Brass Lancashire vs Brass Birmingham
In 2019 Roxley not only released Brass Birmingham, but also reprinted the original under the name of Brass Lancashire. This was great news for fans of economic games, as Wallace’s game of the industrial revolution is highly regarded. But it also opened the question: Which one is best? And why?
Eleven years passed between the release of Lancashire and Birmingham. In that time, the reigning culture of game design changed. As hobbyists became more experienced, elegance became a less important factor. Simple, but deep games like Knizia’s Samurai gave way to heavier titles such as Tzolk’in and Kanban.
Lancashire has the tightness of older eurogames. I always get the feeling there’s room for one less player than there is at the table. Competition is very strong, to the point you may lose because someone took the spot you needed. On the other hand, I’ve also found myself locked out of useful moves by the end of the game.
Like most newer titles, Birmingham gives us more options. While losing a valuable spot is painful, it translates into a loss of efficiency, not a loss of actions. This creates a kinder game where it’s difficult to get locked out. With more industries, there are also more options to work with. This results in a larger array of viable strategies and more variety in play.
These differences give them a different feel. Lancashire is more competitive and single-minded. The industries are few and the tight spacing forces players to cooperate. Using each other’s ports and iron can be much more beneficial than doing it yourself. The right strategy isn’t hard to see, what’s difficult is executing it.
Birmingham has an easier flow. While fiercely competitive, it’s more focused on creating opportunities for yourself. There’s more money in the game and the spaces on the board are more flexible. Ideally, you’ll use your own resources and exploit openings left by the rest. Card play is less punishing but where to lead with your moves is harder to see.
Martin Wallace is one of my favourite designers, but development is not his forte. Many of his games suffer from a rather poor finish. The flawed draw mechanism of Liberté and the broken “Halifax Hammer” strategy in A Few Acres of Snow come to mind. Lancashire suffers from this trend and to a larger degree than Birmingham.
There are a couple wonky mechanisms in the original. The randomness of the distant market, the weak “wild card” action and the sudden limit on asking loans are a good example of it. But the main issue with the game is its narrow strategic space. There are far fewer paths to victory than it seems at first.
Railroads are extremely strong in Brass Lancashire. So much that they centralize the second era around them. Combining ports and cotton is not very desirable and their level I tiles are a trap in the vast majority of circumstances. It’s all about juggling resources and taking advantage of opposing moves.
Roxley did revise some details for its new edition. They did away with the Birkenhead “virtual link”, partly because it’s confusing and partly because it saw use in approximately 0% of matches. They also made Level I Cotton Mills slightly better to try make them playable. I like Lancanshire‘s tightness but not its limitations.
Birmingham improves on all these aspects. The distant market is replaced by merchant tiles which add variety without featuring any random factors. Cash in hand no longer contributes to your score, allowing loans to be taken at all times. The wild cards are better implemented and overall, the game feels competitive without being limiting.
Railroads now require beer; a scarce resource and the new industries create a more open game. There are more paths to explore, from heavy cotton to cooperative brewery and iron strategies. Still, play remains tense because some industries are more efficient. It’s less reliant on your opponents, but you never get locked out or lack any decent moves.
As one might suspect, I favour Birmingham over Lancashire. While I appreciate the tightness of the original, I find the sequel more fun. I think drawing a broader strategy and trying to shift from one industry to another is more interesting than fighting over a contested space.
I also like that Birgmingham is more forgiving. It’s still possible to get a huge lead over our opponents, but it doesn’t lock people out. Realizing you have no real moves left is not fun, even if it promotes more careful card play and not wasting a single action. The same goes for loans, which are swept away from you if you aren’t paying attention.
Still, I’m not sure the games compete against each other that much. I see them as different scenarios rather than two different titles. They have different priorities, but run on the same system and stress the same skills. It is unlikely that a person who likes one Brass will dislike the other.
All in all, they are both excellent games. Depending on our taste we might prefer one over the other. I prefer exploring possibilities and wide strategies over tight maneuvers and careful play, so it makes sense to prefer Birmingham. The overdominance of rails in Lancashire and its rough edges keep it from being my favourite.
Still, I can see others preferring the latter. Despite its flaws, it’s a more focused experience. Playing it I find myself paying more attention to my opponent’s moves and even my meagre finances. Ultimately, I think we are lucky to be able to play both, or simply choose based on our preferences.