Brass Birmingham: Understanding the industries
Brass: Birmingham features six different industries, one more than its predecessor. Each one, from the powerful breweries to the risky potteries, plays a different role. If we want to win, we need to understand how they work and how they interact with each other. When should we build them and why?
Breweries are the most important industry in Brass: Birmingham. They are remarkably efficient, both in income and points. Beer is extremely useful and in such high demand other players will flip your tiles for you. No matter the strategy, all players should build breweries. Try to contest them heavily.
Use the beer you place on the board as soon as possible. While flipping breweries is good, beer is too valuable to give away for free. Beer “teleports” if you own the barrels so you can use far-away locations like Utoxetter and Burton-On-Trent to secure your own supply. Controlling the turn order can be useful in this scenario.
Brewery spaces are limited and their tiles have double-link value. It’s a good idea to aim for them when building railroads. An underdeveloped network will give you problems in the long run as you’ll be unable to secure beer and connections. Keep an eye on the horizontal line from Shrewsbury to Walsall and the vertical lines that join Birmingham with Stafford and Burton-on-Trent.
When I was less experienced I used to develop away the level I tiles as a matter of routine. However, I’m not sure it’s a good play. Beer is so scarce that development denies yourself barrels. Some expert players go as far so as to overbuild their own breweries! Truly a testament to their power.
Coal mines provide the largest increases of income levels, but also the lowest victory points. Cheap and easy to play, they often recoup their cost on the spot. This makes them a great tool to overcome the early stages of the game and a powerful alternative to loans in the railroad era.
Coal is often listed alongside beer, iron and railroads as the most important industries in Brass. However, I think coal is much worse than the other three and should be used sparingly. The largest limitation in Brass is not income but time. Every mine built represents one less scoring opportunity.
Don’t build too many coal mines and don’t do so unless you need the money. A good game of Brass: Birmingham is tight: You don’t want to waste resources on unproductive income but you don’t want to stop and take too many loans, either. If you find yourself losing despite having a lot of money, chances are you built too many coal mines.
Still, it pays off to build that first coal mine. It’s a cheap, efficient industry with double link value. It’s a good early play and you don’t want to waste time developing it away once railroads become available. Coal consumption in the canal era is low so don’t miss out on the opportunity.
Coal is also important because it allows other industries to be built. Most notably, it’s needed to build railroads. You’ll occasionally want to build coal mines to allow you to place industries or key links between turns. This is especially important for the first round of the railroad era. Take advantage of the turn order to use the coal you have just placed.
Iron works are the most opportunistic industry. They have great numbers but only shine if you flip them quickly. Played well, iron works pay for their own construction costs and pay off an early loan. Played poorly, they make things a bit easier for our opponents and distract us from better scoring opportunities.
Iron works compare favourably to other industries. They are as efficient as breweries and provide more income than manufacturing. However, while we can always find a way to use more beer, demand for iron is much more limited. This gives iron works a more competitive nature where building them denies their advantages to your opponents.
This is why iron works are heavily correlated with winning. It’s not so much that they are efficient as much as they deny that efficiency to others. In fact, since each player can only build four, I don’t like developing away from the first level. I want to maximize my chances of playing them all.
This is especially important in the very first turns of the game, where taking the development action clears enough iron to flip a tile. While allowing an opponent to sneak in a level I is fine, try not to make it too easy. Remember you can wait a little and do it yourself by developing first and then placing the tile.
Being limited by both their number and the available demand makes iron a support industry. You cannot base your whole strategy around them, there just aren’t enough to win. What I like to do is keep around cards for Dudley, Coventry or Coalbrookdale and jump in if the opportunity arises.
Lastly, many players miss the rule that you can overbuild opposing coal mines and iron works if the markets are depleted. This is part of their tactical nature. You can put a serious hole in a rival’s scoring by replacing one of their industries with your own. Be sure to remind everyone of this rule before a match, it’s not pretty when it comes into play.
Cotton Mills are expensive. They consume beer, iron and coal and need a heavy investment in development actions. But they provide a large amount of points with every card. As good link opportunities dry up and all players compete with their own breweries, flipping tiles becomes the best way to gain an edge. That’s where cotton comes in.
Cotton is a game-long strategy that requires early development. There are three level I tiles and, ideally, you won’t play any of them. Level II tiles have double link value but they only give 5 points. The goal is to reach level III titles because they are worth 9 points each and can all be flipped with the same action.
This gives us two ways to get into cotton. The first is to rush the level III tiles in the canal era. Flipping three of them is very reasonable and 54 points is nothing to scoff at. Pair it with a couple more in the railroad era and you have a good shot at winning the game. However, this requires large amounts of capital. It’s easy to fall behind and end up trailing for the rest of the game.
Alternatively, we can tone down our ambitions and place smaller tiles. This results in a substantially lower score, but allows us to enter the railway era on more even footing. We might be able to consume our own beer, pay off loans with coal or reduce the amount of links we have to build. There are drawbacks and benefits to either approach. Pay attention to the board and how your rivals behave.
Either way, the main benefit of developing cotton is being able to place good tiles in the railroad era. Often, we find ourselves with a good or even leading position in the canal era only to notice we can’t place cotton mills or manufactured goods. There are only so many spots for breweries and iron works. In order to secure a win, we must also have access to other tiles.
Manufactured goods are the strangest industry in the game. Their value, and role, chances from level to level. Sometimes they act as a cheap scoring industry, other times as a development one and often as a pure blocker.
Manufactured goods are, on the whole, weaker than cotton mills. They consume as much beer yet provide less points and income. Given the choice, you would rather have the latter. However, competition, map constraints and opportunity can make them a better path to victory. I try not to build them by default, but I do keep an eye on them.
The first two levels are good opportunities. Five income is good and so is double link value in Birmingham or Stoke-on-Trent. Level IIs are worse in that they don’t provide income but they stay on the table for 10 points and don’t consume coal. They are good, consistent actions that allow us to flip breweries. They are very much worth pursuing.
Level III is a pure blocker. It has no link value which means it can be placed in the middle of a rival network to deny them points. It’s otherwise weak, thanks to its high cost. Level IV is universally terrible, though, I’ve never built it. Don’t feel forced to build these industries, it’s not necessary and you are better off with breweries or cotton.
However, if you do find yourself with a couple boxes on the board, don’t be afraid to develop these lesser levels away. The highest ranking manufactured goods, ranging from levels V to VIII are great for scoring. And while a level V consumes two beers, the level VII doesn’t, which is a huge bonus. It’s easier to pivot into them late than it is to get into undeveloped cotton.
Pottery is a high-risk, high-reward industry. It has the highest point ceiling of them all but it’s easy to block and doesn’t leave much room for other opportunities. It’s not unusual to end the game without playing a single tile. Hence, I only focus on pottery if my initial hand is well-suited to it and the initial merchants support the strategy.
Level I pottery is unique in that it can be played in both eras. At ten points and five income levels, it’s a good choice to play opportunistically. After all, it requires no development. I recommend playing them alongside other industries and flip them over with the same sales action. Sure, the cost is a bit high, but the efficiency is worth it.
It’s possible to go deep into pottery and place the level I and level III tiles during the canal era. However, it may prove challenging. There are only four pottery locations on the board and they are far away from each other. Most importantly, the level III tiles require two barrels of beer. I’ve found a straight rush too unreliable. Your opponents will block pottery spaces and take away your beer.
My suggestion is to place the level I tile early on and keep the possibility of the level III in mind. Building in Coventry or Stoke-on-trent does not commit you to the strategy. You can still pivot away if things don’t look too well. Keep count of how many actions are needed. I’ve often seen good pottery plays ruined by a small mistake.
Either way, placing pottery in the first era opens the possibility of playing the level III and level V tiles in the second half of the game. With breweries providing two beers, it can be a strong alternative to cotton mills. I particularly recommend it for railway-heavy strategies that already have the necessary breweries and links for it.