through a progression from simple archers and pikemen to tanks and aircraft. Aside from building, a player may harvest resources such as silk, iron, incense or wheat to be later spent to activate certain technologies already researched. A player may also choose to focus on culture, with gained cultural points moving the player up the culture track while also earning special cultural event cards played to change different courses of the game’s play.

Next, in the Movement Phase a players may move their Scouts and/or Armies to explore, claim new territory or engage in combat with a barbarian village or another player. In the final Research Phase, players may spend their earned trade points to develop new technologies. The game’s “technology pyramid” is built progressively by each player as they grow from simple technologies such as Metalurgy and Horseback Riding toward higher level advancements all the way up to Flight and Nuclear Energy.

The play adavances through the above turns until a player arrives at a victory condition. Cultural victory is earned by completing progress on the culture track. A military victory is won by conquering an opponent’s capital city. Earning a technological win is done by completing the technology pyramid all the way up to Space Flight. Finally, an economic outcome is reached by collecting 15 gold coins earned through various actions your civilization makes throughout the game.

To summarize the game in a couple paragraphs is hard, as the variation of play in the game is boundless. This weekend, my younger son and I played through our first quick starter game on an eight-tile two player-map (pic below). Despite over twenty pages or rules and scores of playing pieces to manage, he picked up the game really fast. Along the way, there’s a ton of reading I’m certain is not covered in the general elementary curriculum with stops along the way to have side conversations on the meanings of words such as “despotism” and “anarchy.” At his age, my son’s memory is quite amazing and our discussions of the finer points of the rules has continued even away from the game table.

1001022_10201084784976153_1277385001_n

In our second game (pic below), three of us played on a larger map. My older son, a pretty experienced gamer at this point, blew threw a ten minute intro to the rules and played as the Prussians with an aggressively militaristic strategy I’ve grown used to over the years. Using the Egyptians, my younger son focused on culture and building construction. For my own strategy, I played as the Romans with a healthy mix of the military and cultural expansionism for which their empire was known.

1004654_10201085941885075_1372920330_n

For parents and critics of them who decry the falling attention spans of today’s kids, weekends like this past one show how with a bit of parental creativity all the stereotypes simply fall away. A game like Civilization — both online and off — offers so many opportunities to build vocabulary, learn history and develop some complex multi-layered management skills I see sorely lacking in many of the adults I encounter. Over hours of focused play, not only are my sons and I developing our civilizations but we’re also developing each other — an investment in time together well-spent.