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Board Game Review: Brass Lancashire

A few months ago, I fell in love with Brass Birmingham (you can read that review HERE). I fell hard. It was an all time top 10 best games ever kind of love and so when Roxley Game Laboratory offered to send me Brass Lancashire to play and share my thoughts, I was a bit hesitant.  Is there even a chance I could enjoy it as much as Birmingham? Lancashire was the original game designed by Martin Wallace, and while it’s been updated for the most recent release, I was concerned it might prove to be an older, tired version that couldn’t compete with Birmingham.

My concerns were unfounded. Brass Lancashire is fantastic. Playing Lancashire after playing Birmingham is a bit like dating someone and then dating their sibling. Sure, there’s a resemblance, but the kissing feels different.
The artwork for Brass Lancashire is beautiful, radiating a classic style evocative of the theme (industrial era production). The artists have shown great attention to detail such as the raised gold lettering on  the box, the coordinating soft color palette across all of the components, and the exquisite illustrations on the location and industry cards.
The components include the aforementioned location and industry cards; the main game board; 4 player boards; 4 sets of cardboard tokens representing industries, canal/rail connections, and player markers; distant market movement tiles; small wooden tokens to track player income and score; and clay chips to use as currency (deluxe edition only). Everything should hold up quite well to long term use, although frequent players might want to sleeve the cards to prevent bending or tearing.
As with Brass Birmingham, the theme here is very well implemented. It’s laid over the underlying mechanisms of the game so thoroughly that it manages to at least somewhat obfuscate the mathematical puzzle that is at the heart of Lancashire. Players are wealthy industrialists, attempting to build valuable industries in various cities across the county of Lancashire and generate income as a result. There are iron works, coal mines, cotton mills, ports, and shipyards to build, with various potential victory points and income increases attached to each (structures only earn victory points when their output is entirely consumed or sold). During the first half of the game (the canal era) players may also construct canal connections extending from industry structures they’ve built, expanding their network and accumulating additional victory points. After the canal era is over, all those canal connections are removed from the board (and scored) as well as any structures marked as level 1 industries. During the rest of the game, only industry structures above level 1 may be built and rail connections are laid down instead of canal links.
Just as in Birmingham, to accelerate building progress toward higher valued structures, industry structures can be developed instead of built (cost : 1 iron per structure developed; max 2 developments per single action).  Unlike in Birmingham, some development is mandatory – the first 2 shipyards cannot be built but MUST be developed.
It felt a bit awkward to be given physical industry tokens at the beginning of the game that can never be placed on the board. Perhaps it would make more sense to leave the first two level 1 shipyards off the board entirely and make the third level 1 shipyard have a special build requirement of two additional iron and the consumption of two actions instead of 1? 
Another clunky aspect of the gameplay surrounding shipyards is that the Birkenhead and Barrow-in-Furness shipyard locations can never be used in the first half of the game. Because shipyards require coal to be built and there are no canal connections to these locations, the shipyards are effectively closed off until rail connections become available in the latter half of the game. Not only does this lead to unusable locations on the board for a large portion of the game, it also means it’s impossible for any player to build out all their remaining shipyards after discarding the ones lost to mandatory development since there are two level 1 shipyards that can only be built during the canal era and only one location reachable during that era.  I’m not sure why Mr. Wallace wanted unusable locations and unusable industry tokens but I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.
Outside of the annoying shipyard mess (which I acknowledge might be a bit of nit picking on my part), I can’t find a single thing to criticize in Brass Lancashire gameplay. I especially enjoy the wide availability of markets for selling cotton and coal. In Birmingham, to sell anything other than iron, players must first connect their industry structures that produce to one of the few corresponding open market spaces on the edges of the board. In a two player game these are very limited. In contrast, since all ports function as markets in Lancashire, you can easily create markets all over the board by building ports. This makes it faster and easier to connect coal mines and cotton mills to markets. 
Another aspect of the gameplay that keeps things simpler in Lancashire is that to sell cotton you just need to connect to a market that is buying. To sell anything other than coal or iron in Birmingham, players must be connected to a market and consume beer from a connected location to close the sale. That’s a lot effort and sidetracking of focus to not only get connections laid down to the limited markets but to also ensure that stocked breweries are available just to close a sale. It significantly increases the complexity of Birmingham. How can you tell if markets are buying cotton in Lancashire? Once they are built, port markets in Lancashire are buying cotton as long as the token is still face up on the board. After cotton from a mill is sold at a port market, the port token is flipped over and that market is no longer buying cotton (although coal may still be sold there). Aside from the port markets, Lancashire also features distant cotton markets, available to players if their cotton mills are connected to port market tiles (flipped or unflipped) or the main markets on the edges of the board. These markets are buying as long as the distant market price market hasn’t reached the spot marked X.
I really like the push your luck aspect of these distant cotton markets. The idea being, I assume, that your cotton travels from the ports via ship or from the markets at the edges of the board through some unnamed form of transportation to a distant market, where it is sold. As different markets offer up different demand, Lancashire offers a mechanism for determining the market price at any given distant market. Should you wish to take your chances at a distant market to sell cotton from one of your mills, you flip over a distant market tile and move the price point marker down from its current position the number of steps as indicated on the market tile. This is the price your cotton will fetch at the distant market you are selling at. If you have another connected cotton mill you’d like to exhaust, you flip over another distant market tile and move the price point marker down again. The price gets lower and lower for each distant market tile you flip. If you reach the X on the distant market track, all distant markets are closed and your cotton doesn’t sell at all.
Win Condition: most victory points (vp) at the conclusion of the game
Inputs: canals/rails connected to cities hosting industries that offer connection vp, industry resources sold, cash reserves (every 10 pounds = 1 VP).
Strategy Tip: If you sell to the distant markets enough times to drop the price and/or close the market while also building several ports, you can force your opponent to rely on your port markets to sell their cotton, scoring you more income than if you just used your own port markets to sell your cotton.
  For players familiar with Brass Birmingham, the other key differences in Lancashire gameplay are that your cash reserves at game end translate into victory points at the rate of 1 VP per every 10 pounds, you cannot take loans in the last few rounds of the game, and during the rounds that you are permitted to take loans you may take 10, 20, or 30 pounds with each loan action.
As part of my strategy, I found myself wanting to use the develop action much more frequently in Lancashire than in Birmingham. I haven’t played enough games of Lancashire to determine if it’s a necessary factor for winning the game but I suspect it might be as every Lancashire player I’ve introduced to Birmingham spends several turns developing (seemingly out of habit) even though it’s not essential to win in Birmingham. They must have picked that up from Lancashire as part of a winning strategy. In fact, it tends to give seasoned Birmingham players the advantage when playing Birmingham with heavy Lancashire players because the latter waste too many turns developing, giving the former more time to monopolize key canal and rail links. Links tend to be more valuable in Birmingham because there are several 2 point-per-link structures whereas there aren’t any in Lancashire.

Brass Lancashire is subject to a great deal of analysis paralysis. My gaming partner is patient and so I take full advantage of thinking things through and carefully calculating every potential move to arrive at an optimum selection. It’s not unusual for our games to last 3 hours. Note that this is very player dependent – if you’re playing with a group of quick thinkers, you might be able to finish the game in under 90 minutes.
I’m so glad I gave Brass Lancashire a chance. It’s got great replayability due to the many paths to victory in the base game and the advanced variants offered in the rule book (including the 2 player community-designed variant using the flipside of the game board). It’s smart. It’s beautiful. And the gameplay is unique and compelling enough that I don’t think I could choose between it and Brass Birmingham. That’s why I’m so glad I own them both.
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Publisher: Roxley Game Laboratory
Players: 2-4 (We played with 2)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 2.5 - 3 hours per game
Game type: economic, heavy Euro
Rating:
review-OUIOUIOUI
Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
OUI OUI OUI: I LOVE THIS GAME. I MUST HAVE THIS GAME.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.


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